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& Beyond for a July 24th UpDaTe


1) On Wednesday July 22nd, the House Appropriations Committee approved the subcommittee’s $609 million for Amtrak. The House Rules Committee will consider the House DOT appropriations bill sometime after Wednesday July 29th. At thatpoint, it will be learned if there are any anti-Amtrak amendments. The bill then goes to the House floor for general debate and the next day, a debate on amendments.

2) On Friday July 24th, the Senate passed it’s Transportation Appropriation Bill on a vote of 90 - 1. On July 23rd, negotiations among interested Senators allowed the Senate to avoid Amtrak-related roll call votes. McCain accepted a restriction against using appropriated funds for those labor costs attributable to the wage increases in the new labor contracts. Once the full House and Senate have passed the bills, negotiators will meet in a joint conference to resolve differences and agree on a level of funding for Amtrak and other programs.

3) The subsidy disclosure requirement was extended to airline tickets and highway signs on the expectation that this would cause it to be dropped when both houses meet in joint conference.

4) On July 23rd , the Wall Street Journal reported that Amtrak’s ridership in the first half of this year rose 6 percent compared to a year earlier. If this rate continues, it would be the largest yearly increase since 1988. According to analysts, rail ridership is increasing because travelers have become frustrated with higher air fares and congested highways, the paper says.

5) The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on Tuesday ordered the installation of a new train control system to enhance safety for fast trainstraveling the northeastern corridor between New Haven, Conn. and Boston, Mass. "By significantly reducing the risk of derailment or collision, this final order will benefit all users on this portion of the northeast corridor,including railroad employees, passengers and freight railroads," FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris said in a statement. An FRA spokesman was not immediately available to further detail the new train control system.

Firms subject to the order include Amtrak, commuter services by the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, as well as two freight operators, Providence and Worcester Railroad.

The FRA also authorized Amtrak to increase speeds to 135 miles per hour south of New York City for its equipped high speed trains after the installation of the new system on high-speed tracks. The first of Amtrak's planned high speed trains are expected to enter service between New Haven and Boston in October 1999. The high speed trains will be tilt trains capable of rapid acceleration to 150 miles per hour and higher than normal speeds around curves, the FRA said.

6) The Akron, Ohio Amtrak Station will have its grand opening on Friday, July 31st at 10:30am. Funding for the small modular station included $97,500 from the city and $12,500 from the Ohio Rail Development Commission.

7) The Association of American Railroads [the freight railroad lobby- ed.]. has filed suit against the Surface Transportation Board in the Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia claiming that the Board’s decision in favor of Amtrak in the express case against Union Pacific was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion or otherwise contrary to law.

8) The Wall Street Journal on Monday July 20th reported that Union Pacific says its trains are backed up about 760 miles from Southern California to New Mexico, mostly because it’s having trouble finding enough train crews. No word on the status of the SUNSET LIMITED in that mess.

9)Through car operation on the TEXAS EAGLE / SUNSET LIMITED, formerly planned to end at the end of September, is now extended to the end of May 1999 (with further extension pending). This may not yet be in Arrow, but will be shortly. The through cars have resulted in a significant increase inridership on the south end of the EAGLE, although the operation of these carshas frequently held the westbound EAGLE hostage at San Antonio due to extremely poor on-time performance of the westbound SUNSET over the Union Pacific.

Which Way for Amtrak?

By Anthony Haswell
Friday, July 24, 1998

Last November, after prolonged and sometimes difficult House-Senate negotiations, Congress passed a $2.2 billion "tax refund" to be used for funding Amtrak's capital needs over a five-year period. Congressional leaders also promised to pass a $602 million Amtrak operating subsidy if the White House put it in the FY 1999 budget.

As funding authorizations often do, these expressions of congressional largess came with strings attached. The White House, while hardly an impassioned advocate of advanced passenger train service, had to accept a package of congressionally mandated organizational reforms as the price of keeping Amtrak running and preserving its more than 20,000 jobs. The president signed the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act last December.

In view of Congress's impatience with Amtrak's chronic deficits and vunderwhelming market performance, the reforms it demanded were relatively few and unobjectionable. At the management level, Amtrak was given statutory authority to negotiate the revision of severance-pay obligations and tocontract for some of its maintenance activities with private-sector providers. At the governance level, the old nine-member board serving staggered terms was to be replaced with a new seven-member panel consisting of the secretary of transportation and six presidential appointees serving concurrent five-year terms. All directors were required to be confirmed by the Senate and were to have private-sector experience in "common carrier transportation, engineering or finance." Congressionally mandated to become subsidy-free by 2002, Amtrak was now groomed to think and act more like a business and less like a federal agency.

Things began to unravel in short order. In February the administration's Office of Management and Budget announced that it wanted Amtrak to have no operating subsidy at all. Only capital funding would be approved by the White House for FY 1999.

So how was Amtrak supposed to keep running? Simple, said OMB: Raid the capital fund, including the $2.2 billion "tax refund," and use it to cover maintenance expenses instead of paying for desperately needed new track, signals and other capital improvements as Congress intended.

While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is right on the mark in his scathing criticism of the "tax refund" -- Amtrak has never paid the taxes allegedly being refunded -- the fact remains that an adequate level of capital funding is crucial to Amtrak's future. Without it, Amtrak will continue to run slow and undependable trains and never will reach self-sufficiency.

Then, just to make things worse for Amtrak, when the White House announced its director picks on May 22, not one name met the Reform Act's criterion specifying private-sector transportation experience. Moreover, two of the nominees -- Sylvia DeLeon, an airline, highway and transit lobbyist with the super-connected Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld law firm, and Amy Rosen, a director and vice chairman of New Jersey Transit -- are holdovers from the old board that Congress specifically sought to abolish when it passed the reform legislation.

McCain had warned the president in February that members of the old board should not sit on the new one. The administration stonewalled until June 29, 18 hours before the deadline, when Amtrak stood to lose its 1999 authorization if a new board consisting of at least three outside directors plus the secretary of transportation were not seated. Faced with the specter of an Amtrak funding crisis and shutdown, the president signed the appointments of three directors confirmed by the Senate two days earlier. DeLeon and Rosen were not among them.

Technically, the two pre-reform holdovers could still be confirmed, but it's hard to imagine how they could survive the kind of firefight likely to erupt in a confirmation hearing before McCain's committee.

The administration's attempt to mug the 1997 Amtrak Reform Act should not fool the committee. But congressional shrewdness alone will not be enough to save Amtrak from administration ineptitude. Throughout its 27 years, Amtrak has had very little support from any administration, Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal. While Congress has regularly ponied up enough funds to keep Amtrak from going out of business, it has often held its nose while doing so, knowing that money alone cannot rescue an undertaking that lacks executive initiative.

That puts the ball in President Clinton's court. He must understand that Amtrak cannot survive indefinitely if its principal functions are to serve as a whipping boy for congressional budget hawks. Amtrak's real potential is much greater: to develop a modern rail passenger service that gives travelers a quantum leap in personal mobility while giving the national economy a boost in logistical efficiency.

# # #

The writer, a retired attorney living in Tucson, Ariz., founded the National Association of Railroad Passengers in 1967.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company



Last Updated 07/28/98 23:15 hrs. EST


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