WASHINGTON – Legislation to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, as a first step toward destruction of Amtrak, will almost certainly be dead-on-arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and will face a tough challenge in the Republican-controlled House; but the authors of the bill – House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and House Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) – continue to press ahead.

And beyond the slim likelihood this legislation might pass both the House and Senate, it is highly unlikely to survive a judicial challenge.

According to the senior Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the bipartisan Congressional Research Service reported to him that the Mica/Shuster proposal is probably unconstitutional.

The Mica/Shuster bill violates the Appointments Clause and the Takings Clause of the Constitution, Rahall said in referencing the information he obtained from the Congressional Research Service.

The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO warned that the Mica/Shuster proposal would cancel labor agreements covering all of Amtrak’s unionized workers, and eliminate coverage under the Railway Labor Act and the Railroad Retirement Act.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) previously said the Mica/Shuster bill has “no legs” in the Senate. Nonetheless, said a UTU official, “The legislation remains a rat hole worth watching, and our National Legislative Office will work diligently toward its defeat.”

WASHINGTON — An assault on the future of Amtrak and its employees was launched June 15 by the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), and the chairman of the House Rail Subcommittee, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)

The UTU and other rail labor organizations are gearing to fight this effort to privatize the Northeast Corridor, which would be the first step toward eliminating Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor as well as its long-distance passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor. The proposal likely would destroy America’s national rail passenger network.

Mica and Shuster said they will introduce legislation to strip from Amtrak its ownership of the Northeast Corridor – linking Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston – and look to unnamed private operators to bid on operating high-speed passenger trains on the 437-mile long corridor.

Destruction of Amtrak could cause a crushing financial blow to the Railroad Retirement system if private operators were permitted to place their employees under coverage of Social Security rather than Railroad Retirement.

“I think we can make the service even better and reduce subsidization,” Mica said. “The whole concept of this is attracting private capital.” He opposes an Amtrak plan to operate 220-mph trains over the corridor in the future, saying so-far unnamed private operators could provide better service at a much reduced cost to taxpayers.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman responded, “The Mica/Shuster proposal takes Amtrak apart only to put something in its place that looks quite similar.

“The Northeast Corridor is not just a piece of real estate,” Boardman said. “It is a major transportation artery and a vital component of the regional economy, carrying more than 250,000 intercity and commuter passengers every day. Amtrak provides the region the best opportunity to achieve the needed improvements. The Northeast Corridor is a success under Amtrak stewardship and many components of our next-generation high-speed rail vision plan are already moving forward.

“We don’t want to run the risk of adopting something that won’t work, that compromises safety, or that simply costs more than we can afford,” Boardman said. “The last thing the Northeast needs is a plan that’s poorly thought through and that doesn’t take key issues into account.”

Boardman recently told a rail labor group that privatization of British Rail has not been a success and increased costs.

Former Amtrak President David Gunn was blunt in a statement he made about British Rail privatization when Gunn ran Amtrak: “Since privatization [of British Rail], the system has had more accidents and delays.” And former Amtrak President Tom Downs, when he ran Amtrak, called privatization of British Rail “a disaster … They have multiple rail companies and fares, and trouble even issuing a national ticket.”

The conservative Economist magazine reported in 2005, “The privatization of British Rail has proved a disastrous failure … a catalogue of political cynicism, managerial incompetence and financial opportunism. It has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and brought rail travelers countless hours of delay.”     

In responding to the Mica/Shuster proposal, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “Amtrak is the entity most capable of taking the next steps to modernize rail service in the Northeast Corridor.”

The Mica/Shuster proposal, which likely will have support of the House Republican majority, will face tough opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said June 15, “I will fight in the Senate to stop any plan that threatens Amtrak and commuters on the Northeast Corridor.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said the Mica/Shuster proposal “makes as much sense as privatizing Medicare or Social Security. In other words, no sense at all.”

Senate Republicans also are likely to oppose the Mica/Shuster proposal. The current ranking Republican on the Democratic-controlled Senate Commerce Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, told The Washington Post some years ago, “There will be a national system or there won’t be an Amtrak at all.”

In fact, in passing the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, a bipartisan congressional majority said, “It is the sense of the Congress that long-distance passenger rail is a vital and necessary part of our national transportation system and economy; and Amtrak should maintain a national passenger rail system.”

Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said of the Mica/Shuster proposal, “They want to hand over the conductor’s cap to the same folks who ran the stock market off a cliff. Privatizing passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor will not merely affect train service in that region; it will have a crippling domino effect on train service from sea to shining sea.

“Because of its national scope, Amtrak is able to invest profits from [its profitable Acela service on] the Northeast Corridor to offset less profitable long-distance lines in other parts of the country,” Rahall said. “Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation invited proposals from private companies to develop high-speed rail in the United States. Not one single proposal was submitted by the private sector for developing high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Not a one.

