By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER - Amtrak president David Gunn showed his knowledge of the railroad industry as he rode through Montana on the Empire Builder Thursday.
Gunn, riding the train on his way to conduct Amtrak awards ceremonies in Seattle, Sacramento, Calif., and Los Angeles, was joined in Havre by Gov. Judy Martz, her husband, Harry, and members of her staff and administration.
Gunn, dressed in jeans and a red sweater, stood in a swaying private car and described the difference between wooden and concrete railroad ties.
"The secret to concrete ties is that they're perfectly surfaced," Gunn said. He went on to explain the need for ballast under the ties so water drains away, how to select good ballast and how it's laid differently under concrete ties than wooden ties.
Martz said she wanted to talk with Gunn and ride on the Empire Builder to be able to better lobby Congress and President Bush in support of Amtrak. Many governors might not be able to say they have ridden Amtrak, said Martz, who talked Thursday about riding trains from Butte to training centers while preparing to compete in the Olympics as a speed skater.
She added that, after Thursday's ride, she might look into booking a trip on the Empire Builder from Havre to Seattle for her family.
Gunn was appointed Amtrak president on May 15, 2002, at a time when people questioned whether the passenger rail service could continue operating through the end of the year.
The previous president, George Warrington, left Amtrak to take over as head of the New Jersey Transit Authority. Warrington requested a $1.2 billion budget for Amtrak's 2003 fiscal year budget, and said if Congress appropriated less than that, Amtrak might have to close long-distance routes like the Empire Builder to save money. The Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, is Montana's only rail passenger service.
Gunn has said he won't close part of the passenger rail system. If it runs out of money, the entire operation will cease, he said.
Gunn came out of retirement to take Amtrak's presidency.
"They were desperate, 'cause nobody would take the job," he said Thursday.
The company, formed by an act of Congress in 1972, was in bad shape, he added.
"The first three months were awful. We weren't going to make payroll," Gunn said.
He announced in June 2002 that unless Amtrak received $200 million to cover its budget shortfall, the entire operation would shut down. The service continued after Congress guaranteed $100 million in loans and appropriated the rest to keep Amtrak operating.
Part of the problem was the way Amtrak was being managed, Gunn said Thursday. It was very top-heavy, with too many managers, and the middle management and local workers didn't know what was going on, he said.
"They didn't run it as a railroad. It became very political, if you will," he said. "They had this palace guard in Washington and everybody else was cut off."
Gunn said one of the first things he did was to reduce the management - there were 84 vice presidents - and the consultants the service had hired to study how to run the operation, improve its service and reduce expenses.
"They had consultants running all over the place. It was terrible," Gunn said. "I've done this enough, I know how it should be structured."
Martz told Gunn he has an impressive resume.
"I can't hold a job," he joked.
Gunn joined the railroad industry after receiving a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1964. He then went to work for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which merged with Burlington Northern Railway in the 1990s to form Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Gunn retired in 1999 after five years as chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, the largest transit system in Canada. His resume also includes four years as general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the '90s, and president of the New York City Transit Authority from 1984 to 1990.
Martz said the change in Amtrak's management since Gunn took over has increased her desire to lobby for Amtrak funding.
"I think I would have a hard time being supportive if it was run in the same fashion (as before)," she said.
Gunn said he's just trying to get Amtrak back to being run like a railroad.
"All we're really doing is going back to a basic railroad," he said.
Part of that is having a hands-on management style. He said it is a seven-step chain of command from the engineer of the Empire Builder to him as company president. And four of those are on the Empire Builder and in the field, he added.
Another part is getting the tracks, stations and trains repaired, he said. In the past, when budget crunches arose, things were shut down, Gunn said. Two major repair shops closed, in Delaware and Indiana, and an Amtrak shop in Chicago also closed. That meant hundreds of cars and locomotives were not being maintained or were sitting in scrap heaps, he said.
The shops have been re-opened, cars and engines are being repaired and serviced, and track is being repaired. And it's being done with 2,500 fewer employees, he added.
Gunn said the annual expenses are being reduced by millions of dollars, with this year's expenses less than last year's, and last year's less than those in 2001.
His management style was evident when he got out of the car during a 20-minute stop in Shelby.
The train had been late arriving at Havre, hitting the station at 2:54 p.m. instead of 2:39. It was delayed again waiting for Martz, who flew to Havre to board the train and was a few minutes late.
The train left Havre at 3:20 p.m. instead of the scheduled 3:04 p.m., but still hit Shelby more than 20 minutes early, 4:55 p.m. instead of 5:17 p.m.
When Gunn got out of his car - he said this is the first time he's used a private car instead of riding as a passenger - he visited with Bill Hays of Shelby, whom Gunn had met Tuesday on the train. He also helped passengers who were getting out of their cars, walked through part of the train talking to passengers, and stooped to examine the brake pads on some of the cars.
Radio, television and newspaper reporters were waiting on the platform in Shelby to interview Gunn and Martz.
"He's a good man," Hays said after talking to Gunn Thursday. "He's doing a lot of work."
Melodie Salther, a Shelby ticket clerk who has worked for Amtrak for more than 18 years, said she thinks Gunn has a totally different style from previous presidents. For one thing, she said, he rides Amtrak more than any other president she's worked for.
Because of Gunn, she said, Amtrak employees have more hope that the service will continue than they have had in the last few years.
Salther said that shortly after Gunn took over, she sent him a card complaining that the company was top-heavy with managers, that repairs weren't being done and that employees were frustrated.
He soon sent her a hand-written letter, addressing every one of her complaints, Salther said.
"I think that impressed me more than anything else," she added.
The battle over Amtrak funding isn't over yet. Gunn has submitted a five-year budget plan, requesting $1.7 billion this year, to keep the service running and repair Amtrak's equipment and infrastructure.
The U.S. House has so far proposed appropriating $900 million for Amtrak, and the Senate has proposed less than $1.4 billion.
The Bush administration has a different proposal, but Gunn said that proposal doesn't have much support in either the House or Senate. It doesn't have his support, either.
"It's a disaster," Gunn said.
The proposal would require the Amtrak president to form three new corporations out of the existing company, creating one for maintenance, one for operations and a residual corporation to run the passenger trains, Gunn said. Each corporation would have to have its own staff, he said, tripling the number of legal departments and personnel offices and so on, he said.
The administration's bill would require states to negotiate agreements for each route, with each state picking up part of the expense, he said.
"What, I'm going to go around with a tin cup in my hand?" Gunn asked.
Gunn said he doesn't consider Amtrak funding a partisan issue. It's part of the responsibility of the government to provide a basic level of service to everyone, regardless of their location or a community's size he said.
"It's a really arrogant approach to long-distance trains," he said of the administration proposal.
He said he is confident that Congress will give Amtrak enough money to keep operating.
His budget plan has support in both houses, and from the Amtrak board, he said.
"It's pretty modest in the scheme of things, and (the cost) doesn't go through the roof. It drops off," he said. "What we've given them, for the first time, is an unvarnished look at the situation."