Amtrak: What now?
Nov. 18, 2001
Amtrak or something similar may one day emerge from an unfortunate legacy as a financial disaster, but it won't happen without completely revamping passenger service rail as we have come to know it in this country. Congressional action will be pivotal. States and local governments may also have to step up to the plate, but it's baffling how they can do that given budget shortfalls and other constraints.
Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, was supposed to have been financially self-sufficient by 1975. That's what its earliest advocates claimed when they convinced Congress to pony up the first of what would become billions of tax dollars over the ensuing 26 years.
With high dollar investments in rapid rail in the northeast corridor, concessions to highly-paid union labor and the inability to manage effectively through periods of change, Amtrak as we know it today should simply be put out of its misery. The board of directors, with precious few representatives from the passenger rail business, is currently composed of too many public officials who cannot make good management decisions. The record is clear that the board has failed to take Amtrak to its intended destination.
By forcing Amtrak to plan for its own liquidation, the Amtrak Reform Council took the first step toward building a new passenger rail system. The reform council found that Amtrak would not meet its congressionally-mandated deadline of financial self-sufficiency by Dec. 2, 2002.
That action set off criticism by the Amtrak board that the council had made "the wrong decision at the wrong time." In a press release dated Nov. 9, Amtrak's board said the council was "charged under the law to account for acts of God, national emergencies and other events beyond the reasonable control of Amtrak." The board said the reform council did not adequately consider this factor.
It seems to us that the reform council made a reasonable decision that becoming financially self-sufficient was, in fact, "beyond the reasonable control of Amtrak."
In short, Amtrak is making pitiful excuses for its poor performance. The board's statement may well be Amtrak's starting point for a fierce lobbying campaign to protect itself from liquidation, or to control whatever new organization springs from a certain congressional review.
It makes one wonder what business Amtrak is really in. It's not in the business of moving passengers efficiently from one place to another. It's certainly not in the business of making money. Maybe it's in the business of imagery and self-promotional puffery.
Despite, or maybe because of, its financial failures, Amtrak will likely use sophisticated public relations techniques in an effort to recast the debate. Look for these people to blame everyone they can think of except themselves for the disastrous performance. The deception has already begun.
Any self-respecting member of the board who's had a hand in Amtrak's financial failure ought to apologize to taxpayers for the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, and Congress should not buy the new lobbying act.