One other thing Engel will be doing is looking at the Northeast Corridor and improving it in a way that emphasizes what Amtrak is, which according to Boardman, “what Amtrak is, is we operate railroads.
“Our strength, our key competitive advantages are our men and women and our national interconnectivity. Coast-to-coast, border-to-border,” Boardman says.
“Those are our two critical key competitive advantages. And you will see every competitor that comes in here to go into the rail business, almost every one, goes and hires Amtrak people ‘cause Amtrak knows how to run a railroad.”
This brought up a question I had asked Boardman, whether the future of rail transit in America was away from a passenger railroad to part of a passenger rail network. Boardman’s answer was to the point, “My answer to that is no, Hell no, and it better not happen.”
Boardman said not having a national passenger railroad would be like, “pulling up to somebody’s house in Iowa and saying even though there was a policy decision made back in the ‘30s [by the Rural Electrification Administration] to hook your house up to the power grid, it’s just no longer worth it for us to be able to do that. You’re not important because it is just one person out here, and in fact all you raise is chickens anymore, you’re not even a real farmer any more.
“When I hear the idea that we could have a little piece of a railroad here and a little piece of a railroad there, and maybe a bigger piece here and there, and not connect our nation together … this is the United States and we’re Amtrak.
“Amtrak was American Track. This is Amtrak America. This is our way to get across this country if you didn’t have a car, or if you don’t want to use your car and you don’t want to fly. How the heck else do you do it?”
Boardman says that it isn’t about Amtrak making money, and yet, it is about revenue.
“In comparison to any of the commuter rails, this company covers more of its own cost than any of the rest of them probably because it’s been required, but it’s something that, I think it’s critical for the transportation and mobility of the people of this nation to have a coast-to-coast, border-to-border rail transportation network.”
Being On-Time and Profitable
On-time performance has always been a knock against Amtrak, and Boardman says this is a challenge for any part of the transit industry.
Boardman says one of the jokes about Amtrak is, “Well, the Zephyr was into San Francisco on time this morning. It was exactly the right time. A day late.
“You can get hung up in the middle of the country if you have a major snowstorm, you have other kinds of derailments with freight or some other kind of problem.
“We understand those things. There is a different sense of on time for a 3,000-mile trip than there is for a 225-mile trip between New York and Washington.
“We will never lose the problem of keeping trains on time just like a bus system or commuter rail or anybody else. We’ve got to fight that battle every day all the time to keep our trains on time.”
Boardman gives an example of Japan where its systems have taken the stations off the main line. This allows the fast trains to come through on the main line while other trains are stopped at the station, but safely out of the way.
Even on the Northeast Corridor, the only real high-speed corridor in the United States, Boardman says they don’t have this, which he says points to a thinking for the present instead of the future.
“There’s been this constant battle over the 40 years that Amtrak has been around of whether there is even a sufficiency in investment in infrastructure to maintain what they have, let alone make improvements for the future.
“So there is a failure by this nation to really make the investment that was necessary to have high-speed rail.”
With 40 million people within 40 miles of the Northeast Corridor, Boardman says that’s sufficient enough density to operate a high-speed rail service similar to other parts of the world. As for other parts of the United States, he says that, too, can work, but it must be kept in perspective.