THE ENRON OF THE PUBLIC SECTOR. Thus did Amtrak's CEO, David Gunn, characterize Amtrak's accounting methods prior to his arrival. This remark came toward the beginning of his presentation to the Central Electric Railfan's Association in Chicago Friday evening. Mr Gunn assures us that Amtrak now accounts according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (tm), and in better news, recognizes that Amtrak is a railroad, and as such ought to have a Mechanical Department, a Transportation Department, and an Engineering Department, and it once again has these, rather than a lot of fancy-sounding titles that give no clue what responsibility -- if any -- the holder has. And there was a lot of irresponsibility. When he arrived, there were people who could tell him how much money the railroad spent on ties or on rail, but not HOW MANY ties or HOW MANY MILES of rail were installed -- if in fact they were installed, and some new ties apparently were dumped trackside but never installed on the Harrisburg line. Oh, and the Acela Express was designed by a committee -- something for East Coast readers to keep in mind the next time one of them breaks down. Future high speed trains will be designed with the ability to vary the consists so as to be able to run 10 car rakes at peak times. The possibility of a control trailer coach replacing one of the two locomotives remains open.
Mr Gunn made an observation that business gurus would do well to keep in mind: when the management makes sense, the employees are happy to cooperate.
This was a presentation to an audience of railfans, and the talk turned to developments on the operating side of things. Amtrak is apparently more aware than any one of the major railroads how serious the capacity crunch is on the railroads ... heck, if you visit the Northern Illinois weather cam there is a good chance you will see a stopped Union Pacific freight train ... and that will affect Amtrak as the railroads, despite their best efforts to run more trains, are still not earning sufficient return to finance track improvements, and accordingly seeking to concentrate more traffic on fewer tracks. The capacity situation is not much better on the competing modes, which, despite some government funding, are also at capacity with the trust funds still held hostage to the deficits. (Tell me about it. One can get from Mendota to the Woodfield Mall at Schaumburg, a distance of some 75 miles, almost as fast as it takes to go the six miles from Woodfield Mall to Des Plaines Hobbies.) Amtrak might have half of the paying passengers on the Washington-New York run, but the airlines, railroads, and buses are still hauling only a small fraction of the total traffic, the bulk of which continues to fume and be fumed on I-95.
With state support, some new corridors are emerging, including Philadelphia-Harrisburg, soon to be improved, Charlotte-Raleigh, which might surprise some readers but North Carolina's taxpayers are putting money into upgrading the tracks and improving the stations, Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison, for which I will be publishing a benchmark standard in the near future, Chicago-Springfield, which has received a bit of Illinois money but there is more to be done, San Diego-San Luis Obispo and San Jose-Sacramento via Oakland and Berkeley, and Seattle-Portland.
Presidential politics enters Amtrak's funding, although in strange ways. Mr Gunn noted that the Clinton administration "felt our pain" but didn't spend any money; the Bush administration would like Amtrak to go away, but has so far funded their requests.
Oh, and that idea to put additional station facilities in the Farley Building across Eight Avenue from the basement of Madison Square Garden? Fuhgeddaboudit.