Amtrak management issues

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toddinde

OBS Chief
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
507
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
People talk about that and say that on here all the time and I understand - it's a frustrating time right now and there have been some bone headed moves over the last few years. It's just not really my thing - I'm not really a very judgmental a person I'm more pragmatic perhaps to a fault. Why? I try to look at all the perspectives and put myself into others' shoes. I don't have all the information on what Amtrak's challenges and limitations are and I feel it would be presumptuous for me to say this or that person deserves to be fired with the information I have - I'm not on the Amtrak board and I don't work there in a position where I'd have access to that information to determine who is to blame for this or that. Do I think there's incompetence at Amtrak? Absolutely - it's kind of a strange beast stuck between public and private sector with limited accountability and as such has all the issues facing both private and public entities. It's an organization ripe for bureaucracy, politics, and yes a degree of incompetence. But it's tough to gauge right now what can be blamed on decision making and what is the result of workforce and supply chain limitations or both and what degree of either. Most of my current management criticism would be on the reservation and IT side of things and on how they communicate with customers. I am very supportive of advocacy efforts for a more representative board, more accountability and transparency in the organization, and more oversight from policy makers and the Amtrak OIG. But it's up to those people to judge whether Amtrak managers need to be fired or replaced - my opinion is irrelevant and futile so I just don't really go there.

I also try to be somewhat realistic as to what to expect from a potential management change. Amtrak as that hybrid beast cannot pay what the private sector does and doesn't have stock options to offer and as a result is at a competitive disadvantage searching for big executive talent. The pay is more in line with the public sector and as such is more likely to attract people largely from that realm, and as we know DC is disfunction junction right now, or from lower level private industry managers (as they don't pay enough to attract the big dogs). I think the most likely result of a big purge at 1 Mass Ave would be more of the same or possibly worse - I think expecting a Claytor to come in and save the day is unrealistic. All one has to do is look at where the Class I railroads are right now - would we really want any of those clowns? I think it's easy to say fire them all - but then you have to hire someone. That's why I think the best thing advocates can do is push for accountability and oversight and push the issue of the board.
There are plenty of people out there who would take management jobs at Amtrak, and there are plenty of people who would do it largely for the sake of doing it. It's not like the positions pay nothing, and as you say, most likely candidates will come out of the public transportation sector where salaries are not that high. What we need are people who believe in Amtrak and understand the product. The Amtrak Board made bad hiring decisions again and again. That said, the new board appointees all claimed to understand that the long distance trains are vital and pledged to support them. If Amtrak would focus on the fundamentals, they could turn this around.
 
Joined
Dec 26, 2014
Messages
3,692
This plays right into the discussion


“Ride the trains unannounced and individually. See the same service your customer does. Ride lines other than the Northeast Corridor, and more than once. Leaders like myself and David Gunn knew what the company’s workforce and riders needed to thrive because we used the service we were providing nationwide. We moved our monthly board meetings out of Washington two or three times per year and traveled there on our trains.Talk to the crews. Ask what they need. Ask them what it’s like to work an entire train alone. Talk to coach passengers who are not allowed to purchase meals from the diner if they don’t carry cash or if delays cause passengers to board after food service has ended. Many of them, especially along lower-income, more rural sections of the national network, do not own a credit card. Eat the food on the trains, which is often unhealthy and undesirable. Focus on long-distance service. We’re seeing an increase in remote work, so business and commuter passengers might not come back to riding Amtrak. But long-distance passengers have proven their desire for more frequent trips.”

- John Robert Smith, former Amtrak Board Chair

Absolutely the best summing up of what needs to be done I’ve seen yet. Thank you for posting it. I’m not familiar with Transportation for America but now will look them up.
 

TransitTyrant

Train Attendant
Joined
Jul 13, 2022
Messages
78
Location
Chicago
Ride the trains unannounced and individually. See the same service your customer does. Ride lines other than the Northeast Corridor, and more than once. Leaders like myself and David Gunn knew what the company’s workforce and riders needed to thrive because we used the service we were providing nationwide. We moved our monthly board meetings out of Washington two or three times per year and traveled there on our trains.Talk to the crews. Ask what they need. Ask them what it’s like to work an entire train alone. Talk to coach passengers who are not allowed to purchase meals from the diner if they don’t carry cash or if delays cause passengers to board after food service has ended. Many of them, especially along lower-income, more rural sections of the national network, do not own a credit card. Eat the food on the trains, which is often unhealthy and undesirable. Focus on long-distance service. We’re seeing an increase in remote work, so business and commuter passengers might not come back to riding Amtrak. But long-distance passengers have proven their desire for more frequent trips.”

- John Robert Smith, former Amtrak Board Chair.
I thought the hiring of Roger Harris was supposed to allow Gardner to actually start riding the trains? That and working with Congress more closely.
 

west point

Engineer
Joined
Jun 9, 2015
Messages
3,765
Location
SW ATL airport
Want a good CEO? Here is one returning to the US>

 

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
5,216
Location
Baltimore. MD
I also try to be somewhat realistic as to what to expect from a potential management change. Amtrak as that hybrid beast cannot pay what the private sector does and doesn't have stock options to offer and as a result is at a competitive disadvantage searching for big executive talent. The pay is more in line with the public sector and as such is more likely to attract people largely from that realm, and as we know DC is disfunction junction right now, or from lower level private industry managers (as they don't pay enough to attract the big dogs). I think the most likely result of a big purge at 1 Mass Ave would be more of the same or possibly worse - I think expecting a Claytor to come in and save the day is unrealistic. All one has to do is look at where the Class I railroads are right now - would we really want any of those clowns? I think it's easy to say fire them all - but then you have to hire someone. That's why I think the best thing advocates can do is push for accountability and oversight and push the issue of the board.
I have to disagree with the idea that the private sector can attract more executive talent because of its higher pay. The high pay may just be attracting greedy people who manage the company in a way that skims off compensation for the executives or activist investors while bleeding the company to death. Consider the case of Jack Welch, who destroyed General Electric, but got severance pay of $417 million (according to wikipedia) when they finally got rid of him. I'd take any Senior Executive Service Federal Manager, who is maxxed out at about $200,000 a year over the greedy MBAs who demand millions. (By the way, the salary of the President of the United States is only $400,000 a year.)

