I have nothing but questions in this column, and I’m unsure when or if I will get answers. By now, you may have determined that I am talking about Amtrak. However, just because I don’t have answers doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about the strange things Amtrak is doing, and some of those opinions may surprise you.
I will start with something that will really surprise you. I think that one of the top candidates to succeed strange Amtrak President Richard Anderson would reverse almost everything Anderson has done, and would become the darling of people who love passenger trains. I must emphasize that I have not had a chance to talk to this man, and I may be totally wrong. I don’t think I’m wrong, but for his protection I want you to know he has told me nothing. Everything I say about him in this column is pure speculation, but by the time you read this column I hope to know a lot more (or maybe I won’t).
His name is Stephen Gardner, now executive vice president of Amtrak. At a meeting of the RailTrends conference in New York, Gardner was on the program and I did have a chance to ask him a couple of brief questions, but it quickly became clear that Gardner is a master of talking but saying nothing. Several of my friends in the conference kidded me later for letting him get away with too much, but I assured them I would have a chance later to question Gardner in private, and he would be forced either to answer or say some version of “no comment.”
My guess is that if he rises to the top, Gardner will reverse all the bad things Anderson has done. Almost immediately, those sickening quickie boxed meals on the Capitol Limited and the Lake Shore Limited will be history, and dining cars will return. (I will never eat one of those quickie “meals” again.) Such stupid ideas as splitting the Southwest Chief and using buses to transport passengers in the middle of the route will never be heard again. Rather than ignoring the press and television news, Gardner will have numerous interviews and press conferences. In short, I think Gardner could be-come one of the best Amtrak presidents in decades.
For many years, I have written lots of negative things about Amtrak and nothing positive. I’m tired of doing that. I don’t mean I would never write negative things about Amtrak again, but that I could also write lots of positive things. My guess is that Gardner would agree or disagree with me, but would take time to reason with me.
Anderson possibly has seen the error of his ways, although we won’t know for sure unless he ever agrees to talk to us. Reading between the lines, Anderson seems to have decided he can’t kill any long-distance trains and, surprisingly, that Amtrak may someday need to increase long-distance service. The Amtrak press release that quoted Anderson also noted that 75 new passenger locomotives had been ordered from Siemens and “will be used principally for Amtrak’s long-distance train service, with options to purchase more, for use on some state supported growth and for future growth.”
The press release listed the trains that will begin receiving the new locomotives. Guess what. It lists every long-distance train on the Amtrak network including the Southwest Chief. The release said the first locomotives will go into service in the fall of 2021, and that all deliveries will be complete by 2024. “The new locomotives are part of Amtrak’s long-planned series of improvements for fleet, infrastructure and stations,” the press release said. What about passenger cars? No passenger car orders were mentioned, although it did say new Acela trains would begin arriving in 2021. At some point, Amtrak will be forced to order new passenger cars if it will continue to grow.
I wrote in another column that railfan Bennett Levin and Norfolk Southern Chairman Jim Squires saved the railroad industry from getting a black eye because of Anderson’s stupidity in refusing to run the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots train in Upstate New York. I think it would be proper to close out this column with Squires’ statement praising Levin and the Marines. He could have said the same thing about himself.
“As a leading transportation provider, we believe in giving back to communities where we operate, and programs such as Toys for Tots allow us to do just that,” Squires said. “Really we are giving back to our neighbors, because we not only work in these communities, we live there as well. I extend Norfolk Southern’s gratitude for the team effort that has moved this year’s train forward and to the United States Marine Corps, the Bennett Levin family, and the volunteers who give tirelessly to make the season a little brighter for so many.”
We can hope Anderson is gone by next Christmas. If not, Santa will do fine with this year’s crew.
—Don Phillips is a veteran journalist who reports on transportation topics from the view of our nation’s capital.