By Noel T. Braymer
If you asked Amtrak passengers if Amtrak management was competent after they spent a day on a train with a car that had a serious problem, what do you think their answer would be? Or passengers stranded for hours on a train first because of mechanical problems, but then because Amtrak didn’t have replacement crews ready after the first crew went over their 12 work day limit? Or passengers who miss their connections because no one held the train even though the connecting buses were only a few minutes late. Adding insult to injuries the station agents sat in their warm station, while passengers looked in the cold for the train they were told was waiting for them? Or how about being a passenger told to wait at the wrong track and platform for their train? Then having their train leave the terminal empty without anyone at Amtrak noticing until the passengers started to complain? The answer to the question of Amtrak management incompetence from these passengers wouldn’t be yes, but HELL YES!!
The most serious problem at Amtrak is poor management. This isn’t a new problem. This has dogged Amtrak from the very beginning. There is no shortage of good, hard working people at Amtrak. But the management system at Amtrak is overly centralized, with decisions often made by people miles away from the incident with limited information of the problems. Often when there is a problem the manager who’s department is responsible for the problem isn’t held accountable. A conductor in California can’t open an empty car with a train overflowing with passengers without calling a supervisor back east first. But first they have to track down the right supervisor who may have left work for the day.
This makes it unwise for anyone to take the initiative on the ground at Amtrak. This is because even it they are right, they will be in trouble for not going through channels.The result of this is different departments at Amtrak don’t talk to each other and no one really knows what is going on. But what is most telling about Amtrak incompetence, is when ever there is a problem, be it major or small, it is the unpreparedness and confusion of the organization that is the norm. In the recent deadly crash in Philadelphia, the survivors had nothing but phrase for the first responders and condemnation for Amtrak. Adding insult to injury, this accident was highly preventable with existing technology that had been on the NEC since the days of the GG1 locomotives. Amtrak had this signaling on other tracks next to the crash site. Only after the FRA ordered Amtrak did it extend it to the track of the accident and other tracks without this signalling on the NEC.
Why is Amtrak as an organization so disfunctional? I think it is because the United States hasn’t had a successful rail passenger service for over 50 years. After World War II rail service was in decline and there wasn’t much incentive for bright young people to make a career in rail passenger service.There isn’t any place in this country to learn how to run a successful rail passenger service. In this country there isn’t one successful intercity passenger railroad, only Amtrak.
But there are plenty of successful passenger railroads operating at a profit. They are literally all over the world with each carrying more people, with more trains to more places than Amtrak. Just replacing Amtrak President Boardman won’t fix the problems at Amtrak because the same management and management culture will remain as it always has over the years with other former Amtrak Presidents.
What Amtrak needs is a major shake up of its management. The best way to do this is to replace much of Amtrak senior management with a successful rail passenger railroad taking over. This wouldn’t be much different than the way commuter train service is operated in many places. Every few years the contract for the operations is up for bid, The assets of the commuter railroad are publicly owned and the commuter rail employees can stay on their job no matter who wins the contract. But this creates competition for management which can lead to improved service and revenues. If the current company fails to deliver, then another company can be given the chance.
This will be a big project. We should have the bidders present a business plan including their capital needs and service improvement plans to increase the productivity of Amtrak. What will be exciting is what these railroads will propose to improve service and revenue. Also having well trained, competent management will be an education for Amtrak employees to learn how to really run a good rail passenger service.
So who would oppose this plan? The states directly subsidizing Amtrak service would have much to gain. The rural states with Long Distance trains have nothing to lose. So who might oppose contracting out management for Amtrak? The States along the Northeast Corridor. Right now most of the budget for Amtrak directly or indirectly goes towards the NEC. The commuter trains of the States on the NEC depend on Amtrak to manage and maintain many of the tracks these trains run on. They benefit from Amtrak funding for taking care of these tracks. The strongest political block of support for Amtrak is the Northeast States.
The Northeast States also uses Amtrak as the one in the middle of the turf wars between the many commuter railroads on the NEC. This is particularly true in the New York City region between Metro North, Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit. Amtrak has been put in charge by the local politicians to promote the plans to add new tunnels under the Hudson River and enlarge Penn Station to handle more commuter trains and passengers. The irony is that most of this increased rail service will not benefit Amtrak, but New jersey Transit. But the State of New Jersey has pulled its funding out of the plan to build the new tunnels and enlarge Penn Station.
What is appalling is that with a little cooperation between the commuter railroads a much better and cheaper alternative would be possible. This would require the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit to operate run through trains at Penn Station rather than terminating their trains there. This greatly improves the productivity of Penn Station allowing many more trains to use it. Some of these trains could to go on to Grand Central Station which has plenty of underused tracks and opens new markets for New Jersey and Long Island Railroads. But as New Jersey Transit’s executive director was quoted on the subject of increased cross agency cooperation ” If you’re not in charge you’re screwed” Well he didn’t say screwed, but I am being polite. But this is a strong case for importing competent management if we want better rail passenger service.