Kummant makes first
appearance before Congress
By Leo King
Amtrak’s new boss faced a House subcommittee for the first time today. On balance, he got a pass without fireworks. Alexander Kummant started his new job September 12. He prefers to go by “Alex.”
The Ohio native is a former Union Pacific Central Division vice-president. He oversaw “six-thousand transportation, engineering, construction, mechanical and other employees supporting an 8,000-mile rail network,” he told the House Subcommittee on Railroads and Infrastructure Thursday morning.
“The opportunity to join Amtrak is more than just another job for me. It’s a chance to get back into an industry that has kept its hold on me and to advance something I believe in – namely, passenger railroading.”
He said he viewed the Congress as Amtrak’s primary shareholders.
I believe we are at a pivotal point in the history of rail passenger service. I’m committed to operating a national system of trains. I believe long-distance trains are an important part of the nation’s transportation network, and I believe it’s our challenge to run them in the most efficient and effective way.”
He remarked that the fastest growing service Amtrak has are “in rail corridors. Those states that have the vision to develop their state rail systems are beginning to see the benefits of that service.”
He asked the House panel members questioned but veiled it in a statement.
“To me, having been on the outside I’ve always wondered why the Amtrak debate is so emotional and, at times, acrimonious. It really needn’t be, especially now. At a time of high oil prices, growing highway and airport congestion and record freight volumes, problems which beset and constrain our transportation system, we should be embracing rail, developing it as quickly and responsibly as we can.”
He said he would roam around the system being on trains, in the shops, on the platforms and at the stations.
“I find the best ideas are oftentimes are the ones given to you by those who are out there doing their jobs every day.”
He reiterated, “I believe in rail passenger service, and believe in Amtrak.”
Although the subcommittee meeting was not televised on C-SPAN, it was carried live on the internet.
Subcommittee Chairman Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, noted “I do think we’ve reached the point where if we’re going to have viable passenger rail service and Amtrak as a part of it we need to think outside the box, and not just have this annual appropriations fight.”
Freight rail capacity was also on LaTourette’s mind. He said he recently spoke to a railroader who retired after 46 years on the Union Pacific. The man told him, “I never thought I’d say this as a railroader, but we’re sold out, and we do have a severe capacity crunch in this country… which you share for some of your service.”
He asked Kummant, “What do you think of how we can get around in improving the on-time performance of Amtrak trains?”
Kummant responded, “ I think we have to have this debate or dialogue clearly with the context of record volumes on the freights. In the end, the answer has to be capital of some sort, from some direction. We need work with the freights on the particularly troubled lanes, and ask them to come up with a plan. At the end of the day, we do have contracts with the freights, and we do need to hold them to those contracts, but we have to look for ways of funding and perhaps there’s a way Amtrak can be involved in justifying capital in key lanes.”
LaTourette asked what Kummant would do about labor agreements. Some unions have been without contract for up to seven years.
Kummant replied, “All of our people need to get fair pay and need to be competitive in the marketplace. It has to be fair to them, and it’s also a critical, strategic issue for the operation to retain the critical skills we have in this market.”
He added there are work rule issues labor and management will have to work through. He said he does not like back-room deals.
Ranking Democrat James Oberstar, D-Minn., said, “We need to have a capital infusion in Amtrak, get its infrastructure right, get its passenger service right, relaunch this system and make it work.”
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is perennially described as anti-Amtrak, said today he is just the opposite.
“Sometimes I read these blogs and these commentaries that ‘Mica’s an opponent of Amtrak.’ I just want to et the record straight as you begin your important work, that you couldn’t find a stronger advocate of both long-distance and high-speed service.”
By “long-distance, he said he means “A national system and not a half-baked system.”
He added he wants the railroad to separate the Northeast Corridor.
“Once we do that, and give the private sector an opportunity to help build and expand service there. In Congress, we’ve never been able to really been able to look at all your finances and determine what things cost, and how things are operating.”
He noted, “Congress is never going to give Amtrak the $18 to $35 billion it needs to develop that corridor and make it truly high-speed.”
He suggested the congress would simply continue to give Amtrak a “starvation diet.”
The 90-minute interview was rich in ideas, one railroader suggested, and held out hope the Bush White House would not prevail in its dealings with Amtrak. Funding legislation is still pending in the Senate, but now is not expected to be taken up until after the November elections.