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Amtrak at a Crossroads

July 06, 2002

Your June 28 editorial on Amtrak, "Public Rails, Public Money," while rightly supportive of continuing support for rail passenger service, missed the mark badly with the observation that "union featherbedding" is one of the reasons Amtrak is a "financial sinkhole." In reality, Amtrak workers have shown remarkable productivity increases over the years. Rail labor has worked with Amtrak management in numerous ways and has made many cost-saving agreements. Union railroad workers have, in fact, had their wages frozen for the last 2 1/2 years.

The Amtrak system is woefully understaffed. Many Amtrak trains are running with only one train attendant for four coach cars, and station service has been reduced to the bare minimum, causing exhaustion for the work force. It is unfair and untruthful to lay the blame for Amtrak's financial woes at the feet of the people who struggle every day to keep the system running. The 1997 congressional mandate that Amtrak become self-sufficient, something that no passenger railroad in the world has ever achieved, was nothing more than a cynical attempt by certain members of Congress to eliminate the railroad entirely. It reeked of a double standard, considering the massive amounts of subsidy given to air and highway transportation.

Amtrak and passenger rail in this country stand at a crossroads. It is time for Congress and the Bush administration to recognize that the country needs--and wants--a viable rail system, and it must provide the necessary funding to support such a system. Amtrak should not be seen as a profit-making enterprise but rather as a necessary public service, just as rail service is viewed in all the other industrial nations of the world. Given adequate funding and support, the working men and women of Amtrak can and will provide the nation with the best rail system in the world.

Mike Davis

Vice General Chairman

Transportation Communication

International Union, L.A.


Fortunately, Amtrak was saved in the nick of time, if only for a few months. How long till the next cash crunch will hit?

What we need desperately is a long-term solution--not Band-Aids to stop the hemorrhage. We subsidize highways, runways, subways and many others such as waterways, shipbuilding, a host of industries and, above all, the agribusiness conglomerates. But we expect our passenger trains to subsist on a starvation diet of occasional government handouts.

Every developed country with an efficient rail network is, in part, dependent upon subsidies. As 9/11 has shown, we must maintain our railroads and even expand them.

Of course it was ridiculous for Amtrak to employ 85 vice presidents or to work on the basis of union work rules known as "featherbedding" in earlier times. This waste of money has to stop. Amtrak President David L. Gunn is on the right track, but he needs the support of Congress and the White House.

Train schedules must be improved to drastically reduce running times and eliminate the delays caused by freight trains claiming the right of way over passenger trains. Six hours from Santa Barbara to San Diego, a distance of a little over 200 miles, is simply unacceptable today. Why can the Europeans and the Japanese cover similar distances in three hours or less? Maybe we could learn something from them. Why not give it a try?

Privatization of Amtrak is definitely not the answer, as the British experience has shown. We must recognize that passenger railroads are part of our infrastructure and fund them accordingly.

Herman Pfauter

Santa Barbara

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