Amtrak: Time to move

By Staff
February 24, 2002
Now that Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith has been named chairman of Amtrak, he has an ideal opportunity to help implement the new concepts of national rail passenger service detailed by the Amtrak Reform Council. That council, chaired by Meridian businessman Gil Carmichael, reported to Congress that the current Amtrak was fatally flawed and needed restructuring. Amtrak lost $1.1 billion last year and is seeking a $1.2 billion appropriation from Congress this year. If it doesn't get the money, Amtrak has threatened to stop operating long distance trains, such as the Crescent which makes two daily stops in Meridian.
That two of the major players in the future of national rail reside in Meridian would be unbelievable if not for their expertise in transportation matters. Both Smith and Carmichael have extensive knowledge of intermodal transportation systems where each component complements another. It is a credit to the community that these recognized national experts are serving in these positions.
The daunting issues they, and, indeed, the nation face over national rail policy will largely determine how people and products move about the country well into this century. At this point, Amtrak and the Amtrak Reform Council are not exactly running on parallel tracks and Congress will ultimately have to throw the right switches to determine the destination.
If you believe that a national passenger rail system is good for the country, then you must also know that Amtrak as it now exists has a history of poor management and inefficient operations. Amtrak owns relatively few miles of the track on which it runs trains. It operates a passenger rail system whose trains are forced to weave through a tangled network of freight track, which helps account for frustrating delays. It maintains, purchases and in some cases remanufactures equipment. It deals with union personnel issues. And, Amtrak currently has 4,000 managers in a total employment of 24,000 people.
The Amtrak Reform Council recommends, among other things, that a new Amtrak focus on core business opportunities, such as moving people, mail and express freight. The council recommends that a new oversight authority be named with real rail policy-making ability and that some operational aspects of passenger rail service be spun-off or farmed out to new, perhaps, private providers. The council recommends that new partnerships among federal, state, local and private sources be formed and that various components of a restructured system could be financed with bonds.
Amtrak has identified a backlog of about $5 billion in work needed right now to buy equipment and improve tracks, tunnels and bridges. The American taxpayer cannot possibly be expected to fund this effort alone.
If the true potential of a real intermodal system is to be explored, if all pieces of the transportation puzzle are to fit, if Meridian is to develop into a distribution hub for rail freight, if the national economy is to benefit from the efficient movement of people and products, then Amtrak must accept reform and restructuring. The old system should fade away, replaced by a solid management organization willing to embrace new concepts and ideas, policies and technologies.
Congress has a duty to make it happen.

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