Amtrak needs leadership, not more managers

Commentary by Noel Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review

On January 30th of this year, train 50, the CARDINAL, departed Chicago with 6 cars, one locomotive and one working toilet. Over the protests of the train’s conductor, the Chicago trainmaster ordered the train out of Chicago. The train had gone no further than Dyer, Indiana, just 29 miles from Chicago, when the decision was made to terminate the train in Cincinnati and supply busses for the 46 passengers.

The toilets didn’t work because of freezing. The toilets froze because the cars were not connected as they should have been to outside electrical power to keep the cars heated. None of this would have happened if people were doing their job. There is no excuse for this. There are people who should be disciplined and others who should be fired just over this incident.

But the problem is, this sort of thing has been going on at Amtrak for a long time. There is a total lack of responsibility, and no accountability among Amtrak Management. One Washington “insider” has been reported to say, “Seems to be a common problem. A terminal manager will push a train out of his area in order to improve his on-time batting average and if it hits the fan later on, well, it’s someone else’s problem.”

This problem goes beyond maintenance. Back in October 2006, the Wolverine was involved in an accident with a trespasser. This delayed the train and upset the scheduling with the crews. Crews went over their 12 hour limit. But because of poor planning, replacement crews where not ready to replace the crews before their time limit ran out. In one case, Amtrak Management ordered the engineer of train 355 to operate the train after the conductor’s time ran out and the train wouldn’t have an on duty conductor. The host railroad wouldn’t allow this and pulled the train into a siding until a fresh conductor was available. For the passengers it meant the train was over 6 hours late into Chicago. Much the same thing happened on the San Joaquin last spring. Because of poor planning and crews going over their time limit, passengers spent hours at a siding waiting for a replacement crew. The result was that train was also over 6 hours late. Such errors cost money in such things as good will. Good will has a commercial value; without it, you lose customers and income.

On the Starlight there has been an experiment of using two train chiefs. They are considered part of Amtrak Management. Mostly they are seen meeting and greeting passenger coming on the train and during the trip. This comes after Amtrak has cut back many on-board personal on the long distance trains, including the Starlight. The last thing a passenger needs when waiting for a meal or to get their sleeper set up is another layer of bureaucracy. Yet this is what was done. If the train chiefs were seen leading by example, by filling in the gaps where service ran thin and in general helping to solve problems, this could work and be useful on other trains. But so far the perception is that the train chiefs disappear once the train leaves the station.

Amtrak is a classic example of a bloated bureaucracy. Over the last few years there has been a drop in total Amtrak employment. These lost jobs were largely due to lost commuter train contracts in Boston and Southern California. We have also seen cut backs in many passenger services. What we have not seen are any meaningful cut backs in management. There was even a slight increase in managers in the recent past as employment at Amtrak fell. Amtrak has more managers than engineers and conductors. Amtrak’s ratio of managers to workers is way out of line with privative industry norms. A bigger bureaucracy doesn’t improve efficiency. In too many cases the road crews make the right decision, only to be overruled by management. This happened when the conductor rightfully objected to leaving Chicago with the Cardinal with only one working toilet. Amtrak Management ignored problems with the brakes for years on the Acela. It was a FRA inspector, not Amtrak, which pulled the Acela out of service in spring 2005 when the problem was becoming critical. Back in 2003, during a 1,000 mile inspection in Tucson, Arizona, a Sleeping Car from the Texas Eagle was found to have 4 flat wheels, a clear safety violation. The road crew wanted to pull the car off the train and transfer passengers in the relative comfort of a station. They were overruled by management back east and told to continue to Los Angeles. The UP found out and held the train at a siding 41 miles west of Tucson until the sleeping car was pulled. These types of hassles when the road crews are right, and the manager is making the wrong decisions miles away go on all the time at Amtrak only on a smaller scale.

Bureaucrats by nature make decisions miles away from the action, usually in the comfort of their office. Their efforts are largely centered on protecting their territory, budget and perks, not the job at hand. Leaders by their very nature are out in front. People can’t follow a leader if the person is in the rear. A good leader will sometimes “kick a**.” But good leaders spend more time listening to find out what the problems are, supporting their people when they are right while encouraging and rewarding good work. This doesn’t cost anymore than shabby work .But it produces higher productivity, higher worker morale, and in the end happier passengers who want heated trains, working toilets, comfortable seats, good food and getting to their destination on time.

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