Amtrak's Ticket to Ride

New Yorkers can cheer yesterday's decision by Amtrak's board to dismiss the railroad's president, David Gunn, and begin a search for "a leader with vision and experience." Maybe now we'll see an end to Amtrak's frequent threats to shut down every time it flirts with bankruptcy. Any temporary shutdown of Amtrak-owned Penn Station and the tunnels leading to it would halt all Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit commuter trains into the city.

Over the last three years, Mr. Gunn repeatedly issued inflammatory warnings of shut-downs, thus strong-arming Congress into raising subsidies. If he had followed through he would only have hurt innocent bystanders. After all, commuters from Trenton and Jamaica aren't responsible for Amtrak's inept management, endless red ink, and preservation of costly long-distance trains that are relics of a bygone era. Hopefully now that Mr. Gunn himself is a bygone, real reform can begin.

Currently, Amtrak demands ever higher subsidies from taxpayers to preserve market-irrelevant train services. To demonstrate how abusive this is, consider that in Texas only about 100 passengers a day board Amtrak. Just one rush hour LIRR train carries more than 10 times the number of people who board Amtrak in every station throughout Texas. In fact, in nine states so many commuters ride non-Amtrak trains that they outnumber Amtrak passengers by about 15 to one.

Rather than defending this status quo to the death (of the company), Amtrak's next move should be to make a powerful case to the public for its plan to create a subsidiary by January to own and manage the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Later, ownership should transfer to a new regional agency consisting of eight states and the federal government.

Local commuter authorities already operate the vast majority--about 90%--of the trains on this corridor. Hence, the biggest stakeholders should be the ones owning and running the line. They will be more sensitive to regional needs and could do a better job than Amtrak in planning capital improvements.

Unfortunately, Senators Clinton and Schumer oppose the change in the line's ownership. That's a baffling move because maintaining the current system will only reinforce Amtrak's stranglehold over commuters and harm New Yorkers. Leaving Amtrak in control of the Northeast Corridor line is as absurd as empowering one bankrupt airline to shut down the national air traffic control system. Amtrak carries about 25 million passengers a year. Non-Amtrak commuter trains carry 412 million passengers a year.

Moreover, Amtrak is a neglectful landlord. The federal Department of Transportation's inspector general, Ken Mead, has questioned Amtrak's failure to maintain vital facilities including switches in New Jersey, bridges in Connecticut, and fire-fighting equipment in the Manhattan tunnels. The tunnels have long been a bone of contention, and in the past the MTA has gone as far as offering to buy outright two of the four East River tubes.

The argument that such an ownership structure would disadvantage New York taxpayers is a red herring. The secretary of transportation, Norman Mineta, has said a new regional agency would qualify for capital funding through federal grants to upgrade the line and overcome Amtrak's deferred maintenance. Spin-off proposals are not ways of foisting intercity rail expenses onto the unwitting states. If anything, New Yorkers would stand to benefit because funding would no longer be diverted to frivolous projects on Amtrak's lightly used lines, but would remain on the busy Northeast Corridor.

As it is, tunnel upgrades are underway despite, not because of, Amtrak--thanks to Congressional earmarks in other spending bills. Mr. Mead and the Bush Administration persuaded Congress to safeguard appropriations, saying, "It is essential that funds be specifically earmarked for fire-safety needs in the tunnels. Earmarking the funds would ensure that they could not be diverted for any other purpose." It's unacceptable, Mr. Mead has argued, for Amtrak to budget millions of dollars to repair sleeper cars for long-distance trains while under-investing in strategic fixed assets. He has said that Amtrak's deferral of work on critical infrastructure "brings Amtrak closer to a major point of failure."

Dismissing Amtrak's chief executive is the first step in stopping Amtrak's wrong-headed capital spending and contemptuous behavior toward commuters. The single most important railroad passenger line in the nation--the intercity line passing through New York City--deserves something better than Amtrak.

Joseph Vranich is the author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains (AEI Press, 2004).

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