What U.S. papers say about Amtrak

June 26, 2002 at 9:39 AM
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New York Times

Reckless brinkmanship in Washington is threatening to disrupt the Northeast's economy and jeopardize millions of Americans' summer travel. The Bush administration has said it will find a way to provide Amtrak with the $200 million it needs to hobble on until the end of the current fiscal year, but it has yet to do so. David Gunn, Amtrak's president, has warned that without a transfusion, the railroad will be forced to shut down.

Apart from its failure to attend to Amtrak's immediate needs, the administration has been sluggish about proposing a national rail policy. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has generally endorsed ideas offered in February by the congressionally established Amtrak Reform Council. These include ceding policy making to the states while ending Amtrak's passenger monopoly and its ownership of the Northeast corridor tracks. Yet he was alarmingly vague on how to move from today's crisis to the brave new world of competitive rail travel. ...

Amtrak has requested $1.2 billion for the next fiscal year. Mr. Mineta says he does not want to go beyond the $521 million it received this year. That is shortsighted. The railroad ought to obtain full funding while a long-term strategy is developed. Essential to that strategy is high-speed rail service in corridors like the Boston-to-Washington route. Congress must then decide whether it wants to pay for less essential coast-to-coast service.

For too long, Congress and the railroad's previous management perpetuated the fantasy that Amtrak could be self-sufficient. No other transportation system is. The danger is that the administration may be about to trade in one fantasy for another. The new fantasy is that Amtrak can be killed off because there are private train operators eagerly awaiting their chance to compete and states with surplus funds to devote to rail.

San Francisco Chronicle

It's no surprise that Amtrak once again has dodged financial collapse. Political juice behind the 80,000 daily riders in California and the Northeast should bail out the creaky system.

But the White House and Amtrak's new President David Gunn must use the latest crisis to push for a major overhaul of the ramshackle rail line. Yes, it's going to take money and anguish if the cross-country money-losers are trimmed back.

But it's time that Washington avoided the next showdown by making the permanent fixes now. ...

If United Airlines can ask Congress for a $1.8 billion loan, then Amtrak should step forward, too. The railroad has a case: Ridership in California on three lines, including a route from San Jose to Auburn, has jumped 25 percent in three years. Caltrain, which is run by Amtrak, hauls 30,000 commuters each workday. Does any politico want these people driving?

Amtrak could be at a turning point. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta wants reforms, though his terms are unclear. Amtrak President Gunn has the expertise to deliver. What's needed are long-term orders giving Amtrak a realistic role.

Chicago Tribune

Warnings that Amtrak will shut down unless it receives another shovelful of public cash sound about as old and familiar as the plot lines in "I Love Lucy." Practically every administration has faced such threats since Amtrak was created in 1971. Amtrak officials now say it will shut down unless the feds deliver an extra $200 million. Pronto. ...

This time the White House and Congress ought to face the obvious -- Amtrak is broke -- and let it file for bankruptcy. ...

The Bush administration has it right though, that a larger share of the costs ought to come from the state and local level. Talk of high-speed trains is cheap as long as someone else -- Washington -- is putting up the cash. Strong local participation is essential to ensure market demand and that new service addresses regional needs.

Amtrak is broke. What else is new. Force it, finally, to make a transformation.

Baltimore Sun

One hundred years ago this month, the New York Central railroad introduced a new train on the run from New York to Chicago, and called it the Twentieth Century Limited. It became the most famous and most glamorous train in America, and by the time Cary Grant, in the movie North by Northwest, was stowing away in an upper berth, it was streaking between the two cities in 16 hours. It left Grand Central at 5 p.m. and arrived in Chicago at 8 the next morning.

A century after The Century, Amtrak runs a train over the same route -- in 19 hours. When it's on time, that is. Americans, in truth, can't run passenger trains as well as their grandfathers did.

Since its founding 30 years ago, Amtrak has been a poorly thought-out, poorly financed, and poorly run stepchild of a rail network. And now the cash has run out.

To avert a shutdown this week, the Bush administration has promised a rescue, but is insisting on a thorough overhaul of the system. Planning for the future with a gun to the head isn't the best way to make policy, but it is clear something has to be done about Amtrak, so why not now? ...

Trains make sense. They're good for the environment, for clearing congestion, for convenience, for providing an alternative to the airlines. The price tag for a sensible, restructured national system would not be excessive, especially compared to the billions that the administration has lavished on the airlines just since Sept. 11.

United Airlines is now asking for an additional $1.8 billion loan guarantee. Let's spend it on the trains instead -- it's high time this country got acquainted with the Twenty-first Century.

(Compiled by United Press International)

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