Today Amtrak faces a profound financial crisis. While this is not news, it is a relatively newfound consensus at Amtrak itself, and among its supporters in Congress.
Just over a year ago, I reluctantly approved Amtrak’s request to mortgage its key access rights to New York’s Penn Station. That transaction was urgently required to meet Amtrak’s payroll, a precondition for survival to the end of the fiscal year.
In retrospect, that transaction was the last-gasp breath of a fiction — the fiction that Amtrak could achieve operational self-sufficiency by its statutory deadline of December 2002.
Congress created Amtrak in 1970 as a for-profit corporation. From this inception, policymakers have had an expectation that has proved elusive — the hope of operating a national passenger rail system with modest federal support.
Congress has made successive attempts at re-establishing this original premise, but the last three decades have proved that Amtrak’s model of a national network of passenger rail is just not sustainable without massive, continued federal support.
To maintain the fiction that it could be self-sufficient without making fundamental reform, over the past five years, Amtrak sold, leased and mortgaged valuable assets to meet operating expenses. During the same period, it lacked adequate funds to maintain its capital infrastructure. A capital backlog of over $6 billion is the result.
Just recently, Amtrak’s new President affirmed the need for Amtrak to borrow some $200 million from a private line of credit by the end of June to meet current year operating expenses or begin a process of shutting down operations for the remainder of the fiscal year.
The Administration is reviewing the viability of options for how Amtrak can solidify access to this line of credit, and Federal Railroad Administrator Allan Rutter will be testifying this afternoon before the Senate Appropriations Committee to report on those deliberations.
We are reviewing ways to preserve the opportunities for Congress and the Administration to adopt significant reforms to our national passenger rail policy, principles of which will be outlined in these remarks.
Unfortunately, until recent months, Amtrak lacked fundamental financial controls even to determine the extent of route cross-subsidizations. Amtrak’s performance was insufficiently transparent to the Congress, the Department of Transportation and the public.
It has embraced numerous business plans — including some that have set it in competition with the freight railroads, upon whose tracks Amtrak operates on all routes outside the Northeast corridor. These plans have in large part been unsuccessful.
At the same time, Amtrak’s supporters in the Congress and the states have forged an ad hoc alliance with advocates for numerous high-speed rail projects that could easily cost over $200 billion over the next 20 years.
Supporters of Amtrak and of high-speed rail have thus sought common cause. Legislation creating various means of bond financing, now under Congressional consideration, reflects this strategy — to intertwine inextricably the needs of Amtrak and high-speed rail.
The first recommendation I make today is that we must have the clarity of mind and discipline to decide how and where to fund and operate intercity passenger rail while separately deciding whether to fund and operate high-speed rail.
In a long career in Congress and now as Secretary of Transportation, I have not wavered from an important conviction: intercity passenger rail service is an important part of the Nation’s transportation system.
Some who share my conviction about the potential of intercity passenger rail have made a further, unwarranted assertion — that Amtrak’s problems can be fixed simply by a massive infusion of federal dollars. The Bush Administration rejects that assertion.
The country can ill afford to throw billions of federal dollars at Amtrak and just hope its problems disappear. Thirty years’ experience should teach us that merely hoping for better performance is a doomed approach.
We offer our ideas as a contribution to the current public debate about Amtrak funding and reauthorization. We hope to broaden the debate, while providing a benchmark for gauging the acceptability of various prescriptions now being offered by Congress for an ailing intercity passenger rail system.
First, we believe that our intercity passenger rail network must transition to a system dictated by fundamental economics without Federal operating support. Prices and passengers — not politics — should drive service.
Amtrak’s current route network provides too many services with limited market appeal at high operating costs to the federal government.
Second, Amtrak should transition into a pure operating company. We believe a gradual separation of train operations from infrastructure ownership would shed better light on the true economics of passenger rail and help the public sector make better educated decisions about the future of intercity passenger rail.
