David Gunn, the new president of Amtrak, says that if Congress doesn’t pony up an extra $200 million for the railroad by midweek this week, he’ll begin to shut down its lines. This is rather like the school superintendent, on the eve of the election, saying that if the bond issue doesn’t pass, football, school band and the library will close down.
That was Mr. Hyde-Gunn. At about the same time, Dr. Jekyll-Gunn was telling an interviewer, “I want to change the way we do business. My goal is to turn (Amtrak) into a much more focused organization with tight fiscal controls.” Inasmuch as passenger rail travel has been its only focus in the 30-plus years it has been in business, one wonders what kind of focus he has in mind. For that matter, brave words similar to Mr. Gunn’s have been issued by each of his eleventy-seven predecessors over three decades. To date, all such words have had the same effect. That is, none.
The problem is, as policy wonks like to say, systemic. Back in 1970, the railroads breathed a sigh of relief when the crosses they were bearing in the form of passenger trains were lifted from them. To do that, Congress created for itself a Gordian Knot. It gave Amtrak several million dollars to get started, but insisted that, in due course, it become self-supporting. Yet, every time management wanted to eliminate a consistently money-losing line, some senator, representative — or a clutch of them — would threaten dire consequences if the “vital” line was cut. Result: the line wasn’t cut and the threats disappeared. This happened countless times.
Faced with politically protected money-losing routes, Amtrak had to save funds in other ways. For years this took the form of delayed maintenance. That made the eventual maintenance even more costly than had it been done on schedule. It might even have figured in some derailments along the way.
It is possible — just possible — that things may be different this time. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, a man not given to dissembling, says, “I think there are some places that they could shut down….They haven’t taken a look at that and done that. It’s time that they do that.”
Quite sensibly, Speaker Hastert added, “When you take a train that runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and we subsidize each passenger (by) about $350, we could put them in a pretty nice airplane and fly them there.”
If he is as determined in his behind-the-scenes work as his words suggest, Amtrak may get its short-term reprieve with strings attached in the form of a mandated slimming-down of consistently unprofitable routes. Amtrak has one profitable and very popular route: the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. Short corridors of this sort elsewhere might be developed (e.g., Chicago-St. Louis; Houston-Dallas), but who will pay the capital costs?
Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta says that failing routes should be dropped unless the states involved want to take over their subsidies. Makes sense. Like tolls on bridges it amounts to a “user” tax. It could also be applied to building new corridors which would service primarily the citizens of the states involved.
A commission appointed for the purpose of developing a plan to reform Amtrak recently came up with a scheme that would divide the organization into two or three, each with a different — but related — function. The cost would be several hundred million dollars more than the $200 million Amtrak insists it needs this week just to stay open. It also sounds like a recipe for endless jurisdictional bickering between rival bureaucracies.
So far, Congress hasn’t got it right, despite many opportunities. Is it too much to hope that, this time, its members will finally lay aside sentimentality and the impulse to please a few constituents in order to make sensible decisions on behalf of all the nation’s taxpayers? Let us hope so.