About Amtrak's new leader

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 19, 2016

It’s safe to say that everyone who cares about the future of the American passenger train breathed a sigh of relief today. Welcome to Amtrak, Wick Moorman. When he and I spoke months ago, the just-retired chief executive of Norfolk Southern said the challenge of running (and changing) Amtrak attracted him, but that he had promised his wife he would devote his time to her and their family. So maybe the hero of the day is really Bonnie Moorman.

Charles (Wick) Moorman brings some big strengths to his new job.

First, he is an unabashed lover of trains—their history, their romance, their importance to the nation’s economy. But for him, the 611 steam locomotive of Norfolk & Western heritage would never have been brought out of retirement and restored to life. I’ve questioned to myself the cost of painting locomotives in honor of the almost two dozens predecessor companies of Norfolk Southern, but no one can question the pride that lies behind such a project.

Second, Moorman comes to Amtrak with not just a railroad background—something it sorely needs in its leader, having morphed from a business into almost an adjunct of the Federal Railroad Administration (a government bureaucracy, in other words)—but a large railroad background. Amtrak is, when you think of it, America’s only national railroad. Moorman knows the railroad business and he has had a decade’s experience controlling and directing a very large organization. NS has roughly 29,000 employees, and Amtrak about 20,000. So Moorman should well know how to get his hand around the company he is about to lead.

Third, he comes with a southerner’s political instincts. The best people in politics are likable men and women who project friendliness and humility simultaneously. Wick is self-deprecating to a fault, and carries with him a soft wit. Speaking to Progressive Railroading’s Pat Foran a few years ago, Mike Haverty of Kansas City Southern (a man who doesn’t suffer fools) said of Moorman: “Wick is very polite, and he comes across as fairly low key, but he's a businessman. I have found over the years, in dealing with senior management at Norfolk Southern, that they all have been what I would refer to as 'southern gentlemen.' And behind the gentleman exterior, they're tough. They're determined. They're dedicated. That's Wick." At Amtrak, Moorman will be dealing with state and congressional politicians, trying to bend them to his way of thinking. His disposition prepares him well for this part of his job.

Fourth, as Haverty’s remarks suggest, Wick has the respect of his fellow railroad moguls. This is important, because as a group, these titans of the transportation world really don’t like each other all that much. He’s going to have to go to the railroads over which Amtrak trains operate and ask for things these other railroads don’t want to provide—track occupancy, better handling, flexibility on scheduling. That he has the respect of these people is incredibly important.

And finally, it is totally within the man's character to take the job on a salary of $1 a year, with a substantial bonus ($500,000 max) tied to performance goals.

My question (and I’ve asked it before) is simply this: Is he really tough enough, will he hold people accountable? I got the impression in his last years at Norfolk Southern, when it had enormous weather problems combined with a traffic surge over the northern half of its network, that he was accommodating when he should have been more demanding. Well, only Wick Moorman can demonstrate whether he is tough enough, and I will give him the benefit of my doubt.

The challenges he faces—dear Lord, don’t get me started! That’s the subject of a future essay.—Fred W. Frailey

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