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Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Drug protesters, Amtrak spar over trip

by Lauren Stanforth, Staff Writer
October 15, 2004

It must be election season when train protocol is said to have a connection to the outcome of a televised presidential debate.

Organizers of the Rx Express, a train carrying 25 people from Miami to Toronto to buy cheaper prescription drugs, sent out a statement this week saying the group would hold news conferences at many of the stations it passed through -- including one in Rochester on Wednesday.

But when the train arrived, Rx organizers leaned out a partially opened door and said Amtrak officials had barred them from exiting the train to talk to reporters.

Jerry Flanagan, health care policy director for the nonprofit group running the Rx Express, said Amtrak's action must have been taken to keep protests about U.S. prescription drug costs out of the news on the day of the last presidential debate.

"It wasn't a local Amtrak decision. It was clear this was coming from central office in Washington, D.C.," said Flanagan, who works for the group The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

But Cliff Black, director of media relations for Amtrak, said that statement is a fabrication. Black said Rx Express broke its original agreement with Amtrak to not hold news conferences on train station platforms.

There wasn't enough time between stops for the news conferences, Black said, and the events would have prevented the trains from running on time.

Black said Amtrak had agreed to allow reporters into the protesters' two private cars as long as they were provided a list of those reporters' names.

The reporters would then have to ride to the next stop.

"There was a violation of our agreement with the sponsors of the trip. But we had no prohibition against media riding the train," Black said.

The Rx Express eventually reached its destination late Wednesday. The train riders met with a Canadian physician Thursday to get their prescriptions.