Wayne O'Leary

Policy Off the Rails

Say what you will about the Bushites; they don't discourage easily. Their plans to privatize Social Security are in shambles, but they've found another part of the federal government to drown in Grover Norquist's bathtub: Amtrak, the nation's publicly owned passenger rail system.

The latest episode in what has become an ongoing conservative guerrilla campaign to terminate Amtrak as a federal entity took place in early November with the firing of David Gunn, the railroad's president and CEO. Amtrak's board chairman, Bush appointee and "Pioneer" campaign contributor David Laney, blandly informed the press that the firing was precipitated by Gunn's failure to swiftly and aggressively institute needed financial, management and operational changes. Despite a stellar record heading transit systems in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Canada, the well-regarded executive was summarily dismissed for lacking "vision and experience."

The real reason for Gunn's dismissal after just three years on the job went far beyond questions of management expertise, however; it was essentially political and ideological. Gunn had resisted Bush administration plans to eliminate Amtrak service outside the busy Boston-Washington corridor and shift responsibility for the corridor itself to individual northeastern states, a first step toward outright privatization. The courageous Amtrak head had gone so far as to label the Bush proposals irresponsible and aimed at liquidating the rail company; when he fought a September board-of-directors' vote to split off the Northeast Corridor, the die was cast.

This fall's Amtrak drama followed on the heels of a highly publicized Senate vote last March on continued federal funding for the financially struggling rail system. In an attempt to save the government corporation from looming bankruptcy, Amtrak supporters attempted at that time to restore $1 million in rail subsidies removed from the fiscal 2006 budget by the president; they failed by a 52 to 46 vote that essentially followed party lines (41 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 1 independent for the subsidy; 51 Republicans and 1 Democrat against).

Former Congressman Norman Mineta, the apostate Democrat who serves as Bush transportation secretary and also sits on Amtrak's board, hailed the March vote as a welcome step clearing the way for "reform" of passenger rail in the US; no more subsidies would be forthcoming from Washington, he warned, without fundamental changes in the "outdated" system.

The fundamental changes envisioned by Mineta and the rest of the administration would entail an end to subsidized long-distance, transcontinental trains and the eventual contracting out of routes within the Northeast Corridor to private companies. In the meantime, the northeastern states would be required to somehow find the millions in interim funds to manage and maintain the system, a burden that as Senate Amtrak advocate Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) pointed out in the March debate, they just can't afford. Kennedy's exasperated Senate colleague Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) called the proposed abdication of federal responsibility "a recipe for a dead, dead, dead railroad."

As far as free-market Republicans are concerned, Amtrak has been as good as dead for years, because it has never turned a profit; they see their role as simply to inter the corpse. But that misses the point. Passenger rail has rarely made a profit anywhere, any time, especially since the onset of auto and air travel as modern competitive forces. By its very nature, it is a vitally necessary public function that, like municipal bus service, can't be successfully carried out without subsidization.

Left entirely to the mercies of the market, railroads will inevitably reduce service to passengers, raise fares to untenable levels and seek to eliminate unprofitable or marginal routes; that was the experience of passenger rail in the US prior to the creation of Amtrak in 1970, when America's private rail lines, knowing the real money was in freight hauling, virtually abandoned the passenger business. This being the case, why return to the agonies of private ownership, which will only finish American rail travel once and for all?

The answer (aside from providing inside investors with transferable capital assets or tax write-offs) is free-market ideology. Laissez-faire dogma, which ruling conservatives imbibed with their mothers' milk, dictates that the private sector does all things in the economic sphere better than government. Republicans believe this even when faced with contrary evidence. And such evidence does exist.

The US had a very successful government-run rail system once before in its history, during World War I. Faced in a time of emergency with a dysfunctional rail network plagued by obsolescent and under-maintained equipment, insufficient trackage and terminal facilities, duplication of routes, labor problems and financial difficulties, President Woodrow Wilson nationalized the country's railroads by proclamation on Dec. 26, 1917. From then until March 1, 1920, a period of a little over two years, American rail transportation, passenger as well as freight, was publicly operated, creating a consolidated nationwide system for the first time.

The United States Railroad Administration (USRA), as Amtrak's spiritual forerunner was called, solved most of the immediate problems troubling America's railroads and returned them to their corporate owners in far better shape than they had been under private management. The "run-down, confused, chaotic mess" inherited by USRA Director-General William Gibbs McAdoo (who was Wilson's secretary of the Treasury, as well as railroad czar) was converted into a state-of-the-art transportation juggernaut that performed admirably for another three decades, reaching a peak during World War II when it efficiently moved 44 million traveling military personnel.

Of particular import to the current Amtrak debate, USRA's stewardship saw all measurable aspects of rail passenger service (revenues, miles traveled, total passengers, passengers per train, etc.) reach new, higher levels. In short, based on historical performance, there is no reason other than ideology to return passenger rail to the private sector. Contemporary experience tends to confirm that conclusion. By general consensus, the best passenger system in the world (though some Francophobes might be reluctant to admit it) is none other than French National Railways, a nationalized operation. Close behind is Canada's VIA Rail, likewise a government-run service.

Americans apparently agree that a public passenger rail system is the way to go. A 2002 Washington Post poll indicated overwhelming support for continuing or increasing, not cutting or eliminating, federal Amtrak subsidies. Perhaps when Congress responds to that unambiguous endorsement by adding funding and ending talk of privatization, it can also demand the reinstatement of David Gunn.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2006

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