By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; June 26, 2022
There is an ugly, militant mob forming.
Tar is being warmed, feathers are being plucked.
Radical voices are squealing invectives without good basis.
Yes, there is an uprising by some hotheads about the newly named president of Amtrak and some of the others currently running the company who came out of the airline industry.
There is some basis for this, but, first let’s take a look at the passenger railroad landscape. The mob leaders need to cool their jets, so to speak.
The landscape in the United States for executives experienced in handling passengers is somewhat limited. The airline industry is one of the few places where senior executives have experience operating a common carrier and being responsible for passengers.
Any of us with gray hair who have a full understanding of passenger rail before Amtrak was formed over half a century ago are all towards the end of careers, not the middle or most productive years, or outright retired. There are more veteran passenger railroaders who are dead than who are still living in retirement.
In other words, the pool of passenger rail talent outside of those running Amtrak is shrinking faster than an ice cube on a hot summer afternoon.
There are currently three successful passenger rail companies in North America; two are common carriers providing transportation and the other is a very large hospitality and tourism operation that is making money hand over fist.
We are talking about VIA Rail Canada, Brightline and Rocky Mountaineer.
What has made them successful and pleasing to passengers is how they treat passengers and their attitudes towards their product.
VIA Rail’s most famous train is the transcontinental Canadian, operating between Vancouver, British Columbia and Toronto, Ontario.
A terminal to terminal trip on the Canadian is three days, 20 hours and 29 minutes IF the train runs on time, which usually never happens.
Yet, the train runs over 20 cars long, has multiple domes, mostly sleeping cars, two dining cars and the Prestige service introduced a few years ago which has some of the richest amenities service available on a train and some of the highest cost per passenger.
VIA Rail lets people know in advance the trip is likely going to be delayed. Passengers and crew prepare for that, and the scenery, onboard service and dining is of such high quality they have no problems selling out the train.
VIA Rail’s president has a set term of office of five years and then they are out. Yes, it’s usually a political appointment influenced by the Canadian federal government, but they seem to take greater care than Amtrak does with their appointees.
Perhaps the difference is the VIA Rail board of directors. Posted online, the brief bios of the board members is reflective of a board of a successful private company with board members bringing an embarrassment of riches and experience to their corporate oversight role versus a board which is comprised of people receiving political favors through an appointment.
Brightline, headquartered in Miami, is currently under construction between its temporary northern terminus of West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.
Brightline has gathered a management team from outside of the passenger train world, and, based on their great success so far of handling over two million passengers just between Miami and West Palm Beach, they are delivering a product the public wants to embrace.
Michael Reininger is CEO of Brightline, and here are relevant lines from his online bio: “Reininger has more than three decades of experience in the development of major projects and the start-up of unique companies. Prior to 2012, Reininger delivered some of the world’s most iconic projects while working with the Walt Disney Company, including several resort hotels, the initiation of the Disney Vacation Club, Euro Disney Resort in Paris and the launch of the Disney Cruise Line. Reininger was also the Managing Director of the Union Station Neighborhood Company where he led the effort to transform Denver’s Union Station and its downtown railyard into a modern multi-modal transportation hub. He has also served as Executive Vice-President and Chief Development Officer for AECOM, and Senior Vice-President for the St Joe Company.”
This is a successful guy who understands the travel and tourism industry and various elements of it beyond sending a train down the track. That makes a difference, and that also signals where the most successful people of the future of passenger trains will originate.
Patrick Goddard, President of Brightline has a similar background spelled out online: “He comes from the hospitality industry having worked in hotel development and operations for Hilton Hotels, Loews Hotels and Rosewood Hotels. He also ran a large international Hotel Management Company, Trust Hospitality, for 5 years as its President and Chief Operating Officer prior to joining Brightline in 2016.”
Sue Lucas is the Chief Revenue Office for Brightline: “Most recently, Sue served as senior vice president of digital innovation & e-Commerce for Wyndham Destinations where she built a fully integrated digital business strategy, including websites, mobile platforms, social media, search marketing and email. Sue built a world-class team from the ground up and partnered with Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Adobe and Facebook in the delivery of outstanding customer experiences.
“Sue’s portfolio includes her role as vice president of digital marketing strategy at Sapient, a global advertising agency, where she defined multi-dimensional business, brand, media and digital strategies for companies including Target, Coke, Michelin, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Cigna, NASCAR and SeaWorld.
“Notably, Sue was also vice president of internet strategy and e-commerce for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, where she led the strategy and implementation of the next generation web experience for Walt Disney World, Disney Cruise Line and Disney Vacation Club. At Disney she also served as vice president of international development, vice president of business planning & development, and CIO for Walt Disney Imagineering.”
Are you getting the drift here: Hotels, resorts, theme parks, cruise lines, vacation clubs. People who have experience taking care of their guests and passengers. People who understand passengers have to be fed a decent meal.
Finally, there is Rocky Mountaineer, now both in Canada and the United States.
Again, tragically expensive to ride, but offers a high level of service and has no problem running their trains constantly full.
Because of the lack of Canadian law which gives any type of priority to passenger trains, like VIA Rail, Rocky Mountaineer makes few promises about their trains running on a pre-determined schedule after the initial terminal departure. But, again, their high level of service and pre-planning makes delays comfortable.
