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Don Phillips scathing attack on Amtraks Lack of Leadership when most needed

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Don Phillips scathing attack on Amtraks Lack of Leadership when most needed
Posted by passengerfan on Saturday, October 31, 2009 7:01 AM

In the December 2009 Trains magazine Don Phillips akss where is Boardman why doesn't he lead. Amtrak is going through some of its toughest times and the lack of leadership is all to evident. Boardman should take control or step aside and let someone run Amtrak that really cares whether we have a passenger train network or not. I believe that many jobs could be created in building new Amtrak equipment and that now is the time for responsible leadership to see that this and other projects at Amtrak are carried out with responsibility and leadership.

After listening to Boardman when he was on the west coast I came away with high hopes, but like Don Phillips this has turned to disappointment. Where is the leadership that was promised and when do the proposed car building etc. at least get started.

I for one believe Amtrak needs to be run by the private sector as management and project overseers with the ability to fire any Amtrak employees not doing the jobs they were hired to do or that have become so complacent they are worthless to Amtrak. There are thousands of unemployed Americans that would be anxious to take jobs that pay as well as Amtrak. But all new employees should undergo two months of training by Via Rail Canada before they can become Amtrak onboard personel and keep them away from present Amtrak employees as we do not want to infect the new hires.

Mr. Boardman it is time to step up to the plate or take early retirement you are certainly not doing Amtrak any favors with your present inaction.

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Posted by henry6 on Saturday, October 31, 2009 8:11 AM

I, too, am concerned with Joe Boardman's lack of visibiltiy after a flurry of a start.  Having known Joe from his early days in Upstate New York before moving to Albany and then Washington, I thought I had reason for high hopes. As I suggested to Don Phillips it might be the Washington political climate and culture being so different from state politics or that he is an appointed Republican working for a Democratic administration.  He was appointed "intrim" with a set 12 month term which ends in November.  He could be lying low working the political angles to his advantage; he could be listening to all the clamour for high speed rail, more passenger trains, etc.before jumping on a program; he might be waiting for the November elections and see what the voters have to say about the current administration and politicans; he might have to be quiet until after the November selection.is announced.  I still am in his corner as I have seen his work before and still say he is the right man to be at the helm of Amtrak particularly at this time.  I just hope those in Washington see it and those who can influence Washington do so.

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Posted by schlimm on Saturday, October 31, 2009 8:25 AM

 

henry6
an appointed Republican working for a Democratic administration.  He was appointed "intrim" with a set 12 month term which ends in November.

That explains it.  Why would we expect an appointee of an administration opposed to Amtrak to try to advocate for an expanded role? 

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Posted by 4merroad4man on Saturday, October 31, 2009 3:23 PM

Al,

Mr. Phillips is entitled, like so many others, to apply for a job with Amtrak and possibly be a CEO someday and then we can all sit back, be critical and complain about the kind of job he does.  Otherwise, I suppose he is entitled to his opinions, but like most opinions, they don't count for much when one is standing outside the department store.

On another note, it does look as if Amtrak will be asking Congress for supplemental funds in order to purchase new rolling stock in the future.  Mr. Boardman did address this pressing issue in his weekly employee advisory, among other things.

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Posted by Dakguy201 on Sunday, November 1, 2009 7:35 AM

Perhaps there are two reasons that might explain Mr. Boardman's (as Mr. Phillips sees it) inaction.

First, as a former federal official, he is prohibited by law from lobbying his former agency, the FRA.  I believe but am not certain that this prohibition will expire before the end of this year. 

Second, there are a number of vacancies on the Amtrak Board of Directors.  When the Administration finally gets around to filling them, it is a near certainty the individuals nominated will be labor union friendly if not former union officials.  The next permanent Amtrak CEO, be it Mr. Boardman or someone else, is going to be faced with a tricky labor relations situation.  

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 1, 2009 8:23 AM

Dakguy201

Perhaps there are two reasons that might explain Mr. Boardman's (as Mr. Phillips sees it) inaction.

