AMTRAK president says railway cannot meet conflicting goals

Friday, May 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Amtrak President George Warrington appealed to political leaders to resolve, at last, whether the railway's chief mission is to provide national passenger service or to break even financially.

``For 30 years Amtrak has been expected to perform like a business and at the same time serve community needs like a nonprofit organization. We cannot do this,'' Warrington said Thursday in a speech at the National Press Club.

Amtrak could face dissolution if it fails to meet a congressional mandate to wean itself from annual federal operating subsidies by 2003. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta is among those who say they are skeptical Amtrak can meet the deadline.

Warrington maintains Amtrak will achieve self-sufficiency in time, but only because the government allows it leeway in calculating its costs on paper. In reality, he said, Amtrak's longer-term future depends on the government's willingness to spend more on rail, not less.

Also, Amtrak must decide whether to continue using revenue from profitable routes and ventures to subsidize routes that lose money. In 1998, just one of Amtrak's 40 routes, the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, made money.

Warrington, 48, took the reins of Amtrak in 1997 after three years as president of that corridor.

Under Warrington, Amtrak has asked Congress for $30 billion over 20 years to close what he calls a ``rail investment gap.'' It also wants to issue $12 billion in bonds over 10 years to raise money for high-speed rail lines around the country.

To highlight the railway's need for capital, he said Acela Express high-speed trains, capable of reaching 150 mph in the Boston-Washington corridor, are restricted to 25 mph near Baltimore where some rail tunnels date to the Civil War.

Warrington spoke as Washington scrambled to deal with the new reality of a Senate in control of Democrats for the first time since 1994. Among the many forthcoming changes: Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a staunch critic of Amtrak, will no longer be chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the railway's operations.

Warrington said Democrat Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, who stands to succeed McCain as chairman, is ``an extraordinary supporter'' of passenger rail and of Amtrak.