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Amtrak firing draws critics

(The following article by Jennifer A. Dlouhy was posted on the Albany Times-Union website on November 10.)

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak fired David Gunn as its president and CEO on Wednesday, allowing the passenger railroad to hire a new leader who would adopt the Bush administration's plans to split off and privatize part of the troubled system.

The decision comes less than a week after the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized Amtrak's leadership and said the company needed major -- and possibly outside -- help to get out of the red.

The move ends a rocky relationship between the Bush administration and Gunn, who forcefully fought moves by the White House and some in Congress to strip the company of federal funding and split off part of the rail system.

Some rail advocates, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., reacted angrily to Gunn's dismissal.

Schumer called it "a crushing blow to Amtrak's hopes for success and reform" and praised Gunn as "a brilliant manager who stood up for Amtrak."

Schumer said the decision to fire Gunn is a sign the Bush administration wants to "decapitate Amtrak and end Amtrak as we know it."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called the decision "baffling and questionable."

"David Gunn has fought tirelessly to restrain spending, improve critical infrastructure and keep Amtrak's trains running on time, despite the Bush administration seeking to bankrupt our nation's passenger rail system," she said.

The board of directors that fired Gunn has four members, three of whom were appointed by Bush: Chairman David Laney, Floyd Hall and Enrique Sosa. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta also has a seat on the panel.

The White House has repeatedly asked Congress to end government subsidies to Amtrak, effectively privatizing the 34-year-old passenger rail system, which is plagued by a sprawling network of mostly unprofitable routes and a debt of more than $3 billion.

The system's only profitable line is the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston. Amtrak's board of directors approved a Bush administration plan to split off that line and put it under the control of a federal-state consortium.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, voiced support for Gunn's ouster and said he hoped the decision would usher in much-needed reforms.

"I am hopeful that new leadership can open the door for Amtrak to work closely with Congress to achieve meaningful reforms that will enable Amtrak to achieve the autonomy and viability desperately needed for a strong national passenger rail system," Sweeney said.

But passenger rail advocates expressed dismay at the firing.

"The Empire State Passengers Association is saddened by the news of David Gunn's firing," said the group's president, Bruce Becker. "We respected his efforts over the past three years, ... and we are concerned about the future of Amtrak with the administration's apparent desire to break up the system."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

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