Trains top stories for 2018: No. 1, Richard Anderson

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Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson
Bob Johnston
WASHINGTON — A signature event early in Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson’s tenure speaks volumes about the tone he has set in leading the organization the Amtrak Board of Directors hired him to run.

Private railcar owner Bennett Levin had arranged a special farewell at his own expense to mark the retirement of Billie Ernest, Amtrak’s veteran manager of charter moves who helped Levin and others safely and successfully operate their cars over the system for decades. He and a number of Amtrak operations people were going to surprise Ernest on her last day at Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center, Jan. 19, 2018, with a “thank you” lunch aboard Levin’s former Pennsylvania Railroad business car and Southern Pacific lounge to take her home one last time from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., as part of a previously approved special train.

The idea was to give a proper retirement sendoff for this employee’s decades of service. But Anderson got wind of the move at the last minute and demanded that it be cancelled. Levin was notified at 7 p.m. on Jan. 18. His group packed up the food and held the Friday lunch in a Wilmington conference room instead. Two other charters Levin wanted to run were also cancelled after Amtrak line management had approved them — overruled by orders from the top.

Ernest was leaving Amtrak to start a consulting business because she was among hundreds of managers who knew how to market and operate “America’s Railroad” that were offered a severance package in late 2017, when Anderson was officially a “co-CEO” with his predecessor, Charles “Wick” Moorman.

We don’t know if it was Anderson, Moorman, or then-Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner who set wheels in motion to shed years of invaluable institutional knowledge like Ernest’s; the action was certainly implemented with the support of Amtrak Board Chairman Tony Coscia. But it was Anderson who, early on, let anyone who remained know that deviation from edicts and beliefs emanating from the executive suite might result in their termination.

The former Delta CEO’s ideas are not the product of a railroad background. He doubled down by bringing in former airline marketing and safety executives, and with them elimination of regional, route-specific promotion in favor of internet-only, discount-driven fare sales and imposition of ticketing change fees where none had previously existed.

Anderson’s lack of collaboration with mid-level managers or perceived willingness to understand the vagaries of his new industry and unique advantages it enjoys over other travel modes has stirred resentment among employees. Any manager who comes up with an innovative idea that might improve customer satisfaction or enhance revenue had best make sure it is consistent with Anderson’s views before proposing it, according to several company sources.

The apparent “I know everything” attitude also resulted in early missteps. Anderson told lawmakers on February 15, “I doubt we will” operate any trains on routes without PTC technology just after the southbound Silver Star collided with a standing freight train (a facing point switch was incorrectly locked and positioned for the siding) less than two months after the deadly Amtrak Cascades derailment near Tacoma, Wash. Because such an edict would have caused discontinuance of trains that have operated safely for years on unsignaled routes, the company eventually backtracked to a systemwide “risk assessment of every route by Dec. 31, 2018” position, whose route-specific details have yet to be revealed.

On Anderson’s watch in 2018, Amtrak also:

•Sidelined the Coast Starlight’s Pacific Parlour Cars
•Ended freshly prepared meals and the jobs of people who served them on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited
•Eliminated all “off the regular route” chartered specials, including participation in an upstate New York “Toys for Tots” campaign (for which Amtrak eventually provided baggage cars)
•Instituted more restrictions governing where private cars could be switched into Amtrak trains
•Refused to supply a $3-million match that would have triggered a $25-million grant for the Southwest Chief
•Announced the closing of a Riverside, Calif., unionized call center, while some functions were outsourced to an independent Florida company.

Were all these ideas Richard Anderson’s?
“I don’t talk to the press,” Anderson curtly told a Trains Magazine correspondent at the April 19 California Rail Summit.
So, we don’t know.
But at the same meeting he characterized long-distance trains as “experiential,” rather than emphasize their rural public mobility function, and only cited the $750 million in costs they incur without mentioning revenues. Following the CEO’s lead, Amtrak’s fiscal year-end press release — for the first time ever — showed only ridership by route and business segment, not revenue figures.

It’s hard to understand Anderson’s motivations, mainly because he has opted to shield the scope of his knowledge from interviewers who may be more familiar with railroad practices than he is. Trains did file a Freedom of Information Act request with Amtrak in April attempting to get the same kind of CEO compensation information publicly traded companies must provide, but by Dec. 28 all Trains has learned is that his bonuses could total $500,000. Actual compensation was not provided, nor was an Amtrak Board memo referred to in the employment agreement which spells out how it could be earned.

Since those Washington and California appearances earlier in the year and after an August meeting with U.S. Senators along the route of the Southwest Chief prompting the lawmakers to seek a legislative remedy that would compel Amtrak to fund the $3 million grant match and keep the train running, Anderson has become much less visible.

For the abundance of under-explained changes to the United States' passenger rail network and the uneasiness that advocates, passengers, and workers feel about Amtrak's future, Trains editors name Richard Anderson the top railroad news story of 2018.

Read editors' other Top 10 stories of 2018 online:
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 10, Giants of RAIL PHOTOGRAPHY pass on
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 9, Station Restorations
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 8, Indiana Transportation Museum woes
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 7; Fires, Floods, and Weather
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 6, Runaways
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 5, Bush funeral train
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 4, positive train control
Trains top stories for 2018: No. 3: Brightline
Trains top stories for 2018: No. 2, Precision Scheduled Railroading

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