Amtrak Accounting

For private businesses, being self-sufficient means covering all your costs. For Amtrak, recipient of more than $23 billion in subsidies since 1971, it means covering any of its costs. Certain incidentals don't count as legitimate expenses--like maintenance of locomotives and passenger cars, depreciation on this equipment, and employees' retirement plans. Or so say Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, Amtrak Chairman Tommy Thompson (who moonlights as the welfare-slashing governor of Wisconsin), and some of the senators who oversee Amtrak's government-granted monopoly.

In late January, the Amtrak Reform Council, established a few years ago to help Amtrak locomote entirely on its own steam, released a report projecting operating losses of $567 million in 2002. Under a 1997 law, Amtrak must develop a plan to privatize itself--"complete liquidation" is the exact legislative language--if it is unable to cover its costs by the end of that fiscal year.

The Reform Council report didn't start the dreaded privatization process, but Amtrak, and interest groups earning a living off it, still denounced its findings. Sonny Hall, head of the AFL-CIO transport workers union, told the Associated Press that the report should have been called, "A Preliminary Death Wish for Amtrak." The National Association of Railroad Passengers, a D.C. lobby that's been fighting for subsidized train service since 1967, was adamant that just because a law mandates self-sufficiency doesn't mean it requires Amtrak to support itself.

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on February 24 to explore the issue, where Gov. Thompson maintained that forcing Amtrak to cover all its costs would doom its chances at ever being self-sufficient. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed, and urged the Amtrak Reform Council to adopt lower standards.

Problem solved.

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