Rail Overhaul Would Strip Amtrak's Assets

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak would lose its most significant assets under three proposals being weighed by an oversight board considering options to restructure the nation's money losing railroad, the panel said on Thursday.

The Amtrak Reform Council, facing a Feb. 7 deadline to report its recommendations to Congress, has narrowed its list of restructuring options from nine to three, and plans to discuss them publicly at a meeting in Washington on Friday, according to a wire service.

Under all three scenarios, Amtrak's assets along the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington would be turned over to the federal government or a yet to be determined combination of states.

Amtrak owns more than 360 miles of track along that route as well as tunnels, stations and bridges. Last year it mortgaged Pennsylvania Station in New York to help pay operating costs. Amtrak also owns Union Station in Chicago, some Midwest maintenance facilities and a limited amount of track outside the Northeast.

The reform council, which determined in November that Amtrak would not be able to wean itself from federal operating subsidies by next December's congressionally mandated deadline, has long argued that Amtrak should yield control of its Northeast infrastructure system.

Amtrak is a private company in which the government owns most of the stock. Mired in debt, Amtrak lost $405 million in the first eight months of 2001, the last available financial figures.

Under the proposals, Amtrak would cede ownership of the Northeast Corridor to the Transportation Department or a compact of states. The council estimates that it would cost between $800 million and $1 billion to maintain the corridor.

All three proposals also give the government varying oversight roles and responsibilities.

Amtrak has spent $140 million over the past two years to maintain the Northeast Corridor. It is scheduled to receive $521 million in federal operating subsidies this year.

The differences in the council's plans largely fall along how the trains would be operated.

One scenario would maintain all or part of the national system Amtrak currently runs with federal government oversight and subsidies.

A second option would involve government oversight of the rail system and allow private companies or states to bid to operate some or all of the services but only after a transition period.

The third option would open all of Amtrak routes to bids from private competition and states without a measurable transition period.

A reform council spokeswoman said several private rail companies, including one from Britain, have expressed interest in Amtrak routes.

Major freight companies, which got out of the long haul passenger rail business 30 years ago -- when Amtrak was created -- have taken no public position on whether they would want to come back in.

But freight operator Guilford Rail System of Billerica, Massachusetts, said it would be interested in running service on Amtrak Northeast Corridor routes. `

“When an economic opportunity presents itself, we certainly look at it,” said company spokesman David Fink. “We'd look at anything. It depends on what the reform council decides to do.”

The Bush administration has promised to develop a strategy for inter-city rail this year. The Transportation Department could unveil a plan in its budget outline next month or soon after.

Congress will have the final say in Amtrak's future and could decide to keep it the way it is, at least temporarily, but fund its capital needs and remove some money-losing routes.

Lawmakers voted in December essentially to reverse a congressional requirement that Amtrak draw up plans for its own liquidation while the reform council focused on restructuring.