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June 2001 • Vol 1, No. 2 •

Rail Unions Critical of Proposed Amtrak “Reforms”

By Art LeClair

At an inaugural service in New York City on May 1, 1971, then Secretary of Transportation John Volpe predicted the beginning of a new era in rail service in the United States and said Amtrak would begin to break even financially in three years.

Thirty years later, the nation’s passenger rail system stands, once again, at a major crossroads in its troubled history. Chartered in response to the virtual abandonment of passenger trains by the country’s private railroads more interested in their profitable freight delivery operations, Amtrak has struggled to survive ever since.

Now, rather than pause to celebrate the start of its fourth decade, the fight to defend the carrier from its enemies continues, with added urgency.

“The congressionally created Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) issued yet another disappointing report about the future of Amtrak and national passenger service in this country.” So stated Edward Dubroski, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) and chairman of the Rail Labor Division of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

“The ARC had a chance to make a clear, bold show of support for Amtrak, but instead offered up a complicated series of recommendations that further underscore the ARC’s anti-Amtrak bias,” he added.

Dubroski’s remarks were in response to a number of proposals from the ARC to restructure key aspects of Amtrak’s business operations. Part of a report released at the end of March, the proposals recommend dividing the nation’s passenger rail carrier’s responsibilities into three separate entities: a company focused on profiting from train operations; a government-owned corporation to maintain tracks and stations; and a new government committee to oversee operations. “We need a new Amtrak, a restructured Amtrak,” ARC chairman Gilbert Carmichael said at a news conference at which he admitted he wasn’t sure if the rail system would ever be operationally self-sufficient. “Restructuring is good advice for Amtrak,” Carmichael said of the federally subsidized passenger railroad: “Everything we recommend to them would be wise for them to be doing and using now.”

Public Service or Profit Maker?

Prior to his appointment to the ARC, Carmichael served as Federal Railroad Administrator, as well as a member of the Amtrak Board of Directors. The Council blames a “flawed institutional structure” that forces the railroad to juggle governmental responsibilities and business needs, for its failure as a bottom-line oriented business.

Amtrak was swift to respond to the Council’s recommendations. In a letter critical of the ARC report, Amtrak President George Warrington wrote Carmichael slamming the idea of creating a new government entity.

“The ARC proposal clearly moves away from the statutory mandate to make Amtrak more businesslike and less reliant on the government,” Warrington charged. “These policy options would increase costs and the complexity of managing the system without any gains in commercial viability,” he added.

The ARC was created in 1997 as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which gave the carrier five years to demonstrate its ability to run without annual operating subsidies from the federal government. Amtrak officials say the company is ready to meet that goal in 2003, but many are skeptical.

The Council has eleven members, seven appointed by Republicans and four by Democrats. The motion to recommend the restructuring plans was approved by a vote of nine in favor, one opposed and one abstention. Charlie Moneypenny, an International and Legislative Representative of the Transport Workers of America (TWU) from Boston, the labor representative on the Council, registered the no vote.

Norman Y. Mineta, a long time Democratic Congressman from California who was appointed Secretary of Transportation by the Bush Administration, abstained.

In a recent interview, Carmichael said that the council was not prepared to make a judgment on whether or not Amtrak was on track to meet its congressionally mandated deadline to free itself of federal subsidies by fiscal 2003.

“As long as I’m chairman, we’re going to give Amtrak management the benefit of the doubt,” Carmichael said. “They tell me they are going to meet their objective.”

Amtrak’s Warrington complains: “The Amtrak Reform Council is proposing increased government involvement, while Amtrak is pursuing a corporate strategy to grow a competitive business operation.”

In recent years Amtrak has taken a number of steps to expand and diversify its business as part of this strategy. The most visible is the much heralded but still stumbling Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail Project (HSR). More than a year and a half behind schedule, HSR began operation of its third pair of trainsets between Boston and Washington D.C. as Socialist Viewpoint went to press.

Another key element of Amtrak’s strategy is the rapidly expanding package express and mail business, in which Warrington has high expectations. Amtrak has purchased a fleet of “Roadrailers,” trailers modified to travel on rail for quick delivery service. Amtrak has already contracted with UPS to handle a large chunk of its parcels in parts of the Midwest, and is currently negotiating with several freight railroads to provide quicker regularly scheduled delivery of produce and other perishables.

