IN the last several weeks, while the news was full of disasters and discussion of avian flu, Amtrak was dealt two quiet blows.
The president of Amtrak — the nation's long-distance passenger rail system — was fired, and the profitable Northeast Corridor (Boston to New York to Washington,
D.C.) was split off from the system. The rest of the country could soon find its train service eliminated.
The Amtrak board of directors that approved these changes consists of four members (out of what should be a seven-person board), three of whom have never been confirmed by the Senate. Each holds recess appointments from the Bush administration. (Such an appointment occurs when the president fills a vacant federal position during a congressional recess.) In each instance, the decisions were made without warning, public discussion or debate.
The person fired, David L. Gunn, was appointed to head the rail corporation in 2002 by a bipartisan group of directors led by Republican John Robert Smith (then chairman of Amtrak) and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis (then vice chairman). Gunn has since been hailed by some as the most effective president in Amtrak history.
But this year, when the administration proposed eliminating all funding for Amtrak and thus forcing the railroad into bankruptcy, Gunn fought back. To what extent were Gunn's efforts supported by Congress?
Consider this: Several days before Gunn was dismissed, the Senate, by a vote of 93-6, authorized $11.6 billion in the next six years for Amtrak improvements.
It is hard to debate with some who don't support Amtrak, because their policies are based on ideology. Government is bad, goes their essential argument, and most government programs, such as Social Security, should therefore be privatized and phased out.
At a country club in Palm Beach, Fla., where I delivered a talk on travel several years ago, I found it difficult to respond to the arguments of several affluent members who objected to my defense of Amtrak. People should transport themselves over short distances by car, they said; everyone has a car.
Because the public overwhelmingly prefers flying, the train travel chosen by a small minority should be eliminated. If a program (like Amtrak) doesn't make money, it should be terminated. I became so flustered that I neglected to ask whether the money-losing police or fire departments should be eliminated.
Unfortunately, the time for debate has run out. Those who oppose Amtrak aren't debating, they're acting. Before we know it, Amtrak schedules outside the Northeast could disappear, and people unable or unwilling to fly will be without adequate transportation.
This issue is too important to ignore. All of us who support this sensible and efficient form of transport should phone and write our representatives in Congress about it — and soon.