As for the needed OBS and mechanical folks, I suspect that it will shortly be easier to find new hires, as soon as the recent Fed rate increase starts a recession and it becomes harder to find a job.
 

zephyr17

Engineer
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
6,910
Location
Washington State
I have to disagree with the idea that the private sector can attract more executive talent because of its higher pay. The high pay may just be attracting greedy people who manage the company in a way that skims off compensation for the executives or activist investors while bleeding the company to death. Consider the case of Jack Welch, who destroyed General Electric, but got severance pay of $417 million (according to wikipedia) when they finally got rid of him. I'd take any Senior Executive Service Federal Manager, who is maxxed out at about $200,000 a year over the greedy MBAs who demand millions. (By the way, the salary of the President of the United States is only $400,000 a year.)

As for the needed OBS and mechanical folks, I suspect that it will shortly be easier to find new hires, as soon as the recent Fed rate increase starts a recession and it becomes harder to find a job.
Completely agree. I'll also point out that Amtrak's best presidents, IMHO, Graham Claytor and David Gunn, were not in it for the money. Both were comfortably retired and helmed Amtrak out of a sense of service. Arguably, Claytor saved Amtrak.

As to Jack Welch, after his retirement he renounced his management practices and called the shareholder value concept the "dumbest idea ever." Didn't feel bad enough give back the money, though.

His acolytes also effectively killed Boeing, and got several hundred people literally, not metaphorically, killed in the process.
 
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rs9

Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 26, 2021
Messages
202
Location
Chicago
I don't see this as a public vs. private sector issue. This is a societal issue as to how we view work.

When companies of all types, from all sectors, laid off workers in the pandemic, our national response was not "Wait a minute, we're not going to allow this to happen." Our response was, "Oh, this is an awful time for so many people!"

We didn't just have to send billions of dollars to corporations/Amtrak. We could have stipulated that the money be used in part to maintain payroll. While there still would be economic shifts due to changing consumer demand, the current worker shortage (more accurately - dislocation) might look a lot different.

The historical example that best exemplifies this to me was United Airlines receiving about $5.2 billion (if I recall correctly), with agreement to not lay off 30,000 workers for 6 months. Presuming these workers were ramp workers, gate agents, ticket counter employees, baggage handlers, etc., that comes out to an average salary of nearly $350,000 per worker. American and United then took on $25 billion more in taxpayer funds when that six-month period had past, after again threatening to lay off all those workers.

The point is not to argue about bailout funding but to simply point out that our priority was never to preserve the labor force - we could have met payroll by simply meeting payroll.

So to bring this back to the topic - Amtrak executives acted like the rest of us act in this country. It was short-sighted and frankly rather stupid, but the onus is less on them and more on our society, in my opinion.
 

The Commissioner

Train Attendant
Joined
May 4, 2010
Messages
24
The real problem is that Amtrak, as a provider of transportation, is not competitive with the airlines outside the corridors. As a provider of rail transportation, it is a monopoly. There is absolutely no incentive to become competitive with the airlines because technology and other insurmountable barriers prevent it. There is absolutely no incentive to improve as a provider of intercity rail transportation because it's the only game in town and the customers pay for and bear the service provided. There is no other passenger train operator for the customer to turn to.

Back in the day, the NYC to CHI rail travel customer could choose between the PRR and the NYC. Competition made everyone better. Now that there is no competition, Amtrak by definition cannot get better unless the Government takes complete control, the politicians promise better service and they are at risk of being voted out of office if they don't deliver on the promise. Until that happens, the fundamental question remains, "Why should Amtrak improve?"
 
Joined
Sep 2, 2021
Messages
1,009
Location
Lubec, ME
The real problem is that Amtrak, as a provider of transportation, is not competitive with the airlines outside the corridors. As a provider of rail transportation, it is a monopoly. There is absolutely no incentive to become competitive with the airlines because technology and other insurmountable barriers prevent it. There is absolutely no incentive to improve as a provider of intercity rail transportation because it's the only game in town and the customers pay for and bear the service provided. There is no other passenger train operator for the customer to turn to.

Back in the day, the NYC to CHI rail travel customer could choose between the PRR and the NYC. Competition made everyone better. Now that there is no competition, Amtrak by definition cannot get better unless the Government takes complete control, the politicians promise better service and they are at risk of being voted out of office if they don't deliver on the promise. Until that happens, the fundamental question remains, "Why should Amtrak improve?"
I agree that only in the NEC is Amtrak competitive with airlines in terms of speed and cost. Outside of the NEC it does have competition with the private auto for trips up to 500 miles or so. There is also Greyhound although that is becoming less of a factor as that company seems to be self destructing. The reality is that there will never be competition in the sense of private companies duking it out as in the days of PRR vs NYC. But there is certainly plenty of competition with government subsidized private car and bus operation.
 
Joined
Sep 2, 2021
Messages
1,009
Location
Lubec, ME
I thought they already had that…
I think he means complete control of the rail network, like Network Rail in the UK. I don't think we are likely to see a wholesale takeover of track, more likely a piecemeal approach where key sections get taken over where it would benefit both passenger and freight operation.
 
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