Thursday, January 07, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Amtrak ChilledImage by ahockley via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; January 5, 2010

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 7, Number 1

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which 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, New York, and other cities. 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) Welcome to the seventh year of This Week at Amtrak, where there is always the hope, dream, and desire Amtrak will become a responsible part of our nation’s domestic transportation network.

Hope always springs eternal. Reality always disappoints.

Where are we this January that we weren’t last January?

We still do not have a permanent president of Amtrak (see the next item below).

We still do not have an expected passenger equipment order which will expand the fleet.

We still do not have a funded marketing plan which will increase ridership nationwide.

We still do not have every train in the system operating on a daily schedule.

We still do not have anything but a bare, inadequate, skeletal national system.

We still do not have anyone publicly leading the company with a future vision or growth plan.

We do have a plan to take the Sunset Limited west of New Orleans to a daily operation, but we don’t have a plan to restore the illegally stopped service east of New Orleans.

We do have some executives at Amtrak who are anxious to make the company perform better and provide better service, but they are hamstrung by the cadre of executives who seem to be there mostly for the retirement package.

We do have a desire on the part of many Americans of all ages to ride trains, but there are not many trains to ride.

We do have other competent passenger train operators in this country waiting for the opportunity to move beyond providing commuter services to real intercity services.

We do now exist in the era of anticipating coming high speed rail, but it’s going to be a long, long process getting there.

We do have visionaries like former Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Gil Carmichael who have developed realistic plans for the future, but often these learned and inspiring voices seem to be talking in the wilderness more than to receptive audiences in Washington, no matter how long and hard they talk and make a great deal of sense.

We do have people like Andrew Selden of Minneapolis, Minnesota who not only understand the business of passenger railroading, but are willing to create a vision and plan for the future.

Where are we in January 2010 versus January 2009? Another year has gone by without much major happening in the world of Amtrak.

Keep in mind, that has occurred intentionally on the part of Amtrak; it has had a plethora of opportunities, and it has chosen to focus on planning for the expected panacea of high speed rail and ignore its core business of 79 M.P.H. conventional trains. Maybe that’s why so many foreign passenger rail operators, from across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have expressed an interest in developing high speed rail in the United States. These astute businessmen have looked at Amtrak and found it wanting in so many ways; they must figure competing for Amtrak for a chunk of business is like shooting fish in a barrel.

2) There is always someone in a company who has the zest and drive to make things happen. Eh, not so much at Amtrak.

The Amtrak Board of Directors, which will never be mistaken for a body which takes bold action, has extended indefinitely the tenure of interim President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman.

The Amtrak board currently consists of five voting members, one being Mr. Boardman. There are four vacant seats on the board, two of which have nominees awaiting Senate confirmation. Two seats have no announced appointees; apparently the White House and various and sundry Members of Congress haven’t agreed upon who gets those seats (If anybody asks, we can recommend a cadre of highly competent potential board members, none of which have the type of conflicts the two current nominees have, and each would be a stellar addition to the board.).

So, in a fit of bold caution, the Amtrak board extended Mr. Boardman’s contract and made a statement saying a permanent president of Amtrak would not be announced until the board is more fully populated.

Hmmmm, let’s see. When was the last time the Amtrak Board of Directors was fully populated?

Seriously, anybody know?

You have to go all the way back to the end of the Clinton Administration to find a legal quorum of board members.

In the interim during the Bush years, stars like former board chairman David Laney and some others held things together and worked through a number of problems while the White House dithered and the Senate obfuscated about appointing qualified board members.

So, Mr. Boardman gets to keep his job a while longer.

Okay, let’s get to the bottom line. There is certainly a rational argument to be made about a board of directors hiring a chief executive, and then new members of the board arrive and find the chief executive not to their liking. We’ve already seen that scenario play out with the unlamented departure of former Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant. Even though Mr. Kummant departed over disagreements about a number of issues, it was never an ideal situation to have a CEO hired by a departed board expected to meet the needs of a new board.

The big complaint really centers around the White House. Guys, it’s been a full year, now. That is more than enough time to find and screen political appointees to the Amtrak board. There are a number of qualified people just waiting in the wings, hoping for a chance to lead Amtrak into a better era and a more prosperous time. But, the Amtrak board, always a bottom of the barrel issue for any White House administration, remains a sideshow, and – highly regrettably – business as usual reigns.

In the interim, how about some leadership from the United States Department of Transportation and/or the Federal Railroad Administration? How about setting some goals for Amtrak and creating a true surface transportation policy?

How about SOMEONE doing SOMETHING? Doing ANYTHING? Dan Pardue of Raleigh, North Carolina, when trying to do problem solving with non-cooperative equipment or non-cooperative clients, always says “Do something, even if it’s wrong. At least some action is being taken, and perhaps the right answer will come along by starting some sort of process.”

