Amtrak's Bad Trip

If our national passenger rail line can't turn a buck running trains, maybe it can by enlisting in the drug war.


In addition to its high prices, weak coffee, bad food, and horrible service, here's one more reason to avoid Amtrak: It gives federal drug cops your travel itinerary.

If the narcs don't like how you paid for your ticket (helpful hint: avoid cash), or find a digit wrong in your phone number (or find none at all), or don't like the spelling of your name (any guesses which ones are most suspect?), you may get a visit from a DEA agent and his friendly dope-sniffing pooch when your train pulls into the station. Even if the feds don't find any drugs, they may relieve you of any extra cash you may be carrying, figuring the only use for large amounts of greenbacks is drug transactions.

Consider the experience of Sam Thach. In February 2000, a DEA agent showed up at his sleeper cabin after his train pulled into Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to court records, Amtrak provided the drug cops with info from their computer terminal. The cops learned that Thach was traveling from Fullerton, California to Boston Massachusetts. "The $702.50 ticket was purchased with cash on the day of travel," notes a government court brief. "Thach was traveling in sleeper room 6, car #430. No call back number was given on the reservation. Based upon his training and experience, [the DEA agent] Officer Salazar knew that drug traffickers commonly purchase a one way ticket for cash (sic) shortly before the train departs."

Thach, who was born in Vietnam and who barely speaks English, had a friend purchase his ticket, explains Thach's attorney, D. Penni Adrian. That partly explains the lack of a return number. Here's another reason: Thach, like other United States residents, didn't see the need to give Amtrak his phone number and, assuming he was in a free country, didn't think failing to do so, combined with purchasing an overpriced ticket, would place him under police surveillance. When the officer approached him, Adrian says it was clear from an audiotape that his language barrier prevented communication. When asked his age, for example, she says he gave the officer the ages of his three daughters.

Still, Salazar is a trained government agent, a regular Eliot Ness, so he just knew Thach was up to no good. "Salazar observed that Thach's eyes were opened wide, he swayed and shuffled his feet, and his hands shook while he placed them in and out of his pockets during the conversation of his travel plans," the court brief notes. That, and the fact he had a cell phone and a backpack in his sleeper, was enough for Salazar to start a search of the cabin. Thach was carrying $148,000 in cash, which he claims were proceeds from a lucky gambling streak. Salazar was dubious, and when Thach couldn't produce receipts, he brought in a drug dog to sniff the cash. The first dog found no evidence of drugs on the money, says Adrian, so they brought in another, one with an apparently more refined nose. It caught a whiff of cocaine, as it probably would if it put its snout in your wallet, since much U.S. currency has been thus "contaminated" since before Miami Vice went off the air.

Under then-current civil asset forfeiture laws (which were changed later in 2000), the dog's discovery provided probable cause for Salazar to just take the money. He didn't arrest Thach—that would have meant he had to actually charge him with a crime. Instead, the good officer just boosted $147,000 of Thach's money and sent him on his way, graciously leaving him $1,000 for the rest of his journey. (Considering the prices in what passes for a dining car on Amtrak, a grand would have been just enough for two soggy microwave pizzas and a warm can of Budweiser.)

Now it's up to Thach to prove a negative–that his money wasn't the result of a drug transaction. He is suing the government to get his money back.

This isn't the America they teach us about in grade school; hell, it's probably not even the America they teach kids about in Vietnamese grade schools. Thach's misfortune—and that of other people dumb enough to ride Amtrak—is Amtrak's fortune, and about the only way the railroad has of making one. The DEA and Amtrak refuse to release figures on seizures, although DEA agent Steven Derr, who runs the Albuquerque operation, told the Albuquerque Journal, which broke the story, that both arrests and seizures were "substantial."

