By Noel T. Braymer
A recent Blog by Fred Frailey on the Trains Magazine website brought up this September’s retirement of Joe Boardman. Nothing so far has been announced by the Amtrak Board of Directors on who his successor will be. Fred Frailey speculated that an interim president selected by Boardman would be likely and that Stephen Gardner, who is Amtrak’s executive vice president for Northeast Corridor Development would get the job. Frailey went on to point out that Boardman was originally named an interim President after then Amtrak President Kummant resigned 8 years ago. Boardman, then the FRA administrator for the George W. Bush Administration clearly needed a new job after 2008. The assumption seems to be that Boardman who has made hints of wanting to appoint his successor is pushing for an insider at Amtrak to replace him. Is this a good idea? I don’t think so.
Amtrak has had a number of problems largely due to systemic poor management in just the last few years. Amtrak is millions of dollars short in revenues and has been trying to stop the bleeding of cash by cutting costs. The result is reductions in service which in turn reduces revenues. Last year saw the deadly derailment and crash of train 188 in Philadelphia with 8 killed and over 200 passengers injured. This was a result of the engineer not paying attention to the speed limit and came to a 50 mile an hour curve at over 100 miles an hour. There has been much talk about the lack of Positive Train Control (PTC) which would have prevented this crash. The fact is PTC wasn’t available last year. But what would have prevented this crash was an older signalling system: Automatic Train Control (ATC) which was in use on the NEC last year. It just wasn’t operating on the track train 188 was on. But it was available on other tracks next to train 188. After the crash the FRA ordered Amtrak to put ATC on all tracks on the NEC before it allowed Amtrak service to resume. This was a failure of Amtrak Management. Why was the ATC removed in the first place?
An even more serious management failure was another train accident this April near Philadelphia. A track crew was doing routine track maintenance on a Sunday morning on a track which was suppose to be out of service. What happened was a major failure of communications and failure to enforce safety regulations. At a shift change, there was a failure to update the oncoming dispatchers of the work on the track where the accident happened. The red block on this track was removed at the shift change. Even more disturbing was the work on this track was allowed without 2 vital pieces of required safety equipment. One missing safety item was radio communications with the dispatcher. The track crew had cell phone connections with dispatch. But radio connections are needed for workers to monitor train radio traffic in their area. With it the work crew would have been able to know that a train was coming on the track they were working on. This would have given them time to contact dispatch of the problem and more time to get out of the way. But an even more important missing safety device was a copper cable called a shunting device. What this does is simulate the effect of a train in a block. Tracks have electricity running through them. A train or a shunting device causes a short circuit on a track segment putting a red signal on that block. If all else had failed, if that crew had a shunting device deployed they would have lived and the Palmetto would have come to a full stop short of the work area.
An important measure of good versus bad management is communications. With poor communications comes bad management. A classic example of this at Amtrak happened just 2 years ago. Passengers at New York Penn Station were sent to the wrong platform for an Acela train to Washington. The Acela came on a track next to an empty platform for a train with 85 reserved passengers boarding at New York. Nobody at Amtrak asked any questions about where were the passengers. So the train left empty and 85 very angry paying customers of Amtrak raised hell and this was a very embarrassing incident for Amtrak which made headlines around the world. Communications is critical in transportation. The airlines learned that lesson in 1977 at the airport at Tenerife on one of the Spanish Canary Islands. This secondary airport was jammed with planes because the main airport for the Canary Islands was closed after a bomb exploded at a terminal. This small airport with one runway was jammed with planes that blocked the taxiway, so planes had to taxi on the runway. On top of this the airport had problems with fog. So operations were very slow at this airport with lots of planes running late .
What happened was a Pan Am 747 was taxiing on the runway. A KLM 747 was standing by waiting for clearance to take off. The pilot thought he had clearance and ordered the co-pilot to start take off. The co-pilot said (heard on the voice recorder in the cockpit) that he hadn’t heard the tower clear them for take off. The pilot at this point could have checked with the tower and would have been told to stay put. Instead he repeated the order to take off. The result was the KLM 747 hit the Pan Am 747 and 583 people died between the two planes. Since then the airline industry has encourage pilots not to act like martinets and instead spend more time listening to lower ranking airline employees. The result of this has been a marked reductions in the number pilot error accidents since 1977. This has even spread to military aviation. Not long ago a crewman on an American Navy aircraft carrier made a mistake on the flight deck which could have resulted in damage and injury. As a result of his training he reported his error to superiors which brought on a complete shutdown of flights while the problem was fixed. The ship’s captain instead of “chewing the ass” of this crewman, got on the ship intercom to publicly praise this crewmen’s quick reporting of this problem which saved the Navy money and prevented injuries.
Amtrak President Boardman has a reputation of having a thin skin and being easily angered when given bad news or opposing views. One result of this is several of the best managers at Amtrak have quit, passed over for promotion or fired by Boardman. He has started many projects without careful planning only to walk away from them. The classic example is the plan for a daily Sunset. As soon as he got resistance from the UP, he backed off. He has been promising lots of new trains to States in the hopes they will pay Amtrak to run them. But in reality Amtrak is short of equipment as it is. The lone attempt to replace low level diner and sleeping cars by 2014 so far have only seen the delivery of baggage cars. Full delivery isn’t expected until 2017. There are no plans to buy new Superliner cars which the newest are over 20 years old. This despite revenue loss due to limited capacity on Western Long Distance Trains which are often sold out. What Amtrak is buying at a time it is short of revenues are High Speed Trains to replace Amtrak’s newest trainsets: the Acelas. Amtrak has continued to claim based on accounting that doesn’t meet industry accounting standards that they “make money” on the Northeast Corridor but lose money on the long distance trains.
Most of the problems at Amtrak predate President Boardman’s tenure. But he has done little to solve these problems. He successor may well fall victim to having these problems come home to roost in the near future.