Release #06-16—September 28, 2006
Washington, D.C.—Alex Kummant, Amtrak’s new President and CEO since September 12, was warmly received this morning by the Subcommittee on Railroads of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
He read a brief statement and then answered questions. Here are two key parts of his statement:
Chairman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) asked about on-time performance problems, quoting a retired Union Pacific official who had told him “we are sold out” in terms of capacity.
Kummant replied, “In the end, the answer has to be capital…We need to sit down with the freights [railroads] and ask them to come up with a plan. But we do have contracts, and we have to hold them to those contracts.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), in his opening statement, said, “We have an aging society. I’m glad to see you support long-distance travel. I think you’ll see more people that will” want to take long trips by rail.
Rep. Corinne Brown (D-FL), ranking member, asked about Amtrak’s plans to restore Louisiana-Florida service. Kummant simply said Amtrak would meet in the near future with the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission.
LaTourette noted that many unions have not had a new contract in seven years, and expressed concern about Amtrak’s ability to retain workers if wages are not competitive. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) asked if Kummant had “a plan to drive this labor standoff to a closure.”
Kummant said, “I can’t specify a timeline, but we have to have agreements, we have to improve morale. There have been several proposals on the table. It has to be a dialogue and a negotiation. We do need more flexibility in return for higher wages.” He noted that, in some work categories, Amtrak pay is above that of other companies, and said “we also offer a terrific benefits package relative to many industrial companies.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) concluded, “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to work with you and a full board, by the next Congress, to be able to realize the potential you describe. In spite of some in Congress, the public favors it too strongly to let it die.”
Rep. John Mica (R-FL) argued again for separating out the Northeast Corridor and giving the private sector the opportunity to help build and expand service. But Brown took the opposite tack, saying “the Bush Administration tried to destroy [Amtrak] from within, by splitting the Northeast Corridor off…I’m glad the board has backed off on those efforts for now.”
Kummant also seemed closer to Brown when he cautioned that “there are tremendous operational challenges with peeling anything off.”
Mica urged Kummant to become familiar with Virgin Rail (U.K.), which Mica praised for its 34 million passengers, and $9 billion infrastructure investments. But Jim Oberstar (D-MN) responded, “The gentleman is only telling part of the story. In December, 2000, then-Chairman [Bud] Shuster [R-PA] and I were in London when Parliament approved 600 million British pounds to bail out the right-of-way owners.”
Rep. Julia Carson (D-IN) asked about rumors of closing Amtrak’s Beech Grove maintenance facility; Kummant said “I’m not aware of it. I’ve not been involved in any discussions to close Beech Grove.”
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) asked Kummant to address on-time performance problems on Virginia Railway Express, which Amtrak operates mainly on CSX (and Norfolk Southern) tracks. Westmoreland also noted that his wife rides Amtrak Atlanta-Washington, saying that old equipment is understandable but “it should be clean.”
[Kummant’s full statement is available on Amtrak’s website.]