NCI: Leo King
Search for leader begins
WASHINGTON - Amtrak's sixth president, George Warrington, is resigning his position to become executive director of New Jersey Transit.
He leaves at a critical juncture in Amtrak's existence just when Congress appears ready to face up to the chronic problems that have plagued it since its founding over 30 years ago. Among other things, the lawmakers appear ready to accept the fact that no one can successfully run Amtrak as presently structured.
Amtrak Board Chairman John Robert Smith said Warrington's persistent and "visionary leadership" had "positioned us well for the future" and that his candor had "sparked a vital debate about the role and benefits of passenger rail in meeting the country's transportation needs."
Amtrak Reform Council Chairman Gil Carmichael said Warrington had "tried very hard, and I have known that he had an impossible job because of the way that Amtrak is organized."
Warrington's attempts to come to grips with that very problem caused his regime to be perhaps the most stormy in Amtrak's history.
He was originally tapped for the job on short notice on an interim basis right after his predecessor Tom Downs was fired.
Downs's undoing was his attempt to deal with Amtrak's state of poverty by staring down organized rail labor in a then looming strike that could have shut down the entire Northeast corridor.
Downs's predecessor was W. Graham Claytor, Jr., a former military man and arguably one of the shrewdest rail executives in the last 50 years. He tried to run Amtrak with spit and polish discipline, just as he had run Southern Railway. He found out the political powers that be wouldn't let him do things that way at publicly funded Amtrak. After Claytor had been hauled before a Congressional committee to answer complaints from labor unions, he settled in to going along to get along. In the end, he was a sick dying man who just didn't want to hear bad news.
So, Warrington followed two predecessors who had been told by Congress, in effect, to look the other way and paper over Amtrak's problems with political pabulum.
That is not to imply that all of Amtrak's problems are to be laid at the door of organized labor. There has been a lot of "give back" on the part of the brotherhoods. Indeed, Ed Wytkind, executive director of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO noted in a Wednesday House hearing that Amtrak employees make an average of 20 percent less than commuter rail employees and that the gap is even bigger compared to freight rail wages, but the Claytor and Downs problems seemed to symbolize a lot of other festering difficulties with Amtrak's very structure and the fact that anyone who took on the thankless job of running it was being asked to accomplish the impossible.
Just when Warrington took charge, Congress suddenly sat up and said, in effect, "You know what? Amtrak has been ambling along for nearly three decades, and it's not making the profit that President Nixon wanted when he signed the bill. Even though knowledgeable railroaders told us all along that was an elusive goal, maybe it's time for us to ride to the rescue."
The result was the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which set the timetable of operational self-sufficiency by late 2002.
Even though Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) at a Senate hearing Thursday called that 1997 law "the last spiteful message of the Gingrich era," the Reform bill did accomplish some good. It ultimately forced the politicians to face the moment of truth, i.e. that Amtrak had been operating on the "big lie" of profitability for thirty years and that it was time to stop the game of "Let's pretend."
In fact, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) at the Senate hearing this past week cited "profitability" as the number one myth surrounding Amtrak throughout hits history. One wonders if lawmakers would recognize this even now had the Reform law not begun a process ultimately leading to the recognition that alas, the emperor (of profitability) has no clothes.
The new law also created the Amtrak Reform Council which spent three-and-a-half years asking all the "what if" questions - to think "out of the box." A lot of ideas came out of ARC, some perhaps better than others, but the point was to ask all the right questions that no one had dared to ask for years lest the applecart be upset.
The law also required ARC to make a judgment or "finding" in late 2001 as to whether the "self-sufficiency" goal. By a razor-thin margin it decided that would not happen.
By law, that triggered a process where Amtrak was supposed to draw up a liquidation plan.
Congress turned around and ordered that Amtrak be taken off the hook on that task, but by then the damage had been done. The publicity of "liquidation" scared off the private markets that had financed much of Amtrak's capital expenses for so long.
At the Thursday Senate hearing and at the House hearing Wednesday, Warrington cited this as one of three straws that broke the camel's back and left him with "no more tools in the tool box to hold this (Amtrak) together." The other two were the slowdown in the economy and the September 11 terrorist attacks that prompted the added expense of considerably beefed up security measures.
"When I came on board (as Amtrak president), I was handed a deck of cards," the now outgoing Amtrak boss told the House Railroads subcommittee.
"Congress had just passed (the 1997 reform law) and told me here's your money. This is all you're going to get."
