QUESTION: WHAT DERAILED AMTRAK’S PRESIDENT
At the end of its second session, the 110th Congress passed an authorization bill that provides more money for Amtrak than any bill in its history. President Bush signed the bill. For the first time ever, Amtrak has been granted more money than is required to just keep the railroad operating on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, the appropriators will determine how much money Amtrak will actually get in the end, but the signs are good.
For the first time, the president-elect has said he is pro-Amtrak. Moreover, the vice president-elect rode Amtrak to and from Wilmington, Del. every day Congress was in session from 1973 through 2008. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., has said, “I intend to see to it that Amtrak will become a first-class railroad.”
The government rail passenger service has had some truly remarkable presidents. The legendary Graham Claytor served eleven years as president of Amtrak from 1982-93, but presidents in the post-Claytor era have not lasted so long. In 2005 Kummant came in to the president’s office following the departure, quietly engineered by the George W. Bush administration, of the much admired and much experienced David Gunn, 2002-05.
Amtrak has been carrying record number of passengers on almost all of its trains. Even with gas prices dropping, Amtrak has continued to set new records. This is as close to Nirvana as it gets. So Amtrak’s President, Alex Kummant, abruptly resigns at the moment when he able to finally accomplish something? The question then is this: why did he do it. The explanation for Mr. Kummant’s departure given by Amtrak officials was inadequate at the least and maybe disingenuous at the worst. Mr. Kummant has been unavailable to comment.
Amtrak officials are zipped up like a third-grader’s snowsuit. Furthermore, we don’t know who the board has in mind to take his place. With a new, more sympathetic Congress, some stability and longevity would be appreciated in the office. I finally determined after weeks of trying to find out what was really was going on that what happened was a major personality conflict between Mr. Kummant and the Amtrak board. It began back in Seattle, Wash. at an off-site meeting when the board believed Mr. Kummant talked down to them. Matters continued to deteriorate all summer. It seems that Mr. Kummant thought the board ought to set broad policy and should not be heard from again.
Having served on that board for six years, I can tell you that the board is very active. I was chairman of the Strategic Marketing Committee. I was constantly in touch with the management people in my area. (In fact I was the first person on that board to challenge some of the policies of President Claytor.) The more the board continued to intervene in management matters, the more Mr. Kummant resented it. Finally, the board made it clear they regarded his tenure as the equivalent of a bad marriage. In fact, at the end Mr. Kummant and the board engaged in a nasty exchange of e-mails that could have burned Xerox paper. Finally the board set about trying to come up with a statement which would have given Mr. Kummant cover.
The decision to let him go was made some time before he actually left. The story got out because Mr. Kummant’s packed boxes were seen. Also a complex California trip, which had been designed for Mr. Kummant by himself, was cancelled. Instead of a trip, there was an extremely tense time at Amtrak.
The current acting president is someone who Mr. Gunn had brought in. At age 44, William Crosbie, has had a long career in Canadian railroading and transit. He has dual Canadian and America citizenship. His temporary tenure is thought to be short lived.
The board apparently has been searching for a new CEO even while Mr. Kummant was still very much in charge. So watch for an announcement, perhaps at the first of the year, of a new CEO who understands that the board will be active in management issues. Whoever it is will come in at an unprecedented time for Amtrak. The railroad has always had strong support in the Congress. But this is the first time since President Nixon signed the Amtrak bill against the advice of his aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, the railroad will have strong support from the executive branch.
Perhaps this time the board will come up with a president who can cultivate board members. If there is such a creature, he will probably have a long tenure.
And, if he can get along with the culture at Washington’s Amtrak HQ, so much better for everyone.
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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