Carmichael: Amtrak must be restructured

By By Chris Allen Baker/staff writer
Feb. 21, 2002
Creating a new and efficient national passenger rail system from the ruins of the current money-losing and inefficient Amtrak is the ultimate goal of Amtrak reform efforts headed by Meridian businessman Gil Carmichael.
Amtrak, the nation's national passenger rail system, reported a $1.1 billion loss last year and is seeking $1.2 billion in new funding from Congress. Carmichael, chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, says that's going to be a tough sell. The council, created by Congress to recommend changes in the system, detailed to federal lawmakers on Feb. 7 how Amtrak should be restructured. The move came in the same year that Amtrak is due for congressional reauthorization.
On Wednesday, a week after he testified before a transportation committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Carmichael met with The Meridian Star editorial board to discuss Amtrak and the nation's current railroad system.
Carmichael said the nation's railroads are becoming a larger part of the overall transportation system as commercial shippers seek greater efficiencies in the movement of products. The word "intermodal" a partnership of water and ground transportation systems is gaining more prominence as shippers prefer to move larger containers to hubs, from which products are distributed.
This increasing demand for freight service on railways also impacts passenger trains having difficulty getting to their destinations on time, Carmichael said.
Freight and highway congestion
The interstate highway system has reached a maximum capacity for heavy truck traffic, Carmichael said.
To guarantee on-time deliveries, Carmichael said more companies such as United Parcel Service and J.B. Hunt are interested in rail.
Amtrak is notorious for late runs partly because of the freight traffic, often 200-car trains that move more slowly. "With the sidings they have designed where the freight trains would pull over and let the passenger trains come through, they can't get through because the (freight) trains are too long," Carmichael said.
Reform efforts
He said Congress gave Amtrak about $5 billion annually in years past and told Amtrak try to get modern and be self-sufficient in operations.
Congressional frustration led to the creation of the reform council, which Carmichael chairs, as an oversight group for Amtrak. Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, who declined an invitation to join Carmichael for the editorial board interview, is a member of the Amtrak board of directors, which is seeking the additional $1.2 billion from Congress.
The council told Congress in November that Amtrak would not be self-sufficient by a congressionally-imposed deadline of January 2003.
Carmichael said in years past Amtrak management has had to run the operating company, maintain the Northeast Corridor infrastructure, and set railroad policy.
The Northeast corridor between Washington to Boston carries 1,200 trains a day, Carmichael said. About 1,100 of them are commuter trains and 100 are Amtrak trains running on multiple tracks and bad bridges that need maintenance, he said.
The reform council proposed that a new oversight group be created to set national rail policy and decide how best to incorporate intermodal ideas into the concept. He said Amtrak would "get out of the Northeast Corridor and let it submit its own budget to Congress."
He said new partnerships among federal, state, local and private resources would be necessary to build such an intermodal transportation system.