Before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, DOT's Inspector General Kenneth Mead presented some charts clearly showing that under Warrington, both ridership and revenues had risen to their highest levels of Amtrak's history, but that the growth in expenses had outpaced the revenue increase. Thus, one can see where Warrington and his predecessors may be forgiven for believing they were handed a task not unlike that of a dog who is encouraged to chase its own tail around the tree.
So now, push has come to shove, and the question is whether Americans are serious about wanting a first-class passenger train system.
Whoever takes Warrington's place will have to deal with the problem of hemorrhaging management talent. Dozens of top managers have quit Amtrak in recent weeks, according to testimony before the Senate.
Lawmakers at both hearings put an additional squeeze on the Bush administration to come up with its own plan on passenger trains in the U.S. Not mentioned at the hearings, but reported last week by D:F, the failure of the administration to present such a blueprint stems, in large measure, from a White House family fight. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (a former Amtrak Board chairman) wants a robust passenger train network. White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels does not - but Congress, both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate, are insisting the White House lead the way.
House Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Jack Quinn told Federal Railroad Administrator Allan Rutter that he expected him to come back April 11 with at least a broad outline of administration policy in his hand.
"We need the President's input," Sen. Richard Durbin told Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson, "He (President Bush) has to decide if Amtrak is going to disappear on his watch."
Rutter, who had been given a similar ultimatum a week earlier by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) (See D:F March 4), told Quinn "Actually that (the ultimatum) is very helpful to me," perhaps a hint that he too was frustrated by the stalemate brought on by the family fight described above.
Several other lawmakers piled on and demanded that the administration give Congress some sort of starting point as it makes a crucial decision in this "push comes to shove" year.
When D:F asked Rutter if he planned to bring some kind of rail passenger plan April 11, he responded, "I think I'll be in deep trouble if I don't."
Deputy DOT Secretary Jackson promised an outline report "very soon."
One suspects the lawmakers are well aware of the family fight, but do not intend to let it dictate their own schedule.
As Rogers said on February 27, "This train's leaving the station."
The hearings brought out a measure of frustration on the part lawmakers outside the Northeast who feel that while the NEC has been given full train service, the rest of the has had to make do with leftovers.
Rep. Bob Clement (D-Tenn.) reminded Warrington and others that the growth in the nation is "in the south and the west, not the north and the east."
Senate Chairwoman Murray was more direct.
In closely questioning Warrington, she spotlighted the fact that while her state of Washington had to pay for new Talgo equipment for its Seattle-Vancouver, B.C. trains, the new high-speed Acela train sets on the NEC were fully funded by Amtrak.
Senator Murray complained that under the Amtrak budget, "the states (in the Northeast) that currently enjoy the best rail service and put up none of their own money will continue to enjoy the service, while the rest of the country will have to do without.
"As chair of this subcommittee," the West Coast Democrat declared, "I intend to have some say in how Amtrak gets funded next year, and I don't intend to play by those rules."
Warrington said that a major factor in Amtrak's decline was that its assets were depreciating. Under the administration's $521 million requested for Fiscal Year 2003 (a "non-starter" he called it) over time, passengers "within six to twelve months" would notice "quality impacts" in "reliability and comfort." Safety, he emphasized, would not be compromised.
Claytor used to talk about the depreciation factor. When he was told he wasn't getting the money to deal with it, he simply stopped talking about it.
All of these problems piling up for decades have come to a head on Warrington's watch. He has finally told Congress that Amtrak can "no longer carry everyone's ambition" on its back. The game is over, in other words.
At the Senate hearing, Warrington was praised for his stewardship by Deputy Secretary Jackson and Senator Durbin.
No one can deny he worked hard to balance all those "ambitions" on his back, but is making his exit apparently believing it is time for Congress face the fact that it can no longer deal with binding Amtrak together with paste and glue.
Among some of the accomplishments of the Warrington era are the Guest Rewards and the "No Excuses" programs. The latter provided that any passenger or "guest" who felt his trip was a bust could complain and get a voucher for future Amtrak travel.
One union leader called it "a stupid policy," but it seems to have worked. As reported earlier in this space, I rode six long-distance Amtrak trains between last October and January, and did not run into one single rude or surly employee, even though many of them were plainly overworked. That was not always the case in the past. It is reasonable to believe that the "No Excuses" plan smoked out the "bad apples." That accomplishment is a Warrington legacy.
Speculation immediately turned to a possible successor to take on the troubled passenger train company. Reportedly there is a "short list." I have talked to people who are aware of it, but they are not talking.
One name being floated into the speculation mill is that of Jim Coston, a former Amtrak employee and member of the Amtrak Reform Council. He is very talented, energetic, has a clear vision of rail passenger service and what it should be, and has excellent contacts.
