Oversight panel weighs alternatives to Amtrak's passenger rail monopoly

Friday, December 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A panel began work Friday on a new blueprint for America's passenger rail system that would take much or all of Amtrak's authority and divide it among states or private companies.

While differing on many details, most members of the Amtrak Reform Council endorsed decentralizing intercity passenger rail, which for 30 years has been run solely by Amtrak. They weighed nine alternatives, all of which would introduce some form of competition from private companies or regional authorities.

Most of the 10 members present _ Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was the only one absent _ supported letting states or private companies take responsibility for populous train corridors that are thought to have the best chance of profitability.

But they disagreed on the thornier issue of long-distance overnight trains, which generally are regarded as money-losers.

Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant, said long-distance trains are used primarily for ``vacations and leisure, not transportation'' and therefore should not be subsidized by the government.

James Coston, managing partner of a Chicago law firm, disagreed.

``Long-distance passenger trains indeed serve leisure markets,'' he said, ``but they provide essential transportation through parts of our country that are underserved'' by buses and planes.

The council appeared to dismiss the most drastic option under consideration _ turning over rail service to the private sector and letting unprofitable routes die.

There was even less enthusiasm for any system resembling the status quo.

``One of the most important things we can do is subject the current Amtrak monopoly to competition,'' said Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation.

Council officials said the nine scenarios were only a starting point and that the final recommendation could contain pieces of several of them.

Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist presented several ideas of his own. Among them: Airports should be allowed to use federal funds to build rail stations and connections that could replace short aviation routes.

After several hours of discussion, the council instructed its staff to winnow the nine alternatives to three. Council Chairman Gil Carmichael said the panel will discuss those next month and submit a plan to Congress by Feb. 7.

Carmichael said the goal of the plans is to improve passenger rail, not kill it. He said blame for Amtrak's financial problems rests with ``an unmanageable organizational structure that was woefully underfunded.''

Norquist said the council ``has some really positive ideas to support passenger rail, to rejuvenate it, to create a situation where it can face the market and be successful.''

Amtrak posted a cash loss of $405 million in the first eight months of this year and has consumed more than $24 billion in subsidies _ both operating and capital _ since its inception in 1971.

Congress created the council in 1997 to oversee Amtrak and gave the railroad until Dec. 2, 2002, to begin operating without federal subsidies. A majority of council members concluded last month that Amtrak will not achieve that goal.

The council's vote also meant that Amtrak had to come up with a plan for its own liquidation _ essentially a list of its assets and liabilities. The Senate has adopted a measure that would excuse Amtrak from that task, however.

Organized labor's representative on the council, Charles Moneypenny, tried to derail the discussion of restructuring options even before it began.

Moneypenny, a staunch defender of Amtrak, argued that the council violated its authority in holding last month's vote. About 20 union members, representing about five of the 13 unions that work for Amtrak, attended the meeting to support Moneypenny's position.

The council defeated Moneypenny's motion to rescind its finding, however.