- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

Amtrak's David Gunn has done Bill Clinton one better. When the Republican-led Congress did not pass appropriations bills on time, forcing a federal government closure, the Clinton administration invoked the tried and true "Washington Monument Syndrome." This involved closing first the tourist attractions that were calculated to create an immediate outcry that would force Congress to act. It worked. Now Mr. Gunn has invoked what might be called "Louvre Syndrome," threatening not only to close Amtrak services but to force closure of commuter rail services that are not even administered by Amtrak. Amtrak has this hostage-taking tactic available because many of the nation's commuter rail systems depend upon Amtrak for support or operations.
In Boston, Baltimore and Washington, Amtrak provides commuter rail services under contract to transit authorities. These authorities, which are not Amtrak services, are Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Maryland Transportation Authority and Virginia Rail Express services. In each case, Amtrak makes a commercial profit, yet Amtrak has indicated that these services may close.
Similarly, there is a threat to commuter rail services in the Philadelphia and New York areas, where transit authorities operate over Amtrak tracks. Again, Amtrak makes a profit on both track access and dispatch, so there is no reason these services should be shut down.
Then there is the matter of Amtrak's own high-speed Acela service, which operates from Boston to New York and Washington. Amtrak has claimed to be making money on this service, and, as a result, there is no reason to shut it down. Then again, with Enron-like accounting shenanigans of deception and surprise, it is possible that Acela has yet to make a profit.
All of this points out the necessity of bringing Amtrak to an end. For more than 30 years, this bulbous government monopoly has been providing service at much higher than competitive costs, while consuming more than $25 billion in subsidies. Today, the average Amtrak passenger pays a higher fare per mile than the average airline or bus passenger. The taxpayers pick up even more. Around the world, passenger rail is being reformed and improved, but not in the United States. Large, general subsidies are being replaced by smaller subsidies in return for accomplishing particular performance targets. Contrary to the rail fan mantra, some passenger rail operations are now profitable and paying taxes, such as the three railroads on the main Japanese island of Honshu, which carry more than double the number of passengers that are carried by the French and German systems combined.
The administration's plan for separating infrastructure and subjecting passenger rail to competition mirrors the plan that we adopted at the Amtrak Reform Council. The present manufactured crisis speaks volumes as to its need. If infrastructure were separated, there would be no issue with respect to northeastern commuter rail services. If Amtrak were operated in a competitive environment, it would either fail or perform, but in either event, passenger services would continue. Indeed, the most promising strategy appears to be bankruptcy. Like in the case of K-Mart, where the lights barely flickered at bankruptcy, a trustee would continue to operate the Amtrak services that make sense.
But a more immediate political deal is likely. The administration needs to muster the resolve to stand up to Amtrak's blatant strategy of blackmail. There are alternatives, virtually none of which require a continuation of the present failed approach. The real question comes down to whether the Bush administration, which has shown no reluctance to face down challenges, will call Mr. Gunn's bluff.

Wendell Cox is a member of the Amtrak Reform Council, an independent transport and demographic consultant, and a visiting professor at CNAM, a French national university in Paris.


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