Joe Boardman: Saint or Sinner?

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman received a lot of favorable reviews for a letter he recently wrote to public officials across the country criticizing the Amtrak board of directors and CEO Richard Anderson for what Boardman believes is a strategy designed to dismantle the carrier’s network of long-distance trains.

Typical of the applause was a column written by veteran transportation writer Don Phillips who lauded Boardman for shining a light into a dark place.

“Boardman may be shining such a bright light on Anderson that, combined with growing protests by organized rail groups, Anderson could very well fail,” Phillips wrote.

The column published in Railway Age concluded with Phillips saying he was proud of Boardman and called on rail passenger supporters to send Boardman’s remarks to members of Congress.

M.E. Singer, a principal at Marketing Rail Ltd. in Chicago, had a different take.

It isn’t that Singer disagrees with the substance of Boardman’s fear that Amtrak is maneuvering to eviscerate the long-distance trains, but rather that Boardman is being hypocritical.

Singer argued in his own Railway Age column that it was Boardman and the same board of directors under whom Anderson is serving who left Amtrak in a state of disrepair.

Singer contends that during the Boardman administration the carrier’s best managers were encouraged to take buyouts “during multiple reorganizations that only depleted vital institutional knowledge.”

Although Boardman accused Amtrak of a lack of transparency, Singer said Amtrak also worked in secrecy during the Boardman administration.

“In reality, Boardman barely provided lip service to the long-distance routes, as evidenced by the lack of any pro formas to Congress to factually detail the number of passengers turned away, and loss of revenues, due to the lack of space on those trains; and to identify the need for more equipment to expand frequencies and to meet new route opportunities,” Singer wrote.

Singer contends Amtrak’s board and top management has a “singularly focused” commitment to serve their political patrons of the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the national system.

“What apparently puzzles Boardman is how quickly his inner circle turned their loyalty to the new CEO, Richard Anderson, continuing to focus on ensuring their own survival by placating a very conflicted Board,” Singer wrote.

Neither Singer nor Phillips favors ending the long-distance passenger trains.

Phillips has long argued that the Northeast Corridor is not profitable as Amtrak and many policy makers and public opinion leaders say that it is.

Singer wants Amtrak to be redefined so that it serves all interests, including the national system.

So what should we make of Joe Boardman? Is is a saint or a sinner?

Phillips noted that when Boardman stepped down as president of Amtrak, he had nothing but negative things to say about him, but refrained from writing a column blasting Boardman.

Singer and Phillips are correct in their own way about Boardman. Singer correctly noted that under Boardman Amtrak demanded that the states served by the Southwest Chief on a segment of BNSF track in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico pay for upgrading the track after the railroad said it would downgrade it to a top speed of 30 mph.

The states landed federal grants and coughed up their own funding to match money contributed by BNSF and Amtrak.

Had Amtrak not recently said it wouldn’t match the latest federal grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, to continue rebuilding the route of the Chief, Boardman might not have spoken up.

Boardman probably considers it part of his legacy that he negotiated a pact with BNSF to maintain the route for 10 years if the states and Amtrak paid most of the money to rebuild it. Now that legacy is coming undone.

In short, Boardman might be less concerned with the national network than he is with his legacy even though he claimed to have told the Amtrak board that the most important trains to the passenger carrier are the long-distance trains.

The fate of the long-distance trains will be settled in Congress through a political process.

An aroused citizenry or the appearance of one will be critical in keeping all, some or most of those trains operating for now.

I’m reminded of an old saying: Your friend is your enemy; your enemy is your friend.

As a former Amtrak president, Boardman’s word will get immediate attention and carry some weight.

Boardman may not have been the best friend of long-distance during his time at Amtrak, but he might turn out to be a good friend of those trains right now.

 

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