NORMAN MINETA, confirmed as US Transportation Secretary on December 9 in President George W Bush’s second cabinet, lost no time in making clear that he would work to push through controversial plans to cut the federal spend on Amtrak. The proposals would see states take more responsibility for funding if they wished to retain long-distance passenger services.

The DoT’s inspector general Kenneth Mead has meanwhile weighed in with a report criticising Amtrak for not doing enough to grow revenue and cut costs. In effect, Mead has confirmed the doomsday scenario predicted by Amtrak President & CEO David Gunn, who continues to demand higher subsidy from Congress to improve infrastructure and rolling stock and keep the national network intact.

Mead said that Amtrak must focus its scarce dollars on critical problems rather than trying to spread its resources over the whole network. He rebuked Amtrak for squandering money on upgrading its sleeping cars while ignoring repairs to failing bridges, tunnels and other structures in the Northeast Corridor. Warning that the infrastructure is at risk from a ’major point of failure’, he said that ’no one knows when such a failure will occur’. Further, Amtrak’s ’unsustainably large operating losses and poor on-time performance’ were a ’clarion call’ for urgent action. Even though ridership has been going up and costs have been kept under control, Mead said it had not been enough - revenue fell in the year ending September 30 by 6·8%.

In response, Gunn said that Amtrak would continue with its strategy of delaying capital projects to stay within budget. A spokesman added that service cuts would not provide funds for structural repairs and upgrades because of continuing overhead and labour costs that require redundant workers to be paid some or all of their regular wages for several years. The 2005 appropriations bill passed by Congress (p10) gives Amtrak $1207m, which is nearly $600m less than the minimum Gunn says he needs.