Amtrak: Number-crunching doesn’t do it justice

Written by Joseph A. Boardman
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Joe Boardman

Today, as well as for most of its existence, Amtrak has had both its supporters and detractors focused on numbers—numbers of passengers, dollars of investment, size of deficits, miles of rail service, and statistical comparisons with others. There is a passion here that drives interest, much like the passion of sports fans immersed in statistics.

Not only does neither side win arguments by focusing solely on statistics, the exercise ignores why Amtrak exists. Sadly, for our nation, states and communities, current Amtrak management has decided to treat Amtrak as a zero-sum game, where there must be winners and losers based solely on statistics. Rural areas would have neither affordable electric nor telephone service, nor even highways, were such a narrow focus used for those public services.

While it is important that Amtrak focus on numbers—as must any organization with limited budgets, payrolls to meet and vendors to pay—a pure focus on statistics, as Stephen Gardner did in his December 19 op-ed, doesn’t accurately tell Amtrak’s story. Limiting the narrative to financials and comparative statistics is unbalanced—for both Amtrak’s supporters and detractors. It also is a hollow excuse to avoid the societal role and importance of Amtrak.

Amtrak is really about the value it brings to our nation, states, communities, employees and passengers—the forgotten stakeholders when one focuses solely on cold statistics.

The negative opinion articles regarding Amtrak’s current management decisions are a result not of statistics, but rather a result of lack of meaningful and effective communication with employees, customers, lawmakers and the media. Amtrak management has stifled candid and transparent discussion of subjects such as operation with and without PTC; the customer and community value of long-distance trains tied to an interconnected national network of passenger service; and why the Northeast Corridor (NEC) is, in reality, owned not by Amtrak management or any advisory board, but by the people of the United States of America.

When the NEC was deeded to Amtrak in 1976, the U.S. Department of Transportation made it possible for Amtrak operations to survive operating over it by providing a 900-year mortgage with no requirement for payment of principal or interest.

But many in the states and commuter railroads along the NEC are unhappy with the structural changes required by Section 212 of PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008). Those changes require substantial increases be paid to Amtrak for their use of the NEC infrastructure. They believe there should be much better communication and better coordination of service, along with better financial accounting for the charges allocated. “Better” is not what it is for those stakeholders, and they are letting their lawmakers know.

This should not be surprising, were Congress to change that structure for the improved benefit of all passenger rail stakeholders—commuter and intercity. For example, Amtrak could be granted a franchise for some services along the NEC, as could other operators, such as New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road, and perhaps adding a new independent franchise operating only Acela-type higher- and high-speed service as an independent service.

There is no room in this editorial to list all the nicks, cuts and blatant disregard that Amtrak has aimed at the long-distance train network. Those communities, passengers and lawmakers along the rural rails in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have felt that disregard and witnessed the self-righteous arrogance that comes from the lack of appropriate value for those communities and their residents. Abruptly changing types of service; the termination of customer service representatives at rural stations; the closing of the Riverside Reservation Center; the selling-off and rental of revenue equipment; canceling hot meals and taking away sleeper space from long-distance trains; taking baggage cars off trains that need them: These things are all about Amtrak’s management putting a statistical number value placed on “the everything.” It is not putting the customer first. It is not demonstrating that the employee is valued.

Lawmakers have an opportunity during the next two years to make some important changes to Amtrak’s structure and its future. Those of us who truly care about passenger rail in our nation need to ensure that, as the work progresses, more than cold statistics are considered.

Joe Boardman was President and CEO of Amtrak from 2008 to 2016, and prior to that, Federal Railroad Administrator.

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