Having spent much of my productive life at the state and federal levels observing, studying, regulating and then leading a rail management team, I am appalled with what increasingly appears a unilateral violation of the public trust by Amtrak’s current leadership to dismantle our interconnected, intercity rail passenger network, beginning with hollowing out of its long-distance passenger train service.
Amtrak is not a privately held corporation whose fate is to be determined by a few individuals behind closed doors. It was created by the people and for the people and is funded by taxpayers who help to supplement Amtrak’s farebox revenue. Amtrak provides a cherished public service, with opinion polls repeatedly validating support for its existence and even expansion.
The role of Amtrak leadership is to operate the railroad and its various lines of business safely, efficiently and in accordance with congressionally approved statutes. It is the role of congressional lawmakers who answer to the public to determine the fate of Amtrak, and only through a transparent legislative process.
From materials I have seen submitted to congressional staff, Amtrak management has begun surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what management is doing or intending to do. Quite the opposite of being transparent, Amtrak management is limiting the substance of public briefings, denying journalists access to relevant management officials and making decisions in isolation.
Evidence points to a covert effort to divide Amtrak’s political constituencies and create distrust and discord. Consider a current effort by Amtrak management to convince opinion leaders and decision makers that providing service via the Southwest Chief passenger train, which makes 31 stops between Chicago and Los Angeles, is somehow too costly.
Confirming this intent to eliminate the service, Amtrak has informed elected officials in Colfax County, N.M., that it will not provide its match for a recently awarded congressional grant intended to sustain operation of the Southwest Chief. This directly undermines a federal grant program that, while Amtrak president, I personally brokered with BNSF CEO Matt Rose to improve the BNSF route used by the Southwest Chief—a joint benefit to freight trains and Amtrak.
Additionally, Amtrak management is engaged in “weaponizing” safety to attack more broadly Amtrak’s long-distance network. Under a façade of “safety first,” there are threats to discontinue Amtrak operated passenger trains by Dec. 31, 2018, wherever Positive Train Control is not installed and operating. That is neither acceptable nor responsible.
Yet on route segments—some 100-miles or longer—where the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has decided to exclude a requirement for PTC, Amtrak responsibly intends to utilize a highly respected Federal Aviation Administration safety program to assess risks.
Certainly, commuter carriers operating in the congested Northeast will continue operating on non-PTC equipped track beyond the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline for its installation because other FRA safety measures will govern operation.
Halting New Jersey Transit or Metro-North commuter railroads because a PTC deadline cannot be met and other safety measures are in place would be ridiculous. If commuter carriers in the Northeast can continue operating beyond the Dec. 31, 2018, PTC deadline, then certainly the Southwest Chief can, also.
Indeed, there is additional mitigation for safety risks, such as Automatic Train Stop or even solar powered switch position indicators. And, yes, it will take time and funding, but neither Amtrak management nor its board of directors has made clear whether service would be continued while those mitigations are funded and completed. If it is not made clear by July, then Amtrak management and its board is validating my allegation of “weaponizing” safety to attack Amtrak’s national interconnected passenger train network.
Make no mistake: I am strongly in support of Positive Train Control technology, and my record as the nation’s rail safety regulator speaks for itself. Safety conscious railroaders know that PTC is not an off-the-shelf technology, and where the FRA has allowed extensions and exclusions, there are available safety mitigations.
A pattern is emerging of Amtrak management and its board of directors seeking, on its own and without public input and transparency, to hog all Amtrak federal financial assistance to complete Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail projects such as the Gateway Program, to procure new “city pair” trainsets for off-NEC operation, and to shorten Amtrak long-distance routes so as to shift costs to states, ultimately destroying Amtrak’s national interconnectivity.
I think current Amtrak management and its board of directors have drawn a line in the sand at the foot of Raton Pass, targeting the Southwest Chief as their first—but not last—long-distance train to target for cutting.
The Southwest Chief issue is the battleground whose outcome will determine the fate of American’s national interconnected rail passenger network. Said more simply, the battle is Raton Pass vs. Gateway. The history of public policy toward Amtrak is that you cannot have one without the other.
Congressional leaders have long asserted that without support for Amtrak’s long-distance trains, federal support for the Northeast Corridor will evaporate.
While there is eminent good reason to fund Northeast Corridor projects, there is equivalent good reason for preserving daily train service to, for example, Dodge City, Kan., La Junta, Colo., and Havre, Mont., where the economic impact is significant and other options non-existent.
Ignoring the political process and unilaterally abandoning service linking Denver with Albuquerque and Los Angeles is equally absurd and would not survive a transparent public process were it allowed.
Joe Boardman retired in 2016 after eight years as Amtrak president and CEO, making him second only to W. Graham Claytor Jr. as Amtrak’s longest serving CEO. Previously (June 2005-December 2008), he was President George W. Bush’s Federal Railroad Administrator. Earlier, Boardman was the longest serving Commissioner of Transportation in New York State history. In 2014, he was Railway Age’s 51st Railroader of the Year.