By M.E. Singer/Rail Provocateur
As a Creature of the Potomac, How Amtrak Elected Defeat from the Jaws of Victory:
Reflecting this weekend with the editor at Bloomberg News I have been working with since June on his Amtrak story soon to be released, he commented how he was quite impressed interviewing David Gunn. We both agreed how knowledgeable and experienced Mr. Gunn was; how he correctly embraced the National Network for inter-regional connecting trains. How ironic it was for Mr. Gunn to clean-up between 2002-2005 the mess created by two back-to-back New Jersey Transit administrators, just to be ousted by a politicized Board taking its orders from the White House. Amtrak’s Board failed to push back on by asserting the common knowledge that passenger trains are typically not profitable, but serve many worthwhile national purposes (and every other transport mode is subsidized). What a dichotomy, for as Mr. Gunn departed, along came a fellow named Hunter Biden appointed to the Board as Vice-Chairman based upon his vast experience of riding the rails with his dad to Wilmington, DE.
Historically, we know how uniquely, W. Graham Claytor, with the FRA Administrator who recruited him (John Riley), clearly could link the dots to comprehend that operating more trains would only increase revenues over costs. They appreciated the fact that when a group of long distance trains were forced to be cut by the Carter Administration in 1979, only their revenues disappeared, costs did not do down. Amtrak under Mr. Claytor as CEO (1982-1993), several new western Superliner trains were started, with thru cars to Chicago via the “California Zephyr” at Salt Lake City, (e.g., “The Pioneer;” “Desert Wind”). Indeed, the last new long distance train was created by Mr. Claytor who approached Congress unintimidated to secure funding based upon his proforma to re-start the “Auto Train.”
Without strong, determined, and experienced CEOs like Mr.Claytor and Mr. Gunn, Amtrak has been allowed to wither and devolve into a hyper political organization serving Potomac interests, with no regard for actually fulfilling its mandate to run a national passenger rail system. The consequences are obvious: how management lacks requisite railroad experience and has persistently had its expertise hollowed out by the politics of buy-outs and lay- offs. The focus of remaining management today has been to embrace the Southern Pacific playbook how to devolve long distance train services; then complain to Congress about the losses and mis-use of resources.
A failure of CEO management absent the requisite railroad experience and lack of continuity of management; relying upon their past experiences unrelated to fulfill Amtrak’s dire need for continuity, and to devise and implement coherent, successful policies explains Amtrak’s predicament and the quagmire it finds itself in with no end in sight. This history of failed CEOs includes:
Past CEOs Hall of Shame:
Thomas Downs (CEO 1993-1998) ex-NJT who did not wisely select available “off-the-shelf,” proven high speed rail technology for the newly expanded electrified NEC to Boston; instead chose an overbuilt, expensive Acela from Bombardier/Alstom (referred to as Le Cochon, “the pig”). Claytor commented how he would have selected the less expensive, proven, off-the-shelf Swedish X-2000. Under Downes, Amtrak was hemorrhaging from the delayed, disastrous Acela program, despite his promise how “Amtrak was on a glide path to prosperity.” Indeed, Amtrak required a major capital infusion to stay alive. Under Downs, he actually evidenced his naiveté believing consultants who claimed long distance routes could be cut from daily schedules without losing any traffic. Downs initiated the foolish concept of buy-out/laying off experienced managers, which has continued to this day to cripple Amtrak from enjoying the benefit of hands-on, experienced, long-term employed managers. Lacking a working knowledge of passenger car fleets, Downs also allowed for the elimination of the Heritage fleet of Budd-built, stainless steel equipment of all types that received HEP 480v power to extend their life. Unlike VIA Rail Canada, Downs and his Board obviously lacked the knowledge and vision how the Heritage fleet could have been well utilized to provide extra sections, seasonal services, increased frequencies on current routes, and even consists for new routes.
George Warrington (1998-2002) ex-NJT who buried Amtrak in foolish M&E venture to move mail/packages on its passenger trains. This not only horribly delayed train departures, but upset Amtrak’s alleged Class 1 partners who claimed Amtrak was stealing their customers for profitable timed freights. (It took the total disgust of Mr. Gunn to eliminate this diversion form Amtrak’s core mission–passenger trains.) Perhaps a more competent management team could have handled M&E, but certainly not with elongated scheduled trains between Chicago- Beloit,WI (“Lake County Limited” 6+ hours); Chicago-Louisville (“Kentucky Cardinal” 14+ hours), etc. Desperate to prevent Amtrak’s decaying financial position, Warrington disrupted cultural continuity by killing off the brand management of trains through product lines. Pathetically, he is known as his assurance to Congress of being an adept navigation for Amtrak; which required the mortgaging of New York’s Penn Station.
Alex Kummant (2006-2008) although ex-UP, he was not really an experienced operating officer and lacked the fortitude to testify before Congress. Recently retired from the UP and private industry, he was lost and did not last long against Joe Biden’s son on the Board.
