- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

Amtrak would lose ownership of most its property on the nation's passenger-railroad system under all three remaining proposals being considered by the board that oversees its finances.
Its tracks, stations, bridges and tunnels would be turned over to state transportation agencies or the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Amtrak Reform Council's staff told The Washington Times yesterday.
Congress formed the Amtrak Reform Council in 1997 to monitor Amtrak's progress toward a five-year deadline to become financially self-sufficient on operating costs. Congress authorized the group to oversee the dissolution of Amtrak if it failed to earn more money than it consumed in federal operating subsidies by the end of fiscal 2002, which ends Sept. 30.
Congress and the president will make the final decision on Amtrak's future.
Currently, Amtrak owns the entire Northeast Corridor infrastructure, Union Station in Chicago, about 100 miles of track between Detroit and Chicago and several maintenance shops in Indiana. Elsewhere, Amtrak pays fees to operate its trains on privately owned freight-rail tracks.
All proposals being considered for the reform council's final recommendation to Congress Feb. 7 envision Amtrak as no more than a railroad operating company. In other words, its employees might be hired to run the trains, concessions and maintenance operations, but ownership of all but the trains would be taken away from the national passenger railroad.
Amtrak spokesman Bill Schulz declined to comment.
The Amtrak Reform Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss a final recommendation to Congress. Opinions vary on the degree to which Congress will follow its advice.
Andy Davis, spokesman for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Congress will consider the reform council's recommendation, but is not bound by it.
Said Steve Hansen, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, "It depends on who you're talking to. There are some members of Congress who would fall on their sword for Amtrak and there are others who see it as a black hole."
Gil Carmichael, the reform council's chairman, said making Amtrak only an operating company was the best idea among the proposals the council has considered.
"If they do their own research, they'll come to the same conclusion as we did," Mr. Carmichael said.
He said the reform council's recommendations are essentially the same as suggestions made by now-retired Rep. Bud Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican and former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman.
The reform council studied the possibility of turning over the Northeast Corridor and other Amtrak assets to private owners, but recently eliminated those ideas, said Deirdre O'Sullivan, reform council spokeswoman.
"It's going to be a public entity," she said.
One likely scenario would give the property rights to a "compact" of state agencies, similar to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Miss O'Sullivan said. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia would be likely to become members of such a compact.
The Northeast Corridor, which makes up the bulk of Amtrak's property ownership, carries about half the railroad's passengers. Its Metroliner is the only service that makes a profit.
All other routes nationwide, as well as Amtrak itself, lose money consistently. This year, Amtrak is operating with a $521 million federal subsidy.
"The problem is Amtrak itself," Miss O'Sullivan said. "In fiscal year 2001, Amtrak lost over a billion dollars."
The railroad has tried with only limited success to use marketing techniques similar to private transportation companies to attract passengers. One example was a reward system for frequent passengers, similar to the frequent-flier miles used by airlines. Another is the high-speed Acela Express, which started service in December 2000.
Last May, Amtrak mortgaged the concourses in Penn Station in New York City to raise $300 million to pay operating expenses through September. The mortgage requires payments for the next 16 years.
Since Congress organized Amtrak in 1971, the train service has never had a profitable year. The fiscal 2001 loss was $1.06 billion, which followed a fiscal 2000 loss of $944 million.
The reform council is trying to integrate the efficiencies of the private sector into Amtrak, but allow the government to retain control.
Under current proposals, private companies might be allowed to bid on franchises to operate specific rail corridors across the United States, Miss O'Sullivan said. However, they will not own any segment of the national passenger-rail system.
She said much of the meeting tomorrow would focus on: "What are we going to do with this one big rail operating company?"
Another possibility is that Amtrak would disappear completely and be replaced by a Transportation Department subsidiary to oversee the private companies that win operating franchises. Another option would give Amtrak the Northeast Corridor operating franchise but leave other rail corridors to private bidders.

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