Friday, November 11, 2005

Mr. Mineta: Firing this Gunn will Backfire!

***scroll for update...3:55pm CST today***

After reviewing many comments, articles, quotes, and reactions during the past few days, it is obvious that the chasm between Congress and the Bush Administration over rail passenger service will widen. It is also obvious that those who have studied this situation realize that firing Gunn was due to politics, not performance.

Here are several points that must be considered:

-Amtrak was never, NEVER set up to make money. Amtrak was set up to preserve rail passenger service.

-Amtrak is not a commuter railroad. Never was intended to be. Oh, there may be some who ride from Trenton to New York, or Oceanside to Los Angeles, or Glenview to Chicago on a round trip basis five days a week to their job, but Amtrak is not a commuter carrier. New Jersey Transit, Metrolink, and Metra are commuter carriers.

-Amtrak has never had consistent financial support from Congress. Even a fraction of the bailout of United Airlines Pension would have been an improvement. And Trains Magazine reported that Amtrak's budget has actually decreased 29% from 1982 until 2005!

-Understand that I generally support the Bush Administration. Until Howard Dean and Harry Reid are stiffled, I am a "Rattlesnake Republican", that is, I will vote for a rattlesnake before I vote for a Democrat, at least in any election for a National office. Anti-Administration venom is not a part of Rip Track.

-In September, Amtrak Board Chair David Laney said, "Mr. Gunn has done, as far as I am concerned, a splendid job". However, in November, Mr. Laney said that Amtrak needs "a different type of leader who will aggressively tackle the company's financial, management and operational challenges." This remarkable turnaround happened in the face of record Amtrak ridership with a much reduced payroll. Laney's about face is even more absurd in light of comments from DOT General Counsel Jeffrey Rosen, generally an Amtrak critic, who noted, "In 2005, the independent audit was completed in March, instead of September and no material weaknesses were found. While Amtrak's auditors still find significant areas for improvement, they comment favorably on developments over the last three years."

-How many Amtrak Board Meetings has Secretary Mineta attended in the more than four years of his appointment? Exactly the same number of vetos that President Bush has affected since taking office. When combined with the fact that the Amtrak Board is supposed to have seven non-partisan Board Members, it is clear that the Bush Administration does not have the best interests of Amtrak at heart. That's because there are now only four members, of which two are recess appointments which expire with Congress's adjournment this year. Thanks to the National Association of Railroad Passengers for this information.

-Senator Carper (D-DE) has been quoted as saying, "His (Gunn's) departure is not going to convince anyone in the Senate that selling off the Northeast Corridor is a good idea." Correct. To the point. Obvious. And combined with the Senate's recent 93 to 6 (!) vote in support of Amtrak, there must be plenty of GOP Senators who support Gunn rather than Mineta here.

-On the other hand, Mr. Gunn did much to improve Amtrak. Without Mr. Gunn, Amtrak may not have been around today. Once again, thanks to the NARP for this.

-Amtrak is not perfect. Improvements are needed. But when the government doesn't feed the patient, and then condemns it for being weak, there is responsibility to be taken in other places besides Amtrak's headquarters.

So, where does all of this lead? Amtrak can be made more efficient. Amtrak does need help, not only from Congress and the Administration, but from a strong leader who knows how to run a railroad. But progress was being made, and it was coming about in large part because of a strong leader, a better leader than had been in place for some time. Gunn has shown he can make a positive difference. Mineta has not. But Gunn worked for Mineta, and maybe that is the problem. With government money comes government control.

Amtrak's issues were not due to David Gunn. Amtrak's issues are due to politics.

Mineta and Laney have made a hugh mistake. The "release" of Gunn will not solve Amtrak's issues. To those who support this "release", don't be surprised if the prediction of many comes true. The Bush Administration does not want to improve Amtrak, they want to dismantle it. Unless Congress reacts, it's going to happen.

Amtrak will not be better. It will be gone.

UPDATE: I finally found the post-firing interview with Mr. Gunn by Railway Age Editor William Vantuono. It's on the Railway Age Breaking News website, and it is worth the read. Scroll down a ways to the headline, "I did the honorable thing." But hurry, I don't know how long the link will work.


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