The right leader for Am­trak

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Rush Lov­ing Rush Lov­ing Jr., a for­mer as­so­ciate ed­i­tor at For­tune mag­a­zine, has writ­ten about trans­porta­tion for five decades. His most re­cent book on the rail­road in­dus­try, “The Well Dressed Hobo” (In­di­ana Univer­sity Press), was pub­lished this spring.

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.

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