As soon as I met him, I could tell Joe Boardman was a rail guy. It probably was the story about trying to buy a short line railroad near his hometown of Rome, N.Y., when he was in his 20s.
Boardman got his start in transit driving a bus for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Much like other leaders in the transit industry, he moved on and up from a college career, first running his hometown transit system in Rome, then on to running the system in Utica, and finally to Binghamton before moving to the private sector for a time.
Boardman would reenter the public sector as deputy commissioner of transportation for New York state, eventually becoming the commissioner. From there it was on to Washington, D.C.
From FRA to Amtrak
“After leaving New York state Department of Transportation (DOT), I came down as the federal railroad administrator for the Bush administration,” Boardman says. “And that was really more about freight than it was about passenger, even though there was a link to passenger through having been secretary on the Amtrak board.”
Boardman’s time as administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) wasn’t exactly as he had hoped, saying that the Bush administration had, “their own way that they were going,” which wasn’t necessarily where he wanted to go.
“I spent my time paying attention to rail freight safety issues and not so much toward passenger because they had somebody else doing that thinking and that thinking wasn’t where my thinking was.
“When Mary Peters came in, though, as the [secretary of transportation], I had known Mary for a long time, and I was allowed a little bit more freedom in terms of how to think about passenger rail,” Boardman says.
After his time with the FRA, he moved to the Amtrak board and eventually into the CEO position. And it’s from this position that he looks on an industry changing around him.
Backbone of an Industry
Boardman’s position on the transit industry is plain and simple. “Rail needs to be and is the backbone of moving freight in this country. It needs to be the backbone of moving people in this country.”
Boardman says that since he got seriously involved in the transit industry nearly 40 years ago, he understood the dangers of rising energy costs, the benefits of taking care of the environment, and the balance that needs to be struck between the two and in transit in general.
“Let me say at the start, all the modes of transportation have to be in balance, for as long as we can possibly keep that balance,” Boardman says.
“If you don’t have the balance you’re not really doing what the country needs.
“And if there is not an intercity rail passenger transportation system, then you have failed your country. Period.”
Boardman says that an intercity passenger rail system is needed in the United States as much as it’s needed in France, Switzerland or anywhere else where there is a “rail culture,” although he doesn’t see that culture here, yet.
“We don’t have a rail culture here. There may be pockets of it because of New York and the Northeast. And there are some pockets of it on the West Coast and in the Midwest,” Boardman says.
“There’s a group of people that want to have a rail culture. They want the ability to have the freedom to ride the railroad both at a reasonable time and with a good connectivity. And that’s important, the frequency, the connectivity, the timing of the service.
“So I believe that we are a major player for the future in the United States.”
Committing to Change
Is Amtrak making the changes needed to become that backbone? Boardman says it already is, pointing to the hiring of Al Engel as its new vice president for high-speed rail. Boardman says Engel’s responsibilities will be, “to look at both greenfield high-speed rail like California and Florida, and how we take our own incremental high-speed rail, like is being thought of in the Midwest, in New York and some other places.”