Panel Finalizes Recommendations for Amtrak Restructuring

Final recommendations on the fate of the federally-funded Amtrak railway system are expected Feb. 7.

The National Amtrak Reform Council met Friday to discuss the recommendations, which officials say are whittled down to three plans, all of which encourage transferring the track infrastructure and system to new public and private entities to encourage competition and the fiscal efficiency that Amtrak has long been lacking.

"What we're trying to do is produce a new national rail passenger system that works and is modern and meets the needs of this country and this century," said Gil Carmichael, the council's chairman.

Amtrak is currently $3 billion dollars in the hole and has never achieved the self-sufficiency it was charged with when the rail system was created by Congress with federal subsidies in 1971. While Congress is expected to reauthorize its budget with more funding this year, the council says the system cannot continue the way it has for 30 years.

As a result, two out of the three options prepared by the council staff would abolish Amtrak's monopoly on intercity rail travel by introducing competition for some or all routes. The other would keep Amtrak alive under a federal or regional carrier.

All three scenarios continue the use of subsidies, whether they are at the federal, state or local level. They also recommend handing over the enormous burden of maintaining the railway infrastructure, including 730 miles of track, mostly in the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, plus some in Michigan.

Currently, Amtrak services 500 stations over 20,000 route miles. Most of the tracks are already owned by freight railroads, but they receive usage fees from Amtrak.

The council estimates that it costs $800 million to $1 billion each year to keep the Northeast corridor in a good state of repair, but has only spent a fraction of that over the last two years for maintenance.

The recommendations were drafted after the panel concluded last month that Amtrak will not achieve a 1997 goal to become self-sufficient.

Amtrak posted a cash loss of $405 million in the first eight months of 2001 and has consumed more than $25 billion in subsidies since its inception.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.