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Amtrak Privatization Proposal Opposed on Safety, Service Grounds

Within hours of the announcement that two Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives had introduced federal legislation to convert Amtrak from a single federal corporation into several privately owned passenger railroads, Democratic lawmakers, rail employee union representatives and officials from organizations that speak for train passengers voiced their opposition to the privatization proposal.

Published on June 21, 2011, and sponsored by Rep. John Mica of Florida and Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the Competition for Intercity Passenger Rail in America Act of 2011 calls for first selling off the rights to serve Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, along with Amtrak's engines and rail cars, to private entities. The Northeast Corridor extends from Boston to Washington, DC, and revenues from that sector help fund Amtrak's service to all other parts of the United States, such as the trains that run through Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina (NC).

Privatizing the Northeast Corridor would be the first step toward getting the federal government out of the business of passenger rail, a process the new legislations sponsors call necessary to allow the system to turn a profit and begin building and operating high-speed routes. "After 40 years of highly subsidized, poorly managed Amtrak operations, it's time for Congress to change the direction of America's failed high-speed and intercity passenger rail service," Mica told the Florida Times-Union.

A large group has aligned to oppose the privatization of Amtrak, however, claiming that private companies would have less incentive to serve passengers who live or need to travel outside the Northeast Corridor and would commit fewer financial and corporate resources to ensuring workers' and public safety.

Most of the critiques of dividing up Amtrak and selling off the chunks comes down to an interest in preserving routes that do not turn a profit but which millions of Americans rely upon to connect them to jobs and family. Reconnecting America has written, "Very few, if any of the long-distance lines will attract private sector funding. .. This .. may weaken or terminate the intercity rail connections that are the lifelines in small towns from Montana to West Virginia, as well as big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles."

The other major concern is that safety would suffer if federal involvement in city-to-city passenger rail service were reduced. Drawing a lesson from cities and states that contracted out tasks originally done by their agencies, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind told The Hill, "We have seen the many examples of botched public transit privatization experiments, the well-documented failures of privatized federal prisons and the abysmal working and safety conditions found in privatized school bus operations."

More bluntly, a United Transportation Union official said in a press statement that while he did not expect the Amtrak privatization bill to pass, "The legislation remains a rat hole worth watching, and our National Legislative Office will work diligently toward its defeat."

As a Carolina railroad injury attorney who works with a law firm whose lawyers have represented several Amtrak employees in FELA lawsuits, I could not support any plan that had the potential to make rail workers less safe. If the opponents of Amtrak privatization are correct in stating that safety would be less of a priority for private companies, then Amtrak should remain the federal corporation it is.

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