Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Public Rails, Public Money

June 28, 2002

Stop-gap funding will keep Amtrak running perhaps through the summer. But just pumping more money into Amtrak fixes nothing unless the mismanaged service curbs its spending and reforms its operations. Fortunately, Amtrak has new President David L. Gunn, who has an impressive record of turning around transportation systems, including New York's and Boston's. His no-nonsense reforms have a ring of credibility that should mollify Congress and the White House until he has a chance to prove himself.

Most of the dire warnings in Washington about an Amtrak shutdown cited the popular, heavily used Metroliner trains running from Washington to New York to Boston. But in California, Amtrak is gaining fast in importance. Southern California's Metrolink commuter trains use the same rails as Amtrak and subcontract for some Amtrak employees. The Capitol Corridor, which runs between Sacramento and San Jose and carries close to 100,000 passengers a month, is the fastest-growing line in the country. Gov. Gray Davis has warned Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta--a Californian who should know--that an abrupt shutdown of Amtrak would have a "serious and adverse" impact on 80,000 daily commuters.

Amtrak lost $1.2 billion last year, and Standard & Poor's has reduced its credit rating to one notch above junk status. Union featherbedding, a bloated management structure and highly unprofitable routes in the West that are kept alive by congressional pork-barrel politics have made Amtrak a financial sinkhole. Gunn is trying to reinvent it: He has axed useless consultants and vice presidents and is insisting upon detailed, monthly financial reports.

Amtrak enemies in Congress want to kill it outright or sell off the most profitable routes and shut down the rest. Congress should resist the efforts of House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and White House Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. to abandon passenger rail. Despite its problems, Amtrak has shown that it can run high-speed rail and commuter lines that attract passengers. A proposal by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) offering $1.2 billion to build high-speed corridors and improve tracks would give Amtrak the upgrades it needs to attract more riders and compete with airline shuttles.

Gunn is correctly trying to preserve national rail service, but some costly routes such as the California Zephyr, from Chicago to Oakland, may have to go.

No matter how good Gunn is and how sleek Amtrak becomes, it is still public transportation and will require federal support. Just as the government builds highways and oversees air travel, some taxpayer investment in rail is inescapable. But Amtrak can't rely on last-minute bailouts. It must strike the balance between profligacy and oblivion.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|