Joseph Boardman (2008-2017) honed his operating experience running an upstate NY bus service; through his GOP contacts secured appointment to be administrator of the FRA (just as Sarah Feinberg disastrously did years later as former chief of staff to Secretary, Transportation). Boardman elected labor peace at all costs by not opening and re-negotiating any contracts; no accountability given towards numerous OIG reports identifying defalcations on timecards, overtime, etc. He presided over a significant downgrading of the long distance trains (on- board services, dining, lounge). Boardman failed to refine the dining experience and cut costs by not charging sleeper passengers for their meals; did not push Lead Service Attendants (LSAs) in charge of cafe cars to be competently trained in mixology to increase revenues by crafting cocktails (but then, also did not supply them with the mixers, condiments, glassware, etc. to perform their craft). He stripped out the diner on the “Silver Star” with no significant acclaim for cost savings achievement. Failing to secure his Board’s agreement to finance the infrastructure repairs on the “Southwest Chief” line between Dodge City- Albuquerque, Boardman attempted to lay-off such costs on the states involved– Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico. In the end, Boardman admitted he was stabbed in the back by both the congressional staffer he was requested to bring on to Amtrak– Stephen Gardner, author of the poisonous PRIIA legislation, as well as the Board Chair Coscia, Gardner so loyally served as his Praetorian Guard.
Richard Anderson (2017-present) has proven that skills are not transferable between unlike industries; a “sock puppet” for Board Chair Coscia’s hellbent focus on developing real estate opportunities along the Northeast Corridor-with the encouragement of Senator Schumer (D-NY). Such encouragement has included depleting federal funding from the National Network to subsidize the deficit- ridden Northeast Corridor. Anderson is gaslighted by Coscia’s henchman, Gardner, into making outrageous, ill- conceived proposals that serve to further dilute his influence and respect. Some examples have included: running non- stop corridor trains that beyond NYC-Washington have been tried and failed, as such services proved you only lose more traffic and revenues avoiding the en route market segments; to run buses in lieu of rail in corridors or between segments of a long distance route. Ironically, Anderson was quickly identified as a Potomac Scalawag, as he sought this position at Amtrak to round-off his transport aura in speculation of being anointed “President” Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation in 2016. As that did not pan out, and given rumors of his deteriorated health condition, assuming Coscia’s go-to guy Gardner is to move-up is not necessarily correct, as apparently even Secretary Transportation Chao is aware of how good Gardener is with shivs; informed Coscia not to coronate Gardner.
Management Focus-Talent Lay-Offs vs. Retention:
Given this history replete with obvious examples of the repetitive compulsion to pick CEOs who had previously failed, or, were overt newbies to a national passenger rail scenario, one would have expected that after 48 years in business, Amtrak would have been blessed by now with a wealth of knowledgeable, experienced middle and senior managers to keep it on the rails. However, this was not to be, as starting with CEO Downs and carried forward, what appears to have become a primary focus of successive CEOs, encouraged by the few EVPs seeking eternity, apparently any manager “worth their salt” evidencing competency, meaning a threat to the top layers, has been invited to a buy-out, or, just a simple lay-off. Apparently, nobody at U.S. DOT or FRA (before Batory) ever learned what happened to Stalin’s war effort when he removed, killed, or sent to a gulag the vast majority of his experienced generals before Germany invaded in 1941.
You Are Missed David Gunn!
Ironically, it is irrefutable that Amtrak has been in a tailspin ever since the coup against Mr. Gunn, when he chose to be personally honorable and resign. Amtrak really did not have the opportunity to fully benefit from the very brief spell with Wick Moorman. Moorman’s departure led to the fiasco with CEO Anderson loading up management with ex-fly boys who think Gandy Dancer is the bar closest to their new HQ than the Monocle.
In my opinion, if only DOT/FRA can work with the majority in the Senate to oust the Board Chair Coscia, an Obama leftover and pal of his Northeastern patron, Senator Schumer, than it would make sense to bring in Mr. Gunn as Board Chair, with the power to clean-up the Amtrak swamp; to re-focus this federal monopoly on its mandate to operate a national network of inter-regional connecting trains. Perhaps with the level of integrity Mr. Gunn would bring to the table, perhaps he would also unravel the grotesquely unfair PRIIA full cost accounting concept that cripples state-supported corridors, while it enables (i.e., “subsidizes”) Amtrak to run its NEC intercity trains at no charge to those states. Ideally, Mr. Gunn would also provide competent input on who would be an appropriate appointee to the Amtrak Board to fulfill the actual intent of Railpax language defining credentials and experience. Certainly, at least Mr. Gunn would have the expertise to know their are far better options to the long distance dining service than turning it into a Horn & Hardart Automat a step above SP’s vending machines (which Aramark supplied).