Happening Now

Former Amtrak President Questions Current Execs' Motives

May 9, 2018

Former Amtrak President Joe Boardman has issued a blistering open letter in response to recent moves by current Amtrak management, saying they endanger the sustainability of the national network.

The letter came in response to a letter Amtrak sent to elected officials (copied below) applying strict, additional requirements to its match for the Southwest Chief TIGER grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation to Colfax County, New Mexico.

“I’ve seen enough. I’ve heard enough,” Boardman told Trains News Wire. “This is beyond common sense… Amtrak took 20 years to address (infrastructure) problems on the (Chief’s) route. They think they’re fooling someone, but there wouldn’t be this kind of arrogance if (management) valued the economic impact a daily passenger train brings to the communities it serves.”

In the light of Boardman’s statements, and other recent worrying moves that erode service on long-distance routes, it is time for Amtrak President Richard Anderson to issue a statement affirming the railroad’s commitment to Amtrak-served communities and a truly National Network. Right now, the silence from management is deafening.

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The full text of Boardman’s open letter to elected officials:

Based on the Communication I've seen being submitted to Hill Staff, I think that Amtrak has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing, instead the plan seems to be to keep the recommendations and briefings small and isolated from each other, just the opposite of transparent.

I think the CEO and the Board have drawn a line in the sand at the foot of the Raton Pass, believing that they can convince western politicians that providing service on the SWC is ineffective and too costly, making the Southwest Chief as their first major target to cut.

I believe that after the Washington State and Train 91 accidents the CEO decided to make his safety mark by demanding PTC everywhere Amtrak operates by December 31 2018. However he will use the well respected Safety Management System safety program from the FAA to assess "risk" on each route (more than a dozen) where the FRA decided to exclude PTC requirements on segments as small as "feet" and as large as over "100 miles.”

In and of itself that's both good and responsible, but the threat to declare that there must be an end to service on the December 31 2018 timeline is not responsible or acceptable. Yes, additional mitigation for those risks which might be ATS (Automatic Train Stop) or perhaps solar powered switch position indicators could be suggested as a part of the "risk" process but it will take time and funding. It has not been made clear by Board Policy or CEO direction that service would be continued while those mitigation's are funded and completed.

If it is not made clear within six months of the end of the year, then safety is being "Weaponized" as an attack on the National System and that's not okay. Let it be known that I am strongly in support of both Safety and of the PTC technology but like those at FRA that set up the exclusions, both common sense and the opportunity to mitigate safety improvements over time are critically important. PTC on the NEC started 20 years ago.

For me the Southwest Chief has really become the battleground for the National System. I might be wrong, but I don't think so. City pairs could be fine but a connected National System on the surface of the United States is and should continue to be our national policy. And if it is changed it should be informed by both hearings and explanations to Congress.

I am concerned that the Amtrak Board has begun to set their policy based on what we might call a "Hedge Hog" as opposed to a "Hedge Fund" approach. Meaning that the Board sees an opportunity to "Hog" all the Federal Assistance to complete the Gateway Plan; Procure new city-pair "Train Sets" operating off the NEC to the Southern big cities like Charlotte NC and Atlanta and others; And shortening more routes in order to transfer more cost to the States while abandoning the National purpose of Amtrak.

Worse yet its being done without a "Public Policy" process. Amtrak is not really a "private business", it is a "State Owned Enterprise" and it needs an open and transparent process that only Congress seems to be able to give State and National rail stakeholders under this new " Hedgehog" strategy.

For me its: The Raton Pass vs. The Gateway Tunnel you can't have one without the other.

Joe Boardman
Amtrak President and CEO 2008 - 2016


Message from Amtrak in response to Congressional inquiries regarding the status of the Southwest Chief:

The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route operated by Amtrak on its entire National Network where there is a significant section of infrastructure owned by a host (BNSF) and that is solely used by Amtrak and no other railroads. This Amtrak-only portion of the route is between Jansen, CO and a location called “Madrid” (about 20 miles west of Lamy), NM. As a result, the full maintenance costs attributable to this section of rail fall to Amtrak. Amtrak’s maintenance costs on the solely-used sections total are approximately $3 million per year. Critical capital investments on the line require more than $50 million in the coming years.

Those costs do not include positive train control (PTC) installation and implementation costs, which would also be incurred, or solely reimbursed, by Amtrak, as we look to expand the application of this vital safety technology across our network. Given the broad investment needs of Amtrak’s National Network, these are costs that Amtrak cannot afford to pay.

In October 2017, Amtrak provided a letter to Colfax County Commission clearly explaining that it qualified its financial commitment to the latest TIGER application with the following:

Amtrak will offer a $3 million match towards the project costs if the grant application for the requested amount is successful. Before Amtrak will fulfill this contribution, a comprehensive financial plan and accompanying commitments by relevant states and BNSF for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and associated additional maintenance costs for this route in New Mexico must be completed. Amtrak is prepared to assist the states and BNSF in developing and completing such an agreement.

Amtrak is not prepared to address these substantial infrastructure needs for this segment of the Chief on piecemeal basis, particularly on a right of way that it does not own.

If the states and local communities desire to retain this segment for operation, there needs to be a comprehensive plan and commitments from other stakeholders and it must address the long term viability of the route, from Hutchinson, KS to Isleta, NM, in order to ensure the route’s performance doesn’t degrade. For example, BNSF has agreed to pay the ongoing maintenance costs for the Kansas and Colorado portions of the route once the improvements funded by TIGER were made.

To put this financial concern of Amtrak in context, of the 19 million riders on the National Network in FY 2017, the ridership of the Southwest Chief represented only 364,000, and it is steadily decreasing. In addition, the Chief produced more than $50 million per year in operating losses, a cost recovery of only 47.9% in FY17, and an operating subsidy of $148 per passenger. Further, the Chief ran an all-stations on-time performance of only 45.5% last year with trains that were almost 40% empty. These numbers do not reflect the type of service our customers, and your constituents, should expect.

Amtrak will keep you updated on our plans as we consider the future of this portion of the route and if the states, local municipalities and the freights put forward a comprehensive plan for the company to review.