Amtrak, here at This Week at Amtrak we will gladly provide you with Mr. Pardue’s telephone number so you can call him for some tutoring. Please, start some sort of process to start doing something – anything, please.

In 2009, a year which will go down in the annuals of history as a truly misbegotten year, Amtrak received record amounts of free federal monies. Stimulus money flowed, and regular budget money flowed.

While Amtrak did start whittling away at a backlog of projects which are nice to have completed, most of those projects (with the stark exception of rolling stock rehabs) will not generate any additional revenues for Amtrak. Most of the projects are just things which needed to be done, and had been neglected; some for decades.

Again, Amtrak has an unprecedented opportunity for change and upgrading itself as a company and our nation’s domestic passenger railroad.

But, Amtrak seems to be doing a bang up job of wasting that opportunity, instead of taking advantage of so much manna from the federal treasury.

We give Mr. Boardman credit for stabilizing some things, and he gets a huge “attaboy” for leading the company to accepting Brian Rosenwald’s excellent work of starting the process of converting the Sunset Limited west of New Orleans into a daily – yet, still a bit flawed – operation. We’re waiting for some leadership on what will happen east of New Orleans, and we keep hearing whispers the Cardinal, perhaps one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes, will be lifted from the doldrums and waste of a tri-weekly operation.

But, Mr. Boardman, in his interim post, is still head of the company, and he still sets the daily tone and pace of the company. We do expect some sort of future vision, even if it’s just a building block to be used by a permanent CEO. We do expect some sort of growth plan, and we do expect an equipment order beyond the rather paltry announcements which have been made for replacement equipment, only.

In short, even if it’s interim leadership, we do expect leadership.

Amtrak is an ongoing enterprise, with a long-forgotten mandate and mission to provide the United States of America with a national passenger train service. Keeping Amtrak in a state of suspense because the White House and Members of Congress can’t decide on political appointees for the board of directors is not only wasteful, it’s sinister and displays an outright prejudice against all of us who understand and cherish passenger rail travel.

Mr. Boardman, please start the process. The Obama White House, please do your duty and populate the Amtrak Board of Directors. United States Senate, please fulfill your advise and consent duties as outlined in the constitution so the Amtrak board seats can be filled in an expeditious manner.

Somebody, somewhere, please, don’t leave us all hanging.

3) Amtrak ended 2009 battling the late fall/early winter Blizzard of 2009, with a pretty good record. Chicago got penalized by one of its host railroads dumping a freight train off the tracks, causing a huge traffic jam, and it took a while to get things back to normal. No penalty to Amtrak. On the Northeast Corridor, while the airlines just threw up their collective hands and said they weren’t flying in the bad weather (it’s kind of tough to blame them when the weather is that nasty), Amtrak did mostly fulfill its duty as the all-weather common carrier and kept a lot of trains running, as did its host railroads south of Washington, even though trains were woefully late. Too many trains were cancelled during the busy holiday period (it’s especially vexing Amtrak chose to cancel the Palmetto, even though the majority of its run was south of the destruction of the storm), but transportation still was available.

There were too many mechanical malfunction reports of Amfleet cars on the NEC with doors which were frozen open. Gosh, those cars have only been around for a bit more than three decades now, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, one has to believe someone in that vast period of time could figure out how to overcome Budd’s design flaws of the vestibule doors freezing in the open position when the car is full of passengers traveling at 100 M.P.H. and the icy wind is tearing through the interior of the car and passengers.

Going further into winter, Amtrak has been battling more weather-related problems and the country has been battling record cold temperatures and storms. (It MUST be all of that global warming; what other explanation could there be for such a cold and cruel start of what most likely is going to be a long, cold, bitter winter?) Some trains are running more than a dozen hours late, other trains just seem to be disappearing off of the schedule, and are never being launched out of their terminals.

This is when Amtrak’s too thin fleet reserves come back to bite it. Inbound equipment that normally turns for the next day’s outbound train suddenly is stranded on a siding somewhere on the far side of nowhere, and there’s no spare equipment to put on the road. Passengers and crews are stranded; things spin more and more out of control, and eventually system gridlock occurs. Remember all of that old equipment that used to sit around, but is gone, now? Wouldn’t it be nice to have that for occasions just such as this winter?

Before the Age of Amtrak, the private passenger railroads always kept a slice of their old equipment fleets around for use in emergencies. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t the most efficient stuff in the world, but it got passengers to a destination when nothing else could. Amtrak has scrapped or sold all of its old equipment; after all, since it gets lots of free federal monies from the government treasury it doesn’t have to worry about keeping passengers happy by providing them the transportation they paid for in advance. Amtrak can just annul as many trains as it wants, and say “so sorry, so sad” to its stranded passengers, and keep totaling up the tab to be paid for by Congress next budget year.

What a way to run a railroad.

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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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