Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Amtrak Reform Picks Up Steam - Again ; Congress May Overhaul the Structure of Its Money-Losing Rail System

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Amtrak Reform Picks Up Steam - Again ; Congress May Overhaul the Structure of Its Money-Losing Rail System

Article excerpt

Sitting quietly in the grand marble and granite of Union Station as the tracks and times are called out, Joy Belluzzi is what one might call a fan of Amtrak. She loves train travel, she says, so much so that a few years ago her entire family took a trip across the country by rail - Washington to San Francisco. And then back again - Los Angeles to Washington.

"It was wonderful," she says with a smile. "But it was expensive. I realized after, we could have gone to Europe for the same price." And therein lies the continuing problem with passenger rail in the United States - the romance of the rails isn't terribly time- or cost-effective in a country of more than 3.7 million square miles.

Amtrak, the perennial money loser that Washington loves to hate, is up for reauthorization this year. And, after years of complaining about its efficiency, Congress is looking at how the nation's passenger rail system might be overhauled. This is not exactly news in this city. As Washington promises go, "overhauling Amtrak" sits somewhere near "removing waste, fraud and abuse from the government" on the list of old-reliables.

But there is a feeling that things might be different this time around. The Amtrak Reform Council has issued a report calling for serious changes in the way the company is run. Congress is expressing a willingness to make changes, holding numerous hearings on the issue in the past few weeks. And, perhaps most important, Amtrak itself has told the government it needs more than $1.2 billion above its normal appropriation for the coming year, or it will stop service on some of its long routes.

"I think the stars are aligning for a serious structural change for Amtrak," says Deirdre O'Sullivan, public affairs specialist for the Amtrak Reform Council. "But you never know, they could quickly go out of joint. Amtrak is like that."

From its creation in 1970, Amtrak was conceived of as a private company, but one in which the government owned a majority stake. But, in terms of service, Congress has treated Amtrak less like a private company and more like a federal program. Members want service in their districts, brag when they get it, and complain when they lose it. At the same time, they have expected the company to get by on a federal subsidy of $500 million per year, while other forms of transportation, from highways to airports, receive billions.

Taken together, all of that has added up to regular and massive budget shortfalls for the company. To help remedy the problem, Congress created the 11-member Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act in 1997. Charged with studying Amtrak, the ARC was supposed to create a plan for restructuring the passenger rail company if it looked like it wasn't going to be able to break even by the end of 2002. …

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