Boardman: Out With A Whimper, Not A Bang.
Being supporters and, in fact, active advocates for passenger rail in this country is a frustrating way to spend one’s time, energy and money—principally because we often don’t get much help from the people for whom we’re doing our advocating.
We keep suggesting ways to grow ridership and revenue, but in a hopeless attempt to placate the elements in Congress demanding they break even, Amtrak keeps taking the nickel and dime approach—cutting costs. First to go were the nice little touches that made a long-distance ride on Amtrak such a pleasurable experience . . . an experience for which we were once happy to pay top dollar. Today, it seems like we’re paying even more, but getting less.
Comes now Amtrak president and CEO, Joseph Boardman, who will be leaving his post in favor of retirement in the Fall of this year. In what was apparently supposed to be a confidential internal memo, Boardman has just asked every department head to come up with cuts to their individual budgets of 3.8 percent.
I clearly remember my former boss, the mayor of Honolulu, scoffing at that approach. “It’s the simple, lazy way out,” he said, his point being that some departments provided more critical services than others . . . that it was better to take the time and trouble to go through the budget item by item and cut where there would be the least impact on critical services for the taxpayers.
But here’s my favorite part of the Boardman letter:
“Revenues are continuing to decline,” he wrote, “and we haven’t successfully managed our costs, especially in the areas of salaries, wages and overtime.”
Did you note that phrase “and we haven’t successfully managed our costs … ”? I sure did. And you can bet your bippy that Congressman John Mica did, too.
Walt Kelly’s comic strip character, Pogo, said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Amtrak’s new CEO and his team will have to hit the ground running to successfully manage and motivate team members-on a national basis. “Management by walking around” also means to inquire, listen, accept criticism, take notes, and implement the best ideas from those in the field who actually know what’s going on; than give them credit publicly. The new CEO, who must come out of the operational-side of the railroad industry, should be embraced by Congress (as evidenced today in a release by Senators Durbin and Wicker emphasizing a national system); to focus on building mutual complimentary labor relations, congressional relations, Class 1 relations, PR and media relations.
Advocacy groups and Congress should become involved now to identify and embrace the most logical candidate to take Amtrak into the 21st Century. The new CEO will succeed only by inspiring Amtrak’s team members to understand cost and revenue, to dispense with the nickel and dime approach to service and amenities, and to fight for Amtrak’s right to exist on a level playing field amongst the other modes of transport enjoying federally funded construction and maintenance of their infrastructure, i.e., air, interstates.
> “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
No. We have met the enemy – and he is Congress – actually he is *the American people*. Amtrak cannot ‘stand up’ to Congress. What should Amtrak management have done? Pick a fight they cannot win? Make a fuss and you are only going to get punched harder.
It is frustrating to be a transit and rail advocate in America because we are advocating for a vision and future the majority of districts in America *DO NOT WANT*. They want roads, more roads, and wider roads, and cheap gas. The vast majority of districts in America have no useful transit services – those are a feature of urban areas – which sit on ~10% of America’s land. The rest of the 90% have nothing worth mentioning; and they want a cut of the 75% of GDP those urban areas create – because rural and suburban America is flat broke – to continue to build their vision. This means they have not one, but two, reasons to oppose transit systems: (a) they do not help them and (b) that money spent is money that does not get redistributed to them.
The problem is not at the top; the problem is at the bottom.
I’m not suggesting Amtrak “pick a fight”, only that the leadership at least present their requests for modest incremental improvements. Amtrak is, after all, the ONLY public transportation for millions of taxpaying Americans in small towns across the west and mid-west. A legitimate case can be made for expanding the long-distance network. I simply think Amtrak should present their best arguments and force Congress or the various legislatures to turn them down.