When D:F reached Coston, he was circumspect, saying only that is "interested in a solution, and want to assist the best way I can."
Jim RePass, President of National Corridors Initiative, D:F's parent, has also been mentioned. Other than spending his own time and money to advance passenger train service nationwide, he is widely credited with starting the ball rolling that ultimately resulted in electrifying the NEC from New Haven to Boston.
"I feel it is an honor that anyone would consider me," RePass told me, "But it is not something I would encourage."
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The Warrington era
George Warrington's resignation last Wednesday to take a job heading New Jersey Transit is a sad development at a tough time for Amtrak, but an action entirely understandable under the circumstances. Wish he hadn't done it; too bad we lost him, but time to move on.
Before doing that, we should look at the things George Warrington did, and tried to sustain, in the face of daunting odds.
First, he brought a business mindset to Amtrak. A lot of people, including this writer, thought he would be a bureaucrat. He wasn't. He was a leader, and with a business-oriented outlook.
Secondly, he made a valiant effort to change Amtrak's long-term defeatist culture and instill a sense of pride in the work force. He largely succeeded, for a time, and would have been able to do more if given the support by Congress to build up the route system and invest in the infrastructure.
Third, he introduced the first true high-speed rail system to America, which has already led to market domination (53 percent ticketed market share) in the Washington-New York Corridor, and looks like it will do the same in the Boston-New York segment as the present three-hour, 22-minute turn drops closer and closer to three hours flat.
George Warrington was good for Amtrak. Although some people thought he was only Corridor-oriented, he devoted great energy and resources to the long-distance trains.
People speculate on why he left, but it's not hard to figure out. After five years of being short-funded by Congress, and then being beaten up because Amtrak didn't perform miracles when given no money, I think George just got sick of it. I wish he had stayed on, but I certainly can see how it would be tiresome to dance to 535 tunes when a lot of the tune-callers always managed to avoid paying the tab.
Well, that tab is coming due, and although George Warrington will soon be off the property, that tab will have to be faced. 32 years of deferred capital investment and a generation of putting off the creation of a viable, balanced transportation policy for America by investing in rail as well as highway and air travel, is coming home to roost.
Congress, and the Administration, must devise a plan to fund ground-based transportation just as we fund the other two modes, but if they fail to back Amtrak with real money, and soon, they will both be the fathers to a catastrophe, and George Warrington knew that. He just got tired of warning them over, and over again, that you can't run a railroad without money, and that passenger railroads, like air and highway systems, require federal dollars.
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Tug with barge hits bridge;
GCT briefly gets Amtrak
Amtrak trains on the Empire Corridor were diverted to and from Grand Central Station in New York City for a time on March 2 after a tugboat pushing a barge rammed into the Spuyten Duyvil railroad bridge. That is where the Harlem and Hudson Rivers meet.
The accident disrupted Amtrak service to upstate New York around noon, closed the Harlem River to recreational and commercial boat traffic and forced the barge to abort a trip to Delaware. It was loaded with retired Metropolitan Transit Authority Redbird subway cars, they are to serve as artificial reefs, The New York Times reported.
"They made it through the bridge, but they didn't get to go to the reef in Delaware," said Petty Officer Gary Rives, a spokesman for the United States Coast Guard, which is investigating the accident.
The barge was hauled to a marine terminal in New Jersey operated by Weeks Marine Inc. of Cranford, N.J., which owns the tugboat involved in the accident.
Petty Officer Rives said the tugboat, the Shelby Weeks, was moving the barge under the railroad bridge when there was some sort of collision. He said the bridge, which rotates to allow river traffic to pass, was partly open at the time. Because of the damage, it could not be closed, he said. No one was hurt in the accident.
Karen Dunn, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, which owns the bridge, said the bridge was reopened shortly before 5:30 p.m. and train service was back to normal.
Before that, trains on Amtrak's Empire line between Pennsylvania Station and upstate New York had to be rerouted. Just after the accident, passengers on a New York-bound Amtrak train on that line were transferred by bus to a Metro-North train and taken to Grand Central Terminal, Ms. Dunn said.
Until the bridge reopened, Empire Service trains were diverted around the bridge on Metro-North tracks to Grand Central. Several hundred passengers were shuttled between Grand Central and Penn Station by bus and taxi, Dunn said.
