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Congress demands Amtrak's Sunset Limited be restored
The national passenger railroad has said that the service was ineffective and made little financial sense for a company with limited resources. But that explanation doesn't satisfy U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who chairs a rail subcommittee and whose district felt the impact of suspended service.
Thanks to Brown, comprehensive Amtrak legislation recently signed into law includes a requirement that the railroad come up with a plan to bring back the Sunset Limited.
That case illustrates a central paradox of Amtrak: Despite decades of pressure to run the national passenger railroad efficiently and even profitably, its managers aren't free to make their own business decisions if Congress disagrees.
Amtrak is a "two-headed beast," said David Laney, a Texas lawyer who chaired Amtrak's board from 2003 to 2007. "On the one hand, it's a private company ... that's told to run itself efficiently to make money. On the other hand, you have the concept of Amtrak as a public service provider."
Congress created Amtrak in 1970 from the wreckage of the nation's unprofitable private passenger rail service. Lawmakers structured it as a private corporation - with most of the stock held by the federal government
- with the hope it would one day become self-supporting.
That goal has largely faded. Amtrak officials point out that passenger rail is subsidized throughout the world, and it gets about $1.3 billion in federal funding a year.
Still, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have kept the pressure on the railroad to wean itself from subsidies, or at least reduce its need for them.
But any sudden moves by Amtrak to reshape itself in the name of efficiency could risk next year's funding. And few members of Congress want to lose the trains that serve their districts, no matter how much Amtrak loses on those routes.
"Congress is, of course, one of our biggest constituents," Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said. "They provide considerable funding; therefore, they have considerable oversight."
He said the company considers demands like the one regarding the Sunset Limited to be "legitimate input" and would fully comply with the legislation.
Under the new law, Amtrak has until July to come up with a plan to restore service. The railroad is not required to act on that plan - at least not yet. The law also directs Amtrak to conduct studies about establishing or expanding service in other places, including two Seattle-Chicago routes discontinued years ago.
The Sunset Limited, particularly the eastern portion, has long ranked as one of Amtrak's most problematic trains.
In fiscal 2004, the last full year before Katrina, the Sunset carried just 96,000 riders, including 37,000 east of New Orleans. The remaining, western portion carried 72,000 passengers in fiscal 2008, making it Amtrak's least popular long-distance train.
The most popular long-distance route called the Empire Builder, which links Chicago with the Pacific Northwest, had 554,000 riders.
The railroad was already discussing whether to discontinue the eastern portion of the Sunset when Katrina struck in August 2005, Laney recalled.
The hurricane allowed Amtrak to suspend, rather than stop, the service.
"It was an interesting political solution," Laney said.
Freight railroad CSX Corp., which owns the tracks, repaired them by spring of 2006. Black cited still unrepaired stations along the route as a reason the Amtrak service has not been restarted. In addition, Amtrak has redeployed Sunset Limited equipment to other lines to help ease a systemwide shortage of rail cars and locomotives due to an aging fleet and expanding service in some areas, he said.
But chief executive Alex Kummant has acknowledged that Amtrak has little interest in restoring the Sunset Limited.
"I don't really see any way to bring that service back at this point," he advised Brown at a hearing of her subcommittee last April. Aside from infrastructure problems, he added: "We have no budget for it."
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