Friday, February 06, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

An Amtrak train on the NEC in NJ, as seen from...Image via Wikipedia

This Week at Amtrak; February 6, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •

Volume 6, Number 5

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) Amtrak has a new hero, and his name is Daryl Pesce. Mr. Pesce is the General Superintendent in Chicago, for Amtrak’s Central Division. This guy should get a medal.

Mr. Pesce’s domain is one of Amtrak’s most difficult; Chicago is the main passenger rail hub of the Midwest, and trains converge into and out of Chicago from and to every direction to every part of the country. Eastern long hauls come in from New York and New England, as well as Philadelphia and Washington. Three of Amtrak’s premier transcontinental trains have terminals in Chicago, and it is directly served from New Orleans by the City of New Orleans. Chicago also has its share of corridor and short haul trains which include Michigan’s Pere Marquette, the Detroit service, as well as the Illinois services and others, such as the Hiawathas.

Together, this makes for interesting passenger railroading, because in addition to all of this, Amtrak has to work around Chicago’s vast commuter network.

As Amtrak’s General Superintendent in Chicago, Mr. Pesce is Lord of the Manor. However, along with the glory comes the responsibility over an Amtrak division that every year seems genuinely surprised when winter arrives immediately after the fall. For years, Chicago has been one of Amtrak’s biggest headaches when it comes to equipment maintenance and just about every other facet of operations. It’s almost been as if Amtrak’s employees in Chicago have been doing the equivalent of the inmates running the asylum. Employee comfort and convenience has in almost every instance beat out passenger service or a desire to operate a passenger railroad in an efficient manner.

For years, reports have dribbled into URPA and TWA about the naughtiness of Chicago maintenance employees, especially in winter. This has been on top of numerous firings for things like full-time Amtrak union employees also collecting a paycheck from a second employer while they were supposed to be working for Amtrak.

In short, accountability has been so far out of the window in Chicago, that accountability hasn’t been recognized by anyone recently as a current concept.

Daryl Pesce seems determined to change that. He’s asking questions, and, when the right answers don’t come, is demanding more. He’s not content with "business as usual," and wants things to improve. Not only is he demanding more of his top managers, but he’s rightly demanding more of the frontline employees, too. When a conductor or engineer on a far-flung train hours away from Chicago (but still in the division) makes a passenger-unfriendly decision, Mr. Pesce demands to know why that conductor or engineer was allowed to do that, and what’s being done to fix it in the future.

This is so refreshing, it’s hard to describe the euphoria it generates among those who believe adult supervision should always be prevalent in every part of passenger railroading.

Mr. Pesce is having to answer to the State of Michigan for December’s problems with the Pere Marquette, and Michigan’s Department of Transportation is being rowdy about the whole situation, and demanding performance for the money its spending. Other cities and towns along the way are jumping on Michigan’s bandwagon, and demanding accountability from Mr. Pesce’s division. This is all good; Mr. Pesce seems to be just the man to correct those situations and put new orders in place so problems won’t happen a second time.

In the past, there have been so many good managers, such as current Amtrak Vice President Richard Phelps, that have had to work in less than ideal circumstances because of an ingrained Amtrak culture of non-accountability. Here’s hoping Mr. Pesce, along with the higher-ups like Mr. Phelps, will continue to whack away at that unacceptable culture and create an Amtrak everyone can be proud to work for and to ride as a passenger.

2) Here’s what we have learned about Amtrak’s massive failure to have a serviceable locomotive fleet in the national system.

Several incorrect things have happened, along with some experimentation by an outside consultant who allegedly claims Amtrak can save big bucks by not performing routine maintenance on locomotives, but, instead, just replace crucial locomotive components at timed intervals.

One of the reasons so many trains were recently cancelled in and out of Chicago due to a lack of locomotives also falls on Washington, because eight locomotives were pulled out of the regular service pool to haul President-Elect Obama’s now-famous special train from Philadelphia to Washington on the Saturday prior to the inauguration.

The Secret Service has – correctly – very strict rules about presidential trains which have been in place for decades. The rules make a lot of sense, especially in today’s terrorist environment.