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|Labor urges Amtrak funding|
Saying that Amtrak and its 25,000 workers must be "given a chance to excel," transportation labor again advised Congress to fund Amtrak at no less than $1.2 billion for Fiscal Year 2003, and to enact Amtrak reauthorization legislation that places the carrier on a steady and long-term course to financial stability.
"Amtrak is not receiving realistic financing levels that match the nation's expectations for Amtrak as a truly national passenger railroad," said Edward Wytkind, Executive Director of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, in testimony before the House Railroads Subcommittee on March 6.
"No other segment of America's transportation system is forced to meet its capital and operating needs without substantial government assistance. Congress must put an end to this double standard."
The testimony, which was presented on behalf of 34 affiliated transportation unions of the AFL-CIO, including the 12 rail unions representing most of Amtrak's workers, underscored the depths of what it termed "a double-standard" by pointing out that current Congressional policies "have left Amtrak with a significant debt load that is strangling the company, millions of dollars in deferred capital and maintenance, a $5.8 billion capital backlog built up over 30 years of under-investment, and unmet security needs in the aftermath of September 11."
Wytkind told the subcommittee members, "The first step in turning around Amtrak's finances is to heed the call of transportation labor and many in Congress who are urging action to eliminate the mandate for Amtrak to operate subsidy-free." He added, "No other national passenger rail system in the world operates subsidy-free. Operational self-sufficiency is the wrong answer for Amtrak."
The right answer, Wytkind said, is long-term investment in Amtrak and its dedicated workers.
"For much of the past three decades, Amtrak workers have made repeated sacrifices to help the railroad survive," he noted, and added, "These workers have taken the brunt of Amtrak's financial hardships by accepting real wage concessions that today make them the lowest paid in the industry. Already this year, Amtrak has laid-off 1,000 workers with more possible job cuts to follow. Despite all the difficulties that Amtrak workers have faced, they are still on the job, committed to making the railroad a national success."
While noting that America has the potential to build the world's premier passenger rail system, transportation labor stressed that the President's budget request of only $521 million for Amtrak would achieve just the opposite. Such shortsightedness would set the stage for elimination of Amtrak's entire long-distance network, cost 7,000 Amtrak workers their jobs and rob some 8 million passengers of the opportunity to use America's passenger rail network.
Privatization schemes advocated by the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) drew some of the sharpest criticism.
"Now more than ever, privatization of our passenger rail system must be rejected," the TTD testimony stressed. Reminding lawmakers about the "disastrous" experience with rail privatization in Great Britain, Wytkind said that the British people and businesses have struggled with "tragic accidents, chronic delays, system failures and high fares."
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The unintended consequences
The writer is a general jurisdiction trial judge in the State of Vermont, and has been so since 1978. He handles civil, criminal and family cases. He has served on numerous statewide boards and commissions including the Judiciary Technology Committee, and currently chairs the standing committee on Public Access to Court Records. He also has a strong interest in public transportation policy and how it affects quality-of-life issues, particularly for seniors. - Ed.
It has been said that a far greater consequence of President Carter's crackdown and imposition of a national speed limit several years ago in an attempt to reduce the consumption of gasoline was the dramatic growth in the market for citizens' band radios. The quest to conserve fuel had created another result that nobody contemplated. This is what economists call an unintended consequence, albeit a humorous and isolated example of how national transportation policy can render unintended results. However, many of the unintended consequences are not humorous at all.
At first blush, one would not think that someone like me, a long time trial judge in civil, criminal and family courts, would have much contact with issues and problems stemming from national transportation policy. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Judges regularly have to deal with the aftermath of tragic situations. In criminal court, I regularly sentence impaired drivers. Words cannot describe the courtroom scene when an impaired operator is sentenced in a motor vehicle case with a fatality or serious injuries. Nothing can bring back the deceased or repair the seriously injured. Nothing can console their families. Nothing a judge can do will mitigate the often staggering medical costs in such a case. Yet all of these situations normally have certain things in common: alcohol or drugs or both, cars and no public transportation.
I also encounter many people driving with suspended licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines or purchase auto insurance. A recent article in the February 7, 2002 edition of USA Today indicated that recent random checks of motorists in South Carolina revealed that 10 percent of operators were driving without insurance. That is entirely consistent with my experience over the years. It also underlines the fact that given the lack of good public transportation, many people will choose to drive whether it is to get to work or simply for recreational or social purposes, and, many times, whether by choice or circumstances, will operate a vehicle with safety problems. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that someone who cannot afford insurance probably also cannot afford repairs.
