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Disruptor | Joe Boardman, Amtrak CEO

Disruptor | Joe Boardman, Amtrak CEO

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The CEO of Amtrak is credited with moving the rail line forward after decades of under-use and neglect. Can he herald the arrival of super-fast trains along the Northeast Corridor?

Overlooking the nerve center of Amtrak, a control room with neon lights and switchboards resembling a Shatner-era Starship Enterprise, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman looks like a man out of time. Even in context, Boardman has little of the Teflon sheen of Washington. His moustache is worn without irony. The coffee he carries with him today isn't Starbucks; it's Dunkin'.

"What excites me is having a system that really starts working," Boardman says, launching into a conversation about America's passenger rail.

This spring, Boardman will become the second-longest tenured CEO in Amtrak’s 42-year history. Boardman's term as CEO has coincided with a particularly healthy balance sheet. New trains are being built, ridership is up, and 88 percent of operating costs are now covered by fares.

Competing in the global marketplace, Boardman says, requires nothing less. "This is the financial capital of the world, but if we don’t make the investments to allow people to move for the future and have that mobility, then you're not going to remain there because the rest of the world is going to kill us: whether it's London, whether it's Tokyo, or whether it's Beijing."

From the farm to rails

Making Amtrak globally competitive is no easy task. Fortunately, Boardman, who grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, is no stranger to hard work. "We never had sick days on the farm," he said. "We milked cows every day."

For a farm kid destined for a career in transportation, however, riding the rails was still a long way off. "I rode my first train I really remember going into the service, from Rome to Syracuse," Boardman said of his first rail experience at age 17. "Four years later, when I came back, they were bankrupt."

Determined to join the family business after his tour in Vietnam, Boardman enrolled in an agricultural economics program at Cornell University. It was there, working on a statistics project, that Boardman offered the first of what would become a career of practical transit solutions. He suggested the university start charging bus fares for its otherwise-free service. Strikingly, the university took his advice. "I went to be a veterinarian," Boardman said of his time in Ithaca. "I came out as a transit man."

Boardman's siblings, perhaps by accident, encouraged his career in transportation. "You’ve got a college education. You're not coming back to the farm," they told Boardman, the first in his family to go to college. So instead, Boardman turned to transit, serving as the director of transportation for Broome County, New York, before becoming the first employee of Progressive Transportation Services, a company that facilitated transportation for 11 communities in upstate New York.

In 1993, Boardman sold his share of the company (now part of First Transit) to join the administration of New York Gov. George Pataki first as assistant commissioner of public transportation and then, later, as commissioner of transportation.

As commissioner, Boardman learned to negotiate the interests of a number of stakeholders. "You don't stay as highway commissioner unless you get the snow and ice off the road, especially upstate, or unless you take care of contractors that are expecting the contract to get done on time," he said. "If you get those two things operating right, then you can go play railroad."

Boardman found time to work on rail transit. "In addition to helping redevelop rail transportation in New York State, Joseph Boardman developed a sterling reputation for safety," Pataki said of Boardman's tenure in an e-mail to SmartPlanet.

Rewriting the rulebook for passenger rail

In 2005, Boardman was recruited by the administration of President George W. Bush to become the next Federal Railroad Administrator. When asked, Boardman had reservations. "I had a dump truck and a bobcat. I own a piece of a wood lot,"said Boardman, who had been planning to retire. But the phone calls kept coming. When the third request arrived, he accepted.

Though described at the time as an "excellent pick" for the job by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the position of Federal Railroad Administrator wasn't quite what Boardman anticipated. "What I began to realize is that I didn't have much in common with the Bush administration's plans for Amtrak –- or their lack of plans," he said.

For decades, Amtrak has existed as a kind of stepchild. While the British launched the Chunnel, Japan maintained a network of Bullet Trains and Germany constructed a gargantuan Hauptbahnof in Berlin, Amtrak operated using one of the most well-worn fleets in the world. "I'm 64," Boardman said. "We have equipment older than me."

An aging fleet wasn't the only issue Boardman encountered when taking the helm of Amtrak in 2008. "You had employees who hadn't had a contract in eight years," Boardman said. "The relationship sucked."

Bringing Amtrak up to speed

Boardman put a contract on the table, unions accepted and the relationship began to change. "If you have happy employees, you're going to have them treat your customers well," he said. Bolstered by $1.3 billion in funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Boardman engaged in a number of other changes to Amtrak, including improved security, bridge rehabilitation and train-car repair.

"We looked at trying to make investments that are productive," Boardman said. "If you build more cars, you can sell more seats. That brings the revenue up and the overall costs down. When you look at some of the expenditures we've had in the past, you can’t even tell, in some cases, what the hell were they spending this particular money on.”

The impact of Boardman's investments is already visible. Intercity travelers are increasingly turning to Amtrak. Whereas Amtrak made up just 37 percent of travel between New York and Washington, D.C., in 2000, today 76 percent of that market now belongs to Amtrak. All told, 31.5 million passengers traveled on Amtrak in 2012, the highest recorded ridership to date.

Looking forward

To Boardman, new ridership records are just the beginning. In 2012, Amtrak presented its vision for the Northeast Corridor, the region that roughly spans the route between Washington, D.C., and Boston. If implemented, the $151 billion plan would add 40 additional Acela Express cars, double the frequency of Acela trains, increase tunnel capacity in New York City and build two tracks of NextGen high-speed rails along the Northeast Corridor. NextGen high-speed trains travel at 220 M.P.H., reducing travel time between Washington and New York from 160 to 94 minutes.

The plan has its critics. Boardman, however, takes that criticism in stride. "Isn't it great that we have a fleet plan to criticize?" he asked. "Where was it before?"

Building the rail infrastructure worthy of the 21st century is a monumental task, but also an important one, Boardman said. "I think it's important for the country," he said. "I really truly believe that. It seems to be out of popularity today, but that's the truth."

Photo: Amtrak

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Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure