By Noel T. Braymer
Amtrak now has just one Chief Executive Officer in Mr. Anderson. While he has years of experience as a business executive, running a railroad, one with many problems, will no doubt be a challenge. One thing Mr. Anderson has been doing is shaking up management at Amtrak by offering early retirement to Amtrak managers. At the same time new managers were hired outside of Amtrak to replace some of the now retired managers. Many of these replacement managers came from the airline industry which is where Mr. Anderson has spent much of his career. Under Anderson, Amtrak is seeing improvements in marketing and passenger amenities. Overhauling the Amfleet equipment from the 1970’s was long overdue and should increase ridership. But Amtrak’s biggest problem is dealing with the problems of the costs and repair of the Northeast Corridor, problems of which long predate the creation of Amtrak. For Amtrak to thrive it will need growth. In order to grow it will need a larger route system. But to run more trains to more places it will need more and newer equipment. This will also require the cooperation of the host railroads.
Last year we saw major shakeups at the CSX railroad under the short tenure of the late Hunter Harrison. Mr. Harrison’s successor at CSX is expected to continue Harrison’s policies which were to cut operating costs to the bone while increasing revenues and profits. In the short time of Harrison tenure at CSX efforts to save money at CSX saw massive congestion of CSX rail traffic and late deliveries which upset CSX’s customers. But even before this, last year Hunter Harrison made it clear that he was not interested in allowing more passenger trains on the CSX. There have been efforts on going for years to create daily rail passenger service on the CSX tracks between New Orleans to Florida, most likely to Orlando along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This would likely be done by extending the train “City of New Orleans” from Chicago past New Orleans to Florida. Amtrak was supportive of this effort. But since the rejection of this proposal by CSX, very little has been said about this project. That is not to say that the backers of this effort have given up.
CSX is also a host carrier for Amtrak’s train the Cardinal. There is great local support, like there is for Gulf Coast service by the communities on the route of the Cardinal to have it run daily instead of the current 3 days a week service on this train. One of the problems with the Cardinal is the low speeds of the service due to the low level of track maintenance on the Cardinal’s route. This reflects a major difference between freight and passenger services. Freight carriers aren’t concerned as much with top speeds of rail service as passenger service. Running trains at faster speed means spending more money on track maintenance to allow trains to run faster more safely. What freight carriers are more concerned with are delays on their freight lines. What often delay’s freight trains are late running Amtrak trains.
Another railroad which is often not looking for more Amtrak passenger service is the Union Pacific. The Union Pacific owns miles of railroad just in California with passenger service where there is demand to expand service. This includes most of the Coast Line north of Los Angeles past San Jose, service between the Bay Area and Sacramento as well as between Los Angeles and Arizona on the route of the Sunset Limited. One place that will see expanded passenger service on the UP in California is in the San Joaquin Valley between Stockton and Merced. But this won’t be Amtrak service. The Altamont Corridor Express or ACE, is a regional rail passenger service between Stockton and San Jose carrying many passengers working in “silicon valley”. What ACE did last year was with bipartisan support from legislators in the San Joaquin Valley was to get $400 million in funding from the California State Budget to pay for building a new track on the UP south of Stockton to Merced. The UP seems to be happy with this arrangement. This new track means there won’t be mixed passenger traffic with the UP freight traffic on a busy mainline. Also as part of the deal, the UP will be able to use this new track when passenger service isn’t using it to relieve congestion of their mainline. On top of this the UP will get revenue by sharing their right of way.
Railroads generally are more than happy to deal with regional rail passenger services. That’s because such services are usually able to pay for track improvements and willing to pay more for track access than Amtrak. By law the railroads have to give a discount to Amtrak to run their trains on the host railroads. The railroads complain they they don’t make money with these these low trackage fees. The other problem the railroads have is problems with Amtrak trains often being late which disrupts their traffic.
This brings up a new post just created at Amtrak of Chief Safety Officer with the hiring of Ken Hylander, who recently was the Chief Safety Officer at Delta Airlines, which Amtrak President Anderson is also a former president of. Amtrak has been in the news lately due to major fatal accidents in the last few years. Central to Mr. Hylander’s job at Amtrak is establishing a Safety Management System (SMS) there. The origins of the airline industry’s SMS program goes back to the worst airplane crash in airline history in 1977 at the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife. The Canary Islands are a popular vacation destination which sees heavy air traffic. On March 27, 1977 the main airport for the Canary Islands was closed due to an explosion at a terminal. This forced all the air traffic in the area diverted to a smaller, secondary airport with only one runway. This airport was so jammed with planes, that the taxiways were blocked with parked airplanes. This forced the airport to use the one runway to taxi planes into position which greatly slowed down operations and left many planes and passengers waiting a long time to take off. On top of everything else fog had reduced visibility.
Waiting to take off at Tenerife was a KLM 747. Most airline pilots get their flight training serving in the military. With this came a somewhat military mentality of “I give the orders and you will obey”. From cockpit recordings investigators followed what happened in the KLM cockpit just before the crash. The fight captain had been in conversations with the tower preparing for take off, but the flight didn’t received clearance to take off. The captain gave the pilot the order to open the throttles and take off. The pilot, answered that he hadn’t heard the tower giving flight clearance to take off. If the captain had just contacted to tower to confirm that he had clearance to take off, history wouldn’t have been made on March 27, 1977. Instead the captain reordered the pilot to start the take off not knowing there was a Pan Am 747 taxing on the runway. The resulting crash resulted in the death of 583 people between the two 747’s.
The basic premise of Safety Management at the airlines is to improve communications within the airline. This means leaders are expected to listen to information from subordinates when they report potential problems and to encourage subordinates to report problems. This program has greatly reduced airline accidents in the airline industry. Improving communications when dealing with potential problems at Amtrak will be the greatest challenge Richard Anderson will face at Amtrak. Many of the problems at Amtrak stem from a culture that tends to hide problems, not to address them. This is not unique to Amtrak. But many problems at Amtrak stem from efforts to ignore or cover up problems. For years Amtrak has not done a good job of maintaining its equipment in many cases. This often results in late running trains or train breakdowns. These problems often create hostility with the host railroads when Amtrak’s problems disrupts the host railroad’s traffic. Many mistakes made at Amtrak or most places can be traced to poor communications or lack of attention.
In order for Amtrak’s business to grow and become a major force in this country’s transportation network, Amtrak must improve it’s relationship with the Class 1 railroads on whom many of Amtrak’s trains share their tracks. By just not creating problems for the host railroads will go a long way for Amtrak to improving relationships. The railroads would like to get more money from Amtrak for their troubles. The railroads would be interested in receiving taxpayers money to improve their railroads to allow more public use of their rights of way. This has been shown by the efforts of ACE in the San Joaquin Valley to expand passenger service there. Achieving these goals will require better communications which is also required for improved safety at Amtrak. It will be interesting what changes we will see at Amtrak in the next year or two.