Transit troubles ahead, ex-Amtrak head warns
Gunn made his remarks during a talk, The Future of Rail Transportation in America, as part of a Building Inter-Metropolitan Rail Corridors forum held Feb. 21 at Clayton Hall on UD's Laird Campus.
Sponsored by the Institute for Public Administration in the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy, the event was cosponsored by the National Corridors Initiative, with support from the Delaware Department of Transportation and WILMAPCO.
We are losing mobility for freight and passenger service in this country at a fairly alarming rate, Gunn said. All you have to do is look at the statistics. Demand is growing and the physical plant is inadequate, whether you are talking about highway, rail, or even air.
Gunn, a resident of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, previously headed transit systems in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. He currently is an adjunct scholar at the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank located in Washington.
Although he was fired by Amtrak's board of directors in November because of his opposition to an idea backed by the Bush administration to split the Northeast Corridor, he joked that he believed his Canadian citizenship helped keep him out of political scrapes for as long as possible.
When I was working at Amtrak, people used to ask me what my politics were, and whether I was a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, Gunn said. I used to say 'Tory.' It saved me for a while, but it finally caught up with me.
In assessing the current state of transportation systems in America, Gunn said he believes that such systems suffer from a shortage of capital investments for maintenance and expansion purposes.
We are hitting some really important physical and environmental walls as far as what we can do, Gunn said. If you look at the highway network, particularly in urban areas, it is full. You can't solve problems like this as you did in former years by adding lanes.
Another component of the transportation system problem, Gunn said, is that, with few exceptions, these systems are powered by petroleum and therefore subject to market pressures of supply and demand.
China and the Third World countries are becoming the First World, and the demand for oil is going through the roof, Gunn said. Oil is a finite resource, and oil production is eventually going to peak. When that happens, the market will create enormous dislocations.
Gunn said that America's transportation infrastructure is built on government dollars, and that the money currently being spent on this infrastructure is inadequate.
Another concern facing transportation planners and directors, Gunn said, is that transportation modes are interrelated. Investment in one mode, such as air or rail, affects investment in other modes.
Gunn said that while there is arguably a lot wrong with Amtrak, there also is a lot right with the system.
Amtrak was not set up to promote passenger rail service in this country. It was set up to save the freight rail system from going bankrupt and destroying the railroads, Gunn said. Something went wrong. What went wrong was that passengers started to come back and governments from states like California said, 'We need this thing.'
The Railway Labor Act of 1926 was a major piece of labor legislation passed by Congress. At the time, it applied to what was then the most important piece of transportation infrastructure in the country, the railroads. The act was amended in 1936 to cover the airline industry.
When you are talking about creating operating efficiency, you had better include changing work rules or you are never going to get away with it, Gunn said. I'm not trying to imply that we should drive our employees into low-paying jobs. What we need is an environment where you pay people well, but use them efficiently.
Besides reforming the Railway Labor Act, Gunn said that federal money has to be made available for funding passenger rail service, and that railroad retirement benefits eventually must be phased out and moved over to the Social Security System.
The federal government needs to give the states the power and the capital funding to let them make their own decisions, and this is not happening, Gunn said. The states are the ones that have to solve the problems.
Destroying Amtrak without dealing with railroad retirement and the Railway Labor Act or improving capital funding will not solve long-term transit problems and would also result in the loss of a lot of highly skilled Amtrak employees, Gunn said.
Amtrak has some really good people and has the only positive train control systems [integrates command, control, communications, and information systems for controlling train movements with safety] in this country that work, Gunn said. If you destroy that, you will have to pay a pretty penny to get it back.
While acknowledging that both Amtrak and the railway system in general have some serious problems to deal with, Gunn said he believes that the urgency of the situation may eventually produce a workable solution.
The good news is that the need for something creative to happen is so great that I'm not sure that the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., can resist it, Gunn said. Eventually, the market is going to demand some solutions to these problems. Hopefully we will be able to carry that out.
Article by Jerry Rhodes