Another part of my job relates to suits for the collection of debts. Once again, the automobile is a central player in my work. Day after day, I sign judgments against debtors who have defaulted on automobile loans. Clearly, many people who buy cars, for whatever reason, simply can't afford to pay for them. Given the absence of any transportation alternatives however, they can't be blamed for trying.
In summary, contrary to popular belief, there are large numbers of the population that are driving suspended, uninsured and often with safety hazards they cannot afford to fix. Further, there are many impaired operators. It is no stretch to say that in part this is an unintended consequence of our national transportation policy, which, as far as motor vehicles is concerned, is based on sanctioning individuals rather than providing alternatives.
It seems as though there is nothing like a mass tragedy to capture the public attention. Whenever an airliner goes down or a storm takes lives and does property damage it is front-page news; however, there is one epidemic that has been largely overlooked ‚ and it is a direct result of our national transportation policy.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of injury and death in this country for persons aged 1-34; and that in 1997 there were 42,000 fatalities and 3.5 million nonfatal injuries attributable to motor vehicle crashes. Statistics published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its 1999 Traffic Safety Facts Report indicate that in that year there were more than 37,000 fatalities, over 2 million injuries, and over 4 million incidences of property damage stemming from over 6 million auto accidents. The social, medical and financial costs of such a situation have to be staggering. Certainly, no one intended this consequence of out auto-dependent transportation policies.
Finally, in my judgment, one of the worst unintended consequences of a society so heavily dependent on the automobile is what it does to human independence and self-sufficiency. The automobile originally was seen to provide freedom to travel and mobility. Who would have thought that such a breakthrough would have promoted sprawl and the demise of many economically healthy downtowns.
Perhaps our greatest victim in all of this is our seniors. Anyone who has ever had to take the car keys away from Dad or Mom because they are too old to drive know that their parent speaks the truth when they say, "You're making me a prisoner in my own home."
Walking to shop simply is no longer a choice in many locations. Certainly, no one would intend this consequence. However, as a greater percentage of our population is aging it is becoming a more serious problem.
As someone who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, I experienced the exhilaration of driving and the freedom that automobiles offer. What I didn't notice until much later was the gradual disappearance of other transportation alternatives and the undue dependence we had formed. We've had too much of what started out as a good thing. Unfortunately, the unintended social and economic costs have simply become too great to continue in this way.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control is online at http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/duip/duip/htm.
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Your newsletter stated that Norfolk Southern ceased passenger operations in 1971. In fact, the Southern Railway (one of the predecessors of Norfolk Southern) did not join Amtrak in 1971 and instead continued to run passenger trains (including the New York-New Orleans run you mentioned) until 1979.
Indeed, Southern did.
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Supply Chain Expo
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
ASLRRA annual meeting and exhibition
World Center Marriott
NCI 2002 Conference
Washington, D.C. Marriott Hotel
This conference will feature a major debate about the future and direction of passenger rail in America, conducted by the people who will actually determine that outcome.
Conference speakers will include Amtrak Board Chair Michael Dukakis, Amtrak Reform Council Chair Gil Carmichael and Executive Director Tom Till, DOT Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, Author Tony Hiss, Barron's magazine editor Tom Donlan, Florida rail activist and businessman Doc Dockery, Janelletech President Janellen Riggs, rail consultant Randy Resor of Zeta-Tech Associates, Inc., Railway Age magazine editor Bill Vantuono, attorney and rail activist James Coston, and many other of the top thinkers and "doers" in American rail and transit industries.
Further details regarding advance registration will be announced in upcoming issues of Destination: Freedom.
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NCI: Leo King CollectionWhat is so rare as a day in June when the trains are running and a 15-year-old kid has nothing finer to do than to watch a freight train exit double-tracked East Side Tunnel in Providence, R.I. circa 1953. The job left Six Bridges (Northup Avenue Yard) around 9:00 a.m., went eastward through the hole to switch at least 35 cars across the Seekonk River in East Providence, and back across the river at India Point and Fox Point Yard. By 4:30, the crew could usually be found exiting the hole on its journey home, with about an-hour left on the job, and hauling an equal number of about 35 loads and empties.
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In an effort to expand the on-line experience at the National Corridors Initiative web site, we have added a page featuring links to other rail travel sites. We hope to provide links to those cities or states that are working on rail transportation initiatives - state DOTs, legislators, governor's offices, and transportation professionals - as well as some links for travelers, enthusiasts, and hobbyists.
If you have a favorite rail link, please send the uniform resource locator address (URL) to the webmaster in care of this web site. An e-mail link appears at the bottom of the NCI web site pages to get in touch with D. M. Kirkpatrick, NCI's webmaster in Boston.
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