TRAIN TRAVEL LOSES A LOT of its romance when the train pulls into the station half a day late. That, sadly, is more the rule than the exception on certain Amtrak lines, particularly the historic Coast Starlight run from Los Angeles to Seattle, now dubbed the “Coast Star-late” because it is routinely between five to 15 hours -- that’s right, hours -- behind schedule.
Amtrak’s chronic problems, and a lack of rider interest, have forced the federal government to subsidize it to the tune of $30 billion since its founding in 1971 -- and have led many to ask why Amtrak still exists. Such questions take on heightened urgency with Amtrak’s hiring Tuesday of a new president, appointed by a board that seems to think the operation has reached the end of the line.
So little is known about Alexander Kummant that the National Assn. of Railroad Passengers withheld comment on his appointment until it could find out more about him. Kummant, meanwhile, didn’t even show up for the news conference announcing he’d won the job. He has been a top executive for a variety of heavy-equipment manufacturers and was a regional vice president at Union Pacific Railroad. He replaces David Gunn, a rail turnaround specialist almost universally admired as Amtrak’s best president in years. Gunn was fired in November mostly because he resisted efforts by Amtrak’s board -- whose members were appointed by President Bush -- to dismantle the railroad, consistent with the Bush administration’s desire to eventually privatize it.
Amtrak is unquestionably a troubled system. Yet not all its problems are of its own making. The abysmal performance of the Coast Starlight, for example, has more to do with Union Pacific than with Amtrak; most of the 22,000 miles of track traveled by Amtrak trains are owned by private rail companies such as Union Pacific, which often fail to maintain them properly or force Amtrak trains to wait while their own freight trains rumble past on shared rails.
Amtrak’s opponents are outraged at the taxpayer money spent to maintain a system they say should be self-sufficient, ignoring the fact that all modes of transportation make use of public subsidies, whether for roads or airports. The Bush administration, which in 2005 proposed eliminating federal funding for Amtrak, envisions a scheme in which the states share ownership of the rails on which private companies operate, though there is no evidence that all states would be willing to take on that burden.
There is room for improvement at Amtrak. The board may be on the right track by aiming to close some unprofitable routes. But if Kummant’s mission is to eliminate the national long-distance passenger rail system, Congress should stop him. With gas prices soaring and stricter emission controls likely, that system has never been more necessary.