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Amtrak's Crescent' threatened

By By Chris Allen Baker/staff writer
Feb. 2, 2002
Meridian could lose its only passenger rail service the Crescent if Congress does not double funding for nationwide Amtrak operations.
Amtrak on Friday said it would discontinue long distance overnight train service in October if Congress doesn't give it $1.2 billion for the next budget year, according to a report by The Associated Press that called the move a dramatic maneuver aimed at pressuring Congress to double its support.
The Crescent, which stops in Meridian twice a day and is part of a New Orleans-Washington, D.C.-New York route, is among 18 long distance trains serving 560 U.S. cities that could be eliminated.
Meridian businessman Gil Carmichael, who chairs the Amtrak Reform Council a group under a congressional mandate to oversee financially-beleaguered Amtrak's restructuring  said Amtrak's move to curb long distance trains "will stir healthy debate about passenger rail service in this country." Carmichael said proposals to extend service from Meridian to Dallas could also be affected.
The reform council, AP reported, will recommend next week that the government break up the railroad and open passenger rail to competition.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General, Kenneth Mead, reported last week that Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001, the most in its 30-year history. Mead said the national passenger rail service had made no progress toward meeting Congress' 1997 order that it wean itself from annual operating subsidies.
By law, Amtrak must give 180 days notice before it discontinues train service, and that official notice is expected on March 29.
Despite Amtrak's current financial problems, Carmichael said he believes Meridian could support two trains, citing lack of available seats due to high reservations made at other stations along the Crescent's route. He said the current train stops are considered by Amtrak as the same train.
Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, a member of Amtrak's board of directors, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Maureen Lofton, the mayor's assistant for governmental affairs, said any change in Amtrak's service will be felt locally.
Amtrak said it would make additional cuts in hiring, training, advertising and supplies, and save money by delaying work on equipment, tracks and stations. Overall, the moves could save $285 million in the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30.
If Amtrak's current level of funding remains the same for the next fiscal year, it might operate only in the Northeast, its most successful corridor, according to wire service reports.
One key lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was critical of Amtrak's move.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, normally a backer of Amtrak, said the railroad would lose her support if it became primarily a Northeast system.