As Marx Brothers movies go, Go West isn’t much. The aging comedy team was running out of ideas, and it shows: the plot is predictable and the gags are stale. Yet there is one memorable scene in the 1940 film. In it, the boys — desperate to keep a steam-powered locomotive chugging along — feed the entire train to itself, car by car, piece by piece, caboose to tender.
Management at the National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, performed a similar sacrifice in 2001. Four years into an effort to wean itself from federal operating subsidies, the rail carrier was running on empty. Executives had already started diverting funds earmarked for capital projects to help plug operating holes. But even that wasn’t enough, and soon, Amtrak’s management began cannibalizing the railroad. Recalls Cliff Black, Amtrak’s director of media relations: “We mortgaged everything.”
Things got so bad that the railroad took out a loan on New York’s Pennsylvania Station to cover three months of expenses. It was a move the U.S. Office of Management and Budget called “a financial absurdity equivalent to a family taking out a second mortgage on its home to pay its grocery bills.” Eventually, Amtrak conceded it couldn’t break even, and Congress continued pumping funds back into the rail operator.
The damage to the balance sheet had been done, however. During the five-year plan, the carrier’s debt load nearly tripled, from $1.7 billion to $4.8 billion. Once dubbed the “Glide Path to Profitability,” Amtrak’s intended march to self-sufficiency is termed something else by current CFO David Smith. “I call it the slippery slope to hell,” he says.
Since taking the reins last November, Smith has personally spent considerable time in purgatory — stuck awaiting vital federal funding for the carrier while politicians dither over the future of passenger rail service. “Amtrak’s never had full support from any Administration. And it has no ongoing real capital budget,” notes James Coston, chairman of Corridor Capital LLC, which specializes in finance and development for intercity and commuter rail systems. “So each year, they go up to Capitol Hill with a tin cup.”
And that cup remains far from full. Last February, for example, the White House announced it intended to cut off Amtrak’s billion-dollar-plus annual subsidy — which covers about half the railroad’s total budget — unless the carrier agreed to a radical restructuring. Both the House and the Senate defied the Administration, calling for subsidies ranging from $1.17 billion to $1.45 billion for 2006 (the carrier generated $1.9 billion in revenues last year against $2.9 billion in costs). But the details have yet to be ironed out, and it’s still unclear just how much money Amtrak will get.
Amid the revenue uncertainty, Smith must somehow pay down Amtrak’s borrowings, upgrade its information technology and financial skills, and wring concessions from entrenched unions. He is also charged with mapping out long-term capital investments on the railroad’s antiquated infrastructure — a tall order when you don’t actually know what funds will be available to finance the repairs. And he must do all this under the scrutiny of an Administration whose purported goal, says Amtrak president and CEO David Gunn, is “to destroy Amtrak.”