We May Have Underestimated Mr. Boardman

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

I know I was pleased that the new interim Amtrak President and recent FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman agreed to speak to RailPAC at our May 2nd 2009 meeting in Los Angeles.

I and I’m sure most RailPAC members were very excited that he brought Brian Rosenwald with him to Los Angeles to talk about the possibility of daily service on the Sunset route and better service from California on the Eagle. The impression many people got in Los Angeles of Mr. Boardman was that of a pleasant, charming gentleman, a very good politician. But what seemed to be missing was substance. There didn’t seem to be any direction or concrete objectives coming from him. In the period since May we have not seen a bold capital budget proposed to expand Amtrak or even discussion to order replacement Superliner equipment. Four reports were released this year by Amtrak on possible restoration of service on the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans, restoring the Pioneer, creating a corridor service in Ohio and restoring service in southern Montana between Chicago and Seattle. Instead of galvanizing support for expansion with these projects, the inflated cost and pessimistic ridership estimates in these reports did more to create opposition. The Obama Administration which is placing major political capital towards rapid improvement of rail passenger service can’t be pleased with Amtrak.

In any organization there are conflicts between competing groups and ideas. President Harry S. Truman is reported to have said that people think the President just orders people to do things and things get done. Instead President Truman claimed that he spent most of his time on the phone “kissing the ass” of subordinates to get them to do their job. Amtrak like all organizations has different camps and pockets of incompetence. Life at Amtrak can’t be easy because it seems to go from one crisis to another; at least it has been that way since the retirement of W. Graham Claytor as Amtrak President in 1992. But things seems to be moving in the right direction now slowly but surely. This last October two Amtrak Managers were fired that there had been complaints about for some time. Increasingly Amtrak is sounding more positive that there will be a daily Sunset by next year. This will require approval by the Amtrak Board, but Amtrak is confident this will happen. This is a major change since this summer when there was opposition to a daily Sunset at Amtrak.

I have written extensively about the fiasco during the weekend of October 24-25th. A brake failure on train 571 on a Saturday in San Clemente cascaded into passengers being over 8 hours late getting to Los Angeles, the rescue train that stopped six hours after the brake failure being hours late itself. The next morning an Amtrak train from San Diego was ordered to bring in the disabled train back to Los Angeles. This train instead got stuck with 571 for hours too which disrupted service on a train that crew was suppose to return to San Diego. This incident exposed a problem that has longed plagued Amtrak. When things go wrong Amtrak is usually unprepared and seems to have no planning or training for its employees on how to handle the problems. Even in the best of time communications for Amtrak internally, with passengers or other agencies such as Metrolink need improving. When things go wrong communications is the first thing to be lost. Amazingly to me much of what I have written about this has been read by Mr. Boardman, including material I haven’t published. On Mr. Boardman’s orders Amtrak Customer Relations is contacting as many passengers as possible affected by delays that weekend to apologize by phone for the delays and to offer refunds for those most affected or discounts the others for future travel. I don’t know if this has ever been done at Amtrak, I know I can’t recall this being done before.

Maintenance, or the lack there of has long been a problem at Amtrak. Often there is a shortage of equipment available for service and breakdowns of equipment. Better maintenance would result in better on-time performance, give Amtrak more equipment for revenue service and result in higher ridership and revenue. Amtrak has equipment that could be returned to service, and equipment which if repaired in a timely fashion could spend more time on the road and less time sitting idle. Having more available equipment can be used to run longer trains to carry more passengers and for expanding existing services: doing both will greatly improve Amtrak’s revenues. More equipment will help in running a daily Sunset. One additional trainset would allow extending the City of New Orleans to Orlando, Florida. This would create a Florida/Midwest service at little cost and also be used to connect with the daily Sunset. An additional trainset would allow the California Zephyr to be extended to Los Angeles. This would not only create an overnight train between Northern and Southern California, but also direct service from Southern California to Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. It would possible with a little extra equipment to run a daily Cardinal with a section to St. Louis that could connect with the City of New Orleans. Using existing equipment the San Joaquins could connect with the Southwest Chief at Barstow, the Heartland Flyer could connect with the Chief at Newton, Kansas, the Starlight could be extended to Vancouver, BC, the Palmetto extended to Jacksonville, Florida and this is just a short list.

The question is what will we see in the near future? If under Joseph Boardman Amtrak runs a daily Sunset and orders Superliner and Superliner compatible corridor equipment with the option to order more, then his presidency would be one of the most historic in Amtrak’s history. If we see improvements in customer service and maintenance with additional service improvements and revenues then his presidency could be revolutionary. If he accomplishes any of theses it will be after an uphill battle from both inside and outside of Amtrak.

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