- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Following 30 years of runaway spending, Amtrak, America's government-run travesty of transcontinental transportation, is again on the verge of going bankrupt.

It should. In fact, it should have gone belly-up a long time ago. Amtrak has been a great train robbery for taxpayers since it started chugging along in 1971. Last year, it lost a record $1.1 billion, and it will need an additional $1.2 billion in taxpayer subsidies for fiscal 2003 to keep rolling, according to Amtrak President George Warrington.

Not that Mr. Warrington plans be around to spike federal taxpayers that bill. He will soon resign, according to reporter Tom Ramstack of The Washington Times. Mr. Warrington's successor shouldn't get too tied up by Amtrak's fiscal demands, since the Bush administration proposed simply renewing the same $521 million subsidy Amtrak received last year. That could be because real reform might finally be just around the bend, thanks to the recent recommendations of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC).

The ARC, a congressionally appointed body empowered to examine Amtrak's finances, noted that the railroad could not be railroaded into achieving operational self-sufficiency as it is currently operated, managed and structured. Instead, ARC proposed that Amtrak be broken up and its operations placed under the control of either individual states or private owners. It would be easy, and perhaps appropriate, to rail at almost every aspect of Amtrak's operation from its overloaded bureaucracy to its appalling performance. However, as the ARC noted, "the roots of Amtrak's problems lie in its institutional structure."

That limited institutional structure could also be corrected by special bankruptcy proceedings. In a report titled "A Plan to Liquidate Amtrak," Cato Institute scholars Edward Hudgins, Joseph Vranich and Cornelius Chapman suggest simply liquidating Amtrak via Chapter 11. It's a worthwhile idea, since at least a few private entities would finally receive some tangible gain from Amtrak's transcontinental incompetence.

Anything would be better than the loco ideas of those, such as New York's Sen. Charles Schumer, who see the real problem as "chronic federal underinvestment." However, New York commuters won't be run over if Amtrak's operations screech to a halt, since they are already served by two of the nation's three largest rail systems the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad. Nor will any transcontinental travelers, who would still have a huge variety of transportation choices.

Mr. Schumer and his ideological associates need to face the facts. It's time to stop the runaway train of subsidies. After all, market forces are much better at running railroads than government bureaucracies.

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