Land Grab at Amtrak

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Published

December 21, 2005
OnTheCommons.org

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If you want to kill a railroad, one of the first things you’ll do is split the tracks from the operating line and put them into a separate corporate entity.  Riders on Amtrak’s Coastal Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle know this.  Trains on this otherwise scenic route are chronically late – often by hours – because they operate on tracks owned by the Union Pacific.  Amtrak trains must stop at sidings to let the UP freight trains pass.

David Gunn, until recently the president of Amtrak, knows it too.  Gunn has run the transit systems in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  He resuscitated the New York City subways to great acclaim back in the 1980’s. When the Bush appointees to the Amtrak board moved to split off the maintenance of the tracks and stations on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor into a separate entity – which could be a first step towards privatizing them – Gunn resisted. The Bush board fired him partly as a result.

“I’ve run the biggest passenger operations in the country,” Gunn told the New York Observer.  “I know something about it and they don’t.

He’s right on both counts.  Bush’s Amtrak appointments are not long on railroad expertise.   David M. Laney, the current board chairman who fired Gunn, is a lawyer from Texas.  His primary qualification appears to be his role in raising more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney machine.  Floyd Hall, board member and former Kmart CEO, has given $360,000 in soft money.

The third public member, Enrique Sosa, is a retired oil company executive from – surprise – Florida, and another major Republican donor.  Sosa admitted during confirmation hearings that he never had ridden on Amtrak.  (He pledged to do so if confirmed.)

These men might not know much about running a railroad, but that’s not really their role.  The President wants them to dismantle Amtrak, not operate it.  Bush’s budget for the coming fiscal year essentially zeroed out Amtrak, with the stated hope that bankruptcy would lead to a more efficient system with states and localities picking up most of the tab.  Bankruptcy is something the Bush board does know something about.  Mr. Hall was Kmart CEO when that company plunged into chapter 11.

Bankruptcy of course means picking the turkey, and with Amtrak the choice pickings are of course the real estate.  So add Amtrak to the other parts of the public domain that the President wants to distribute to donors and friends.  (A recent report in the Toledo Blade found that 30 of Bush’s big-money donors in Ohio alone received more than $1.2 billion  in federal benefits since 2001.)

What makes this land grab especially repulsive is that we taxpayers gave the railroads much of this land to begin with.  The Union Pacific received more than 11 million acres for free, plus $27 million in bonds in (1862 dollars.)  In the East, the Pennsylvania Railroad got its right of way from the state legislature, in exchange for a pledge to serve the public with passenger service.  The Baltimore and Ohio, which originally built the tracks into Washington, D.C., got half its in initial capital from the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore, and regular infusions after that.

All these eastern railroads now are part of Amtrak.  They received their land and financing on the promise to serve the public in return.  They reneged, Congress created Amtrak; and after much public investment and toil we now have a system that operates reasonably well if not profitably in financial terms, which virtually no passenger rail system does.

So now the President wants to take apart this system that we taxpayers have subsidized willingly and let his cronies grab the pieces that in large part came from us.  He may call it freedom, but it looks an awful lot like theft.

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