- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Amtrak’s board of directors yesterday unexpectedly fired David L. Gunn, the president and chief executive officer who took over three years ago, because of his opposition to the Bush administration’s proposal to break up the passenger rail service.

Mr. Gunn is credited with cutting costs and replacing outdated equipment, but he clashed with the board over the administration’s proposal to create a subsidiary out of the Northeast Corridor.

The Bush administration wants to split up Amtrak, shift some of the cost of operations to states and end federal subsidies.

Amtrak Chairman David Laney, a lawyer in Dallas and former head of the Texas Department of Transportation for six years, including four years while President Bush was governor, said the rail service needs a new leader with “vision” who aggressively will address the company’s financial, management and operational problems.

Mr. Gunn, a 68-year-old Massachusetts native and Canadian citizen who came out of retirement to run Amtrak, said the board fired him when he refused to resign. He said his opposition to the board’s plan to create a subsidiary likely sealed his fate.

“They have been trying to carry out the administration’s wishes, and I have been very aggressive telling the board what I think. My views have been very different than theirs,” Mr. Gunn said.

Ironically, Mr. Gunn yesterday submitted Amtrak’s fiscal year-end report that showed the rail service had better financial and operational results than expected.

“It is my personal judgment that our railroad has made significant progress toward a state of good repair and that financially and operationally we are in the best condition we have been in for several years,” Mr. Gunn wrote.

Amtrak has been a target for years among conservative lawmakers because it is expensive, relying on $29 billion in subsidies from Congress since its creation 34 years ago.

Amtrak’s supporters have defended the rail service despite the losses and accusations of mismanagement and said Mr. Gunn had a record of meaningful reform at the rail service.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said Mr. Gunn did a good job under difficult circumstances.

“Today’s action is a step backward for” Amtrak, he said.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said Amtrak must make vast reforms and that Mr. Gunn wasn’t willing to help.

“Mr. Gunn was an excellent transportation and operations manager. But he insisted on tinkering around the edges. It requires much more dramatic reform than he was willing to undertake,” Mr. Mica said.

The board directed Amtrak in September to examine creating a subsidiary to operate the rail service’s Northeast Corridor, a 456-mile stretch of track from Washington to Boston that is among its most expensive to run and its most popular among passengers.

After his firing, Mr. Gunn repeated his opposition to the plan.

“That makes no sense,” he said.

Even some of Mr. Gunn’s critics skewered the Bush administration’s decision to fire him.

“It is outrageous that the Bush administration would fire anyone who does not take a blood oath to break up and sell off our national passenger rail system,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO labor federation.

Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee pointed out that Mr. Laney described Mr. Gunn’s tenure as chief executive as “splendid” and “terrific” at a hearing two months ago.

Amtrak supporters said the board has severed ties with Mr. Gunn now because it will lose two members as soon as Congress adjourns this year. Floyd Hall, a retired former chairman of Kmart from Montclair, N.J., and Enrique Sosa, of Miami, were recess appointments whose terms expire this year.

The Bush administration wants to cut funding to as little as $360 million, but the Senate last week approved a $1.9 billion subsidy for each of the next six years, and the House has approved a bill to give Amtrak $1.18 billion.

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