Labor condemns Bush Amtrak plan

Calling it a "death knell for passenger rail" in the United States, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers joined other transportation labor unions in condemning President Bush's plan for the privatization of Amtrak.

"The White House plan (for Amtrak) is a death knell for passenger rail in this country," said Sonny Hall, President of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department (TTD). The BLE is one of 35 unions that belong to the TTD.

The Bush Administration's plan to restructure Amtrak was sent to Congress on July 28, and was soundly rejected by labor and other supporters of Amtrak.

Critics of the Bush plan say it would effectively kill Amtrak by dividing into separate entities, privatizing portions of it, and shifting its costs to the states, which say they don't have the funds to run it. Critics wonder who will guarantee the consistency of the safety and maintenance of the lines and how states with budget troubles will pay for it. Some say the legislation is meant to kill Amtrak.

"The widespread problems of privatized passenger rail - which, in England for example, led to rampant delays, increased accident rates, and higher fares - explains why the noted Economic Policy Institute (EPI) titled its recent report Amtrak Privatization: The Route to Failure," President Hall said. "The EPI report noted that many of the British problems grew out of a labyrinth-like carving up of the railroad, a bureaucratic shell game now mirrored in the Bush plan. Amtrak was borne out of the ashes of defunct network of private passenger railroads, so calling for a privatized Amtrak reflects a gross ignorance of both history and economics."

As part of the Bush plan, Amtrak would become three companies over a six-year span: a private passenger rail company that runs trains under contract to states; a company that operates and maintains the Northeast Corridor; and a government corporation that would retain Amtrak's rights to use freight railroad tracks and its corporate name.

Also, states would contract for the right to use tracks and Amtrak's name for the passenger rail service they sponsor. States would form multistate compacts to invest in and run passenger railroads. States would submit proposals for capital investment and operations to the Transportation Department. Eventually, the states could pick a train operator from private companies and public transit agencies that would presumably bid for the contract.

The federal government would no longer pay for operating costs; that would be left up to the states. But the federal government would pay for 50 percent of infrastructure costs.

Many critics argue that, like highways and the air transport system, railways don't stop at state borders and thus require federal oversight and funding.

"The Bush administration is badly out of touch on this issue," President Hall continued. "Bipartisan majorities on Capitol Hill - and large numbers of those surveyed in public opinion polls - support federal investment in Amtrak. And slashing service to hundreds of communities and millions of passengers benefits no one in a struggling economy. The White House is taking Amtrak down a track few want it go.

"The Bush plan would further starve an already anemic railroad and make scapegoats of Amtrak's 20,000 workers. We will not permit this debate to ignore these employees, who make over 20 percent less than those in freight and commuter rail and who have sacrificed for years to keep the trains running. Their needs must be not be forgotten as we debate Amtrak's future. We call upon Congress to reject this misguided proposal," President Hall concluded.

On July 30, Republican senators announced a six-year, $60 billion plan to help Amtrak, countering the Bush administration proposal. Their plan would give Amtrak the $2 billion in annual operating subsidies it has requested. The plan also calls for issuing $48 billion in bonds to raise money for repairs and track construction.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)



© 2003 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers