Commentary, Reports

My Meeting With Amtrak President Alex Kummant

By RailPAC President Paul Dyson. — I met with Mr. Kummant for 45 minutes at the Amtrak Offices in Washington D.C. Joining the discussion were Cliff Black, Amtrak Director of Media Relations and Marcus Mason, Senior Director of Government Affairs of Amtrak. My meeting was very cordial and covered a wide range of topics. This ranged from the lessons of British Railways privatization to dealing with the Union Pacific. Also covered were specific issues such as NEC infrastructure costs, the long distance trains, and California Corridors.

Photo by Amtrak’s Cliff Black for RailPAC

Obviously Mr. Kummant is very new to the position and to passenger railroading, and he is the first to acknowledge that he has a lot to absorb. I was impressed that he referred to a railroad atlas when I made a specific reference to a route; I’ve worked with too many railroaders who pretend they know everything. However, he certainly doesn’t seemed daunted by the challenges, and has the attitude of any good executive taking the helm of a corporation; that it’s his job to grow the business and improve the bottom line.

Regarding the political climate and the demands for more private involvement with passenger rail, Mr. Kummant asked me to prepare some notes on the results of privatization of British Railways. While there have been some improvements in services in the UK the overall public subsidy has increased four fold, a fact often overlooked this side of the pond. We both agreed that passenger rail is on the public agenda as it has not been for many years and that there is a great opportunity for growth. We also agreed that Amtrak and its supporters should do more to tout the progress of rail, particularly to quote passenger miles rather than just ridership.

I explained that RailPAC is in effect a coalition of many interests, including high speed rail, long distance trains and corridors. I pointed out that RailPAC’s overriding concern has been to present proposals that are realistic and that represent value for the taxpayer’s dollar. I also told him that the western states feel strongly that the long distance train network and western services are under invested compared to the NEC. California in particular has spent state tax dollars for our own rail program while at the same time we send federal tax dollars that are spent on the Acela program, so we pay twice. Mr. Kummant said that he wanted to come to California and to work with our officials on some initiatives to “redress the balance”. He believes in incremental improvement and that 100 mph corridors are marketable. We spoke of the San Joaquin Valley cities as being in need of more service and having great potential.

Mr. Kummant believes that his experience with Union Pacific will be a valuable asset, as he “understands how they think”. He believes that the organization is changing under new CEO Jim Young, although the fear of open access remains. There are major investments in infrastructure in the pipeline for UP, although in the short term that could cause disruption to the long distance trains.

We also spoke of the need for investment in rolling stock and the difficulty in putting together a large enough order to interest a car builder. I mentioned my experience in the railcar leasing business and our interest some years ago in finding the rail equivalent of the 737. Mr. Kummant is very interested in private financing of rolling stock, with perhaps a “Fannie Mae” type of structure whereby the government is a guarantor of last resort.

The discussion turned on the long distance trains. I believe Mr. Kummant views these as having potential for improvement and development, possibly with participation from tour operators, cruise lines and others with their own vehicles as part of the consist. I mentioned that our group and many others would fight to keep the long distance trains, and that reducing the network would only add costs to the remaining trains. We agreed that the easiest part of a service to get rid of is the revenue; the costs have a habit of sticking around.

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