Ruminating on What if a Rail Passenger Advocate Could Get Appointed to be President of Amtrak

Sometimes when I’m driving a long distance I like to think about what would happen if a rail passenger advocate was ever hired as president of Amtrak.

Some rail passenger advocates might think that once settled into the C suite at Amtrak headquarters in Washington that they could pick up the phone and/or write a series of memorandums that would in short order restore freshly-prepared meals to long distance trains, jawbone host railroads into stop putting Amtrak trains into sidings to allow freight trains to pass, and launch new routes and services that have been discussed for years but have yet to materialize.

It’s fun to think about because it seems so absurd.

It would be a rare rail passenger advocate who has the political capital and connections needed to be seriously considered for the job.

The most recent three Amtrak presidents – Charles “Wick” Moorman, Richard Anderson and Willian Flynn – all were former CEOs, one of a Class 1 freight railroad  (Moorman) and two from the airline industry (Anderson and Flynn).

Other Amtrak presidents have had similar backgrounds.

Joeseph Boardman had been head of the Federal Railroad Administration; Alan Boyd had been secretary of transportation and president of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Paul Reistrup had held vice president positions at Class 1 railroads; David Gunn had held high-ranking administrative positions at several public transit agencies; W. Graham Claytor had been president of the Southern Railway and secretary of the Navy; Alexander Kummant had held vice president positions at Union Pacific, and George Warrington had headed New Jersey Transit and served as president of two port authorities.

Amtrak has yet to hire someone whose credentials largely consist of writing letters to public officials, testifying at public hearings, churning out opinion columns, and serving as an officer of a rail passenger advocacy group.

But let’s say it did happen. It did once, although not at Amtrak but more about that later.

How a rail advocate would fare as president of Amtrak would depend on a number of variables, including the person’s skill sets and what he/she sought to accomplish.

An advocate who limits his/her efforts to saving what Amtrak now has and incrementally improving upon it might have a better chance of succeeding than someone who wants to transform the Amtrak route network into the type of passenger service that the freight railroads offered on principle routes in the early 1950s.

Experience is important but so are appearances because both are critical to establishing credibility with the stakeholders with whom you will work.

At a minimum, you would need to be able to work well with a board of directors whose members you did not appoint and don’t control.

You also would need to establish good working relationships with key members of Congress and their staffs, and top executives in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

There are others you would work with including state transportation officials, executives of Amtrak’s host railroads, heads of the unions representing Amtrak workers, federal regulators, and transportation trade organizations.

Many of them likely would take a dim view of an “advocate” seeking to accomplish things they view as unrealistic and/or undesirable.

That would particularly be the case with the host railroads. Amtrak and Canadian National have been arguing for years about CN’s dispatching of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois. There is no end in sight to that dispute.

Try to start a new route and the host railroad will voice objections and make expensive demands about capital needs to make it possible to, say, run the Chicago-New York Cardinal daily rather than tri-weekly.

Are those demands ridiculous? Some of them are. But can the host railroad make them stick? Well the Cardinal is still tri-weekly and so is the Sunset Limited.

One common refrains in the writings of rail passengers advocates is that Amtrak management lacks the will to do anything other than preserve the status quo and gives in to too much to its host railroads and Congressmen such as John Mica who was obsessed with how much it cost Amtrak to provide food and beverage service.

Advocate are quick to criticize Amtrak for its failure to be creative, to promote its services more aggressively – particularly the long distance trains – and to try things that the advocate know will result in sharp growth of ridership and revenue.

Why those things will practically pay for themselves, right?

And what rail passengers advocate doesn’t believe that long distance trains are actually profitable but Amtrak is milking them to pay for the money pit known as the Northeast Corridor?

I’d like to be in the room when the new rail passenger advocate president of Amtrak has his or her first session with Amtrak’s accountants and financial staff.

What looked so simple on a railfan chat list might turn out to be far more complex.

A rail passenger advocate once was appointed to oversee a railroad’s passenger service.

It happened in 1975 when Anthony Haswell, an attorney with railroad industry experience who was a founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was named head of passenger services at the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

Haswell was unable to make any appreciable improvements in the Rock’s intercity passenger service, which by then was two state-supported trains between Chicago and Peoria, and Rock Island, Illinois, with paltry ridership.

The Rock also had a considerable commuter train operation in Chicago.

What Haswell probably quickly learned was that the environment you work in may not be conducive to implementing your ideas.

The Rock Island was a bankrupt railroad that couldn’t afford to maintain its track, let alone spend money promoting, expanding and improving passenger service.

Haswell later was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on Amtrak’s board of directors but withdrew after facing opposition from some senators and union leaders.

That should tell you something about how a rail passenger advocate might fare if he/she was nominated to be Amtrak’s next president.

I would expect that a passenger rail advocate who managed to get named president of Amtrak would be overwhelmed and frustrated by the reality of the position.

It might come with some nice perks and seem to have a lot of power, but your authority is constrained in ways you might not have been able to imagine.

It is one thing to have a vision for what intercity rail passenger service in the United States could be but quite another to have the ability and resources to will that vision into existence.

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