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Bush Fires Amtrak CEO David Gunn

Post-Katrina Change In Management Strategy:

Out: Hiring of Incompetents
In: Firing of Competents

Management Consultants Prove Well Worth It

On November 9, the Bush Administration fired David Gun, described by The Oregonian as "the best leader Amtrak has ever had". The Oregonian added that Gunn was fired because "he would not lie down on the tracks and let the people who want to dismantle the nation's passenger railroad system run over him".

If you want to be impressed with a public manager, here are excerpts from Alex Marshall's interview with Gunn.

David Gunn: Well, you know actually Amtrak's situation is very similar to the situation of the New York City Transit Authority, it's just that the geographical spread is much greater. But in terms of the nuts and bolts, they are almost identical. Amtrak has suffered from years of deferred maintenance. The car fleet was allowed to deteriorate; heavy overhaul ceased years ago. Wrecked cars were just parked; they weren't repaired. The locomotive fleet was in a little better shape, but a portion of our electric locomotives were ignored. The track structure, the parts we owned, was terribly neglected. The whole system was gradually becoming unreliable, and we were faced with the situation New York had in the 1970s and 80s, with slow corridors and the like. So we put together -- we even used the same terminology 'A-State-of-Good-Repair Capital Program', so you have overhauls and heavy maintenance being done on the car fleets and locomotives on a regular basis, and you start getting the track and the infrastructure back to a state of good repair.

A.M.: It's surprising to me that there's that much deferred maintenance in the Amtrak system, given the relatively heavy political attention put on Amtrak over the last decade.

Gunn: But the attention was all bull****! It was political attention on this self-sufficiency notion and other wild ideas, which weren't going to happen. Nobody was paying attention to basic maintenance. When I got here, they couldn't even tell me how many ties they put in last year. I kept asking that question. "Well, what did we do last year? How many ties did we put in, how much rail?: And all they could give me were dollars figures.

This is what happens to institutions -- and it happened in New York -- when they get consumed with reorganizing, reforming and oversight. Instead of going in and fixing the basic problems, and actually taking the resources you do have, which may be inadequate, but putting them to work.

The problem is that people don't like to pay attention to the nuts and bolts, 'cause it's not sexy. But you have to balance the two. And unfortunately -- and I don't know if it's human nature or just the American Way -- but everybody gets focused on the big sexy projects and ignore the basics. It's like the Transit Authority right now, people think it's fixed, right? So people start to think, now we can play games, now we can do Second Avenue, now we can do Eastside Access, now we can do the new Penn station at the Farley building. And they forget the nuts and bolts....

The same thing happened at Amtrak. Everybody got all wrapped around the axle with ideas that we're going to leap into the 21st Century with TGVs [a reference to France's high-speed trains, known by their initials 'TGV' for 'Train of Great Velocity'] and high-speed corridors all over the United States. Meanwhile, we weren't putting in any new rails on existing lines. We weren't overhauling cars. There was a total disconnect in terms of where this place was headed, between the nuts and bolts, and what the rail proponents focused on. To some extent, I'm being critical of the rail proponents, because they have this idea that the nuts and bolts will take care of themselves. And that is wrong.

A.M.: Are you saying we shouldn't invest in the latest technology? What's wrong with truly high-speed trains?

Gunn: It is not helpful, in my opinion, to engage in these flights of fancy where you're going to build TGVs all over the United States. We do not have the technical capabilities for doing it, we don't have the manufacturing to support it anymore, and you don't have the people to run it.

A.M: What about France? They have a large and growing network of true high-speed trains, which go 200 mph.

Gunn: But they've been working on their train system since the war. For sixty years, they've been incrementally creeping up on speeds on electrification, on cantenary design, on locomotive design. In the United States, which was the leader at the end of World War II, you can't even buy a coupler that is made in the United States. You can't just take this super sophisticated technology from over there, and bring it here and make it work. Because, I mean, you have to have people who actually have a toolbox and can stand there and make it work. This is what the big thinkers -- planners and other people -- often don't get. This is not a detail. It is a critical component of having a good operation.

A.M.: Where does Amtrak fit into the overall transportation policies of this country?

Gunn: There are areas where the cheapest solution to congestion is high-speed rail, or at least higher speed rail. I'm not talking about flights of fancy and the TGVs. I'm talking about you get a P-42, which is one of our diesel locomotives and can run 110 mph. You get the track fixed, you get the signal system fixed, and clear enough control points and passing sidings, so you can run reliably frequent service, like in the Northeast corridor. And this actually will save the government money. I mean, can you imagine building highways to carry the mobs of people that go over those rails in the Northeast Corridor?

I mean look at places like California? it's becoming a nightmare. Try to go from L.A. to San Diego by highways certain times of the day it's a bloody parking lot. We got the little old San Diego line, which is single track in a lot of places, and it's handling over two million people a year. People on trains are zipping by people on the freeways. And yet some people in Congress act as if these are unimportant assets.

Obviously out in the boonies you're not going to have passenger rail because there's no volume. But when you get into congested areas like Chicago, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Portland, Seattle, LA, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, the highway physically can't do it. It's not even a case of money. There's no place to put all the lanes you would need. Not to mention that to add lanes to most interstate highways in urban areas, you're talking billions and billions of dollars, for just a few miles.

A.M.: Why is the Amtrak Acela Express so slow going to New Haven on the first half of the New York to Boston run?

Mr. Gunn: What's happened on that line is that it used to be a four-track railroad from New Haven to New York City. Then a while back, the MTA made a terrible mistake. It ripped up one track North of Stamford, so it's down to three tracks. I was there when they did it, and I said to them, "You will regret doing it." But they did it anyway, and then what happened is they suddenly realized they had to replace the 1910 cantenary line. It is 1910, original stuff -- the first mainline electrification in the World, and it's still there. We got cantenary poles that are almost 100 years old on the Hellgate Bridge route. And so, what they did, then they had to take another track out of service. And then, the whole corridor is fragmented. It's run by MetroNorth, owned by MetroNorth, but North of Stamford, it's dominated by ConnDOT [the Connecticut Department of Transportation], so ConnDOT is dictating the speed and the pace with which they're doing the wiring. You only got double track from Stamford to New Haven. It's physically impossible some days to run the trains through there on time. Then you hit New Haven, and you go 130, 140, 150 miles an hour.

The tracks North of Providence are owned by the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority]. The whole thing is a symptom of the fact that you would never have had the fragmented ownership of the corridor if the Department of Transportation in Washington had known what it was doing.

A.M.: Any chance of the service on the Boston/New York line improving any time soon?

Mr. Gunn: I think if you talk to ConnDOT, they say it's a 10 year project. The thing is, it's a highway department.

And the problem is that every time you start talking about the bigger stuff, everybody assumes that you've taken care of nuts and bolts. It can't be an either/or, which is generally what's happening.

A.M.: You seem to be criticizing having a vision.

Gunn: I think that having a long-term vision on this stuff is actually vital. But if it isn't rooted in solid incremental improvements in terms of the nuts and bolts of the management, and the skills you need to pull it off, you'll never get there. Instead you'll get a lesser vision, or a nightmare. The point that I'm trying to make here is that you need to know where you're trying to get to, but you have to have the baby steps identified to start you on the road to get there. And so often, all you get when you're dealing with planners, is the vision thing.