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Amtrak's Mr. Fixit

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I’m a plumber, Amtrak’s new president and chief executive said at the outset of a conversation this week with writers for Trains Magazine. Wick Moorman began by noting that he didn’t take the top job last September 1 with an eye toward staying very long. He’s vague on how long his short tenure will be—I’m going to guess 12 to 18 months. But he wants to accomplish a few things before he leaves, and one of them is to fix the railroad’s plumbing.

By that, he means the way the company is run and managed. Let’s be frank and admit that Amtrak has drifted more and more toward acting and behaving like an agency of the U.S. government. That’s what the Federal Railroad Administration would no doubt like it to be, and Congressional directions to FRA to act as Amtrak’s overseer have pushed the company in that direction.

Moorman would like to have Amtrak behave more like a for-profit company, which in fact it is. He wants employees and their managers to be trained to do the jobs they are hired to do and then be held accountable. He wants Amtrak to be respected within the railroad industry for its competence (today I don’t think it is). He wants customers to get off his trains believing they got their money’s worth and feeling that they were treated with respect.

But he doesn’t think Amtrak is “broken.” It just needs some fixing, and he is Mr. Fixit, the plumber who will tighten the management pipes.

His other overarching goal is to find and groom a permanent successor who will continue to run Amtrak in a professional manner. There are a couple of people within the organization capable of this. I won’t ruin their chances by revealing their names. But I suspect that by the middle of 2017 someone will be hired from outside or promoted from within to a job just under that held by Moorman, and then you’ll know who the successor-in-training is.

I get the impression from our conversation with Moorman that his day-to-day attention will be directed first of all to securing funding for needed improvements to the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns, and secondly to improving Amtrak’s relations with states that support the shorter-haul trains. It’s fair to say most states which pay for Amtrak trains feel they are overcharged based on what they get in return. Indiana has rebelled, putting marketing and equipment of the Hoosier State in the hands of short line operator Iowa Pacific Holdings. Other states would like to do the same, but don’t know how. Frictions between Amtrak and the states are a sore that begs to be healed, and this appears to be high on Moorman’s agenda.

As for long-distance trains, he recognizes that they are Amtrak’s face to the world. But they are not where his energies will be concentrated.

In short, don’t look for Amtrak’s world to be visibly changed by Wick Moorman. Much of what he accomplishes will be below our radar. But if Wick does what he has set out to do in his few months there, Amtrak will be changed for the better, if mostly out of sight. We would all applaud such an outcome. The flip side is that if it’s more trains and billion-dollar orders for new equipment you want, wait for his successor.

This is my take on the meeting, from 35,000 feet. Read much, much more in the March issue of Trains, from my colleagues Don Philips and Bob Johnston.—Fred W. Frailey

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