David Gunn on Amtrak’s $151bn NEC plan and how he rebuilt the Harrisburg line

First order of business: I wrote two articles for Bloomberg View (the opinion counterpart to Bloomberg News) on the high cost of US transit – one on private-sector gouging, and one on public-sector gouging.

Secondly, I’ve been talking to former Amtrak president David Gunn a lot recently – at first for the labor piece I just linked to, but the conversation has veered into other topics. (If you have any burning questions you’d like answered, leave them in the comments.)

The other day I got around to asking him what he thought about Amtrak’s $151 billion proposal for the Northeast Corridor and the $7 billion Union Station plan.

His verdict? “It’s all a fuckin’ pipe dream.”

His response was basically that big, flashy plans never work out, and that the only way to get things done at Amtrak is to do them under the radar.

He used the rebuilding Amtrak’s Harrisburg line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg as an example. The Harrisburg line (the eastern half of Pennsylvania’s original Main Line) is the most important stretch of tracks that Amtrak actually owns after the Northeast Corridor, so I think there’s a lot to be learned  Corridor itself.

Here is my transcription of what he said about rebuilding the Harrisburg line. Most parts are verbatim, but there are a few sentences that I wrote from memory, and a few things that I probably missed.

The Harrisburg line was a wreck. From Paoli on in [towards Philadelphia – i.e., SEPTA’s most important regional rail line], it was a bad 60 mph railroad, and from Paoli to Harrisburg it was a bad 70-80 mph railroad. The signals were ancient, the track was rough, trees were brushing up against the cars, weeds were growing on the ballast.

I rode the line with a fellow who’s got a private car, and we were handling it on one of our trains. I was embarrassed. Being a railroader, you want the railroad to look good, you want the ditches to be clean, the ballast to be clean. This stuff’s important – it’s not just for looks.

I got back, and I said, what the hell are we doing? I had a meeting with my operations guys – the chief engineer, the head of track, power, signals, bridges, structures, and the car guys and the locomotive guys. It was a small meeting, maybe 10 people. Plus I had my planers (who didn’t survive much longer!). I said, what the hell are we doing? It’s a good railroad – electrified, designed for 115-125 mph operation.

The operations guys said, you wanna fix it? We can fix it. I said, you come back and give me a plan for what we need in terms of rail ties, ditching, what we’re going to do with the signals (to go to electric push-pull trains).

Long story short, my guys came back and said that for $300 million, we can give you a first class, 115 mph railroad.

But the planners said, “We have to get a consultant on board!” It was a tie and servicing job – “TNS” (?). I threw the planners out. I went to Governor Rendell, and they had $100 million set aside for improving that corridor. I said, you give me the $100 million, I’ll give you a railroad, and I’ll put $100 million of our money in. Norfolk Southern also gave us $3-4 million, because they used the tracks.

So we put it together, and I had to get approval from DOT and the Bushies [i.e., the Bush Administration people]. I never called it a program to rebuild the Harrisburg line – what I did is I went in and said, I need 50 miles of rail, 300,000 ties, this much wire, and I gotta rebuilding signal houses, etc. [might have been some more things in here that I didn’t catch].

They thought it was a lot – why would he need that many supplies, they thought? – but in two and a half years (they fired me just before we finished) we had it done. And it’s been a great success!

My point with this whole thing is, you get it done by bits and pieces. You don’t do it in these great leaps forward. Lots of stuff you can do on the Northeast Corridor doesn’t sound sexy – put high-level platforms on the lower level at DC Union Station, for example – but there’s all kinds of things your an do to make it faster.

And for reading this far, you get a bonus! Not horribly relevant to policy, but a funny story nonetheless about his time at Boston’s MBTA:

What you find in a lot of these transit systems, like Boston, is that it’s unionized up to the very top [of management]. We used to say, “Oh, Joe, he’s got relative ability!” In other words, he’s got powerful relatives.

The T was an example of a place that was absolutely inbred, totally politicized.

I was the director of operations, and I remember one night I was out at Matttapan, I was just walking around, and I went into the little car maintenance facility that we had there for the high-speed streetcars. I walked in, and here’s the car house repairman, drunk as the lord, and I said, “What’s your name?” I said, “You’re drunk!”

“That’s right sir,” he responded, “I’m drunk! But you know who my son is? Senator so-and-so” – state senator.

I said, “Really? You’re still suspended, and you’re going home right now!”

We suspended the guy, sent him to our AA or whatever, and when I got back to the office on Monday, everybody there said, ooooh boy!

So I got a call early Monday from the state senator, and he says, “Is it true that you suspended my father from work?”

“Yup,” I answered. “And he’s not coming back to work till Timmy O’ says he’s fit for duty.”

And the senator said, “Thank god! I’ve been trying to get his drinking problem under control for years!”

  • James

    It’s been floated forever, but when is Amtrak (or maybe cahsr) going to petition the FRA to lift its silly super-heavy train req for trains that share rails with freight!? That alone could save millions in new rail car procurement alone.

    So if the NEC is going to be improved in small bits and pieces, as Gunn suggests, what’s the next logical improvement (aside from the ones already funded for in the ARRA)?

  • Stephen Stofka

    James–The next logical improvement (which, I believe, is already underway) is to improve a long straight stretch between Philadelphia, PA, and Elizabeth, NJ to 150 mph running. In the long term, conversion of the 1920s-era PRR-built 12kV 25Hz variable-tension catenary (overhead wire) to the 25kV 60MHz constant-tension systems now common in new installations (e.g. the one from New Haven to Boston).

    The major technical complication with this is that 25kV requires greater wire clearances than 12kV does; the best way to solve this, I’d imagine, is to retain 12kV wire where clearances are most limited (major stations and throats) while implementing 25kV elsewhere.

    Commuter railroads comprise the other major complication.

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  • http://www.alexmarshall.org Alex Marshall

    Great interview. Gunn made his points excellently. What a shame he was fired – for doing his job, basically. He made similar points, about the inefficacy of planning, back in 2006 in this interview with me, parts of which made it into Planning Magazine and the newsletter for the Regional Plan Association. Here are some parts of it from my personal website: http://www.alexmarshall.org/2006/07/31/david-gunn-amtrak-prez-speaks-his-mind/