Amtrak threatens to curtail service without more cash

Saturday, February 2, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak is threatening to eliminate train service to dozens of states in a dramatic maneuver aimed at pressuring Congress to double its support.

The national passenger railroad said Friday it will discontinue long-distance, overnight train service in October if Congress doesn't give it $1.2 billion for the next budget year.

"The system has reached a critical crossroads," said Amtrak President George Warrington. He said the railroad has a $5.8 billion backlog in work needed on its trains, tracks, railyards and stations.

Facing a possible restructuring by Congress, Amtrak said it will eliminate 1,000 of the company's 24,600 jobs by this summer. The layoffs will affect 700 union workers, plus 300 employees who are not covered by union contracts.

Amtrak will make additional cuts in hiring, training, advertising and supplies, and save money by delaying work on equipment, tracks and stations. Overall, the moves will save $285 million in the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30, Warrington said.

The showdown comes in October, when as many as 18 long-distance routes could be eliminated. Amtrak did not specify which they might be.

Long-distance trains include some of the storied names in American rail travel: the Southwest Chief, between Chicago and Los Angeles; the Crescent, connecting New York City and New Orleans; the Empire Builder connecting Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore.

This year Amtrak is receiving $521 million. If Amtrak receives that amount next year, Warrington said, it might operate only in the Northeast, its most successful corridor.

180 days' notice

Amtrak's long-distance trains are "inherently unprofitable," Warrington said. But they serve many communities with few other transportation options and are vigorously defended by members of Congress whose states they serve.

By law, Amtrak must give 180 days' notice before it discontinues train service. Amtrak will issue such a notice covering the long-distance network on March 29, reserving the authority to cut routes in October when the new fiscal year begins.

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said Warrington's threat was "a wonderful way to rally support" for more federal funding.

But he said he hopes no cuts are made.

"We regard the existing system as skeletal, as the absolute minimum we need," Capon said.

Another rail advocacy group, United Rail Passenger Alliance, denounced Amtrak for making what it called "irresponsible and extortionate" threats.

"Jesse James had the courtesy to use a mask and a gun before he looted trains," said the group's president, Bruce Richardson.

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