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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Boardman's pending exit

Earlier this week, Amtrak president Joe Boardman dropped a bombshell: He will be retiring next September.


Don Phillips Was Right

It's too bad that Boardman doesn't leave any sooner because his tenure wasn't a matter of missed opportunities. Rather, it reeked of blown opportunities. The 2009-10 period was a time that Amtrak could have shown the public that it was ready to be the undisputed leader in American passenger railroading when European and Asian operators were not only showing interest in running trains here in this country but also had their own plans as well. 

Instead of being proactive, Boardman sent a letter to congressional leaders wanting to impose burdens on Amtrak's "state partners" when it came to liability issues in an effort to enact a high speed rail monopoly. 

The appropriate response to Virgin, SNCF, JR Central et al would have been for Amtrak to tell the public just what its expansion plans were. Even the often vilified George Warrington lined out a proposal of the even more vilified Mail and Express expansion plan. Where was Amtrak's plan? The evaluations of every single long distance route as mandated by PRIIA seemed to be a result of Amtrak management doing the bare minimum, and none of those feasibility studies resulted in suspended or discontinued routes being restored. Part of that is due to Congresscritters failing to call Amtrak on its bluff (I'm looking at you, Representative Corrine Brown). Outside groups had to conduct their own studies--and unsurprisingly, they called the national operator's bean counters on their b.s. 


Whither the National Network

Besides the controversial feasibility studies, "America's Railroad" has done little to improve the long distance network. First, Boardman refused to take Union Pacific to the Surface Transportation Board in 2009 when that railroad claimed that it would cost Amtrak $750 million to convert the Sunset Limited to daily status. Had he shown some guts, then, the STB would have likely have told UP to stop that act of extortion because everything lined up for passenger rail back then. 

Second, Joe Boardman is the reason why the Cardinal is still triweekly. He could have been more assertive on converting #50 & #51 to daily status but he chose not to.

Third, he has constantly thrown the long distance trains under the bus by yapping about how much money they lose rather than trying to make them better.

Fourth, he is only replacing equipment rather than adding equipment for the Eastern routes. It's obvious what a real visionary would do. Not to mention, the Viewliner II equipment is running into its own delays.

Fifth, the Western routes are outta sight outta mind by management in D.C.(i.e. no new equipment coming), and the Southwest Chief situation was Amtrak's own brand of extortion.

Finally, the current experiment in which the Silver Star is running without a dining car until May is making people in the rail community wonder whether it is more of a permanent, long term strategy. Cutting back on amenities when Amtrak has had record ridership over the last few years and when the much beleaguered overnights are often sold out will alienate casual riders.


Amtrak and the States: Unrequited Love

Another thing about Amtrak's "valued state partners," is that it's more of a one-way street than people imagine. Amtrak management knew that Section 209 of PRIIA allowed the states the option to pick other operators and it pulled out all the stops to keep every one of its 19 routes in its possession. The Senate tried in vain during the spring of 2012 to help out Amtrak by attaching provisions that would have not only all but kept independent operators out of the intercity market also driven them out of the commuter world as well.

Had there not been all of the hand wringing throughout 2013, maybe Indiana would not be on its own island and other states would have seen their costs go down.

Speaking of Indiana, the way Amtrak handled the Hoosier State handover was a disgrace. Of course, Amtrak could have avoided that whole crisis by converting the Cardinal to a daily route but failing that, the situation is reflective of the company's philosophy as a whole.

The first half of 2010 should have been a time for the operator to reevaluate just which state routes were valuable and which ones were expendable and let other operators bid on the latter group. Had management on Massachusetts Avenue done that, perhaps, Amtrak equipment would have been freed up to to be used in Amtrak-friendly territory.


The Likely Next Step

Boardman was supposed to be a temporary appointment seven years ago after the unremarkable tenure of former Union Pacific underling Andrew Kummant but the Amtrak Board removed the interim tag in mid-2010 for its own reasons.

Nine months is more than enough time for the board to select a permanent president and CEO, no excuses.

Honestly, though, I don't see anybody with any real vision being appointed to succeed Boardman. If the Amtrak Board of Directors couldn't select a visionary person when all signs pointed to a strongly pro-passenger rail environment, then, I can't see the BOD doing it next year when Congress is more hostile and the White House may become Amtrak-hostile in 2017. 

If anything, the next Amtrak president may be more of a political appointment in the veins of Sarah Feinberg being confirmed as the FRA chief despite having no rail experience and who had recently been Facebook's director of corporate and strategic communications.

I really hope that Congress enforces the provision in the FAST ACT that mandates competitive bidding on a long distance route and that states are allowed greater liberty when it comes to letting other operators run their routes.