This is just one issue I STRONGLY disagree with Bush on. This is probably the biggest, most obvious mistake his administration has made. If this would’ve happened before the elections, I would not have voted for him again.

Sort-of a long article, but it just made me angry when I heard about it.

The New Republic
Post date: 11.17.05
Issue date: 11.28.05

David Gunn, who lost his job as CEO of Amtrak last week, kept on his desk a photograph of an old farmhouse on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It was the place to which Gunn had retired after a successful career running mass-transit systems in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and Toronto–and from which he had been lured three years ago to save Amtrak from the brink of bankruptcy. The photo was both a reminder to Gunn and a warning to his critics: If they didn’t like the job he was doing, well, he could just pack his bags and go back to Cape Breton. Now, the Bush appointees who control Amtrak’s board of directors have told Gunn to do exactly that–and we are worse off for it.

Gunn had done much to put Amtrak back on the right track–he increased ridership, overhauled Amtrak’s rickety financial controls, upgraded its aging railcars and locomotives, refurbished its ancient signaling technology, and started reforming its sclerotic management. And, yet, David Laney, the chairman of Amtrak’s board, claimed Gunn was fired because his “enthusiasm and commitment seems to have drained away” and because he was too slow to outsource the railroad’s maintenance and food-service operations.

The real problem was almost certainly that Gunn stood in the way of the Bush administration’s ideologically motivated desire to liquidate the railroad. The board took a first step toward this goal in September when, over Gunn’s vehement objections, it voted to split Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor–the train service between Boston and Washington, D.C.–into a separate subsidiary, a move many saw as a prelude to selling it off.

Amtrak has long been a thorn in the side of conservatives, who can’t stand the idea of government-subsidized rail service. “Amtrak was created to be a for-profit private corporation, but it instead went into the red by running unprofitable long-distance trains while stinting on service and maintenance for the Northeast Corridor, the route that makes the most economic sense,” wrote New York Times columnist John Tierney, hailing Gunn’s firing.

But only one-quarter of Amtrak’s federal subsidy supports long-haul lines. And what Tierney and other Amtrak foes fail to note is that Amtrak maintains these routes, such as the famously unprofitable Sunset Limited from Florida to California, because Congress insists on it–the trains pass through many lawmakers’ districts. As for Amtrak’s underinvestment in the Northeast Corridor, again the fault lies with Congress. The legislators always appropriated Amtrak just enough money to eke by–and then complained bitterly when its belated attempt at high-speed service, Acela, failed to match the kind of bullet trains found in Europe and Japan, both of which spent tens of billions in public funds on their rail systems.

Conservatives love to decry the $29 billion that Congress has fed the company since its inception in 1971–when commercial railroads got out of the passenger business because, it should be remembered, they couldn’t make money on it. But Amtrak’s critics are strangely silent about the hundreds of billions in subsidies pumped into highway and air travel each year. In fact, after September 11, the airlines received a $15 billion federal bailout–and a number of carriers still filed for bankruptcy. Now the government is assuming responsibility for billions more to cover their pension costs. Most important, passenger rail has significant social benefits–cleaner air, less congested roads, and fewer productive hours wasted waiting in traffic or in airports–that aren’t captured by these numbers.

The conservative critique of Amtrak relies on the same faulty economic logic as its attacks on Medicaid and public education. In each case, there is an essential public good–like health care for the poor, an educated workforce, or clean air–which cannot be fully expressed in dollars and cents and the provision of which makes for lousy business. Even the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s busiest route, is not profitable when one considers the expense of maintaining the tracks and signals on which it relies. Great Britain’s experience with railroad privatization should serve as a cautionary tale: After privatization in 1996, costs increased while on-time performance declined.

It’s time for the Bush administration and its allies on Capitol Hill to acknowledge what a national railway really is–a public utility–and stop complaining about subsidizing it. David Gunn knew this, and his sensible reforms were increasing congressional support for Amtrak funding. Which is exactly why the administration decided to hand him a one-way ticket back to Cape Breton.