Why Amtrak Should Backtrack
Published on Friday, November 18, 2005 by the Boston Globe
Why Amtrak Should Backtrack
by Michael S. Dukakis and John Robert Smith

If the Hurricane Katrina fiasco has taught us anything, it is that there is no substitute for competence at the top of important federal agencies. Yet last week a new Amtrak board that has three vacant seats and only one member that has been confirmed by the US Senate removed a man who was almost universally seen as the best president in Amtrak's 32-year-old history.

As the chairman and vice chairman of the Amtrak board in 2002, we recruited David Gunn to run Amtrak because we believed -- as did the rest of a bipartisan board that endorsed him unanimously -- that he is the kind of straight-shooting, hands-on rail executive needed to correct the long, slow slide in performance and credibility that Amtrak, for many reasons, was enduring.

Gunn is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and has vast rail experience. His performance justifies the confidence we placed in him. Since he took over at Amtrak, head count and management bureaucracy have been sharply reduced, operational efficiency has been improved, and more locomotives and cars have been overhauled at a record pace. As important, Gunn won back the respect of Congress. The proof of that came just days ago, when the Senate voted, 93-6, to support the Lott-Lautenberg bill authorizing $11.4 billion, over six years, for major infrastructure repair and a long-delayed start of work on other corridors across the country.

Amtrak has been seeking capital funds, but has been denied them, for almost all of its 32-year existence. Gunn was the first president in Amtrak history to show Congress why the railroad must have major investment support -- as do the nation's highways and airline systems -- to serve the public successfully.

By any fair measure, Gunn was a brilliant and successful president. For the first time in decades, Amtrak's management and Congress were moving forward with a clear vision for its future. To replace him in order to gamble on an ill-conceived attempt to mimic the catastrophe of British Rail privatization of more than a decade ago -- and make no mistake, that is what the administration is bent on doing -- is to take a step backward, not forward, on the creation of a healthy national rail transportation system.

It is not just the Northeast Corridor that needs Amtrak. It is people who live in the towns and cities across America who increasingly have no other transportation alternative -- whose airports have been closed or whose bus service has been discontinued. It is millions of motorists stuck in traffic jams on the nation's highways or air passengers stuck in airports when fully a third of flights are for 350 miles or less -- an ideal distance for intercity rail corridors -- because outside of the Northeast Corridor, we have utterly failed to provide them with the kind of rail service that connects cities in Europe and Japan quickly, comfortably, and efficiently.

We need Amtrak as part of a transportation system that serves all Americans, not just those who can afford to fly or drive. Gunn was building such a system.

The current Amtrak board has a choice. It can stick to its decision and destroy the enormous progress that the company has made under his leadership which they called ''splendid" and ''brilliant" just months ago. Or they can do the right and responsible thing and reinstate him as the chief executive officer of the nation's rail passenger system.

We know what they ought to do. Let's hope they have the wisdom and the good sense to do it.

Michael S. Dukakis was vice chairman of Amtrak's board. A teacher at Northeastern University and former governor of Massachusetts, he was the Democratic nominee for president in 1988. John Robert Smith served on Amtrak's board from 1997 to 2002, ending as chairman. He is the Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi.

© 2005 The Boston Globe