Finally, Warrington is projecting a major influx of new income from Amtrak’s real estate development, as it refurbishes and reconstructs retail and commercial space in all of its stations and terminals.

Fighting for a National Passenger Rail System That Works

Obviously, the majority of ARC members and the politicians they work for don’t buy it. So, despite assurances from the Council that the restructuring proposals are merely intended “to stimulate debate,” Amtrak workers, passengers and supporters of a national passenger rail system that works must prepare to fight for the railroad’s survival.

Phyllis Scheinberg who monitors Amtrak for the General Accounting Office, is urging Congress not to wait until 2003 to see if Amtrak can wean itself from federal support. “We believe the time is right for Congress to begin considering the future of intercity passenger rail service now,” Scheinberg said.

Under the terms of the 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, Amtrak would have to submit a plan for its own liquidation if it fails to meet the deadline. More likely, a failure would reopen the debate in Congress about whether or not the United States should support a railroad that loses money, but provides an alternative to the nation’s already jammed highways and airports.

Tom Downs, who preceded Warrington as Amtrak president, says that neither Congress nor the White House ever told Amtrak whether it was more important to be profitable or to continue serving parts of the country where it loses the most money.

“The railroad is always trying to make 10 pounds worth of political expectations fit in a 5 pound bucket,” Downs said.

Preparations to Dismantle the Rail System

Up to now, every externally proposed reform or restructuring of Amtrak has been nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to cripple the passenger railroad in preparation for its dismantling. Having been employed by Amtrak since January 1976, I can assure you Amtrak workers and passengers are used to attacks and threats of pending extinction.

However, we are equally aware of the tremendous advances made in the quality and quantity of passenger rail service since Amtrak picked up the pieces of the broken and mangled system left behind by private enterprise.

Critics and opponents of Amtrak expect and demand that it become profitable, even though the many multibillion-dollar corporations that destroyed, then abandoned, the nation’s passenger rail network, couldn’t do it.

Furthermore, no one has yet been able to point to a single national passenger rail system in the world that breaks even, let alone turns a profit. Why? Simple, there are none!

The other night I was chatting on the Internet with a gentleman, who told me that according to his research, the United States is ranked with Tunisia and Estonia when it comes to per capita funding for passenger rail subsidies. So who’s kidding whom?

Earlier, I stated that Amtrak workers need to prepare to fight for the very survival of passenger rail service in the US. In organizing this fight they will have to call on their allies in the labor movement, as well as the traveling public at large, if they are to be successful.

It’s bad enough that we face a coordinated assault on our living standards by the government and the corporations it works for, but we are also hamstrung by the misleadership of today’s labor movement who have no intention of confronting the bosses or politicians with whom they sleep.

Organizing a Fight Back

If there were any one figure in recent history at the head of a national union with the where-with-all to organize a fightback capable of defending the workers, as well as the interests of working people in general, it would be Ron Carey, late of the Teamsters, and look what happened to him!

Carey, and the leadership team he assembled, not only organized rank and file Teamsters at United Parcel Service to shut that company down and win a major contract victory, they also conducted a brilliant public relations campaign explaining why the fight against part-time, no-benefit jobs was in defense of all working men and women in this country, not just those represented by one union at UPS.

In return, Carey has been vilified as a crook, thrown out of office and replaced by, of all people, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. Bill Clinton’s Departments of Labor and Justice perpetrated this. Talk about corruption!

Labor skates like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney received the message loud and clear. His silence on this outrageous attack on the rights of union members to democratically elect their leaders speaks volumes about where he and his organization stand.

Meanwhile thousands of airline and railroad workers have been told by George Bush that their right to collective bargaining and strike aren’t worth a hill of beans and the response of their so-called leaders adds up to little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

As the capitalist system continues to spasm and convulse, the situation will only worsen. Eventually workers will come to understand that they indeed hold the key to their liberation in their own hands. On that day, John Sweeney and his ilk will become a footnote in the history of the labor movement in the United States.





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