Trains For America

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Weyrich comments on Kummant departure

This made my blood run cold. Paul Weyrich is a rich guy whose politics I generally deplore, but he is consistently right on transportation. He is intelligent and well motivated. Weyrich has served on the Amtrak board, which adds credibility to his analysis.

The sudden absence of Alex Kummant from the presidential suite at Amtrak has not  drawn much attention. CEO’s at troubled little Amtrak come and go. Nonetheless, this seemed hasty, especially in light of the generally favorable news about the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

Don Philips at Trains posited a disagreement with the board over some obtuse matter of financial structuring. I continue to think that is way too vague.

Paul Weyrich has an important essay in Philadelphia’s Bulletin. You need to read it. He gives some juicy details, but it comes down to this:

The more the board continued to intervene in management matters, the more Mr. Kummant resented it. Finally, the board made it clear they regarded Mr. Kummant’s tenure as the equivalent of a bad marriage.

In fact, at the end Mr. Kummant and the board engaged in a nasty exchange of e-mails that could have burned up the Xerox paper. Finally the board set about trying to come up with a statement which would have given Mr. Kummant cover. The decision to let him go was made some time before he actually left. 

The story got out because Mr. Kummant’s packed boxes were seen. Also a complex California trip, which had been designed for Mr. Kummant by he himself, was cancelled. Instead it was an extremely tense time at Amtrak. 

Paul Weyrich proudly details his own activist role on the Amtrak board, which is a little disturbing. He was chair of something called the Strategic Marketing Committee. 

So, I am left to wonder, what exactly did they market? A bare bones hobbled transport system with zero operating capital? What strategy did they ever come up with to get some funds for new equipment?

Weyrich was on the board back in the Claytor era, but it has always been just a fight to day-to-day survival at Amtrak. Furthermore, one must acknowledge Paul Weyrich’s superior knowledge of rail transportation issues. I am sure he is an asset to Amtrak, but the revelations about board activities is troubling. 

Today, Amtrak suffers from a dire lack of equipment, which has worsened greatly since the days of Graham Claytor. A major portion of the network stands abandoned due to an apparent unstated policy of benign neglect. Amtrak has no ability to expand even to the most necessary new markets. 

The last thing any business needs is a dozen chefs seasoning the stew. It is bad enough to deal with congressional meddling, the board should stick with general policy and financial decisions. This is the appropriate role for a board of directors, and I think, all the earlier talk of congressional meddling notwithstanding, that this might bear some oversight from elected representatives.

If top management people are not allowed to manage, what good are they?

Since the Obama administration and a willing congress are about to invest in the national infrastructure, this question is even more prescient. 

Amtrak must deal with questions of debt, equipment, routes, and union contracts. These are specialized areas that demand professional insights, not micromanagement from the board.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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November 2008


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