First, as a former federal official, he is prohibited by law from lobbying his former agency, the FRA.  I believe but am not certain that this prohibition will expire before the end of this year. 

Second, there are a number of vacancies on the Amtrak Board of Directors.  When the Administration finally gets around to filling them, it is a near certainty the individuals nominated will be labor union friendly if not former union officials.  The next permanent Amtrak CEO, be it Mr. Boardman or someone else, is going to be faced with a tricky labor relations situation.  

I spent nearly 40 years working for large corporations.  Thousands of outsiders, including journalists, thought that they knew more about the company than those on the inside.  They didn't!  I doubt that Mr. Phillips or any outsider really understands the dynamics of running Amtrak.

Mr. Boardman should be given the benefit of the doubt.  Implementing change at a large organization, especially one that is as political as Amtrak, takes time.  To expect significant change inside of a year is unrealistic.

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Posted by henry6 on Sunday, November 1, 2009 9:16 AM

Several things overlooked about Phillips and Boardman in this thread.

First, Phillips.  He is an old line journalist, By that I mean he knows his craft as a writer and as a seeker and presenter of truth and information..and opinion, too, yes.  But to be as successful as he has been he has had to research and monitor transportation, railroading, people, and politics.  This is so much unlike our Wikopedia Media Wizards of today!

Second, Boardman.  Some are overlooking the fact that he was appointed to a one year, temporary term which ends in November.  And he, also as having been a former FRA chief, is not allowed to speak to many issues which he previously had a hand in.  It is apparent to many, including Phillips (and myself) that Joe Boardman is the perfect person to be President of Amtrak.  His being mum about so many things of late have raised alarms in us Boardman supporters that we fear he may not be selected to continue in the post.  Thus our aloud wonderings and speculations about what is going on in D.C. concerning Boardman's present tenure as well as the prospect for his continueing as Amtrak President.  It is now November.  Our questons should be answered by Thanksgiving.

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Posted by alphas on Sunday, November 1, 2009 10:21 PM

Dakguy 201,

Although I personally suspect you're right about about the Obama administration, its union connections, and the eventual Amtrak Board nominees, we can only hope you are wrong.  Otherwise, Amtrak is going to be even worse off than it has been.   You can't run any civilian organization where the employees' interests are the priority without it turning into a fiasco.    When government does it, the eventual results resemble CA's problems. 

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Posted by oltmannd on Monday, November 2, 2009 7:46 AM
Phillips has been around long enough to know what good passenger rail "output" looks like. Up to now, he's been willing to believe that what ailed Amtrak was the input (i.e. funding), but now, with the prospect of the input being fixed, it appears the machinery that turns input into output may be the problem. And, that starts at the top. Amtrak has been crying "poor mouth" so long and so loud that they don't have a plan, or it appears, any interest in developing a plan for dealing with increased funding. Amtrak is fundamentally a railroad. Many of us know what makes a railroad run well from the inside. There are clues all around that lead one to believe that Amtrak is a disfunctional, or just marginally functional railroad with a broken corporate culture. Phillips is just starting to believe this, too, it appears.

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Posted by jeaton on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 10:49 AM

Don Phillips is held in high regard by railroad "insiders" , including top executives, as one who consistantly got the story right.  If you ever had a chance to read his articles as a transportation reporter for the Washington Post, you would realize that he had an excellent knowledge and understanding of how railroads work.  As a reporter, he is certainly as good as anybody reporting in trade publications aimed at the railraod business,  and may have been the best at that writing for a general circulation newspaper.  He was certainly way beyond the reporter who doesn't know the difference between the conductor and the engineer.  Further, he wrote so that the story could be understood by readers who were not insiders or as knowedgable of the industry as railfans.