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Obama’s train would have been pulled by electric locomotives, since it operated exclusively on the Northeast Corridor. However, the Secret Service said no to that; diesel locomotives had to be used instead. This meant the presidential train was not at the mercy of overhead catenary, but, rather was always operating under its own power. That makes perfect sense. Also, the train – short as it was – had two locomotives instead of one, in case of engine failure. Another logical move.

What many people don’t know is a presidential train is always preceded by an advance train, which essentially makes sure the rails are clear, and if anyone has placed anything on the tracks, the advance train will deal with it, not the presidential train. Again, a train with two locomotives, bringing the total to four.

Behind the presidential train was a third train, offering protection from the rear. Again, two locomotives, for a total of six.

Two other locomotives were held in reserve, in case anything went wrong with the other six locomotives, brining the total to eight.

By the time Amtrak pulled these units out of regular service, spiffed them up mechanically and both inside and out for presidential service, and later returned them to service, they were gone from the pool roster for a long number of days.

Considering Amtrak was already short of locomotives before this special event, losing eight locos put a huge hole in Amtrak’s operating plan. As a result, regular train service on several routes in and out of Chicago was cancelled on various days for lack of motive power, sometimes for several days in a row.

If you were Amtrak, what decision would you have made? It’s impossible to turn down a presidential request, especially such a high profile request. Secret Service demands are high – thank goodness – and perfection is demanded. Lacking perfection, backup plans must be in place and everything must go off without a hitch. There is no room for error; too much is at stake on every level.

Amtrak did the right thing handling the presidential train, but, in reality, there should have been more than enough locomotives to handle a relatively small request of eight locomotives out of the entire fleet of 199 which serves intercity trains outside of the NEC (but does not include West Coast trains).

Intercity has a requirement of 150 locomotives on a typical day, out of 187 active units. (Keep in mind these locomotives include all of the East Coast units; New Orleans, New England, and anywhere else outside of the NEC and West Coast that needs power, so not all 187 active units have a home base of Chicago.)

It’s not unusual for 15% or more of those units to be out of service for maintenance; that’s 28 locomotives on average. Oops! Suddenly you’re almost out of locomotives. Take another eight units out of service for presidential service, and you’re in real trouble. (You think 15% of the locomotives down for maintenance is high? Think, again. On the NEC, it’s not unusual to have 24% of the locomotives out of service. The NEC has 96 units on its active roster, with a daily requirement of 65; sometimes 23 can be out of service.)

But, the question remains, why is Amtrak always short of locomotives, when it has enough motors on the books to handle all of its needs?

Because, Amtrak has been practicing – as a corporate policy – far too much deferred maintenance to save money, and also, when something breaks, Amtrak just sends a broken locomotive to sit idle in the weeds instead of repairing it.

There are also some silly policies about rotating spare parts stock that make little sense to the rational mind, and these policies often have Amtrak selling/getting rid of spare parts instead of using them to repair out of service locomotives.

3) Let’s get down home about this. If something like this became an issue in a political campaign, any good candidate would be having a field day with Amtrak’s locomotive problems.

Here’s how it would be portrayed for maximum impact: Amtrak, a semi-government corporation, which exists on annual subsidies of taxpayer monies on both the federal and state levels of well into billions of dollars, takes monies specifically to be used for equipment maintenance which allows Amtrak to fulfill its mandate of operating passenger trains for the benefit of the traveling public, yet does not spend that money on basic necessities like locomotive maintenance.

Instead of spending the money on required maintenance on equipment which costs more than $1 million per locomotive, Amtrak just parks this expensive equipment on a weeded side track instead of keeping it in revenue service. Because that locomotive is not in revenue service, and therefore, generating fares from passengers who may wish to travel on a train, Amtrak exacerbates the problem by keeping a valuable, revenue-generating asset idle, therefore, needing more government subsidy to make up for the lost income not generated by a working locomotive.

A good political candidate would be demanding reform, demanding relevant law enforcement agencies be looking into misuse of public funds, and demanding to know why all members of management directly associated with these decisions are still employed by Amtrak.

Legal minds will tell you – in theory – this is the kind of thing management is supposed to be accountable for to a normal board of directors, who are then accountable to stockholders on every level.

