The right leader for Amtrak
Amtrak has been a financial orphan since it was born out of the bankruptcy of Penn Central 45 years ago. Passenger rail does not — cannot on most routes — make money, so Congress created Amtrak to take over the passenger trains. The new company got no support from many political leaders, especially Republicans, who saw the railroad as a safe harbor for the unions.
Amtrak never received permanent funding as a line item in the federal budget. Every time it has needed money, the company has had to go hat-in-hand to Congress. Moreover, only four men with railroad experience have ever headed Amtrak. Most of the rest, including Amtrak’s retiring president, have had political backgrounds. Now the company’s board has appointed a railroader as its new president — Charles “Wick” Moorman, a soft-spoken Mississippian who used to head Norfolk Southern.
Running Amtrak is not an easy job. The company lacks the independence of a private corporation, and Mr. Moorman sometimes will have to draw on his ample reservoir of diplomacy. Twoadministrations have pushed out presidents. The Clinton White House did in one because he stood up to the unions. The George W. Bush administration forced out railroader David Gunn, one of the best presidents in Amtrak’s history, whose outspoken advocacy of common-sense policies annoyed the politicians.
Mr. Moorman faces some daunting challenges. He will be taking over a railroad that suffers from a serious case of mismanagement. It has a dismal safety record. Amtrak needs the operating discipline that Mr. Moorman lived by during his 45-year career at Norfolk and one of its predecessors, the Southern Railway.
Moreover, Amtrak’s service has declined to some extent, especially on some longdistance trains. Food quality often falls short, and dining cars have even been eliminated from the Silver Star, which connects Baltimore with Florida. The prices of bedrooms on its sister train, the Silver Meteor, have been jacked up so high even travelers on expense accounts cannot afford them. Mr. Moorman knows the importance of good service and is qualified to fix such problems.
Mr. Moorman understands finance and is the ideal choice for the task of raising the billions that will be needed to build two new tubes under the Hudson River to replace a storm-damaged tunnel that was built a century ago. Hemust oversee a multibilliondollar project to turn the Northeast Corridor into a 180-mile-per-hour high-speed line. Moreover Amtrak needs annual funding to cover its operating deficits and to provide capital for upgrading tracks and trains outside the Northeast Corridor.
Simultaneously he must deal with the freight railroads that carry Amtrak trains on their systems. The relationship between Amtrak and those carriers has deteriorated as passenger trains have been delayed by a surge of freight traffic. He also faces the challenge of expanding Amtrak’s partnerships with the states that have enabled the railroad to expand its services. At Norfolk Southern, Mr. Moorman worked with the state of Virginia and Amtrak to bring passenger trains down his railroad’s main line from Petersburg to Norfolk. So he knows how it’s all done.
Mr. Moorman’s least recognized challenge is the need to redefine Amtrak’s role in America’s transportation system. Our highways are jammed these days. The nation’s most flagrant case is Washington, including suburban Maryland, where motorists waste an average of 82 hours a year sitting in traffic jams.
Building more roads to accommodate the traffic will not work. Studies show every new lane on a highway only attracts more vehicles.
Over 25 years ago truckers realized that any cargo going more than 300 or 400 miles should be handed over to a railroad. Similarly motorists need to take the train. Where there is good passenger service, such as on the Northeast Corridor, motorists do use Amtrak rather than drive. But elsewhere few do, largely because there is no frequent rail service available. Amtrak can fill that need with more trains.
That will require more subsidies and more capital funding. To achieve this, Amtrak will need a permanent spot on each year’s federal budget and regular annual funding from states as well. The airlines are subsidized already with government money for air traffic control and airports. Billions of public funds are spent on highways every year. Amtrak requires the same.
To obtain that status Amtrak needs to launch a carefully orchestrated campaign to make the public and our political leaders aware of the critical role it can play unclogging our highways. In the long term this will be even more important to Amtrak than creating better service and establishing higher standards of operating discipline. But before Amtrak can make itself recognized as a key mover in the nation’s transport network, the quality of the company’s management must be elevated to first class. By creating a well-run railroad first, Mr. Moorman can deal with all Amtrak’s other challenges as well.