In the middle of the Amtrak financial crisis, The New York Times Magazine published an article in June titled “Amtrak Must Die.” The reporter, an avowed train lover, came to that conclusion after analyzing the system’s finances and experiencing four-hour delays and bad service in a cross-country trip.
At the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, copies of the article are handed out. The principals at the local think tank have been predicting the demise of Amtrak for years and have been passionate advocates of reorganizing the system. Now the Bush administration is embracing their ideas.
Bruce Chapman, president of the institute, said that’s gratifying but there is still a long road ahead before anything’s done.
“We’ll probably go through at least one more crisis before Congress takes this seriously,” he said.
He said the infusion late last month of $200 million to prop up Amtrak through September is just a Band-Aid.
“Nothing has gone away,” he said. He calls Amtrak a wounded duck that cannot fly and questions why the government keeps throwing money at it.
“It’s like giving Enron more money,” he said.
Chapman was appointed to the 11-member Amtrak Reform Council in 1998. The independent federal commission had been established under the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, which called for Amtrak to become self-sufficient by December 2002.
Chapman has a long career in government. He is a former Seattle city councilman and Washington secretary of state. He also served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau, a deputy assistant to President Reagan and a U.S. ambassador to United Nations organizations in Vienna, Austria.
Chapman said he landed the position at the Amtrak Reform Council because of a 1995 report calling for Amtrak reform. It was done by a senior transportation fellow at the Discovery Institute.
“Perpetuating the status quo will burden America with a lame, government-run passenger operation, limping along on the nation’s freight rail rights-of-way, operating under outdated federal rules from its 1970 authorization and surviving on congressional handouts,” wrote the fellow, Ray Chambers, a legislative representative for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
Chambers said Amtrak needed to privatize and reorganize. The Amtrak Reform Council said the same thing. Now the Bush administration is saying it.
In a speech June 20 before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that Amtrak, in its current condition, cannot be sustained without massive, federal support something the Bush administration rejects.
“The country can ill afford to throw billions of federal dollars at Amtrak and just hope its problems disappear,” he said.
Mineta said the administration supports reforming Amtrak by gradually lifting federal subsidies, creating a partnership with states and introducing carefully managed competition.
Chapman says reforming Amtrak is just one step. He said Congress still needs to pour billions into maintaining and updating the rail infrastructure, much as it did for the nation’s air travel and the interstate highway system.
The Discovery Institute has proposed a West Coast coalition of government and business to provide tailored rail service in busy corridors and a competitive freight service going from Canada to Mexico in just 20 hours.
The institute also proposes that long-distance trains operate more as luxury vacations for people more of a land cruise or as slow intercity runs that would combine passengers with freight carriers.