On Nov. 9, David Gunn, president and chief executive of Amtrak, took an all-night train from Jacksonville, Fla., to Washington, D.C., arriving at his office at about 6 a.m., his usual starting time.
The first order of business was figuring out why the train company’s chairman, David Laney, had invited the chief engineer to lunch the day before. It turned out that Mr. Gunn, whom many say saved the New York City subway system during the 1980’s, was scheduled to be fired that afternoon.
It didn’t even take that long.
“Laney showed up at 8:30 a.m. He was already getting press calls because somehow it had got leaked,” Mr. Gunn recalled on the telephone recently in his sort-of-folksy Boston accent. “He wanted another board member there, so Floyd Hall, from Kmart, came down from New Jersey on the train. They had another meeting with me at noon, and they wanted me to resign. I said, ‘Oh, no. I’m not going to resign. You’ve got to fire me.’”
So they did.
“I said, ‘Would you mind telling me why?’” he continued. “And they said, ‘Well, you’re not making reforms fast enough’—which, of course, is a bullshit answer. They have not ever—ever—had a conversation about what they wanted me to do that was different from what I had been doing. But that’s neither here nor there.”
So at age 68, Mr. Gunn, who has run the Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., transportation systems and received praise on all fronts, was cut loose in the wilderness—the wilderness of Nova Scotia, where he is living on his ancestral farm, splitting kindling and taking calls from the occasional reporter.
He will also start collaborating with Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, to badger Amtrak, the administration and Congress to reform the railroad along some model of partial privatization.
Appointed Dec. 5 as adjunct scholar at the foundation, Mr. Gunn will contribute to upcoming reports and write his own commentaries, Mr. Weyrich said.
Mr. Gunn, who will work on an as-needed basis, will remain primarily in Cape Breton, though he will also have an office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Weyrich, a former Amtrak board member who tried to recruit Mr. Gunn to the company back in 1992, and who is a fan of outsourcing Amtrak’s baggage and sleeping-car operations, endorsed Mr. Gunn’s reform plan released in April, which was kinder and gentler than the Bush administration’s. It is unclear how the new position, and his writing duties, will affect his work habits.
He has no computer, e-mail or voicemail, a practice he has carried on since the early days of computers, e-mail and voicemail. After he was sworn in on his first day as president of the New York City Transit Authority, on Feb. 1, 1984, he took the I.R.T. from Grand Central Terminal to the agency’s headquarters in Brooklyn.
“It was pretty horrendous. It was wild. The trains were filthy and dirty. There was a fire. We got unloaded. It was terrible,” Mr. Gunn said. “I went back to Jay Street and walked into my office and there was this computer. It was really early in the computer game, but there was this computer terminal in my office, and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ They said, ‘Well, it’s a System/38.’ And I said, ‘What the hell is that for?’ And they said, ‘It tells you how the system is running,’ and I said, ‘Get the goddamn thing out of here! I know how the system is running! I was just on it!’
“They took it out that afternoon.”
Mr. Gunn was fired six days after a critical report by the U.S. General Accounting Office on Amtrak came out—one that the Bush administration has pointed to as evidence of Mr. Gunn’s incompetence. It is hogwash, he told The Observer, full of outdated facts from before he took over in 2002. The real reason he was fired, he said, is that he was capable of subverting the U.S. Department of Transportation’s plan, which was, in Mr. Gunn’s term, to “bankrupt” the railroad.
“The D.O.T. had been pushing zero funding,” Mr. Gunn continued, “and for whatever reason, we had gotten support in Congress. And we think that had really made them very unhappy—the fact that Congress did vote a decent appropriation. And then the reauthorization came up with Senators [Trent] Lott and [Frank] Lautenberg, and you remember that vote was 93 to 6. This was not going the way that D.O.T. wanted it to go.”
AMTRAK HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE MOBILE EQUIVALENT of the U.S. Postal Service: something that no one really likes, and yet something that it would be hard to imagine life without. The 34-year-old train company runs on a $3 billion annual budget, of which $1.2 billion came from the federal government in fiscal year 2005. A 1997 act of Congress called for Amtrak to become operationally self-sufficient by 2002, which did not happen and which Mr. Gunn believes will never happen. Even if Amtrak is broken into parts and given to the states to operate, as the Bush administration is proposing, it would require constant subsidy, he said.
