4 who could run Amtrak

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, December 27, 2015

When I put out the call for your ideas on who should lead Amtrak after Joe Boardman’s retirement next September, you made me proud. Lots of good responses. But one in particular struck me. John Heffner wishes for someone of the caliber of Herb Kelliher, the legendary president of Southwest Airlines. Heffner continues: “The ideal candidate would be someone with a passion for passenger trains, a railroad operating executive who could go toe-to-toe with the host railroads when necessary and could also understand and empathize with their concerns when appropriate, who understands why people want to take passenger trains, who could charm even the most conservative Tea Party Republican into support, who can tell John Mica and his friends to stay out of Amtrak's kitchen, who knows how to accomplish a lot with a modest amount of funding, who inspires loyalty and hard work from rank and file employees, who understands the need for connectivity and a robust national system, and who knows how to market.  To a great extent that described the late Graham Claytor Jr.  And the first thing the new Amtrak president should do is begin by addressing those things that most irritate passengers . . .”

Who cannot say Amen, brother, to that? So with John’s rallying cry behind me, I want to put forth four names, the first of which we are all familiar with.

1. Charles (Wick) Moorman. Wick is a young 65, just retired as chief executive of Norfolk Southern. He has a passion for trains, and for passenger trains in particular. He is known and liked by his fellow rail barons (and by me, I might add). A native of Mississippi, he has good political chops, which is to say he understands the game and is not afraid of it. His personality puts people at their ease.

Wick is, at this moment, already involved in passenger rail, being part owner of one of the sleeper-observation cars built for the 1948 edition of the Twentieth Century Limited. I believe he has the standing in the railroad industry to command the respect of members of Congress, who left to themselves would be only too happy to run Amtrak by Congressional fiat.

The knock on Wick is that he just stepped down from running Norfolk Southern, a railroad in a heap of trouble. He held back from making some tough decisions, perhaps thinking that coal’s sinking ship would be magically righted and so forth.

People make mistakes. But they also learn from mistakes and redeem themselves. I sense with certainty that Wick Moorman would pour heart and soul into the job of running Amtrak.

Does he want the job? Given his interests and background, he’d be crazy not to.

2. Ron Batory. This is probably a name from outer space to most of you. Batory is the president of Conrail Shared Assets, the switching company in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Detroit owned by NS and CSX Transportation. He is widely known and universally respected within the rail industry for the job he has done the past 15 years at Shared Assets. He assembled a talented management team that has reduced costs steadily while upholding high standards for customer service. To put that another way, he is a good judge of people. And try as I might, I cannot find anyone who pins a bad rap on Batory.

Beyond all that, this is a man who truly loves trains. Almost from the crib, he will tell you, railroads have been his calling. He revived the moribund Belt Railway of Chicago a quarter century ago, and before that was operations chief of Chicago, Missouri & Western. His passion for this business, his huge web of contacts within the industry and his superb people skills would all work to his advantage running Amtrak.

Does he want the job? A decade ago, at age 55 or so, yes. Now, he’s not so sure. My sense is that if asked to take the reins of Amtrak, he’d do so happily, and make a huge difference.

3. John Fenton. Another unfamiliar name, perhaps, Fenton has been a railroader for more than three decades, and has the reputation for leaving a property in better shape than when he found it. His defining job—the one that gets him on this list—was running Metrolink, the commuter train operator in Los Angeles. The company had been demoralized, and its management discredited, by the 2008 head-on collision of a Metrolink train with a Union Pacific freight near Chatsworth, Calif., that killed 25 people and injured 135 others.

In his two years at Metra, Fenton stabilized the organization while instilling in it a safety culture that had been weak. This is a trait of his: You start by running a railroad safely, and then good things follow. California’s politicians respected the man, and didn’t get in his way. So yes, he’s very good with people. Plus, Metrolink ridership rose during his tenure.

Like the others in this list, Fenton has a long freight railroad background that started at Missouri Pacific and took him to Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Kansas City Southern and Canadian National before the Metrolink stint. Ab Rees, a railroad exec who worked with Fenton at three railroads, said this to Progressive Railroading: “John's the best manager I've ever seen." The past several years, Fenton has decompressed, relatively speaking. He is CEO of Patriot Rail, a holding company of 13 small railroads.

Does he want the job? Maybe. That’s another way of saying yes, under the right circumstances.

4. Matt Rose. At this point in his life, the executive chairman of BNSF Railway has done almost everything. He commands respect in much the same way John Kenefick and Graham Claytor did in an earlier generation. In 2000, he stepped into the big shoes worn by BNSF’s first chief executive, Rob Krebs, and soon became his own man. I’ve never met anyone, anywhere, with better people-handling skills. He probably inhabits Capitol Hill more than any other railroad executive, and in so doing has come to know the political players.

He doesn’t need this job and probably doesn’t want it. But I sense in Matt, still in his mid 50s, a restlessness, a desire to do something new, perhaps in public service. If I am right, Amtrak presents a challenge quite unlike freight railroading, yet in familiar territory. What might excite the man is to feel that he could make a difference on a new playing field.

Good people do make a difference. Such people were Claytor, Paul Reistrup, and David Gunn. Each got Amtrak over difficult times and propelled it forward. And each had a long railroad background and came to the job prepared to go to work, rather than undergo on-the-job training.

The temptation will be to look within Amtrak or the bureaucracy. For better and for worse, that’s how we got Joe Boardman. This time around, Amtrak’s board needs to think big.—Fred W. Frailey

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