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.
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.
Some of Amtrak's advocates on Capitol Hill quickly voiced support for an increased federal role in funding rail.
"These difficult measures should send a message to Congress that the time to get serious about passenger rail has arrived," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a former member of Amtrak's governing board, said Congress should create a dedicated source of money for rail.
But Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said, "Amtrak's effort to increase its federal appropriation to cover its management problems is irresponsible."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, normally a backer of Amtrak, said the railroad would lose her support if it became primarily a Northeast system.
The congressionally appointed Amtrak Reform Council will recommend next week that the government break up the railroad and open passenger rail to competition.
On Friday, a U.S. District Court judge denied a request from 11 rail unions for a temporary restraining order to prevent the council from issuing its report on Feb. 7.
Warrington said his announcement was not designed to influence the upcoming debate in Congress. But he added his two cents to the debate over privatization, saying no company could operate long-distance routes without help from the government.
Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported last week that Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001, the most in its 30-year history, and had made no progress toward meeting Congress' 1997 order that it wean itself from annual operating subsidies.