One can certainly disagree with his opinions.  Many do.  But with respect to this month's column, I think he is expressing a view that is shared by many in and around the industry and that is surprise that Boardman has not had his people come up with a fairly well developed list of "needs and wants".  Dave Gunn did that, even in the face of an administration that was making every effort to simply get rid of all the federal support for Amtrak.  As much as anything else, Gunn got fired for being aggressive for pushing his agenda, but given the appearant attitude of the current administration, I just find it hard to believe that Boardman would face the same fate.  It seems to me that if Boardman got an indication from the administration that he was asking for too much, as an experienced politician, he probably would be willing to trim the list and not pound the desk to get his way.

As far as the legal obstical keeping Boardman to going direct to the FRA, I can't see that that would stop him from preparing plans to present to the Amtrak board.  If it does, it certainly is an unfortunate rule for this case.

As I read the column, is see Phillips basicly asking the why Boardman has seemed to have been floating along for many months.  No one beside Boardman seems to know, and he has not granted interviews to Phillips or anyone else who would ask for and report an explanation.

 

 

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Posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 7:58 PM

jeaton

Don Phillips is held in high regard by railroad "insiders" , including top executives, as one who consistantly got the story right.  If you ever had a chance to read his articles as a transportation reporter for the Washington Post, you would realize that he had an excellent knowledge and understanding of how railroads work.  As a reporter, he is certainly as good as anybody reporting in trade publications aimed at the railraod business,  and may have been the best at that writing for a general circulation newspaper.  He was certainly way beyond the reporter who doesn't know the difference between the conductor and the engineer.  Further, he wrote so that the story could be understood by readers who were not insiders or as knowedgable of the industry as railfans.

As I read the column, is see Phillips basicly asking the why Boardman has seemed to have been floating along for many months.  No one beside Boardman seems to know, and he has not granted interviews to Phillips or anyone else who would ask for and report an explanation.

As the chief audit executive for a major corporation, I sat in on numerous executive committee and board meetings.  Unless management wanted someout outside of these councils to know what transpired in them, no one, including industry knowledgeable reporters, was given a clue.  As you point out, Boardman has not granted Phillips an interview.  So why should I conclude that Phillips has any inside knowledge to buttress his opinions?  Why should I believe that he is in a position to assess Mr. Boardman's leadership skills?

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Posted by schlimm on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 8:50 PM

Sam1
As the chief audit executive for a major corporation, I sat in on numerous executive committee and board meetings.  Unless management wanted someout outside of these councils to know what transpired in them, no one, including industry knowledgeable reporters, was given a clue. 

 

Amtrak is a government-owned corporation.  As such, the right of the public to "know" through transparency and the press is rather different than your experience in the US corporate world.  I would suggest Phillips long experience as a writer on transportation gives him a significant knowledge base and many "inside" sources.

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Posted by oltmannd on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 9:10 PM
Sam1
So why should I conclude that Phillips has any inside knowledge to buttress his opinions?  Why should I believe that he is in a position to assess Mr. Boardman's leadership skills?
None needed and Phillips stated so in his column. The judgement of lack of leadership is based primarily on what Boardman has said publicly measured against what Amtrak hasn't done in the past year. Pretty fair yardstick, I think.

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Posted by aegrotatio on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 8:33 AM

For high-speed rail nationwide I don't think we need to worry too much about Boardman and Amtrak.

The advocates for high-speed rail met last month in Washington and they all agreed that it is best served as a system independent of Amtrak (and the other railroads for that matter) and by private companies with public subsidy.

That's pie-in-the-sky, but I have hopes.

Let Amtrak stumble along  Very High Speed Rail really gets going.

 

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 8:45 AM
aegrotatio

For high-speed rail nationwide I don't think we need to worry too much about Boardman and Amtrak.

The advocates for high-speed rail met last month in Washington and they all agreed that it is best served as a system independent of Amtrak (and the other railroads for that matter) and by private companies with public subsidy.

That's pie-in-the-sky, but I have hopes.

Yes. Pie in the sky. Might as well suggest dirigibles as an energy efficient means of regional passenger travel.