One can reasonably doubt any officer of VIA Rail or the Rocky Mountaineer is happy about not having a schedule they can use when planning operations. But, at the moment, they make the best they can of the situation and hope for better days.
Rocky Mountaineer is owned by Armstrong Hospitality Group, Ltd. in Vancouver. Peter Armstrong was a Gray Line Tours bus operator when he acquired the Rocky Mountaineer from VIA Rail Canada.
Like Brightline, Rocky Mountaineer dipped into the Disney world for executive experience. Randy Garfield is on the Rocky Mountaineer board of directors: “Randy Garfield served as President of Walt Disney Travel Company and EVP/Chief Sales Officer for Disney Destinations. In a Disney career spanning 20 years, he led worldwide sales and group/convention services for its theme parks, resorts, cruise line and time share business and the resort reservation centers which handle millions of transactions each year. While driving strategy and consistently delivering record-breaking results, Mr. Garfield also helmed key travel and tourism associations and other National industry organizations to create global awareness of the importance of travel and tourism and to drive inbound travel to the United States.”
Perhaps there is a reason Rocky Mountaineer has a strong international following.
All of which brings us back to Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and its new president, who came out of a long career in the airline industry.
Looking at some Amtrak history we know in the early days some airline guys were brought into the company because at that time in the 1970s (groan) airlines were still hip and exciting, and railroads were thought staid, drab and dying.
Of course, they were wrong and, for the time, when they tried to make the infant Amtrak into an airline the efforts failed, leaving only tasteless, garish interior decorations and failed uniforms and graphics.
The airline guys arrived at Amtrak again in the 21st Century, and, so far, have left a bad taste in the mouth of many.
The question is, was it actually the airline guys, or was it an Amtrak Board of Directors which approved their experimental ideas instead of pushing back with proper oversight?
Right now, we have seen above the three successful railroads have worked because of a board of directors with real world business experience and with board members and executives with deep experience in hospitality, tourism, resorts, hotels, cruise lines, theme parks, vacation clubs, and just about every other part of a successful transportation company except train operations.
For that aspect, Brightline brought in experienced operations people from commuter railroads, VIA already has experienced operations people, and Rocky Mountaineer went hunting for, and found experienced railroad guys.
Both Brightline and Rocky Mountaineer knew they had to have operating executives with direct “boots on the ground,” real world railroad people who knew how to get a train out of a starting terminal and safely to the end terminal.
What universe is there for Amtrak to pull people from with the kind of experience to replace the disappeared pool of railroad professionals? Airlines, cruise lines, hospitality companies and resort/hotel companies and accompanying industries.
Amtrak has chosen airline guys. There are very few, if any, railroad guys left to hire. For passenger experience, do you really want an exec from a commuter railroad whose biggest decision is how many seats to cram into a coach and whether or not the restrooms are of adequate size for Americans With Disabilities Act requirements?
Airline guys do understand things like ticketing, yield management, handling passengers, reservations, baggage handling and a million other things common carriers have to deal with every moment of every day.
One other MAJOR factor to consider: Most seasoned railroad executives know the woes and worries of Amtrak inside and out. Some VERY major players have been more than casually approached about taking over and running Amtrak. The best of them simply looked at the situation and said “no, thank you.” They valued their reputations and place in the railroad industry higher than trying to fix a morass of Amtrak problems which would test the patience of any given saint and the next three saints in line.
While some railroad heroes at the end of their careers have agreed to run Amtrak on a short-term basis as something of a “retirement hobby,” there have been few like the late Graham Claytor who could pull it off.
Graham Claytor had the unique combination of experience as a major railroad president (Southern Railway; known as an “operations guy”), having served in Washington in high-ranking political appointments (Secretary of the Navy), was an attorney, and had served honorably in World War II as a naval officer in combat areas. Graham Claytor reveled in his job at Amtrak as it was the capstone of his career. But, that was at a time when the problems facing Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak were not as entrenched as they are today. Graham Claytor did not need to burn down the house to rebuild it; he had a cadre of experience passenger railroad professionals working for him who each one knew how to do his job.
The biggest problems of Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak are, one, CEO Stephen Gardner, and two, the Amtrak board of directors. Stephen Gardner’s biggest career achievement prior to joining Amtrak was a career at a staffer on Capitol Hill. He is a product of Washington bureaucracy.
The Amtrak Board of Directors has been chosen more as political payback than as qualified board members, and it shows, both with the current members and those appointed by the Biden administration and awaiting Senate confirmation.
Until the board of directors is cleaned up, we can only hope the new president of Amtrak can make some headway in things he has promised previously in public statements. He has acknowledged things which have not worked well and has said Amtrak needs to do better; he included the reinstatement of traditional dining on the western inter-regional trains to be followed by the eastern trains.
Is Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak such a damaged company no one with real qualifications wants to come in an tackle its problems? Have the corridor people gotten such a heavy grip on the company, is it no longer is interested in fulfilling its original charter to operate a national system of trains?
We have seen how three successful passenger train companies have gathered together some of the best and most experienced minds in the travel industry and unleashed those minds on their good products.
Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak has the same opportunities. For now, there is a new Amtrak president originally from the airline industry. Let’s see if he breaks the mold and makes some progress. The fair thing to do is cool the jets on the former airline guy and see what he does.