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Boardman set to shake things up at Amtrak, dismayed at staff “burnouts”

I believe in Amtrak. You [probably] believe in Amtrak. Does Amtrak’s management believe in Amtrak? New CEO Joseph Boardman is dismayed at the fact that many of them don’t seem to. The’yre burnt out. Jaded. Not in the mood to capitalize on ridership gains and a new political attitude. It’s one of a number of points highlighted in a recent piece in Trains Magazine. There’s some quality stuff in there: information about desperately needed train cars, quotes from Obama staffers about the railroad. Also some less encouraging facts about the dilapidated state of much of Amtrak’s equipment. Give it a read. With a hat tip to the Seattle Transit Blog, here’s the text.

From Trains Newswire (written by Don Phillips)

Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WASHINGTON – New Amtrak President Joseph Boardman says many Amtrak managers do not know whether to believe that Amtrak actually has a future, and that anyone who cannot make the transition from a survival mode to a growth mode will have to find another job.

Boardman said in an interview that shortly after leaving the top spot at the Federal Railroad Administration last Thanksgiving to take over Amtrak, he discovered that the passenger rail system is in worse shape than he thought, and that some people in Amtrak headquarters in Washington are, in effect, burnout cases. He would not be specific about numbers, saying he has still made no final decisions about how many people will have to leave because they cannot make the transition from survival to growth.

“There are a whole host of people here who don’t know whether to believe,” he said. “People are going to have to get on the train. We will make some judgments very soon.”

Among other things, Boardman found that despite growing passenger traffic, up about 12 percent in 2008, Amtrak’s five-year plan in October contained no plans to order new passenger cars other than seven new high-speed trainsets, cars to lengthen current Acela trainsets, 15 new single-level sleeping cars, and some new baggage-dormitory cars. All other cars would have to be paid for by states that needed them for new corridor service, and perhaps ordered them through Amtrak. That secret plan, which had already become a joke around Amtrak, was thrown out quickly after Boardman arrived, and Amtrak is now making more ambitious plans.

Boardman said Amtrak’s most urgent need is for new electric locomotives, and he put in an immediate request for $1 billion in long-term low-interest government loans. Electric motive power is in such poor shape that Washington-New York-Boston trains are sometimes canceled for lack of power.

Since no firm plans have been made to order cars, up to three years will be necessary to actually obtain new cars. Meanwhile, as many wrecked cars as possible will be refurbished, he said. This leaves Amtrak in horrible shape even as politicians preach about a grand future of “high-speed rail.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak at least initially lost out in President Obama’s multi-billion-dollar stimulus plan, receiving $1.3 billion while commuter rail got $8.4 billion and “high speed rail” got $8 billion. (Amtrak is eligible to compete for the high speed rail funds.) Nonetheless, Boardman has instilled such confidence among members of Congress and congressional staff members that some effort may be made to make up the shortfall in future legislation. It is too early for any specific plans, especially since Boardman himself is still developing plans.

Interviews with various Capitol Hill staff members found a lot of confidence in Amtrak’s future under Boardman, perhaps too much confidence for Boardman’s own good.

Boardman has been surprisingly successful in blunting threats by unions to get rid of him. Shortly after he was appointed, 12 labor unions made a statement opposing him as an effort by the Amtrak board to block Obama from naming his own Amtrak president. However, Amtrak’s own unions came to Boardman’s defense and blunted the attacks. Much of Boardman’s union support began on a long Thanksgiving day at the crew room at Washington Union Station, as he and his wife bantered with engineers and conductors. Within hours, he had become almost a hero to Amtrak union employees as word spread around the country. Higher union leadership backed off.

Now comes the question: Can he produce? One major union official said he does not believe Boardman has the guts to do what is necessary. In the field, other union officials are waiting for a sign that Boardman means business, and they will not be patient forever.

What about Obama? Well-placed sources said he pushed for the $8 billion last-minute increase in high-speed rail funds, partly because he realized he had short-changed rail in his proposed stimulus legislation after bragging on the campaign trail about his dedication to passenger rail. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, confirmed the reports, telling the internet newsletter Portico that Obama realized he had not asked for enough for high-speed rail and wanted $10 billion added as a commitment to the future.

One of the chief staff members responsible for a last-minute $8 billion increase in high speed rail funds laid almost all the blame for Amtrak’s current condition on President Bush and his administration. This Democratic staff member, who did not want to be quoted by name, said that Amtrak will now be able to grow without enemies looking over its shoulder. He expressed confidence in Boardman, and noted that more funds for regular Amtrak trains could be made available in future legislation if Boardman gets Amtrak’s house in order. The staff member said that meaningless restrictions enacted under Republicans, including harassment such as limits on the number of dining car staff numbers, were wiped off the books and he is sure that such restrictions will soon be eased by Amtrak.

Meanwhile, Democrats on Amtrak’s board gently but firmly took control. Republican Donna McLean was eased out as chairman, but given the vice chairmanship. Democrat Thomas Carper took over as chairman. Hunter Biden not only remains on the board, but has joined Carper as a force to be reckoned with.

Carper, mayor of Macomb, Ill., and a longtime Obama friend and political supporter, and Biden, son of the new vice president, have at least one tough job ahead. That is to convince Obama and Congress that plain old regular rail is slowly approaching a breakdown unless lots of new locomotives and cars are ordered soon, and unless aging basket-case terminals such as Chicago are fixed soon. That includes replacement of often-useless switch heaters. As Boardman points out, it is no secret that Chicago gets cold and is pelted by heavy snow in the winter. So why does Amtrak seem to be surprised when winter comes?

Filed under: Amtrak,

15 Responses

  1. Wil S says:

    YAY, for major over hauls!

  2. Patrick M says:

    The Obama High Speed Rail system.

    Sounds a lot better than “Eisenhower Interstate System” to me!

  3. Allan says:

    It would be nice if we had a board and management that actually wants Amtrak to make a profit.

  4. Adron says:

    It’d be nice to hear things like the “Great Northern” or “Southern Pacific” will start running reliable, on time, customer based, focused service again. But instead we get an article that is 90% politics and subterfuge for Union banterings.

    Does anyone really even have a plan? The five year plan seems to have been ignored for political power points. The Democrats, if they’re going to do something positive unlike Clinton’s Dems, better do it in the next 2 years, because with the way things go, they’ll probably lose some of the steam/power that they have now. If the economy keeps going the way it is, and they keep dumping money into main street and start seeing the real depreciations hit – the citizenry will be pissed enough to kick em out of office in a big way.

    If you like rail, keep your fingers crossed that these vulgar money sums being spent on these bailouts doesn’t get out into the “main street” too fast or we can kiss those rail plans, whatever they might be goodbye.

  5. urbanist says:

    3 – Nobody seems bothered that highways don’t “make a profit.” I don’t get the double standard (and the myth that highways are fully paid for by fuel taxes is just that – a myth).

  6. Andrew in NorJpn says:

    Though HSR is the topic du jour and features sexy new trains, it is Amtrak that is in dire need of new/refurbished equipment to maintain existing services. Hopefully the stimulus will go to addressing this need, as it seems to have with the Beech Grove situation. As for the oft-heard refrain of Amtrak needing to become profitable- it never will. National passenger rail systems in any country never are, and should be considered public services, like the interstates and airports/air traffic control.

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  11. joan Johnson says:

    I just rode the Coast starlight from LA to Portland. Ugh. The employees really are rude, noncommittal and mostly not to be found. Amerika is definitely a third world country now! Attitude is all! With so many people unemployed, why can’t Amtrak hire some NICE people?

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