Amtrak reform picks up steam - again

Congress may overhaul the structure of its money-losing rail system.

Sitting quietly in the grand marble and granite of Union Station as the tracks and times are called out, Joy Belluzzi is what one might call a fan of Amtrak. She loves train travel, she says, so much so that a few years ago her entire family took a trip across the country by rail - Washington to San Francisco. And then back again - Los Angeles to Washington.

"It was wonderful," she says with a smile. "But it was expensive. I realized after, we could have gone to Europe for the same price." And therein lies the continuing problem with passenger rail in the United States - the romance of the rails isn't terribly time- or cost-effective in a country of more than 3.7 million square miles.

Amtrak, the perennial money loser that Washington loves to hate, is up for reauthorization this year. And, after years of complaining about its efficiency, Congress is looking at how the nation's passenger rail system might be overhauled. This is not exactly news in this city. As Washington promises go, "overhauling Amtrak" sits somewhere near "removing waste, fraud and abuse from the government" on the list of old-reliables.

But there is a feeling that things might be different this time around. The Amtrak Reform Council has issued a report calling for serious changes in the way the company is run. Congress is expressing a willingness to make changes, holding numerous hearings on the issue in the past few weeks. And, perhaps most important, Amtrak itself has told the government it needs more than $1.2 billion above its normal appropriation for the coming year, or it will stop service on some of its long routes.

"I think the stars are aligning for a serious structural change for Amtrak," says Deirdre O'Sullivan, public affairs specialist for the Amtrak Reform Council. "But you never know, they could quickly go out of joint. Amtrak is like that."

From its creation in 1970, Amtrak was conceived of as a private company, but one in which the government owned a majority stake. But, in terms of service, Congress has treated Amtrak less like a private company and more like a federal program. Members want service in their districts, brag when they get it, and complain when they lose it. At the same time, they have expected the company to get by on a federal subsidy of $500 million per year, while other forms of transportation, from highways to airports, receive billions.

Taken together, all of that has added up to regular and massive budget shortfalls for the company. To help remedy the problem, Congress created the 11-member Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act in 1997. Charged with studying Amtrak, the ARC was supposed to create a plan for restructuring the passenger rail company if it looked like it wasn't going to be able to break even by the end of 2002.

Last year Amtrak lost a record $1.1 billion, leading the ARC to release its plan in February. The proposal: Break Amtrak into three separate companies - one that would handle train operations, one that would manage the Amtrak-owned infrastructure of the busy Northeast Corridor, one that would handle oversight. After two-to-five years, the plan would allow competition for rail service, particularly long-distance service.

But now the hard part begins. Despite many years of citing Amtrak's problems, Congress has been loath to do anything about it. People who talk about changing the system are branded as being antirail, while the defenders are seen as begging for a government handout.

Nearly everyone admits the future of train travel in a country as sprawling as the United States lies in short regional travel - like the Washington-to-Boston East Coast corridor. The question is: Should Amtrak be designed more specifically around that idea - and what should happen to the long routes if it is.

Michael Dukakis, the acting chairman on Amtrak's board of directors, calls the ARC plan "wacky." "I give them credit for stirring the pot, that's a good thing," Dukakis says. "But if you don't like one Amtrak, why would you create three? ... And the report never answers the question of what level of capital expenditure is needed to create a real nationwide passenger rail system."

Dukakis and Amtrak argue that Amtrak's real problem is simply a lack of government money. Its long-distance trips are mandated by Amtrak's charter, but not funded, they say.

But there is some support for the plan on the Hill. "The current situation is not Amtrak's fault. Congress has set up a system that is designed to fail," says Florida Rep. John Mica, one of a group of Republicans backing the plan. The congressman notes that the "Sunset Limited," which runs from Orlando to Los Angeles three days a week is subsidized at $347.45 per passenger. Some long-distance routes, he suggests, could be privatized and handled more as cruises than simple transportation.

For its part, the Bush administration has not yet weighed in on the plan, though Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is a member of ARC. Those knowledgeable about the issue say the administration might wait to see which way the political winds blow.

As the number of hearings begins to grow and the federal budget becomes a serious topic, those winds will likely become more obvious soon. And even passengers like Joy Belluzzi sense that Amtrak is nearing something of a turning critical juncture.

"I love trains, and I want them to find a way to make it work," she says. "But I think they are going to have to do something. It's losing a lot of money."

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