Turnover at the top hits Amtrak at a critical time says PHL Inquirer news report. / Pros and cons summary

Turnover at the top hits Amtrak at a critical time Paul Nussbaum is reporter Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2015, 3:01 AM For full report, go to   http://media.philly.com/designimages/partnerIcon-Inquirer-2014.jpg

Debate points offered by independent reporter.

As it recovers from its worst accident on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak faces frequent management turnover and structural change, n addition to chronic financial and political challenges. Former Amtrak executives say the turmoil at the top in recent years has disrupted railroad management and distracted employees from their daily duties.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) executive and now an adjunct professor in railway management at Michigan State University, said: “Rapid changes in management are never good, unless they’re aimed at getting rid of nonfunctioning people. Management turmoil is of concern.”

With upper management in flux, former Amtrak executives say, Amtrak may not have worked aggressively enough after deadly train wrecks on other passenger railroads – on Dec. 1, 2013, in New York and on July 24, 2013, in Spain – to identify fixes on its rail network that could have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured 200. ======

Only after the Philadelphia derailment – at the order of the Federal Railroad Administration – did Amtrak quickly install automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford Junction curve, which would have prevented the fatal derailment.   Amtrak had installed that braking system 24 years earlier on the southbound side of the curve and at several other tight curves on the Northeast Corridor, to automatically slow speeding trains if the engineer doesn’t.

“Certainly one of the reactions to the Metro-North derailment [in 2013] could have been, ‘Let me take a look at all my sharp curves and make sure I have protection for all my sharp curves,’ ” said rail expert Allan Zarembski of the University of Delaware. “With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it would have been a good idea.”

COUNTER POINTS

Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman rejected the argument that Amtrak missed a chance to prevent the deadly Philadelphia derailment. He said the lack of automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford curve was based on Amtrak’s assumption that trains wouldn’t enter the curve at more than the 80 m.p.h. maximum speed allowed on the preceding straightaway.

Mr Boardman also defended Amtrak’s management reshuffle, the latest in a series of reorganizations in the railroad’s 45-year history to try to improve finances and operations and placate Congress.

OTHER BACKGROUND

The railroad’s operating subsidy from the federal government declined from $565 million in fiscal 2010 to $250 million this year.    Amtrak has never been able to meet its congressional mandate to turn a profit. It received $1.4 billion from Congress this year to cover the operating deficit, as well as capital costs for construction, new vehicles, and debt payments.   Because Amtrak relies on unpredictable annual federal appropriations, the railroad lurches from year to year in a constant state of near-crisis.

“It looks like a company, but it is really a government agency,” said Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “People complain that a ‘real’ company could be more responsive to markets and its customers. “That’s like getting angry when frogs can’t fly.”

Amtrak inherited decrepit bridges, tunnels, and equipment when it took over passenger service from the private freight railroads in 1971. Since then, its backlog of worn-out infrastructure has been growing.   Now it would require an estimated $21 billion to restore just the 457-mile Northeast Corridor (NEC) to a state of good repair. Amtrak and eight regional commuter railroads carry 750,000 passengers a day on 2,000 trains on the NEC corridor.

Boardman, Amtrak’s chief executive since 2008, has repeatedly pleaded with Congress for more money to prevent what he warned last year could be “a bigger, costlier, and far more damaging failure than anything we have seen.”

“Our senior managers have little or no experience in operating or building a railroad,” said officials of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which is in negotiations for a new labor contract. “The union’s struggle to maintain safe working conditions is hampered by Amtrak senior management’s lust for complete control and railroad inexperience,” they said in a recent union newsletter. The union also cited the problems with Amtrak’s “Safe-2-Safer” program identified in a report this year by Amtrak inspector general Tom Howard. Howard found that reported employee injuries at Amtrak increased from 695 in 2009, when the program began, to 1,301 in 2013, while employee injury claims increased by about 80 percent from 2009 through 2013, with a cost of $80 million.

Boardman dismissed the union leadership’s complaints as self-serving.   He said the union’s “concern has to do with negotiating the next contract and finding an enemy … and there’s no enemy here,” he said.

Boardman’s supporters say he is under constant pressure from Congress and the Amtrak board to cut costs and increase revenue. “He’s got a board of directors of 535 people,” said Mathews, the passenger advocate, referring to Congress. “When you have a congressman deciding the price of a hamburger in a dining car, how can you possibly make the best decisions for the customer?

“When you’re in a reactive mode, you’ve lost control of your destiny…”

The Amtrak inspector general, reported last year that Amtrak had made “significant progress implementing its 2011 strategic plan and accomplishing positive results,” while noting that “a number of challenges remain to be addressed.”

In another report, Louis Thompson, a former Federal Railroad Administration official and a railways adviser to the World Bank, said last year:   “Over its lifetime, Amtrak has had just enough political support to survive but never enough to invest properly or to prosper in any single market, and there is no convincing reason to think this will change significantly with the existing organizational structure.”

pnussbaum@phillynews.com 215-854-4587 @nussbaumpaul Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20150712_Turnover_at_the_top_hits_Amtrak_at_a_critical_time.html#J65lulgyoj8DgDkz.99

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