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Posted by 4merroad4man on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 8:53 AM

oltmannd
Sam1
So why should I conclude that Phillips has any inside knowledge to buttress his opinions?  Why should I believe that he is in a position to assess Mr. Boardman's leadership skills?
None needed and Phillips stated so in his column. The judgement of lack of leadership is based primarily on what Boardman has said publicly measured against what Amtrak hasn't done in the past year. Pretty fair yardstick, I think.

OK, I give.  What hasn't Amtrak done in the past year?  They haven't killed off any trains, and in some instances, improved their service options, i.e., a long overdue restoration of checked baggage service at austin, TX, they have, I believe either ordered new baggage cars and/or are rebuilding some in Beech Grove, they are restoring P40's to service and some badly needed Superliners.  They settled, for now their Union contracts for the first time in 11 years, and according to Mr. Boardman, are finalizing a capital request aimed specifically at acquisition of new equipment.  They have conducted route studies for reestablishment of various routes, are still working on Las Vegas service and seem to be on the verge of retaking LA's troubled Metrolink operation.  Oh yes, I believe the on time performance for the system is up as well, but someone can correct me on that one. 

Amtrak always leaves something to be desired, but so does every railroad in the country.  Amtrak is moving forward, albeit without Hollywood spotlights and neon signs to signal the activity.

I guess my point is that Mr. Boardman needn't report to anyone except Congress and the DOT, and to a certain degree, his workforce, and in so doing, he can let Amtrak's work be his report and resume. 

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Posted by Anonymous on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:13 AM

4merroad4man

oltmannd
Sam1
So why should I conclude that Phillips has any inside knowledge to buttress his opinions?  Why should I believe that he is in a position to assess Mr. Boardman's leadership skills?
None needed and Phillips stated so in his column. The judgement of lack of leadership is based primarily on what Boardman has said publicly measured against what Amtrak hasn't done in the past year. Pretty fair yardstick, I think.

OK, I give.  What hasn't Amtrak done in the past year?  They haven't killed off any trains, and in some instances, improved their service options, i.e., a long overdue restoration of checked baggage service at austin, TX, they have, I believe either ordered new baggage cars and/or are rebuilding some in Beech Grove, they are restoring P40's to service and some badly needed Superliners.  They settled, for now their Union contracts for the first time in 11 years, and according to Mr. Boardman, are finalizing a capital request aimed specifically at acquisition of new equipment.  They have conducted route studies for reestablishment of various routes, are still working on Las Vegas service and seem to be on the verge of retaking LA's troubled Metrolink operation.  Oh yes, I believe the on time performance for the system is up as well, but someone can correct me on that one. 

Amtrak always leaves something to be desired, but so does every railroad in the country.  Amtrak is moving forward, albeit without Hollywood spotlights and neon signs to signal the activity.

I guess my point is that Mr. Boardman needn't report to anyone except Congress and the DOT, and to a certain degree, his workforce, and in so doing, he can let Amtrak's work be his report and resume. 

 

Spot on!  A key point to keep in mind is that the leader of Amtrak has to continuously cover his or her back from an attack by 535 legislators, as well as the White House, who are convinced that they know more about running Amtrak than the management team.   

I understand that Amtrak wants to run the Texas Eagle through to LA on a daily basis, kill the Sunset Limited, and offer a day train between San Antonio and New Orleans.  I further understand that they were ready to implement it this fall, but were blocked by local politicians, with help for their Congressional pals, who did not like the plan. 

How Amtrak ever gets a competent executive to run a national passenger railroad whilst dealing with the politicians and others who are convinced that they know best how to run the system amazes me.

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:14 AM
4merroad4man
OK, I give.  What hasn't Amtrak done in the past year?
I'll give you two. One, he said there were too many employees just "going through the motions" and that those people needed to find new work. Anybody let go yet? Any management shake up? Nope. Second one. Boardman talks about Amtraks's future and place in the world. $8B to be handed out for improved service. Way more than that applied for. Has Amtrak taken a position on any of it? Any route studies internally initiated? Nope. Nada. Zilch. It's been almost a year. This ain't rocket science. Fail!

