Commentary by Russ Jackson, September 1, 2016
Here it is the first of September, 2016, and a new Amtrak era begins at the top of the ladder. Wick Moorman, 64, until last year the CEO of the Norfolk Southern Railway and a 40 year career there, has taken the reins of the leaderless horse called Amtrak and been given a list of incentives that he can earn. The Amtrak Board of Directors will pay Moorman $1 a year, and if he accomplishes that list of incentives he can earn up to $500,000. Isn’t it interesting that as of this date no one has reported what is on that list? We can only guess, and as everyone reading this knows, rail advocates are quick with lists of their own as to what should be on it.
In his opening day letter to employees, “Hello from Wick,” he quickly showed class by thanking his predecessor. While we wait to see what Wick will do we, too, can reflect on the past few years with some quick observations. Number one is that Joe Boardman was no Graham Claytor, who has reached the top of rail advocacy’s list of best Amtrak CEO ever. Boardman will hardly ever reach that level in future years, but without detailing them he did accomplish a few things; unfortunately they were all eastern-related, such as the huge order for low-level passenger cars, diners, and baggage cars. Oh, what has happened to that order? Well, all the trains are now running with shiny new bags, even on the western Superliner equipped trains. The rest of the order is frozen right now and who knows when, or even if, the next part of the order will be forthcoming. What else did he accomplish? A daily Sunset Limited? No, and the Union Pacific put the kibosh on that by saying that they will not consider a daily train until the route from Los Angeles to El Paso is fully double tracked. We know now that there are 33 miles of that route in California that are still single track, and many more in Arizona west of Maricopa. There is no current construction on-going there. Well, Joe, what else? Oh, never mind…the negatives are too many and Joe is out the door to a welcome retirement in upstate New York. Thanks for your efforts, Joe, we guess.
In Moorman’s Hello letter to employees he said, after thanking Boardman, he hopes to “work together to make Amtrak a safer, more efficient, and modern company, that’s GROWING our business and delivering increasing value to our customers and the nation.” GROWING? Did we hear that right? When did we hear that word from an Amtrak executive, let alone its CEO, since Claytor? Certainly not from David Gunn. All we’ve heard for years is how poor the company is, must keep costs down, and must (beg) the Congress to give more free money so “we” can…well, keep the Northeast Corridor running. Never mind that the real revenue generating chances for GROWTH are in the long distance national network. Moorman correctly points out, “as our country’s transportation needs continue to change and GROW, there is more and more public interest in passenger rail service everywhere. … We can expand and GROW our company in ways that will help us meet these new demands and make Amtrak the leading rail passenger carrier worldwide.” (all-caps by the author) If this is part of the list of achievements that the Board gave Moorman, they are good starters even without specifics. If he wants specifics, there are thousands of rail advocates who can give him some, and wouldn’t it be refreshing for him to meet with some of us as well as his employees? Welcome to Amtrak leadership, Wick Moorman, may your candle burn brightly…come on out to Sacramento, see the great Rail Museum, and on September 24 you’ll find more knowledgeable advocates than you can ever imagine!
Although the new CEO story is the biggest one of the summer of 2016, here’s one more thing about the daily Sunset Limited. Did you know that 25% of the revenue for the Texas Eagle now comes from passengers to/from the Sunset? The Eagle would be in much better condition financially if a daily connection was made in San Antonio, and additional sleeping car space was available on a through basis. The same can be said for a future extension of either the Sunset or the City of New Orleans across the Gulf Coast to Florida. But, wait, the responses from Amtrak have always been, “we don’t have the equipment,” and “the states must pay for expansions of less than 750 miles.” While they (Joe) happily went along with the state payment mandate from the Congress, the west has yet to see any effort to increase the size of the fleet. The original orders of Superliners are now missing 22 cars due to accidents. That’s almost 3 un-replaced western trainsets! What’s the “state of good repair” for the locomotives? As for state payments, they (Joe) were happily able to “convince” the sates of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico to fork over big bucks to keep the Southwest Chief running on its important traditional route and not abandon folks who have become dependent upon that train. Even though the Chief is a “national system” train, the precedent has been set for affected states to cough up to keep their trains. Note: That requirement doesn’t apply to the states of the Northeast. Why should it? The Feds just came up with a $2.45 billion loan to buy new (Acela) trainsets, facility improvements (in NY, MD, and the DC), upgrade tracks and make platform improvements on the NEC. In his glowing statement, Vice President Joe Biden (another Joe), a big NEC backer, said, “You can’t make this country work without rail…This is really, really sound investment.” Repayment of this loan is supposed to come from NEC operations, which makes the debt service another large overhead amount that will be parceled out among all Amtrak trains, not just the NEC, as Amtrak books are always juggled. The West got zip. Hey, VP Joe, we’re out here! You listening, Wick?
The other major development this summer, in this writer’s opinion, was the Pueblo, Colorado story. Way back in 1984 when rail advocacy was just flexing its opinion publicly, RailPAC published the “Quarterly Review,” and one of its first stories was by New Mexico’s Jon Messier, who proposed rerouting the Southwest Chief from Trinidad to Pueblo and then to La Junta as a way of increasing revenue for the train. Forty years later that proposal is finally under serious consideration, with the state of Colorado and city of Pueblo getting its ducks in a row in anticipation of exactly that. Oh, wait, that isn’t how Pueblo will be served in the current plan. No, Amtrak “is investing in a miniature “HO” Scale idea,” as Noel Braymer points out. “A stub train originating/terminating in Pueblo,” according to Braymer, “would generate far less revenue than rerouting the entire train, at more operating cost for more passenger cars and locomotives, a mini-crew base in Pueblo plus turning and cleaning the train there, and coupling and power cabling time & costs in La Junta.” To say nothing of BNSF access costs. Does Colorado know that when the details of the deal are finalized that Amtrak will probably require the state to pay for all that? The state will probably go along with it so they can crow about how they succeeded in getting train service, and Amtrak can brag that it isn’t costing them anything. This plan is far from what Jon Messier proposed 40 years ago, and which would be the best chance for success for Colorado and the other states where the real destination for the stub train, if necessary, should be to Denver and connection to the California Zephyr. You listening, Wick?
One last urging, this one to readers if you got this far in this commentary. It is hoped you will attend the RailPAC/NARP meeting in Sacramento at the Rail Museum on September 24. There is an outstanding list of speakers, see the meeting notice on www.railpac.org. You will want to meet Peter LeCody, the new NARP Chairman who hails from Texas where he has been an outstanding leader in both passenger and freight, with the Texas Rail Advocates. As well as Wick Moorman at Amtrak, we also welcome Peter to NARP leadership, where he should do an outstanding job of advocating for all of us. This writer hoped to be able to attend the meeting this year, it’s been a long time, but my wife’s health does not permit me to travel that far for that long. Have a great meeting, folks! I’m hoping Noel Braymer will be able to record the activities so I can view them.