Amtrak committed to long-distance trains

(The following story by Bill Hirschi was published in the January 27 online edition of the Lake City Reporter.)

LAKE CITY, Fla. -- Six days a week, Amtrak's Sunset Limited stops in Lake City on its journey between Orlando and Los Angeles.

On the surface, it's just another Amtrak train. But the Sunset Limited's peculiar circumstances have made it a focal point of the larger debate over funding.

For critics of Amtrak, the Sunset Limited is a perfect foil.

It takes nearly three days, trundling along at an average speed of less than 40 mph, to make a trip airline passengers can complete in a matter of hours.

It only runs three days a week in each direction.

And according to a report released last April by the General Accounting Office, it lost $347 per passenger in 2001.

But it's also the only train service many small communities like Lake City have, a point not lost on Amtrak President David Gunn.

"Should there be a Sunset Limited? That's a political decision," Gunn said in an interview with the Lake City Reporter. But he left little doubt about where he stands on the issue. As long as he is Amtrak's president, Gunn said, "The Sunset Limited is no more endangered than the whole system."

Gunn acknowledged the whole Amtrak system is endangered. Gunn took over the railroad last April, and found it, he said, "near the edge of a cliff."

He persuaded Congress to provide $200 million in supplementary funding to keep Amtrak running through the end of the last fiscal year, and has requested $1.2 billion to keep them running this year.

Last week, the Senate approved the request. But so far, the House of Representatives has approved $762 million, and the Bush Administration is proposing slightly more than $520 million.

Gunn insists that for Amtrak, the $1.2 billion request is an all or nothing proposition.

"It's a real number. It's a cliffhanger," Gunn said Friday. "Right now, we're only $10 million to the good. That's pretty close to the edge.

"It's a cash problem," Gunn added. "If I don't get the cash I need to meet my payroll, the whole thing stops."

Gunn has said if he doesn't get his $1.2 billion request, he will have no choice but to shut down Amtrak in the spring.

It is the second time in less than a year Gunn has threatened a nationwide shutdown. Critics say that by threatening to pull the plug on popular Northeast Corridor commuter trains, Gunn is creating an artificial crisis.

Gunn defends his position. "The system is going to rise or fall together," he said Friday. "It's a national system. I'm not going to play games by pandering to people."

Gunn said those favoring cuts to his budget are operating from a false assumption - that long-distance trains like the Sunset Limited eat up the bulk of Amtrak's budget, while the northeastern trains make money.

That, Gunn said, is the first of "a whole series of myths surrounding Amtrak. Long-distance trains are not the cause of our problems"

In reality, Gunn said on Friday, eliminating all 16 of Amtrak's long-distance trains would save nothing in the short term, and only about $300 million a year long term.

Polls have shown public opinion is on Gunn's side. A nationwide Washington Post poll taken last summer showed that 71 percent of Americans support keeping Amtrak funding at current levels or increasing it. And in an unscientific Internet poll conducted Thursday by CNN's Moneyline, nearly 85 percent of those responding said they supported $2 billion a year in funding for Amtrak.

"The public is ahead of the politicians," Gunn said Friday. "They get stuck in traffic, so they know the system is gradually congealing. And they know there's an asset in those two steel rails wandering through the weeds that needs to be used."

Gunn said he isn't sure Congress and the administration will give him the money he is seeking to keep Amtrak's trains rolling. But he tries to be optimistic.

"If they [the politicians] listen to what the public is saying ... they want an option, something better than what we're giving them now."

To provide the better service the public is demanding, Gunn said he will focus Amtrak's budget priorities on catching up with deferred maintenance, including putting more than 100 wreck-damaged passenger cars and locomotives back into service.

Among other things, that will allow Amtrak to restore the sleeping car and diner service dropped last year from the New York-Miami Palmetto because of lack of equipment. And it also will allow Amtrak to revisit the issue of making the Sunset Limited a daily train.

Gunn acknowledges past mistakes, he refuses to dwell on those mistakes.

"What's past is past," Gunn said. "I think it's much more productive to say 'where do we go from here?'"

Gunn also criticizes those who hold up the mismangement of the past as proof that Amtrak as an entity is fundamentally flawed and should be replaced by private sector operators.

Amtrak, Gunn said, is up to the job of returning world-class passenger trains to the United States.

"We're it," Gunn said of Amtrak. "There's nobody else doing this stuff. We're the keeper of the flame."

Monday, January 27, 2003

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