Amtrak’s new conductor in place

Kai Ryssdal Sep 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Amtrak’s got a new CEO. Alexander Kummant started today. And he’s got way more to do than just make the trains run on time. Although Amtrak doesn’t do that particularly well, either. It’s lost about $35 billion in the 35 years it’s been around. Joseph Vranich’s book about Amtrak reform is called End of the Line. I asked him why anyone would want to run Amtrak, anyway?

JOSEPH VRANICH: The quick answer to that is, I don’t know. Because, if somebody’s a rising star in a corporation, for example, I don’t know why they would want this job. Because it is sort of a dead end job. Stop and think of it. It’s almost impossible to please the various constituencies that are out there that talk about Amtrak.

If this man comes in and adds trains, the train enthusiasts will want more trains. Amtrak not long ago put a train on in Wisconsin that lost $1,000 per passenger carried. And then the conservatives are saying, “We’ve got to cut back on this. These subsidies are way out of proportion to the number of people served.” So, it’s a real conundrum for anyone taking that job: How is he going to be personally successful, and what could he do to make Amtrak better.

RYSSDAL: Do you think the new guy, Alexander Kummant, can change any of this?

VRANICH: “Can the new guy change this?” is the question of the hour. Amtrak’s last president was really irresponsible because all he did was threaten to shut down anytime Congress refused to give him more money. So, I hope this many comes in with more imagination to do things like revise labor contracts. There are also certain safety improvements that really must be made on the railroad. So, I just hope that he’s able to improve the system in some way without adding more and more and more onto the backs of taxpayers.

RYSSDAL: How much time is he going to have to spend playing politics with Congress, whose fingerprints are all over Amtrak’s red ink as far back as it goes?

VRANICH: He will have to spend his entire life dealing with Congressional politics as long as he’s with Amtrak. From his first day there to whatever day he departs. Because it goes through just enough states and just enough congressional districts to make it very, very difficult to do anything without congressional hoo-ha.

RYSSDAL: You’ve got a history with Amtrak. I mean, you know it from the inside from way back.

VRANICH: I must say, with some embarrassment, I was one of the people in 1970 and ’71 who worked in Washington to help create Amtrak. But it wasn’t until the ’90s, when I was president of the High Speed Rail Association that I realized that these people at Amtrak are not the innovators, are not the imaginative people who will bring us the kinds of trains that we need to serve the American market. And that was pretty much when I gave up on Amtrak being an intractible, anti-reform, status quo, monopoly organization.

RYSSDAL: If Amtrak went away tomorrow, would anybody outside the Northeast Corridor — from Boston down to Washington — notice?

VRANICH: In most cases, they would not. The majority of the communities throughout the United States live very, very well, thank you, without Amtrak because they have highways, they have airports, they have bus opportunities, some even have ferries. What difference does it make to have this one train which carries maybe only two or three people to that place.

RYSSDAL: His book is called “End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America’s Passenger Trains.” Joseph Vranich, thank you for your tiime.

VRANICH: Glad to be here.

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