Stopped in his tracks

By Michael Dresser
Baltimore Sun reporter

November 20, 2005

Q&A : David L. Gunn

For the 25 million passengers who use Amtrak each year, these are uncertain times.

This month, David L. Gunn was fired as president and chief executive officer of the national passenger railroad system after 3 1/2 years of what is broadly viewed as effective leadership.

The dismissal came as the Amtrak board appointed by President Bush took steps toward breaking off the more profitable Northeast Corridor, putting it into its own division and sharing its control and costs with the states.

Amtrak supporters - including many in Congress - warn the breakup likely would set the stage for a shutdown of the national passenger rail system. In Maryland, Amtrak owns and maintains key pieces of track used by thousands of MARC rail commuters every day.

Amtrak Chairman David M. Laney said the railroad's board believed Gunn was not moving ahead energetically with reforms.

Gunn, 68, had run commuter rail operations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Toronto.

Do you know who made the actual decision that David Gunn had to go? Was there intervention from outside the board?

I really don't know. Personally, I think there was. You have two board members who are really not interested in the company. The chairman said on several occasions that 'I can't protect you much longer.' That tends to mean there's a person. There's no independence on this board. They're taking orders from somebody. I tried to find out but could never get to ground zero of who's pushing this.

You apparently were fired at least in part because you did not agree with the board's decision to set up a separate subsidiary to own Amtrak's Northeast Corridor infrastructure. What were your objections to that plan?

It separates the operations from the maintenance side of the business. That's what they did in Britain, and it's been a bloody nightmare.

Do you think the administration is interested in continuing Amtrak service in some form?

They have proposed zeroing the budget, bankruptcy and liquidation, and they were deadly serious about that. There was the [notion] that bankruptcy would be a cleansing rite. [In the airlines] the company continues to exist. In a railroad, you have a negative cash flow and the company will cease to exist.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has been publicly critical of Amtrak. How would you characterize your interaction with him?

I met with the secretary in June. I asked him, if I do all these reforms, do I get anything. And the answer was dead silence.

What was the state of Amtrak as of the time you were fired?

We came out of the year with cash in the bank, and we had growing ridership. We did way better than budget.

One of the criticisms of Amtrak is that its payroll is bloated as a result of expensive union contracts. How would you assess the corporation's labor relations?

The union guys said, 'We really hate you but don't leave. [They knew that] I wanted to end up with a functioning railroad. The work force generally knows something's got to change.

The problem is, the unskilled people are overpaid and the skilled people are underpaid. Electricians should get paid a hell of a lot more than people selling sandwiches on trains. It's a hundred-year-old division of labor. For steam engines, it worked pretty good. What you need to do is rewrite the job descriptions so they fit the modern equipment.

The issue is not so much what the employees get paid or the work conditions but keeping this bureaucracy alive at the unions.

Is there any merit to the idea of eliminating long-distance routes that require a heavy subsidy while keeping service going in the Northeast Corridor?

The politics of the thing [are that] if you take off the long-distance trains, you don't have any [congressional] support for the Northeast Corridor.

Is there something Congress can do to prevent the Bush administration from carrying out its plans for Amtrak?

I would hope that if they start down a road that is dismantling the corporation, that is breaking it up, that is doing radical surgery, that [Congress] would act. What would be an incredible tragedy would be to lose the organization's skill, the structure. If you destroy that, then you will play hell getting it back.

On some level, didn't you expect to be fired by the board in view of your philosophical differences?

I figured they would eventually get tired of me, and they did. I didn't know I was going to be fired that morning.

Why didn't you resign earlier?

I said, 'I'm not going to do it.' The benefit [of being fired] is that it exposes the issue of what they're trying to do.

Some critics of the administration have contended that what Amtrak characterized as your "release" is illegal because the Amtrak board may have been short of a quorum, and [these critics] have called for your reinstatement. Do you have an opinion on this?

I wouldn't want to work for a crowd that doesn't want me. I don't know whether the board is legal or illegal from the global point of view. That debate is not one I want to get involved in.

That use of the word "release" - that really infuriates me. It's the classic "put the spin on something."

Have you been fired before?

Yes, my first job. I was right then, too.

How do you respond to the allegation that you weren't moving quickly enough on reforms?

We were moving on reform. All the stuff [Laney] talked about is in the mill. It was a situation where, if I'd been able to walk on water, they would have accused me of not being able to swim.

What do you see as the Department of Transportation's role in Amtrak going forward?

They've grasped the nettle. It's theirs now. We can all stand back and watch what a great job they do. They haven't had a viable plan for Amtrak since I've been here. It's nothing but spin. The thing that's changed now is that if they screw it up now, they own it.

You've been praised for improving operations at Washington's Metro, the New York subway system and now Amtrak. So what's the next professional challenge ahead for David Gunn?

I don't know. I'm 68 years old. I like to work, but I just don't know at this point. But I'm running out of places. I'm going home to Cape Breton [Nova Scotia], and I'll probably spend the winter there. I'll wait for the phone to ring. I didn't ask for this assignment. They called me.