However, since this is Amtrak, the board rarely bestirs itself to take an active role in this level of management. In terms of outside remedies beyond the board, there may be the possibility of a citizen "qui tam" suit. This is a suit in which any citizen/plaintiff has standing to sue because the federal government is involved.

From a law enforcement standpoint, it would depend on how much gumption a federal prosecutor has and the time/inclination to start looking into such a rat’s nest of complex financial dealings and questionable bookkeeping practices which Amtrak has used for years.

Which means unless something extraordinary happens, Amtrak will probably get away with these hijinks, and continue to be unaccountable to anyone. Here’s wishing Daryl Pesce well in his pursuit of accountability in Chicago; perhaps he can persuade the powers that be that if he is going to be successful in rehabilitating Chicago into a normally-functioning division of Amtrak, he’s got to have available working locomotives to pull his trains.

4) Amtrak has a new Chairman of the Board, and, to no one’s surprise, he’s from Illinois. For some very odd reason, the Republican Chairman of the Board, Donna McLean, felt it appropriate to step aside from her duly appointed position, and install Thomas Carper, former Mayor of Macomb, Illinois as Amtrak’s new chairman. The former vice chairman, Hunter Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, left his position so Ms. McLean could become vice chairman.

Got that? Ms. McLean, who was chairman is now vice chairman, and Mr. Carper who was a board member is now chairman of the board, and Mr. Biden, who was vice chairman is now a board member. Nancy Naples remains on the board.

In April, Joe Boardman, the Interim President and CEO of Amtrak will become a full voting member of Amtrak board, as directed by the Amtrak authorizing legislation signed by former President Bush last October. There are still four board vacancies to be filled, as the board will be expanded from seven to nine members. The entire tenure of the Bush Administration never saw a fully-populated Amtrak board of directors.

Here’s the official press release from Amtrak, dated January 30, 2009.

[Begin quote]


Former Chairman Donna McLean becomes Vice Chairman

WASHINGTON – At its regularly scheduled meeting yesterday, Amtrak’s Board of Directors unanimously agreed to name Thomas Carper of Illinois as Chairman of the Board. Carper, who has served in various Illinois state and local government positions, including Mayor of the City of Macomb, has been a director on the Amtrak board since March 2008. At the same meeting former Chairman Donna McLean was named Vice Chairman, replacing Hunter Biden, who remains as a board member.

Carper said, "Everything we have done as a board, we’ve done as a unified body, and this change in our hierarchy is no exception. That this was a unanimous and non-contentious decision is testimony to that fact. I look forward to tackling the exciting challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Amtrak is ready to play a growing role in strengthening our transportation system and our economy."

The five-member board consists of four voting members, two Democrats, Carper and Biden, and two Republicans, McLean and Nancy Naples. Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman is a non-voting member of the board.

Former Chairman McLean, who was named Vice Chairman, said, "With the change in administration, its best for the company to have Tom as Chairman. I am pleased to be able to work with Tom and the rest of the board as we face the exciting and challenging years ahead."

As part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, the Board of Directors of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) is expected in 2009 to expand to nine members from its current allotment of seven positions, five of which are currently occupied. The President nominates and the U.S. Senate confirms Amtrak Board members.

About Amtrak

Amtrak has posted six consecutive years of growth in ridership and revenue, carrying more than 28.7 million passengers in the last fiscal year. Amtrak provides intercity passenger rail service to more than 500 destinations in 46 states on a 21,000-mile route system. For schedules, fares and information, passengers may call 800-USA-RAIL or visit

[End quote]

Here in the real world, it’s amusing the Amtrak board felt this step necessary. There is no evidence Ms. McLean would not have been able to continue functioning as Amtrak’s chairman, but, since she’s a Republican, turned over the reins to a Democrat.

This illustrates the folly of Amtrak being such a child of government; if it were strong enough to stand on its own without billions in federal subsidies every budget year, it wouldn’t matter if a Republican or Democrat was chairman of the board. All that would matter would be if the corporation was being run in a proper way.

Maybe, one day, that will be the case. In the interim, we’ve got a new chairman of the board with Illinois credentials.

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J. Bruce Richardson


United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203

Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739

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