The agony of changing Amtrak

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, June 5, 2015

Why is change so hard to bring about in life? The status quo is like a dead weight that defies being moved. You see this all the time in the railroad business. But you see it up close and personal at Amtrak.

At every level, our national passenger train corporation cries out for change, for reform. Let’s start with the Northeast Corridor. The position Amtrak is in becomes ever more untenable. It’s responsible for the NEC’s maintenance and improvement, yet every year the politicians refuse to provide the money to accomplish this. So the Northeast Corridor slips further and further into a state of bad repair.

There must be a better way—there is a better way—to deal with the NEC. But Amtrak refuses to consider relinquishing control of this property in exchange for new sources of funding and instead simply asks Congress for more money, which is denied because our politicians in Congress and our President don’t want to confront the problem.

Case in point number two: the financial distress of our long-distance passenger trains. Amtrak’s accounting for the costs of operating its trains is so opaque as to be a black box. Nobody, including me, believes long distance trains lose as much money as Amtrak reports. But who knows what the truth is? Congress told Amtrak in 2008 to devise a new cost-accounting plan that better reflects real costs. When Amtrak did so and got ready to run it, the numbers were so startling that implementation was delayed for more than a year until the new system was made to look exactly like the old! Amtrak’s inspector general notes that under the new system, 80 percent of the costs are allocated across the railroad without regard to specific circumstances. The wonder is that Amtrak got away with this, because nobody cared.

Okay, if we cannot learn what long distance trains really cost, then could they be rationalized in a manner that still hits as many or more population centers? Reader Clinton Waggoner of Austin recently sent me this suggestion (which I've altered slightly): Route the Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief to run via Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Midland-Odessa and El Paso. Have the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle through St. Louis, Little Rock and Dallas connect with the Southwest Chief at Fort Worth. Truncate the triweekly Sunset Limited to run just from New Orleans to Houston and Fort Worth, but daily, connecting directly with the Crescent at New Orleans and the Chief at Fort Worth. Texas Eagle passengers could reach Houston on the Sunset by direct connection.

Clint offered several variations on this theme. The beauty of all this is connecting as many or more population centers with fewer train miles. The ugly, as I told him, is that inertia will prevent anything happening. Host railroads will demand they be gold-plated, which Congress will not let happen. In addition, Amtrak has a not-invented-here mentality.

Okay, we can’t fix the NEC and we can’t fix the long distance trains. In the wake of the Frankford Junction disaster near Philadelphia last month, could we at least train Amtrak crews better? For years, Amtrak engineer Joe McMahon, based in New Haven, has pestered top officials. In addition to classroom training of engineers and conductors, Joe said, put them together with the most experienced people in these crafts, “a resource that is in danger of being squandered.” They’ll learn on the job a lot better and a lot faster that way. In his letters to President Joe Boardman and others, McMahon cited many instances of incompetence by poorly trained employees. Example: Confronted with the need to protect a backup move through a complex control point, a confused assistant conductor found a deadheading Amtrak engineer and begged him to monitor the backup from the rear vestibule.

McMahon had other ideas (and other complaints), but his plea to make better use of the most experienced people to help qualify the newest employees stands out in my mind. What happened? McMahon was not treated rudely. He has met with some top Amtrak officials and corresponded with others. Everyone is polite. But nobody wants to change anything. Nothing changed.

Then comes Frankford Junction, caused by an engineer with relatively little experience running this part of the Northeast Corridor going into a 50-mph curve at 102 mph and sending his train flying. McMahon cannot but feel that had he been listened to more sincerely, this event and the loss of lives might not have happened.

So what prompts change in ossified organizations? One thing and one thing only: crisis. In other words, impending business failure or bankruptcy. Then people inside and outside the company who had no interest whatever in altering the status quo become energized and honestly search for workable solutions. I don’t wish that for Amtrak. But let matters stay just the way they are while the political and financial winds batter on Amtrak’s door, and a jolly fine crisis we shall have.—Fred W. Frailey

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