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:27 AM
Sam1
How Amtrak ever gets a competent executive to run a national passenger railroad whilst dealing with the politicians and others who are convinced that they know best how to run the system amazes me.
Well put. However, Amtrak has not always been so inert. A good example would be the purchase of the French Turbos in the 1970s in an attempt to jump start some higher speed service. Didn't exactly pan out, but it did give a push for higher speed service on the Hudson Line, which did pan out. Right now, Amtrak should be openly talking about how the proposals that are on the table right now would fit into their system, what the service would look like, what equipment would fit best, which they'd like to participate in and how that would work. Boardman still has complete hire/fire authority over his management team. If he were even the least bit serious about motivating the dead wood, he'd have done SOMETHING by now. Now, all the employees know he was just blowing smoke.

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:27 AM
Sam1
How Amtrak ever gets a competent executive to run a national passenger railroad whilst dealing with the politicians and others who are convinced that they know best how to run the system amazes me.
Well put. However, Amtrak has not always been so inert. A good example would be the purchase of the French Turbos in the 1970s in an attempt to jump start some higher speed service. Didn't exactly pan out, but it did give a push for higher speed service on the Hudson Line, which did pan out. Right now, Amtrak should be openly talking about how the proposals that are on the table right now would fit into their system, what the service would look like, what equipment would fit best, which they'd like to participate in and how that would work. Boardman still has complete hire/fire authority over his management team. If he were even the least bit serious about motivating the dead wood, he'd have done SOMETHING by now. Now, all the employees know he was just blowing smoke.

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Posted by henry6 on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:52 AM

The President of Amtrak is ont the same as President of BNSF or CSX or anyother railroad for that matter.  Working in the private sector is much different than in the public sector, and in this case Boardman has an extra burden of being appointed for only one year which ends this month.  He has worked in the political arena for years in NY from municipal to state elevations but, as I said earlier, Washington is different.  There are many reasons he has not been vocal or public especially over the last six or so months.  So what happens by the end of this month is very important and is the tell tale.

By the way, I don't think Phillips said anything more in his column this month than that he was dissapointed in that Boardman has not been public and vocal.  As has been indicated, Phillips is a well respected and accepted journalist in the transportation field and not a contimporary yellow hack looking to kill somebody's career over a misplaced hat. You don't have to agree with him, but you can't attack his integrity and sincerity.

As for HSP and VHSP being "pie in the sky".  Yes, in this country it probably is.  We are a country that could benefit greatly in so many ways should we have such rail service.  But since we are hung up on it being a private enterprise device to garner big profits (lets face it, 20% or less return on investment within a year in this country is a turn off in the private sector) or it shouldn't be considered because it evidently isn't worth it.  Thank goodness our Forefathers never thought that way or we'd still be back in the 1700's socially and economically.  And it's not just high speed rail that we need think about in these terms in this country. 

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Posted by n012944 on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:17 PM

oltmannd
4merroad4man
OK, I give.  What hasn't Amtrak done in the past year?
I'll give you two. One, he said there were too many employees just "going through the motions" and that those people needed to find new work. Anybody let go yet? Any management shake up? Nope. \!

 

The general superintentdant of the pacific division, along with some other high ranking managers from the pacific side, were terminated on 10/12/09.  

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:40 PM
henry6
By the way, I don't think Phillips said anything more in his column this month than that he was dissapointed in that Boardman has not been public and vocal. 
No. He said ALL that Boardman was was "public and vocal" and that there was no action behind the words.
henry6
Thank goodness our Forefathers never thought that way or we'd still be back in the 1700's socially and economically.
Yes. God bless'em for giving us the Tennessee-Tombigbee!
henry6
Working in the private sector is much different than in the public sector, and in this case Boardman has an extra burden of being appointed for only one year which ends this month.
So, the path to success in the public sector is to do nothing? If you do something, somebody might not like it and get you fired? To get reappointed, don't do anything? And then, when you are reappointed, keep not doing anything, so you don't get fired? Is that what you're saying? Even Downs and Warrington did SOMETHING! (it was bad, but it wasn't nothing)
henry6
You don't have to agree with him, but you can't attack his integrity and sincerity.
I'm not attacking Phillips. I think he's right that Boardman has been a dissapointment.. Amtrak's ship has come in, Boardman talks about seeing it arrive and how wonderful it will be, but won't get on board (ooh. There's a pun there somewhere....) The first lines of Phillip's column: "It is time for Joseph Boardman to either act like a leader or move on. Amtrak needs leadership, and none is evident now." Some more: "Many of them (Amtrak employees) are working hard on plans to be ready for the future. They only await orders from the top."