Amtrak is an old economy company with a dot-com business plan. Which is to say that the more people buy Amtrak's product, the more money it loses. This past fiscal year, the railroad, which has consumed nearly $24 billion in taxpayer money since 1971, reported a record loss of $944 million. Like many dot-coms, it spends money advertising products it can't deliver. Witness the $20 million it used last year to tout its new Acela service from D.C. to New York. Alas, the train rolled out a year late and, although advertised as high speed, it makes the trip exactly two minutes faster than a private railroad did in 1969, according to the U.S. News & World Report. And that's on the rare trip without delays. Amtrak loses money on every route it runs except the Metroliner Train from D.C. to New York City and the heavily subsidized Heartland Flyer, a train that gullible state governments underwrite. (If forced to make it simply on passenger revenues, the Heartland Flyer would lose millions.) "Amtrak loses $2 for every ticket dollar it sells," notes the Heritage Foundation's Ronald D. Utt.

Yet unlike dot-coms, which were underwritten by private investors—and are therefore done and gone–Amtrak is underwritten by tax money, and hence will probably be around forever. Still, in exchange for a $2.2 billion bailout in 1997, Congress told the company that if it's not in the black by 2002, it has to develop a plan to privatize. Needless to say, Amtrak's not going to be in the black by then.

That helps explain the motivation for the rail line's partnership with the DEA. While Amtrak lost money on Thach's $702.50 ticket, it made plenty–$14,700–on his trip. In exchange for access to its booking system, the skilled negotiators at Amtrak's New Mexico operation negotiated a 10 percent cut of any money seized.

Since Amtrak's deal was first reported in the Albuquerque Journal, the railroad has been on the defensive. It has claimed the deal is one of a kind, but in an email to the Albuquerque Journal, Amtrak said it "will, on request, participate in and provide information for law enforcement." (Amtrak didn't return my calls for clarification.)

For its part, the DEA, sees nothing wrong with the arrangement. "I don't consider it an invasion of privacy," one agent told the Albuquerque Journal. An agency spokesperson, Rogene Waite, says the agency has similar deals with bus companies and airlines but won't discuss them, citing the need for law enforcement secrecy. Waite's also mum on whether the DEA's infiltration of Amtrak's reservation system is nationwide or limited to New Mexico. Evidence suggests the former.

"Upon reviewing public domain information," Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak mouthpiece who is now the company's most dogged critic, writes in a April 17 memo, "the Fourth Amendment violations do not appear to be chance occurrences but indeed indicate a pattern of violations, which suggests that a national Amtrak-DEA program is in effect."

Last November, for instance, the Albany, New York Times Union reported that "Amtrak has begun to police its skies with a helicopter leased with money forfeited by drug dealers." The account adds, "The money comes to Amtrak from a Justice Department program that rewards state and local authorities that have helped solve drug trafficking cases." In keeping with the real job of government public affairs people, DEA spokesperson Waite refused to comment on the source of funds for the helicopter.

Vranich has compiled numerous news stories of train station drug busts, and it's clear that the cops must have access to inside information. For instance, a September 1999 story in the Newark, New Jersey, The Star-Ledger explains how investigators in Washington, D.C. know who to target. Investigators told the paper, "Suspicious signs include people who pay cash for expensive, one-way tickets at the last minute, or whose phone number turns out to be bogus. Getting a sleeper car but not checking any luggage is on the list." Without access to travelers' booking information, how would the cops know any of this information?

The ACLU worries that the cops are targeting minorities (which the cops of course deny). Still, sometimes they target the wrong minorities. Carlos Hernandez, a former Newark policeman, knew his rights when he returned to his sleeper cabin on a train from Miami and found cops inspecting it on July 22, 1999. According to The Star-Ledger, the cops told him they wanted to search his luggage because they had been tipped that he had a large amount of narcotics (they'd already been searching his cabin without permission).

"I'll bet my kids' life they looked at the train's manifest, saw an Hispanic riding first class, $694 round-trip ticket, and they just wanted to shake me down," Hernandez told The Star-Ledger, noting that they broke the law by entering his cabin without a warrant and without his permission. "You went into my cabin, that's burglary," he said.

It certainly is, except when the burglars have badges–and conductor's watches. It's also one hell of a way to run a railroad.