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Originally published Monday, December 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Can Amtrak survive three more years of Bush?

The United States needs strong regional passenger-rail systems, linked across the country to provide alternatives to highway grids already...

The United States needs strong regional passenger-rail systems, linked across the country to provide alternatives to highway grids already choked by autos and fast-growing fleets of freight trucks.

It should be a matter of simple common sense, patriotism and high priority.

But the Bush administration, never stingy with favors and subsidies to private corporate interests, can't bear the fact that Amtrak, the only national rail system we have, has been receiving more than $1 billion a year in subsidies for capital and operations.

Last winter, Bush recommended zero-budgeting for Amtrak. Then, last month, he had his hand-picked board fire David Gunn, Amtrak's highly respected president. The move prompted consternation to fury in Amtrak's remarkably broad, bipartisan congressional support group. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., put it most colorfully: "Amtrak is now being run by a board made up of members who have virtually no experience in passenger rail. ... Mr. Gunn was fired because he would not agree with 'FEMA-tizing' Amtrak."

Hired in 2002 before Bush appointees took control of the Amtrak board, Gunn was picked to give Amtrak a tough, hands-on rail executive with skills to correct the long, slow slide in performance and credibility that Amtrak, for many reasons, was enduring.

By all accounts, he lived up to expectations — trimming waste, adding equipment, shoring up service. Amtrak broke ridership levels for three straight years (most recently to 25.3 million passengers). It was the kind of tough turnaround mastery he'd previously shown in restoring New York City's graffiti-ridden subway system, close to collapse in the 1980s when he took it over.

But the Bush administration's hostility never abated. The Amtrak board was left with only one member confirmed by the Senate — David Laney, a Texan and former Bush campaign fundraiser. The other seats were left vacant or filled with recess appointees. In September, the board voted to explore breaking off the Northeast Corridor into a subsidiary of Amtrak that rail defenders feared might just be a first step toward the administration's goal of breaking Amtrak into separate multistate operating units and ending federal operating grants — de facto privatization.

Gunn opposed the move. With Northeast Corridor train traffic already running at capacity, he argued, unified "iron discipline" is critical to coordinate train operations and maintenance of tracks.

His reward? Firing. Why? Gunn himself: "The board is just a puppet for the administration. ... I was standing in the way of their plans to dismantle a company."

Could it, though, make any sense to go the administration's way, with states obliged to help finance regional rail corporations and private-sector firms running the trains?

No, says, former Amtrak president Tom Downs, because the states — unconsulted, for example, on the proposed Northeast Corridor spinoff — would surely resist taking responsibility for operating costs, not to mention more billions for needed capital investment.

And why, asks Downs, would the administration even think of dismembering Amtrak without checking on the "disaster" that occurred after the British Tories privatized British rail a decade ago? The respected British newsweekly The Economist recently summed up the widely held opinion: "The privatization of British Rail has proved a disastrous failure ... a catalogue of political cynicism, managerial incompetence and financial opportunism. It has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and brought rail travelers countless hours of delays."

Surely, Downs suggests, we should "look across the pond and take a serious look at what went wrong in the nation with the closest capitalist model to our own. They have multiple rail companies and fares, and trouble even issuing a national ticket."

The advocates of privatization also need to be reminded that it's not just Amtrak — that America's highways, airports and seaports are all heavily subsidized. Airlines, and even the big auto manufacturers, come running to Washington for one form of aid or another.

Indeed, Amtrak's problem hasn't as much been poor management as lack of significant capital funds to upgrade equipment nationwide and correct the alarming deterioration of the Northeast Corridor tracks and tunnels it owns — investment needed for an economically sound national future.

The good news is that Congress isn't listening to the administration. It has voted $1.3 billion for Amtrak operations in fiscal 2006, the administration's zero-funding request notwithstanding.

Gunn's management succeeded so well that the Senate just voted 93-6 for legislation authorizing $11.4 billion, over six years, for major infrastructure repairs and rail corridor improvement.

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., calling the failure to appoint a fully functioning Amtrak board "disgraceful," has introduced legislation to require a bipartisan, qualified nine-member Amtrak board.

But can Congress force a hostile administration to keep running a railroad it doesn't like, and to avoid fatal management steps? For the remaining three years of the Bush presidency, that's the critical question.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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