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By Pat Foran, Editor
On Aug. 29, Amtrak's board announced that Alexander Kummant would be the national passenger railroad's new president and chief executive officer. Kummant, who as of press time was to assume his new duties Sept. 12, replaces David Hughes, the former Amtrak chief engineer who'd been keeping the CEO seat warm for the past 10 months or so. Hughes, who the board says will remain with Amtrak in a "yet to be specified capacity," filled in after David Gunn was ousted last November.
Although Kummant most recently served as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for global construction equipment supplier Komatsu America Corp., he's no stranger to 21st century railroading. Earlier in the decade, he was a Union Pacific Railroad regional vice president. He also held other UP posts, including VP and general manager of industrial products, and VP of premium operations, overseeing intermodal and automotive network performance. He has field experience, too. At age 18, he worked on a track crew for the Lake Terminal Railroad at the U.S. Steel Lorain Works in Lorain, Ohio.
Kummant will tap into every bit of that experience as he attempts to address the nettlesome what-to-do-about-Amtrak question from the inside. As U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a former Amtrak board member, puts it: "Kummant has a big and important task ahead of him — to put the nation's passenger railroad on course to meet the demands of the 21st century."
Kummant's task is no different than the one the no-nonsense Gunn inherited and attempted to complete during his sometimes tumultuous three-year tenure. Rethinking Amtrak — or, at the very least, attempting to put intercity rail in a larger transportation context — is no mean feat. You've got to be a consensus builder and an intercity rail preserver. The former requires political acumen and the ability to engage; the latter, the capacity to be a fiercely logical cheerleader with a modicum of common sense (i.e., knowing when to cheer and when not to).
What's more, the task at hand isn't Kummant's alone to complete. The Bush Administration has threatened to play a big role here, although its level of interest (as in whether it's committed to the "no reform, no funding" rhetoric we've heard off and on the past year and a half) remains to be seen. Equally uncertain is the commitment of Congress, which once again will take up Amtrak reform legislation this fall. In July, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee appropriated $1.4 billion for Amtrak — $500 million more than the administration's $900 million request and $200 million less than Amtrak's FY2007 request.
Charitably, the appointment of Kummant, who wasn't available for comment late last month, affords another opportunity to get to work on restructuring, reconfiguring and/or rethinking Amtrak. If we're going to do it — strike that, when we do it (call it a contribution in the Norman Vincent Peale vein) — it ought to be within the framework of a national transportation policy. As ever, the time for big-picture policy shaping is now.