Systemic problems are beyond Amtrak’s control

Written by Robert Linsey
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Robert Linsey

“Amtrak must be redefined” begs an immediate response, not just because of the attack on the stewards of Amtrak’s operation over the years, but due to a plethora of allegations lacking factual support.

A lengthy book is not necessary to reveal both sides of each issue and the challenges they posed, and yes, my opinions are only anecdotal. They come from a retired operating craft employee with long service in labor and an affinity for rail travel.

In the order in which these broadsides were launched in the Opinion piece:

The shakedown of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico: This is obviously referring to the current route of the Southwest Chief. I recently rode this train over Raton Pass. A beautiful daytime ride. What seems to have been left out of the thesis is the involvement of the railway that owns the infrastructure, BNSF, which still maintains it to Class 4 standards with a signal system in place, even though much of the route is bereft of through freight traffic. The only other viable Kansas City/Albuquerque route (the segment in question) is via less-scenic North Texas, one of the highest-density freight corridors in North America.

Labor Relations and negotiations: Yes, Amtrak Engine Service wages are competitive with the Class I freight carriers. That has enabled them to maintain the necessary level of competency. In the one crew base with which I am personally familiar, Albany, N.Y., engineers are qualified on close to 700 miles of route over several carriers employing five different operating rulebooks—not to mention 110 mph operation in places and the complexities of current operations into New York’s Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, Boston South Station and Montreal Central Station.

Safety culture: Unsubstantiated lingo. Anecdotal accident records without statistical comparisons to other Class I operations over a period of time makes this a meaningless catch-phrase. Management severance packages? Check out several profitable freight carriers for the authors of that book.

Quality of on-board services: Amtrak, a creation of Congress, has since its inception in 1971 been unable to field a profitable model in order to maintain a national network; irrespective of who was its president. Congress has made policy decisions to field a surface transportation network that badly trails the rest of the developed world. Don’t blame an individual Amtrak president.

Inability to work with freight carriers: Look at the concentration of freight traffic on the legacy passenger routes; that horse has already left the barn. Restore some of those routes to their original four-track configuration? Great idea! Identify the funding source. Placing blame on Amtrak management will not fix this problem.

Commuter agencies paying their fare share: Now a book is required that needs to go back to 1983 when Amtrak became an operating railroad with infrastructure to maintain as it inherited Conrail’s obligation to provide track space for commuter service. Yes, two states have ownership and maintenance responsibility of one segment between New York City and New Haven. Compare the compatibility of that portion of the route with the high-speed corridor operation that Amtrak fields elsewhere. Not good! The Northeast Corridor traverses eight states represented by a bi-partisan mixture of 16 senators and 82 representatives. Deal with that reality before blaming the negotiating skills of Amtrak’s managers.

No single leader can fix systemic problems that lay far beyond Amtrak’s control. More nuanced and better-researched commentary is needed.

Robert Linsey is a retired Penn Central/Conrail/Norfolk Southern locomotive engineer and BLET officer. His career with PC/CR/NS spanned 42 years,1971 to 2013. Linsey started in Cleveland, Ohio, working in towers and train dispatching for eight years, with the balance spent in Engine Service, from a road extra board at Toledo to the yard list at Grand Central Terminal “and just about everything in between.” He served the BLET beginning in 1984 as Local Chairman at Oak Point Yard and then Selkirk Yard, retiring in 2013 as General Chairman representing members on the Northern and Western Regions of Norfolk Southern. “I am grateful for a career that has enabled me to grow and mature along with our industry,” Linsey says. “I am an eternal optimist that a robust future exists for the steel wheel on the steel rail, but change does come tough for many of us.  Besides expressing, periodically, my feelings over events taking place in our industry, I now spend most of my time in advocacy for domestic and international Human Rights; the respect for which I believe to be essential if our country is to maintain a respected role on this planet.”

Categories: Class I, Commuter/Regional, Freight, High Performance, Intercity, Passenger, Regulatory, Safety Tags: ,