In praise of Joe Boardman

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, May 20, 2011

The president of Amtrak is starting to impress me. And the reason for this may be the part of Joe Boardman that seems to draw the disdain of so many critics: He is a bureaucrat. Living here in northern Virginia, bureaucrats are my neighbors. As a group, I’d describe bureaucrats this way: The best ones are loyal, work hard, follow procedures to the letter, try to avoid the limelight, seek consensus, and eventually get the job done right. I’ve never met the man, but that would seem to describe Joe Boardman.
I recall all the criticism during his first 18 months on the job, beginning in November 2008. Where did Joe go, people asked? Here we finally had a U.S. president friendly to passenger rail, and Boardman was nowhere to be seen. Well, maybe we didn’t see Joe Boardman much for a long time, but today we’re starting to see the results of the projects he quietly set in motion early in his tenure at Amtrak. (Bear in mind also that he was acting president for the first 15 months, in the absence of a quorum of Amtrak directors, and that people with “acting” in front of their title are advised to always walk softly.)
Anyway, my attitude toward this fellow gets its latest jolt this week, as I attend at Amtrak headquarters a news conference to bring the public up to date on high-speed rail initiatives. Al Engel, vice president for high-speed rail since September of last year, does the talking. At some point during this event, a little voice begins to whisper into my ear.
“Fred,” it says, “do you remember when Amtrak released its ‘Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor’ last September?”
Yes, I think to myself.
“And do you remember the price tag attached to all of its recommendation?” the little voice continues.
Yes I do: $117 billion. That’s with a B.
“And what did you say to yourself then?”
$1***$2 this will never happen. That’s exactly what I said.
“Do you still think that?” The voice goes away, and I look up as Al Engel points to a PowerPoint display of eight development steps needed to take us from the Northeast Corridor we have today to the $117 billion (with a B) NEC Amtrak has proposed. Step one, 40 percent increase in Acela Express capacity: Under way and self-financed. Step two, Acela II orders to double the number of trainsets: Procurement gets under way next year, again self-financed. Step three, 160-mph service south of New York City: Partially funded. Step four….
Hold it! I break into a nervous sweat. What I thought eight months ago would never happen is becoming reality right in front of my eyes. (You can read the $117 billion plan here.) Joe and Al aren’t waiting for Barack Obama’s direction. They’re plunging ahead. Try and stop them! Engel informs us that Amtrak sent this “vision plan” for the NEC to operators of HSR networks around the world for peer review, and got encouraging feedback that says it is practical and that the cost estimates are, if anything, too conservative and timeline too long. Now it has invited business and financial entities (26 are interested) for ideas on a joint public-private redevelopment of the corridor; those ideas and proposals are due in June.

The surprise, I guess, is that I am surprised. But this is what good bureaucrats do.
And I recall, sitting there this week, that this isn’t the first time Joe Boardman exceeded my expectations. Do you remember the “Fleet Renewal Strategy” first issued by Amtrak early in 2010? I was impressed by this comprehensive plan for reequipping Amtrak’s trains with new cars and locomotives. But, to be frank, I thought: Good luck doing any of this.
The ink on that report is still wet when Boardman announces the order for 150 single-level cars, the down payment met with cash on hand. Before I know it, Boardman comes back to herald the replacement of Amtrak's “Swedish Meatballs,” those 51 durable Swedish-designed electric locomotives now starting to wear out after 30 years of pounding. He’s going right down the list! Now I’m beginning to think that if Ike had a Joe Boardman around, World War II would have ended in 1943.
So yes, I’m revising upward my estimate of Joe Boardman. My bureaucrat Joe is not perfect, but let’s talk about that on another day. — Fred W. Frailey

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