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Posted by BaltACD on Wednesday, November 11, 2009 6:22 PM

The one thing that everyone continues to overlook about Amtrak.  From it's inception by Congress it has been designed to fail.  The fact that it still exists is a testament of leadership to all those that have held the top leadership position....imagine defying Congress's intent for the past 38 years.

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Posted by BNSFwatcher on Friday, November 13, 2009 9:39 AM

Sorry, but I don't think dirigibles will fly!  (Groan!  Sorry...)  Maybe if they can fill them with all the "excess" carbon dioxide in the air, saving mankind (and polar bears) from a horrible fate...

Here, in Shelby, MT we have a horse feed lot, containing thousands of aged/un-wanted/wild horses.  They await a truck trip to the Fort MacLeod, Alberta abbatoir and a nice flight on "Air Canada" to France, where they will be consumed by the denizens therein.  Has anyone thought of hooking these critters up to wagons, or just getting on their backs to go to the grocery store?  Might work.  I'm sure GM could figure out a way to build wagons...  Well, maybe.  With Studebaker gone, there ain't much expertise in the area.  Come on Fiat..., er...Chrysler.  You can do it!

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Posted by jeaton on Friday, November 13, 2009 10:05 AM

I wouldn't necessarily say it was designed to fail, but it certainly wasn't designed to suceed. 

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Posted by oltmannd on Friday, November 13, 2009 11:20 AM
jeaton
I wouldn't necessarily say it was designed to fail, but it certainly wasn't designed to suceed. 
It all depends on the definition of "fail" and "succeed".

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Posted by schlimm on Friday, November 13, 2009 12:00 PM

Several people have noted that Nixon's team met (not very) secretly to plan the Rail Passeger Service Act, which was designed to take over the money-losing passenger business from the railroads and then in turn quietly go under (designed to fail). Louis Menk of the BN was upset when Fortune exposed the scheme.  The history of Amtrak is rife with Congressional interference, chronic under-funding and mostly lackluster management.  It's a miracle it has survived this long.

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Posted by schlimm on Friday, November 13, 2009 5:02 PM

I just reread Phillips' editorial as well as some others by him in recent issues.  "Scathing" hardly seems an appropriate term; it was critical, certainly, overly impatient perhaps.

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Posted by Anonymous on Friday, November 13, 2009 8:27 PM

BaltACD

The one thing that everyone continues to overlook about Amtrak.  From it's inception by Congress it has been designed to fail.  The fact that it still exists is a testament of leadership to all those that have held the top leadership position....imagine defying Congress's intent for the past 38 years.

Designed to fail?  Maybe!  A better assessment can be found in the program which was laid on Amtrak's management.  Had the architects eliminated the long distance trains, which provide a relatively small share of the revenues whilst eating a disproportionate share of the operating expenses, and concentrated on a few corridors, where passenger trains have a chance for success, the results probably would have been different.  

With some minor tweaking of the fare and cost structure, Amtrak could cover its operating expenses and contribute a significant amount to the fixed costs on its relatively short corridor routes.

Unfortunately, Amtrak is a political animal, which contains the seeds of its inability to be at least a partially commercial success.  It has been whipsawed by political forces rather than run as a response to market demand for passenger rail services.

Ironically, many of the people in the advocacy groups, who profess to love trains, have contributed to Amtrak's many problems through their 1950s. perspectives.  They keep insisting on running trains based on a bygone model that have no chance whatsoever of being viable.    

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