What I am talking about today is an Amtrak dedicated to operating passenger rail services for profit, but not responsible for investment in and maintenance of the passenger rail infrastructure.
Third, we must introduce market principles into intercity passenger rail services.
The Transportation Department has provided extensive details about the fact that high unit costs undermine Amtrak’s competitive position relative to other passenger modes. Indeed, currently less than one percent of all U.S. trips over 100 miles is by rail. We firmly believe that marketplace discipline could deliver higher quality service at competitive prices.
This would entail competition for provision of certain routes, through a process that would assign passenger rail operating rights to a single operator in a corridor after a careful process overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration. We also see possibilities for alternative sourcing of system-wide support services such as reservations, food service and equipment maintenance, much as other transportation companies have done.
Fourth, we believe a new intercity passenger rail policy should be based on a strong foundation of state and federal planning that clearly identifies costs, benefits and funding approaches of passenger rail, designs services that complement and connect to other passenger modes, and thinks through practical implementation problems — such as environmental and operational issues — before launching projects.
We believe that clear-eyed, comprehensive, financially-responsible transportation planning, which is mandated for other surface transportation modes, is crucial to the future of new forms of passenger rail.
I also believe that the ownership, management and control of the Northeast Corridor must be carefully evaluated. The multiple states and corridor users need time to identify practical solutions to these issues.
It will take extensive coordination – and a deliberate approach – to assess the mechanisms appropriate to manage this vital national asset.
During the transition, Amtrak would continue to operate the corridor. But perhaps at some intermediate juncture, it should be required to do so through a separate corporate entity formed for that purpose. Again, our goal should be to find lasting solutions to the thirty-year capital investment problem. This will take time, to be sure.But the job must be done.
Our nation’s governors and the states they lead are major participants in developing and implementing public infrastructure investments. So it should come as no surprise that a central element of the Administration’s vision entails a partnership with the nation’s governors and other state and local leaders to support intercity passenger rail.
To promote a systematic deliberation about these important issues, today I invite the National Governors Association to appoint a Governors’ task force to work with me to develop the details of this partnership. In particular, I also invite the Northeastern Governors to work with me on core corridor infrastructure issues.
From Amtrak’s perspective, its on-time performance is significantly affected by access delays not within Amtrak’s control. The next authorization for intercity passenger rail — and plans for high-speed rail expansion — must balance equitably the interests of passenger and freight rail operators. And we should consider further the impact of reform on Amtrak’s workers.
Last summer I called for early consideration of authorization for intercity passenger rail. The Bush Administration undertook an extensive evaluation of the core problems at Amtrak, and has formulated key principles for reform that I described here today.
I am now personally persuaded that more debate and further consultation with transportation policymakers are needed. A full five-year authorization seems unlikely this year.
The vision I have outlined for the ongoing debate is incremental, yet would bring fundamental change. I look to the past to understand the challenge we face in the future, not to cast blame or stir rancor.
Our long term vision would incorporate definitive performance milestones in a new authorization. It would impose statutory discipline and accountability in moving toward a viable system of intercity passenger rail service. It would preserve and strengthen a national asset.
Congress is presently considering passenger rail policy. I announce these principles today so that any Congressional action will be measured against this vision for the future.
The Administration is concerned about recent Congressional actions that would increase funding for Amtrak without addressing any of the core problems that have produced this crisis. We believe this is the wrong approach.
For this reason, the Administration opposes FY 03 Amtrak funding in excess of the $521 million in our budget unless such an increase is accompanied by significant reforms consistent with the principles I have outlined.
I believe it is time to recognize the role that intercity passenger rail service can play in America’s transportation system, to offer a comprehensive vision for the future of intercity passenger rail, and to set out a proposal that offers an alternative to the previous thirty years of Amtrak history – a vision worthy of a passenger rail system that plays a sustainable role in the national transportation network.
The Bush Administration looks forward to refining this vision and discussing the implications of these policies with interested stakeholders.
Thank you for your attention.