Calls to the Department of Transportation and to David Laney, the Amtrak chairman, were not returned, but the public record suggests a vacillating attitude toward the railroad. In February, President Bush’s budget proposal reduced intercity train funding to $360 million—all of which would go to pay state-run commuter railroads and freight lines. “With no subsidies,” according to the notes accompanying the budget document, “Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy, which would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations and the reorganization of the railroad through bankruptcy procedures. Ultimately, a more rational passenger rail system would emerge, with service on routes where there is real ridership demand and support from local governments—such as the Northeast Corridor.”
Then, in April, Mr. Gunn and the Amtrak board came up with a package of reforms that would have called on the states to partially fund busy corridors and would have considered eliminating long-distance routes. At the time, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said, “Amtrak’s strategic reform proposal adopts a number of the same principles in the Bush reform proposal that was delivered to Congress last week. But the important thing to note is that we have agreement in a number of areas.”
By September, the administration was no longer satisfied with that “agreement.” The four members on the Amtrak board, all appointed by President George W. Bush, approved a resolution over Mr. Gunn’s objections that would form a subsidiary to maintain the Northeast Corridor’s tracks, stations and electric lines. Mr. Laney, the board chairman, denied the move was a precursor to splitting off the infrastructure, but instead said it was intended to clarify how much the railroad spent maintaining the tracks.
It’s an accounting change, in other words—an awfully important accounting change.
Mr. Mineta likened it to “decisive action” last month, during a trip to the belly of the Amtrak beast—New York City—shortly after Mr. Gunn was fired.
“If your company were already losing a billion dollars a year … you would take decisive, dramatic action to reverse it,” he told the crowd at an Association for a Better New York breakfast, according to a transcript.
But maybe not that decisive after all: “Board President Laney told Congress two days ago that nobody fully understands the complexities of this task. And that is why the board will study the issue before making any decisions.”
So, after identifying in February that the problem lay in the long-distance routes that never make any money, Mr. Mineta said in November that the first step to reform is studying an accounting change having to do with one of the few areas of the network that comes close to breaking even.
Mr. Gunn told The Observer that he didn’t object to spinning off sections of Amtrak service to federal-state consortiums, but that those consortiums should be in charge of both maintaining the track and running the trains.
“I’ve run the biggest passenger operations in the country,” Mr. Gunn told The Observer. “I know something about it and they don’t. They don’t have anybody of substance who can sit there and talk about separating infrastructure from operations.”
WHILE HEAD OF THE NEW YORK CITY TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Mr. Gunn gained a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts man, and he continued that approach while at Amtrak.
“He was not a fan of the Acela,” said Alex Marshall, a transportation writer and senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group in New York City. “He thought it was trying to run before you walked. It was about importing finicky European technology before we were really ready for it, and in many ways he was prescient. He believed you had to have people ready to stand next to the railroad and be able to fix it.”
Hired by Robert Kiley, then chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and now the outgoing head of Transport for London, Mr. Gunn ran New York’s buses and subways between 1984 and 1990.
You may remember the subways before 1984: smoking in the cars, graffiti everywhere, boom boxes, track fires.
Mr. Gunn hiked the fare 40 cents to $1.15, repaired old train cars and bought new ones, halved the number of subway delays and increased ridership by six million a month. He was Bill Bratton before Bill Bratton, focusing on quality-of-life issues like graffiti, eventually getting it off of every one of the system’s 6,000 cars.
“It was a mess, but we knew how to fix it,” Mr. Gunn said. “It was really a race against time to convince people to give you time to fix it, and they did. Once we started to rebuild equipment, once you started getting graffiti off the trains, people would see it was going to work, and you’d say, ‘Look, it is just going to take four or five years. Leave me alone.’
“[Mayor Ed] Koch was absolutely behind us. There was no question he wanted the thing to work,” Mr. Gunn continued, recalling that time. And then a quick transition to recent troubles: “I have never been in a situation where the person who is ultimately responsible, which is the Secretary of Transportation, was trying to destroy the company.”
The future of Amtrak is uncertain. Congress, whose members have always been keen on the jobs Amtrak provides their constituents, gave the company $1.31 billion in the transportation budget passed Nov. 18, without giving the Bush administration the reforms it wanted.
Until a new president can be found, the chief engineer, David Hughes, is in charge. He was the one who had lunch with the chairman the day before Mr. Gunn got fired.