It looks like another name can be added to the memorial wall of victims of the Bush Administration: David Gunn. For those who don't recognize the name, Gunn was the President of Amtrak until November 9, when the Amtrak Board appointed by George W. Bush fired him. While we're at it, we should probably save space to put the name of Amtrak up there as well. (More below the fold)
To quote from the NY TIMES,
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 - Amtrak's board fired the company's president on Wednesday morning, widening a divide between the Bush administration and Congress over the future of the railroad.
The board chairman, David M. Laney, said that the president, David Gunn, helped develop a strategic plan that would have injected more competition into passenger operations, but that Mr. Gunn's "enthusiasm and commitment seems to have drained away."
Mr. Laney said Mr. Gunn had failed to move forward on simpler initiatives, like outsourcing maintenance and catering in a way that would cut expenses.
But in a letter to the board dated Nov. 9, Mr. Gunn said, "I can assure you that we have already begun to work on those initiatives that are wholly within our control." In a telephone interview Wednesday he said some changes would require action by Congress.
Mr. Gunn, who is credited with turning around New York City's subway system in the 1980's and came out of retirement three years ago to steer Amtrak successfully during a financial crisis, described the reason for his dismissal as "ideological."
The firing of Gunn followed a GAO report highly critical of Amtrak. From an AP story that appeared November 3,
WASHINGTON -- Amtrak needs to improve the way it monitors performance and oversees its finances to reach solid financial ground, congressional investigators said Thursday.
"Amtrak's management may be able to correct a number of these issues on its own, but the company is likely to need outside help in developing a comprehensive approach to address internal control weaknesses and improve the financial information for management and external stakeholders," said the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress.
"While Amtrak has recently reduced costs, revenues are declining faster than costs, leading to operating losses exceeding $1 billion annually," the report said. "These losses are projected to grow by 40 percent within four years."
Mr. Gunn's sin is that he was serious about trying to keep passenger railroading going in this country under an administration that wants to kill it and carve off the few bits that are profitable. Amtrak has long been a target of conservatives who don't like the idea of a public corporation running on government subsidies. (~5,000 words of rantifesto edited out here)
The idea that alternatives to highway and air transport might play an important part in a sane national transportation policy doesn't register with the White House. (Of course, if Air Force One were at your beck and call, you probably wouldn't see any need for any kind of national passenger rail in this country either.)
Letting Amtrak wither away has serious consequences. For one, Amtrak operates as an (unwelcome) guest on most railroads since the only track it owns is in the Northeast Corridor. For freight railroads it's a nuisance they'd love to see disappear. And, if I recall correctly, the trackage rights Amtrak uses are part and parcel of the original legislation that created it. If Amtrak is dismembered, those trackage rights would go with it. If and when some national need made passenger rail service essential, it would be extremely difficult to bring it back. (ie: as when all planes were grounded after 9-11, ie: evacuating New Orleans before Katrina)
One reason Amtrak is a perennial problem is that it has always had to fight for funding, every year. It has never been able to make long term plans and carry them out because every year it has to start over. To expect any business to make a profit under those conditions would be unreasonable; to expect Amtrak to do so is even more so.
To return to the AP article,
Amtrak has never made money in its 34-year history and an operating loss of more than $550 million was expected for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The railroad has a debt of more than $3.5 billion.
Those numbers are chump change in the big picture; paying for a few weeks of futility in Iraq could fund Amtrak for years. Amtrak has always operated on a starvation diet at the whim of politicians. That Mr. Gunn has been able to build ridership and attempt to upgrade equipment and infrastructure is a near miracle.
Complaining about outsourcing not going far enough and food service issues is a smokescreen. One of the things that has hurt Amtrak is the same thing that is driving the Airlines into bankruptcy: rising fuel prices. Talking about oil prices is not something the Bush administrtation really wants to do...
No country in the world has a national passenger rail system that isn't heavily subsidized. it's long past time to give up the idea that passenger rail can run at a profit; it's time to ask how much do we need to keep what we have running safely, and how much we want to spend on improving and/or expanding it.
Subsidies are one of those things that are good or bad depending on where you stand and to whom they are going. The billions spent on highway pork projects this year alone has already become notorious. The airlines have gotten billions in loan subsidies to help them cope with after effects of 9-11 and fuel prices. The multi-national energy companies are getting billions in tax breaks at a time of record profits.
Whining about the paltry sums spent on Amtrak is a knee-jerk conservative reaction to anything that smacks of 'public good' - a concept that is anathema to the Right. It's similar to the strategy behind the "No Child Left Behind" attack on public education: keep raising the bar for expectations while reducing the funding needed to make it work. It shouldn't be a surprise that this is a recipie for failure.
One of the things that made Gunn effective - and dangerous to the Bush administration - was that he actually has been known to come out and say bluntly that Amtrak needs more money if it is to do its job. He threatened to shut it all down at one point over a funding issue. Contrast this with another heavily subsidized government transportation program: the Space Shuttle.
For years NASA watched its budgets get cut and its operations out-sourced. Meanwhile managers pretended they could cope and promised to make up for the missing money with no consequences to operations - management by wishful thinking. We lost two shuttles because of that and have never gotten around to replacing the shuttle with something better.
People in the know are aware that Amtrak is never that far away from a major disaster because of years of deferred maintainance and budget shortfalls. It is only a matter of time. Gunn was starting to make real progress on that. Now?
I'm aware that Amtrak does not serve a lot of the country and there are people who will never have any need for it. It is however what could be an important part of a national transportation policy, and there are areas of the country where it is vital. To not support Amtrak would be like arguing that just because most of the states in the U.S. do not have any coast line they have no reason to support the U.S. Navy. ;-)
I'd suggest that anyone who gives a damn about Amtrak contact their congress persons and call for the reinstatement of Gunn and real funding for Amtrak. It's a small thing in the middle of all the destruction the Bushies are wreaking on the U.S. but it's a place to start.