“We ought to be looking at ways to help Amtrak achieve the goal of high-speed rail; not looking at ways to dismantle it,” Rahall said.

WASHINGTON — Two House Republicans with transportation oversight authority — House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) — want to transfer ownership of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to the private sector as the first step toward dismantling Amtrak and privatizing rail passenger service in the U.S.

The 457-mile long Northeast Corridor — two to six-tracks wide, fully electrified and with all but a handful of highway-rail grade crossings eliminated — connects Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. It carries almost one million intercity and commuter passengers daily on more than 2,000 trains — the majority commuter trains.

Amtrak, which was created by Congress to operate money-losing intercity rail passenger service in the U.S., acquired most of the Northeast Corridor following the 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central and other Northeast railroads that had owned it.

While Amtrak owns 363 miles of the corridor, another 94 miles of the corridor is owned by the states of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, which similarly acquired their shares from the estate of bankrupt Penn Central.

Amtrak is responsible for operating intercity passenger trains, and providing maintenance and dispatching for other users, which include commuter agencies and freight railroads. Amtrak receives federal and state subsidies in exchange.

Mica said the transfer of ownership of the Northeast Corridor would permit the federal government to auction off train-operating and real estate development rights to the highest bidder. In 1987, President Reagan unsuccessfully proposed selling the Northeast Corridor to the highest bidder; and the George W. Bush administration had a similar objective.

Congress rejected the proposals, viewing them as attempts to destroy Amtrak and U.S. intercity rail passenger service. Among Republicans, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) have expressed opposition to any attempts at breaking up Amtrak’s national intercity rail passenger network.

Former Amtrak President David Gunn observed of a privatization proposal in 2002 that the Northeast Corridor will never be able to stand on its own financially. He said most of the overhead catenary providing electrical power between Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Conn., was erected during the 1930s and is in need of replacement. “Do you really think some company is going to come in and replace all those wires for an operation that, at best, might break even financially?” Gunn asked rhetorically.

The British-based and politically conservative Economist magazine reported in 2005 that the privatization of British Rail “has proved a disastrous failure … a catalogue of political cynicism, managerial incompetence and financial opportunism. It has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and brought rail travelers countless hours of delay.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) responded to the Mica proposal that Amtrak makes the Northeast region — one of the most densely populated in the U.S. — “work.” He said Amtrak was created in the first place because the private-sector could not earn a profit operating passenger trains.

Amtrak itself has been seeking private investors to help it finance proposed 220-mph high-speed rail over the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak, however, would retain care, custody and control of the corridor and continue receiving federal and state subsidies to operate passenger trains over it. Amtrak says more than 25 private investors have expressed an interest in participating with it in future high-speed rail projects.

Mica says he prefers full privatization, which is broadly seen as a backdoor attempt to destroy Amtrak and the nation’s national intercity rail passenger network.

Mica asserts his plan will hasten the development of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Currently, 65 percent of the corridor already has trains operating at between 110-mph and 150 mph, and Amtrak is the only rail passenger operator in the nation operating trains at speeds of at least 100 mph.

Aging Northeast Corridor infrastructure — including century old tunnels and track curvatures running through heavily populated areas — as well as federal safety mandates for passenger cars that are heavier than those used in Europe and Asia, have much to do with Amtrak’s inability to operate trains faster than currently are operated by Amtrak.

James Stem

By James Stem
UTU National Legislative Director

January brings a new session of Congress and the start of state legislative sessions across the country. Our UTU legislative team in Washington and our state legislative directors will be on guard protecting the interests of our members.

Two old UTU friends are in charge of key transportation committees in the House and Senate. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) now chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee; and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) continues as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Among UTU legislative priorities:

  • Growing passenger and freight rail transportation, including Amtrak, public transit and commuter airline service. America has become too dependent on foreign oil and expanded railroad and public transit service can help reduce that dependency and provide not just jobs, but excellent careers.
  • Growing funding for transit. While demand is growing, many transit systems have buses and commuter rail cars stored because of a shortage of operating funds. We will work to secure more flexible funding so service can be maintained and expanded.
  • Work to prevent the weakening or privatization of Social Security and Railroad Retirement.
  • Work with our aviation partners for reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to include new safety provisions.
  • Work to pass improvements to the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Our members know the solution to fatigue: “Just tell me when I must report for work and I will show up rested.”

Among improvements sought will be: A 10-hour call for all unassigned road service; a provision to allow regular yard jobs only eight hours off-duty between shifts; require yardmaster assignments to be covered by hours-of-service provisions; require advance notice of interim release periods; and, a limitation on limbo time to a maximum of two hours for each tour of duty.

While the UTU has many friends on both sides of the aisle, we expect very few major policy issues to pass Congress the next two years given the divided government (Republicans in charge of the House; Democrats controlling the Senate).

While that may be disappointing, we also expect there to be less opportunity for bad things to happen.

That said, we will keep pressing on and do our very best to protect the interest of our members.