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Buffalo News (New York)


October 14, 2004

A train ride from Miami to Toronto by a group of U.S. senior citizens intent on buying low-cost prescription drugs in Canada turned into a running feud between a consumer group and Amtrak.

During a brief whistle stop Wednesday at Buffalo's Exchange Street Station, the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, sponsor of the "RX Express," accused the White House of trying to undercut the excursion by pressuring the government-funded rail passenger corporation to keep reporters from interviewing elderly passengers upset with high U.S. drug costs.

"We're locked in. They won't let us leave the train," complained foundation spokesman Jerry Flanagan, kneeling in a doorway of one of two cars the group chartered to dramatize its campaign to lower drug prices for citizens.

As Amtrak's Maple Leaf pulled away, Flanagan handed down copies of a news release headlined: "Is Amtrak, Bush Administration Trying to Derail RX Express?"

Amtrak replied that it was simply enforcing rules designed to keep its trains safe and on schedule.

The foundation's claim of political pressure was "absolutely not true," said Marcie Gogoski, an Amtrak spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "Those are private cars attached to a scheduled train. We cannot delay departures and arrivals along the route," she said.

As the New York City-to-Toronto train rolled on toward the border crossing at Niagara Falls, Flanagan said by cell phone that his group talked freely with reporters at station stops from Miami, where the trip originated Monday, to New York City.

"We probably had a dozen news conferences," he said.

But Amtrak, he said, cracked down on the New York City-Buffalo leg of the journey, shortening a scheduled 15-minute stop in Albany and stopping the chartered cars short of the platform in Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. Passengers also were barred from moving between the chartered cars and the rest of the train, Flanagan claimed.

"Someone," he said, was trying to squelch debate on "the issue of making medication more affordable for Americans."

Gogolski countered that Amtrak told the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights weeks ago that news conferences could not be held on station platforms, and that media representatives would be denied access to the platforms.

Reporters and photographers were free to board the train to talk to the passengers between stops, she said.

Though Gogolski contended Amtrak was going by longstanding Amtrak rules that have been tightened since the Madrid terrorist train bombings, no one tried to shoo reporters from the Exchange Street platform.

"Sometimes things don't get enforced because stations don't have the staff to do every little thing," she said.

Flanagan said about 25 seniors and other people needing affordable prescription drugs boarded the "RX Express" along the Eastern seaboard.

The trip ending in Toronto Wednesday night was designed to underscore the fact that drugs are available at discounts of 30 to 60 percent in Canada because the government buys them in bulk -- a system that pharmaceutical companies have blocked in the U.S.

During a similar train excursion from West Coast cities to Vancouver recently, passengers were able to buy pharmaceuticals at prices that would save them an average of $2,000 a year, the foundation claimed.
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