September 22, 2014

House Republicans launch assault on Amtrak

WASHINGTON — An assault on the future of Amtrak and its employees was launched June 15 by the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), and the chairman of the House Rail Subcommittee, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)

The UTU and other rail labor organizations are gearing to fight this effort to privatize the Northeast Corridor, which would be the first step toward eliminating Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor as well as its long-distance passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor. The proposal likely would destroy America’s national rail passenger network.

Mica and Shuster said they will introduce legislation to strip from Amtrak its ownership of the Northeast Corridor – linking Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston – and look to unnamed private operators to bid on operating high-speed passenger trains on the 437-mile long corridor.

Destruction of Amtrak could cause a crushing financial blow to the Railroad Retirement system if private operators were permitted to place their employees under coverage of Social Security rather than Railroad Retirement.

“I think we can make the service even better and reduce subsidization,” Mica said. “The whole concept of this is attracting private capital.” He opposes an Amtrak plan to operate 220-mph trains over the corridor in the future, saying so-far unnamed private operators could provide better service at a much reduced cost to taxpayers.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman responded, “The Mica/Shuster proposal takes Amtrak apart only to put something in its place that looks quite similar.

“The Northeast Corridor is not just a piece of real estate,” Boardman said. “It is a major transportation artery and a vital component of the regional economy, carrying more than 250,000 intercity and commuter passengers every day. Amtrak provides the region the best opportunity to achieve the needed improvements. The Northeast Corridor is a success under Amtrak stewardship and many components of our next-generation high-speed rail vision plan are already moving forward.

“We don’t want to run the risk of adopting something that won’t work, that compromises safety, or that simply costs more than we can afford,” Boardman said. “The last thing the Northeast needs is a plan that’s poorly thought through and that doesn’t take key issues into account.”

Boardman recently told a rail labor group that privatization of British Rail has not been a success and increased costs.

Former Amtrak President David Gunn was blunt in a statement he made about British Rail privatization when Gunn ran Amtrak: “Since privatization [of British Rail], the system has had more accidents and delays.” And former Amtrak President Tom Downs, when he ran Amtrak, called privatization of British Rail “a disaster … They have multiple rail companies and fares, and trouble even issuing a national ticket.”

The conservative Economist magazine reported in 2005, “The privatization of British Rail has proved a disastrous failure … a catalogue of political cynicism, managerial incompetence and financial opportunism. It has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and brought rail travelers countless hours of delay.”     

In responding to the Mica/Shuster proposal, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “Amtrak is the entity most capable of taking the next steps to modernize rail service in the Northeast Corridor.”

The Mica/Shuster proposal, which likely will have support of the House Republican majority, will face tough opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said June 15, “I will fight in the Senate to stop any plan that threatens Amtrak and commuters on the Northeast Corridor.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said the Mica/Shuster proposal “makes as much sense as privatizing Medicare or Social Security. In other words, no sense at all.”

Senate Republicans also are likely to oppose the Mica/Shuster proposal. The current ranking Republican on the Democratic-controlled Senate Commerce Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, told The Washington Post some years ago, “There will be a national system or there won’t be an Amtrak at all.”

In fact, in passing the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, a bipartisan congressional majority said, “It is the sense of the Congress that long-distance passenger rail is a vital and necessary part of our national transportation system and economy; and Amtrak should maintain a national passenger rail system.”

Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said of the Mica/Shuster proposal, “They want to hand over the conductor’s cap to the same folks who ran the stock market off a cliff. Privatizing passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor will not merely affect train service in that region; it will have a crippling domino effect on train service from sea to shining sea.

“Because of its national scope, Amtrak is able to invest profits from [its profitable Acela service on] the Northeast Corridor to offset less profitable long-distance lines in other parts of the country,” Rahall said. “Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation invited proposals from private companies to develop high-speed rail in the United States. Not one single proposal was submitted by the private sector for developing high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Not a one.

“We ought to be looking at ways to help Amtrak achieve the goal of high-speed rail; not looking at ways to dismantle it,” Rahall said.