Making Sense of Amtrak’s Anderson

To paraphrase a well-known remark made by Marc Anthony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, I come not to bury or praise Richard Anderson but to explain him.

Since taking the sole helm of Amtrak last January Anderson has become public enemy No. 1 among some railfans and passenger train advocates.

In short order he triggered intense anger by approving such changes as ending everyday discount fare programs, banning most special and charter movements, restricting operations of private rail passenger cars while sharply raising handling fees, threatening to suspend service on routes that do not meet the federal positive train control installation deadline later this year, and ending full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

It is a common belief among his critics that Anderson doesn’t understand railroads because he came from the airline industry.

There may be some truth to that. It is probably true that Anderson does not view intercity rail passenger service in the same manner that many railfans and passenger train supporters do.

It also may be true that Anderson is overseeing a movement toward ending long-distance passenger trains that would leave vast swaths of the country without intercity passenger rail.

That doesn’t mean Anderson knows nothing about intercity passenger rail and its role in the nation’s transportation network as some of his critics would have you believe.

He is just not as convinced as many passenger train advocates that America needs 1950s style streamliners with full-service dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

Having spent much of his career in the airline industry, Anderson came to Amtrak with well-formed ideas about transportation that he would have expressed during his interview with the Amtrak board of directors.

During that interview he no doubt was asked to lay out his vision for Amtrak. He would not have been hired had that vision been incompatible with the board’s own views of Amtrak’s purpose and future.

Anderson may, indeed, have an air travel bias, which would not be surprising given his airline industry background.

He knows most long-distance travel in America is by air. Few business executives travel long distance by rail and most Americans who are not rail enthusiasts rarely, if ever, do so either.

If Anderson has a “bias” against long-distance intercity passenger trains, he would not be the first person in the transportation world to have that.

You can go back to the 1960s when Alfred Perlman of the New York Central acted as though long-distance trains were expensive dinosaurs to be removed.

Stuart Saunders of Penn Central infamy also declared that any rail passenger service beyond 500 miles was dead. So did a lot of other railroad CEOs.

Since Amtrak began in 1971 the U.S. Department of Transportation has ranged from outright hostile to benign indifference to Amtrak’s national route network.

What Amtrak appears poised to do under Anderson’s stewardship to the long-distance trains is not unlike the vision that Norman Mineta had when he was Secretary of Transportation.

Mineta pushed the corridor concept and said that long-distance trains should not stop at stations in states that do not help to underwrite the costs of those trains.

That vision did not prevail, but it is part of a long history of antagonism toward long-distance trains.

For that matter, Amtrak management itself has tolerated long-distance trains, but not since the 1970s has a new long-distance route been created.

There is much that we don’t know yet about Anderson’s views toward transportation and the role that intercity rail has to play even if he has been dropping hints about it.

Anderson said at a conference in California of passenger rail officials that Amtrak’s best marketing prospects lie in corridor services of no more than 400 miles served by DMU equipment.

During that same conference, he also was said to have emphasized the high financial losses of long-distance trains and that he must follow the law in making Amtrak a more efficient operation.

During his apprenticeship as co-CEO of Amtrak with Charles “Wick” Moorman, Anderson would have been schooled on the political realities that Amtrak faces, including why the long-distance trains remain in place decades after some believed their usefulness as transportation had expired.

Moorman would have pointed out that these trains continue to run because of long-standing political support. But maybe Anderson already knew that. Remember, Anderson is not necessarily a transportation neophyte.

Of late Anderson has come under fire from former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman, who has accused Anderson and the Amtrak board of launching a campaign to eviscerate long-distance trains.

In an interview with Trains magazine Boardman told an anecdote of how he responded when asked by the board to name Amtrak’s most important train.

“I told them it was all of the long distance trains. Did that ever make it out into the rail community? No, because it wasn’t my job to (do that),” he said.

Maybe Boardman should have made it his job. And that brings me to what may be Anderson’s most significant shortcoming.

Boardman hinted at that when he wrote in an email to public officials across the country that “Amtrak is not really a ‘private business,’ it is a “state owned enterprise.”

It may be that Amtrak was set up in 1970 as a for-profit company and ostensibly it is expected to cover its operating expenses from the fare box.

But in practice Amtrak is more like a government agency, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a case involving a dispute over the efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time train standards that Amtrak could use to hold its host railroads accountable for excessive delays.

The head of a government agency does not have the luxury of thinking and acting like a Fortune 500 CEO if he or she wants to be successful.

Yet that is what Anderson has been doing by playing defense rather than offense.

Anderson has done little thus far to share his vision of Amtrak’s future with the public, let alone the constituencies that have lone manned the bulwarks to provide political support when Amtrak funding was threatened.

Boardman touched on this in his email when he said Amtrak “has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing.”

What Amtrak is doing, Boardman believes, is transforming Amtrak out of the long-distance passenger train business without saying upfront that that is the objective.

If so, it is because Anderson and the board that hired him have beliefs about transportation that are at odds with those held by many rail passenger advocates who don’t want to see Amtrak change much.

Rail passenger advocates have legitimate beliefs and visions, even if they are not always well-grounded in solid economic understanding. But so does Anderson and Amtrak’s board.

Anderson and his critics would agree that Amtrak is in the transportation business, but they have different views as to how that is to be pursued. It has nothing to do with lack of understanding of “railroading.” It has everything to do with ineffectively trying to sell that.

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