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Amtrak May Face Rail Competition

Transit: A panel recommends allowing private companies to compete with the agency to operate trains.


WASHINGTON — A federal panel studying the future of the ailing Amtrak rail system on Friday recommended opening intercity rail service to competition--a move that if approved would end Amtrak's monopoly of the service.

The Amtrak Reform Council voted 8 to 1 to recommend allowing private companies across the country the chance to compete with Amtrak to operate the trains.

The council is due to deliver its recommendations to Congress on Feb. 7, likely setting off a legislative debate over the future of the troubled system.

Despite projections after the Sept. 11 attacks that train ridership would increase over the long term, the number of train travelers has leveled off and Amtrak--already in debt for nearly $3 billion--is continuing to lose money.

Repeatedly on Friday, panel members expressed their desire to develop a modern, efficient rail system that continues to serve long-haul routes as well as high-density commuter corridors such as the popular Los Angeles-San Diego route.

"What we're trying to do is produce a new national rail passenger system that works and is modern and meets the needs of this country and this century," said Gil Carmichael, the council's chairman.

The plan calls for Amtrak to transfer ownership of the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston, and to give up other assets including tracks, tunnels and stations, which would be distributed among state, federal and private entities. The railroad would continue to run trains under the supervision of a new government corporation during a transition period of at least two years.

Panel members said the operation of passenger rail service should be similar to other forms of national transportation, such as interstate highways and air travel, where the government funds infrastructure and private corporations operate passenger services.

To that end, the panel called for the federal government to create a new trust fund for railway infrastructure, and to allow increased flexibility in how state and local governments use federal transportation funds.

The panel also recommended that Congress pass a tax incentive to reward private investment in rail facilities and invest as much decision-making authority as possible to regional or state entities.

The Amtrak Reform Council was formed in 1997 under the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which also kept the nearly bankrupt rail line in operation.

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