- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

Amtrak doesn’t have the money to maintain or rebuild its vast rail system and needs a new strategy, says a report scheduled for release today from the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

In unusually harsh language, Inspector General Kenneth Mead said Amtrak runs the risk of significant problems because its lack of money has forced the agency to delay fixing rails and bridges.

“Unsustainably large operating losses, poor on-time performances and increasing levels of deferred infrastructure and fleet investment are a clarion call … for significant changes in Amtrak’s strategy. Continued deferral brings Amtrak closer to a major point of failure on the system, but no one knows where or when such a failure will occur,” Mr. Mead wrote in the report.

Amtrak Chief Executive David Gunn agreed with the inspector general’s conclusion that Amtrak’s bridges and rails need work.

“We are playing Russian roulette,” he wrote in a response to Mr. Mead.

Mr. Gunn, who took over Amtrak in 2002, said the report underscores the agency’s need for Congress to provide Amtrak more money.

Amtrak initially requested $1.8 billion for fiscal 2005, but it is unlikely it will receive more than the $1.2 billion proposed by the Senate.

“It will not be possible [for Amtrak] to live within a $1.2 billion appropriation without deferring essential capital investment once again,” Mr. Gunn said.

Amtrak, founded in 1970 by federal law, has never been profitable and relies on a federal subsidy to fund operations.

Mr. Mead criticized Amtrak’s decision to cut its capital budget for fiscal 2004 from $1.04 billion to $824.7 million and defer repairs. Amtrak spent $488.2 million through June on engineering, mechanical and safety projects.

Repairs to bridges in Connecticut and improvements to Amtrak’s auto rack — the popular train service that carries people and cars from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla. — are among the projects the agency delayed. Amtrak also has 125 rail cars that are unavailable for service because they need repair.

Much of Amtrak’s budget for repair projects and maintenance is spent on upkeep of the 650 miles of rails that it owns, mostly in the Northeast corridor from the District to Boston.

Deferring work on its rail system increases the potential for danger and makes it more likely that unforeseen problems will result in train delays, the inspector general said.

Amtrak officials dispute that conclusion.

“We don’t anticipate a failure that will be a safety concern. It will be an operational concern,” Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said.

But Amtrak can’t afford to let the reliability of train service falter, Mr. Mead said.

Systemwide, Amtrak trains were on time 71.8 percent of the time through June, down from 74.1 percent in fiscal 2003. The Acela was on time 74.7 percent of the time, with average delays of 54 minutes. That was improved from fiscal 2003, when the Acela was on time 70.7 percent of the time.

Mr. Mead said Amtrak’s management must reduce its need for federal subsidies and set better priorities for money to fund capital projects. But since Amtrak appears unlikely to change its strategy, the inspector general suggested Congress step in to provide clear goals for the passenger rail service.

Congress also could force Amtrak to cease some operations.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Amtrak should eliminate some routes.

“Amtrak should focus on short-distance corridors where rail service can compete with other modes of transportation, and the long-distance trains should be restructured or eliminated. If Amtrak won’t follow this strategy, then it is the responsibility of Amtrak’s board of directors, the secretary of transportation and Congress to make it happen,” he said.

Amtrak had a record 24 million riders in fiscal 2003 and 18.7 million passengers this year through June.

The inspector general said the agency has made progress controlling expenses, but an increasing number of passengers and lower spending won’t be enough to save Amtrak.

“It is clear Amtrak cannot save its way to financial health,” Mr. Mead said.

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