Long-distance trains, PTC dominate Amtrak questioning at hearing

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Crowds gather at Chipley, Fla., to greet the Amtrak’s Gulf Coast inspection train on Feb 19, 2016. The subject of Gulf Coast service was part of a hearing for a nominee for Amtrak's board of directors on Wednesday.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — No one asked Amtrak board of directors nominee Joe Gruters how many Amtrak trains he had ridden during Wednesday’s U.S. Senate hearing. But, during the hearing for various nominees by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) did invite the former co-chair of President Donald Trump’s Florida election committee to join him on the City of New Orleans between McComb, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., “to see the amount of people that depend on this.”

Gruters responded that he would “welcome the opportunity to ride a train with you for a couple hours.”

Wicker and ranking committee member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) expressed their desire to Gruters to see trains return along the Gulf Coast and all the way to Orlando.

“I will tell you as soon as my nomination was announced,” said Gruters, owner of a certified public accounting firm from Sarasota, Fla., “small towns started requesting meetings with me to share the importance for them to get this (service) up and running, so you have my commitment to working with you and your team to do everything we can in a reasonable way to make this work.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) offered pointed statements of concern about the fate of the Southwest Chief. Both decried Amtrak management’s decision to withhold its $3 million match from a recently-approved $16 million Transportation Improvement Generating Economic Recovery grant won by Colfax County, N.M. ["Amtrak letter explains position on ‘Southwest Chief,’ " Trains News Wire, May 8.]

Moran charged, “In my view, Amtrak has reneged on what it committed to do … and I believe federal agencies have an obligation to behave with integrity; I don’t see that at the moment.”

He then read excerpts from an email by former Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman [“Former Amtrak president questions motives of current management,” Trains News Wire, May 8] and submitted the entire document for the record.

“This suggests to me,” Moran said,” that there may be a change of attitude and approach at the Amtrak board and its senior leadership that would be contrary to the congressional mandate about national rail passenger service.”

Gruters responded that Amtrak board members “have a fiduciary responsibility to the company but we have our mission set forth by Congress, so I will look forward to working with your team to make sure agreements are upheld and we do the right thing at the end of the day.”

Moran also questioned why Amtrak was eliminating the agent at its Topeka, Kan., station and wondered, as with his efforts to improve the U.S. Postal Service, “why too often we reduce service expecting there to be better days. You cannot reduce service and expect customers to arrive at your doors, and Amtrak is demonstrating that in my view in both instances.”

Sen. Gardner asked if, as a board member, Gruters would make sure Amtrak followed through on its commitments. Gardner pointedly accused management of not doing so, based on the letter of support for the grant Amtrak submitted in October 2017. Gardner also submitted a Rail Passengers Association statement pointing out that the Southwest Chief’s ridership is up 14 percent from eight years ago.

Other senators, such as Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), continued to conflate positive train control implementation with safe train operation, as has been the stance of Amtrak management. Gruters agreed, saying PTC “is the baseline standard we need to work up to.”        

Like all but one current member of the Amtrak board, Gruters is a political appointee with some business experience, but no hands-on railroad or passenger rail background with which to independently judge the performance of Amtrak management. (The exception is board member Jeffrey Moreland, who previously led BNSF Railway’s public affairs and legal departments.)

Questions to Trump’s other nominees — Heidi King, for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Jennifer Homendy for the National Transportation Safety Board — predominantly dealt with their positions on defective airbag recalls and other safety matters. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) expressed concern to Homendy that citizens would not know if or when freight trains headed to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository might pass through their communities. Homendy confirmed, “You could engineer out 100 percent of the risk, and 75 to 90 percent of nuclear waste would be going by rail, so if an accident did occur it would be devastating.”

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