RailPAC/NARP March Conference report 2: Alex Kummant March 20th, 2007
This report covers the speech and question time of Amtrak President, Alex Kummant. (PHOTO)
Mr. Kummant was introduced by RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, who met with Mr. Kummant in his DC office in October, where Paul extended an invitation to speak to this session, and “Alex agreed to come.”
(NOTE: A Noel Braymer video of portions of Mr. Kummant’s presentation can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVYXdBL5cr4 Other videos and recordings may be available soon. LINKS to this video can be found after report 5 below.)
Mr. Kummant spoke of the impact that this network (Amtrak) has on the country. “Amtrak is more than the Northeast Corridor.” Recognizing the theme of the morning sessions, he vowed to preserve the long distance trains, but emphasized that growth will be in the state corridors. “California has the momentum.”
His Vision for Amtrak was outlined in a powerpoint presentation. Mr. Kummant reminisced that he began his career years ago as a “chart flipper,” and how much easier this way is.
1. Growth, product excellence, and sound management
2. Positioning Amtrak to support demand growth for the state corridors
3. Continually improve service quality
4. Must be operated in a businesslike way if passenger rail is to succeed
5. Continuous improvement in its “state of good repair” of equipment
6. Funding for new equipment and capacity investment is needed to expand and meet future demand
We will keep saying, “for the price of one highway interchange we can do so much,” Mr. Kummant said. The Amtrak 06 ridership was up 1.1%, 06 revenue was up 10.7%, and the system on time performance was 68%.
“We try to ride the wave of demand. No other state can match California for the investment made in its program. Amtrak has contributed $400 million in California.” California “is the model for other states for what might be possible.”
Mr. Kummant then discussed some California specifics, such as the Riverside call center, which has 530 employees, will be retained following negotiations with the unions and will not be outsourced. The proposed Coast Daylight train, (which is a focus of RailPAC in California), is being worked on, and he looks at the Los Angeles to Las Vegas corridor as “waiting to emerge.” (Which could be as early as this summer. -RJ)
In Washington, S294 (Lautenberg/Lott) would advance the concept of federal-state partnership, and what is needed is some year-to-year framework for financial stability. “Multi-year contracts would allow the company to plan farther ahead.” This bill hopefully will pass the Senate by the summer recess; the House version is just starting.
In the short-term, Mr. Kummant acknowledged, on time performance for non-NEC service is a serious problem. For the host railroads traffic is outpacing capacity. For them, since 1980, track miles have decreased by 38% while traffic is up 81%. Return on their capital is the challenge, and “Amtrak is caught in the middle.” While the “Union Pacific has seen major problems, they have worked hard to improve them for the Sunset Limited, Coast Starlight, and California Zephyr. The Capitol Corridor OTP has improved greatly.” Mr. Kummant emphasized, “The answer is NOT to start legal action; to do so would yield ‘no action’.” Amtrak “must drive issues at a personal level and take steps one at a time.”
For the California Zephyr, which has a year-to-date on time record of 0.0%, Mr. Kummant sees two years of longer schedules. Amtrak is considering changing trains 5/6 into two services, one between Denver and Chicago which now runs “on schedule” (not mentioned, but it runs on the BNSF -RJ). The other would be sold more as a “cruise” train from Denver to the West Coast. No details of how this would be done were offered, however. Mr. Kummant said he had met personally with all the railroad CEO’s, and they agree that there needs to be a formula for public dollars, state and/or national, for rail infrastructure.
For all the Long Distance trains, and “I support the long distance trains,” Mr. Kummant has these goals: Stability, efficiency, and relevancy. “These trains preserve access and tie our corridors together.” But, “while they represent 45% of the passenger miles for the company it is going down because of poor OTP and equipment restraints.”
Mr. Kummant reminded the group that Amtrak has a great farebox recovery ratio: 70% (which comes from ticket sales and other income, the other 30% from government subsidy). “We are earning the right to grow by making tough choices and having a competent organization.” He listed several actions they have taken reflective of those choices, including the Food and Beverage initiative, Diner-Lounge conversions now being tested on the Capitol Limited, eventual extension of the successful Empire Builder model to other trains, retention of the Pacific Parlour car on the Coast Starlight, and network “restruction proposals” are ahead ( he did not specify). Employees have been without formal contracts since 2000; “we must find agreement that gives the company flexibility.” Ahead also will be the need to “refresh the current fleet of cars.”
In the Q & A session, Mr. Kummant said, in answer to RailPAC Palm Springs director Bob Manning’s question, that he would help in the effort to bring service to that area. This reporter’s question about what incentive the UP has to cooperate when its share of stock is selling at $100 a share was answered that “they are conscious of the efforts by some to reregulate the railroad industry; and their motivation is they realize it’s a public issue now.” RailPAC VP James Smith spoke of his long January journey on the Sunset, Crescent, Lake Shore, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight and the lack of consistency of the service he encountered. “On the Empire Builder, it was outstanding with many Coach passengers eating in the diner. The employees all called for Amtrak to ‘give us the tools’.” Mr Kummant replied that “I’m the guy that is driving the product. I’m the one who put a customer service representative on the executive council. Trains 7/8 and the NEC are on top now, but we are working hard on all the others; We need to go route by route.” RailPAC VP Art Lloyd said on board service “cannot go down” further. Art emphasized that the long distance trains “are not cruise trains as many in Washington think.” Mr. Kummant urged the group to impress their Congressional representatives with our views. Mr. Kummant introduced, and Mr. Lloyd on behalf of all of us congratulated, former Western General Superintendent Richard Phelps on his promotion to Amtrak VP of Transportation. (PHOTO below, seated next to Mr. Kummant listening to other speakers.)