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Former Amtrak President Discusses His Departure
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Former Amtrak President Discusses His Departure

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Former Amtrak President Discusses His Departure

Former Amtrak President Discusses His Departure
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Host Steve Inskeep speaks with David Gunn, former president of Amtrak. The railway's board claimed that Gunn's enthusiasm for the job had waned since he assumed the head of that company three years ago. Gunn contends that his firing was the result of political disagreement.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

When the man who was fired as Amtrak's president came by to talk, he had a string around his neck. On the end of it hung passes for the subway in Washington, DC, and for Amtrak, assuming they still have trains, he said. David Gunn was removed by the board of directors of the national passenger rail service. The board said he was moving too slowly to reform. Gunn contends he was kicked out by Bush administration appointees who had very different motives.

Mr. DAVID GUNN: It's pretty clear that the administration designs on Amtrak have been very different than mine. And the board is just a puppet for the administration and DOT. They're not an independent board. I was standing in the way of their plans to dismantle a company. The other thing that was happening is we were actually being fairly successful in bringing order and fiscal discipline to the company which was making it more and more difficult for them to carry out their plan.

INSKEEP: Now I want to ask you about that. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has said he has no intention of trying to dismantle Amtrak. He said that for a number of months in the face of critics who've said otherwise. We spoke to him earlier this year, and this is some of what he said.

Secretary NORMAN MINETA (Transportation Department): We have spent over $29 billion in subsidies to this rail system. I don't think we should continue pouring money into a flawed system. If the president and I really were out to kill Amtrak, we wouldn't do anything.

INSKEEP: David Gunn, Transportation Secretary Mineta's saying that if you stayed on the same track, so to speak, that the railroad would go out of business on its own.

Mr. GUNN: Well, we're a subsidized operation. So if Congress continued to subsidize the capital and operating expenses of the system, we're not going to go out of business. If they don't subsidize it, we do. The fact of the matter is, the administration's stated plan for Amtrak in this current year was to bankrupt the company. They literally used that word in their budget proposal, and they put zero funding in for capital and operating. Their legislative proposal for Amtrak calls on splitting the company up into three pieces, separating the corridor...

INSKEEP: You mean removing the Northeast corridor trains from Washington...

Mr. GUNN: Not the trains, just the track.

INSKEEP: Tracks.

Mr. GUNN: I mean, this is even more nefarious than that. They take the asset and turn the asset over to somebody else and leave the trains out there for someone to run. Initially it's Amtrak, but they go through this little mantra about privatizing the service.

INSKEEP: Well, the idea is they want to make the tracks something like a public highway that various companies might use, including Amtrak and many other people.

Mr. GUNN: But railroads are not like a public highway because first of all, the Northeast corridor is at capacity. Secondly, it has to be an iron discipline between the operating of the trains and the maintenance of the track. There's also a connection between the design of the equipment and the track and the facilities that you have. When you want to maintain a highway, what do you do? You put up a detour sign and tell you to go somewhere else. You don't do that on the railroad. You have to do it under traffic and there has to be a very tight coordination between maintenance and operations.

INSKEEP: Even though you've argued that Amtrak needs to be subsidized, which is what its supporters will say--That's the way that railroads have been in many countries--Amtrak's critics will say that this railroad does not need to lose nearly as much money as it's been losing. One example found by the Government Accountability Office this year has to do with food service. It says that Amtrak in a couple of recent fiscal years spent $2 for every $1 it got back on food service, which was shocking to me as somebody who's ridden a lot of these trains, that every time I was paying $5 for a sandwich, it cost Amtrak $10?

Mr. GUNN: The food service has historically been a deficit operation on the railroad. It is an area that we were attacking pretty aggressively to reduce the deficit. If you just remove the food service from the trains, you will not save these large sums of money that they're talking about because you will lose revenue in greater and greater amounts than you save, so...

INSKEEP: Why? Because fewer people will take the trains and fly to--OK.

Mr. GUNN: Sure. I mean, are you going to ride from Chicago to Seattle with no food on the train? That's what they're talking about. A lot of the people who want to deal with the so-called Amtrak problem, they're looking for a silver bullet. They're looking for something that you can do administratively which saves money.

INSKEEP: Does the country just have to accept that this rail service will lose billions of dollars every year?

Mr. GUNN: It doesn't lose billions of dollars. The operating cash deficit for the entire national system is less than $500 million.

INSKEEP: That's the operating expense...

Mr. GUNN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...of actually running the trains.

Mr. GUNN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: It doesn't involve capital investments and other...

Mr. GUNN: No. And capital--passenger rail is going to be no different than highways or airports. You're going to have to have federal investment.

INSKEEP: When you left Amtrak...

Mr. GUNN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...you sent a memo to the board of directors, which has since been reprinted in the newspapers. I wonder if you can tell me what that memo said.

Mr. GUNN: My letter said, `I did not resign. I was removed. It's been fun. Good luck.' If I had resigned, I think it would not have exposed what they were trying to do, which I think was to destroy the company.

INSKEEP: David Gunn was until recently the head of Amtrak.

We called the Department of Transportation for a response to his accusations, and the general counsel says the Bush administration is committed to saving and improving Amtrak and that the members of the board are qualified to serve.

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