Railroads, Republicans Muscling Out Amtrak

America’s leading freight railroads are plotting their return to passenger service as Amtrak faces a threat from privatizing politicians in Congress, a former Amtrak CEO said in Chicago Wednesday.
“This is a difficult time for Amtrak,” former Amtrak Chairman and CEO Tom Downs told about 70 people gathered at a rountable hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Council. “One branch of the Congress has said that it’s time to phase out Amtrak.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives have pressed to cut Amtrak funding in the federal transportation bill, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently said in a TV news interview that he would eliminate Amtrak's subsidy, among other programs:
“Of course you get rid of Obamacare, that’s the easy one, but there are others: Planned Parenthood, we’re gonna get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, both excellent programs, but we can’t afford to borrow money to pay for these things.”
As a result, Amtrak has not seized upon opportunities for expanding passenger service in the United States, said Downs, who now serves as chairman of the North American Board of Paris-based Veolia Transportation.
“I think the corporation [Amtrak] tends to be more conservative and risk averse when the atmosphere is perceived to be risky. So while there may be interest, I’m not sure there’s the right climate for them to be aggressive.”
The private railroads, meanwhile, are not so shy.
“All of the Class Ones are now getting back into the the passenger rail service,” Downs said, naming Union Pacific, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe, and Norfolk-Southern:
"The Union Pacific is going to be adamant about control of the railroad passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis,” Downs said. The federal government is investing $2 billion to prepare that corridor, which requires the use of Union Pacific right-of-way, track, and equipment.
“The Burlington Northern Santa Fe has said that any real passenger service on their tracks is going to be run by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
“And Norfolk-Southern is in somewhat the same position.”
Downs led Amtrak from 1993-98. He has also served as executive director of the Federal Transit Administration, a White House fellow to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, president of New York’s Tri Boro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, among other roles.
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