As will soon become apparent, I am not a planner, but a rather an advocate for transportation infrastructure investment, particularly rail. I came to this cause as a businessman and former journalist (Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times) who got stuck in a plane one time too many, and as a person who believes that cities are the core of our civilization, and have been greatly damaged by our mono-modal transportation choice.
Back in April of 1989, making my living as a management consultant for small high-tech start-ups, I had to travel around the Northeast a great deal. As such, I was a frequent flyer. In my case I made a special effort to get home every night, even from distant cities, because back in 1989 I was a new Dad, with a very active 2 year old. I had memories of my own childhood, as many new Dads do, and I recalled how little I had seen of my own father when I was a kid – that was just they way it was back then, and as it is for many still today, but I vowed that my kid would see me even if I had to day-trip to Dallas.
When T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month” I think he must have been thinking about Spring in New England, because that is the time in the Northeast when getting home by plane can be a real adventure: you can have six kinds of weather at Logan Airport in Boston all within just a few minutes. I used to think people were kidding me when they said about New England, “If you don’t like the weather stick around a few minutes. It will change” --- but it’s true.
This particular day had started out sunny, and as I only had to fly down to New Jersey, I told my son that Daddy would be home in time to tuck him in bed and kiss him good night. That afternoon I returned to Newark Airport for my flight home, and with clear skies we took off right on time. It was exactly 5 p.m. and the day was going well…too well as it turned out, because just a few minutes after we leveled off --- remember, this is a one hour flight once you’re in the air ---the pilot came on the plane’s intercom in that certified Georgia accent that is required of all airline pilots and, oddly enough, truck drivers, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we’ve got us a little weather up in Boston, so we’re gonna have to circle Praaaahhhvidence fo’ awhile.”
As the plane of mostly businessmen collectively groaned resignedly I looked out the window and saw the sky ahead darkening ominously. Sure enough, we did indeed have to circle “Praaahhhvidence” for awhile. Boston was getting so fogged in that Logan Airport got shut tight. Finally, they landed us at Providence…found us a bus…and bused us past my house to Logan to get my car..
To make a really long story short, it took me six hours to get home, my little boy was of course sound asleep, and worst of all, his Daddy had told him he’d be home by bedtime and he didn’t keep his word. Now I know some of you are Dads also, so you’ll understand when I say, “Two-year-olds don’t understand weather delays” and my son was no exception.
In desperation to find some other means of New England transport, I looked at the train schedule. And that’s when I really got mad. Steamed up. To put it mildly, irate. Because, even though I could see from the schedule that it was only 231 miles to Boston from New York the trip took five hours --- inexcusable. I knew as a businessman I could never justify a 10 hours in a train for a 1-hour meeting in Manhattan – yet as a seasoned flyer I also knew that once every two or three air trips, I’d break my promise to my kid again. The more I thought about that, the madder I got. And the madder I got, the more determined I was to do something about it.
So the next day, I called the Chairman of the Board of Amtrak, Graham Claytor. I know, I know, it was a very pushy thing to do, and very unlike me…... But I called him and got him on the line, and more or less demanded to know, “Mr. Claytor, why are your trains so slow?”
I recounted the story of the six hour air flight, and then him asked why his trains took almost that amount of time to go the same distance, averaging about 40 miles an hour in an era when even a car could average 70 --- or higher, if I was in a hurry…
Graham Claytor listened patiently, and then, wonderful Southern gentlemen that he was, explained to me just why it was that Amtrak’s New York-Boston trains took five hours to cover a distance that I could drive in three or fly in one in the first place, he explained – and some of you know this of course --- the track was not electrified beyond New Haven, so that each train to Boston had to switch to diesel locomotives. Secondly, diesels can’t accelerate or decelerate as quickly as electric locomotives such as those used South of New Haven down to New York City and on to Washington, so time was lost there; finally, the track needed work, with many curves, some of which could be straightened at least to some degree, so that better average speeds could be reached. With such improvements, 3-hour travel, competitive with air on a city-center to city-center basis, was easily possible. How much? About $500 million for the basic electrification job, said Claytor, although he added that European technology had made significant advances in catenary design and installation, and that costs per track mile had dropped almost in half over in Europe.
“So why not electrify?” I asked Claytor, wondering why it hadn’t been done. In the scale of public works projects, where a single highway interchange can cost several hundred million dollars, $500 million didn’t sound insurmountable. “Because Congress won’t give me the money!” responded Mr. Claytor.
I thought about that for a second or two and then, from somewhere, I heard myself say to Graham Claytor:
“Okay, then I’ll get you the money.”
Now you’ll have to understand that there was a silence at the other end of the telephone line. A perfect stranger had just told the former Secretary of the Navy, who had one or two friends in Congress himself, that he, unknown businessman, was going to do what 50 years of savvy business management and politicking couldn’t achieve: get the Northeast Corridor electrified.
“Look,” I explained, “In the early 1980's I was part of the national marketing consulting team sent to review the electric utilities' efforts at conservation marketing, and I interviewed the CEOs of a number of utilities for that effort. I've kept up my friendships with the guys in the Northeast, where I live.They’d sell the juice if you electrified. Seems to me they ought to get off their duffs and help you get the money out of Congress.”
“Sounds good to me” said the ever gentlemanly Mr. Claytor.
So instead of hanging up on me, which he probably should have done, he sent his private car the Beech Grove, the "business" car of Amtrak’s executives, to Boston for me, along with almost all of Amtrak’s vice presidents, and with his personal staff. I in turn invited the Chief Executive Officers of the largest New England utilities to have dinner with us, the theory being that no CEO can resist dinner in a private railroad car. The theory turned out to be true, because all of them came (with one exception, and he sent his #2 guy) so we had a pretty fair turnout. And after the best dinner these guys had ever had, and about a case of wine [each] we all decided that this was just about the best project on the face of the earth, and we, meaning yours truly, was deputized to do something about it.
That was December of 1989. Over the next few months, we put together a deliberately bi-partisan group of business executives, former elected officials, and environmentalists, and I want to stop here for a moment and talk about bi-partisanship.
I think one of the most important decisions we made, when we were trying to figure out how to get the Northeast Corridor project off the dime, was to ensure that whatever we did, we had folks from both sides of the aisle on board. All that was required was a commitment to either economic development or environmentalism --- and they are not at all mutually exclusive, by the way --- and that we could all work together for the benefit of our region. That decision helped us time and time again, because we learned pretty early on that while most people support, at least in theory, the idea of better rail service, it simply isn’t high up the list. Why not? Lot’s of reasons, mostly having to do with inertia and the status quo. But having folks from both sides of the aisle in our organization turned out to be a powerful tool for access. And in politics and policy, without access, you’ve got nothing.
And the first access we exercised, in our attempt to kick start rail in New England, was the White House.
Now I know that sounds a bit well, arrogant, but it was really luck – and bi-partisanship of a different sort --- that got us in the door to make our case.
It so happened one day in 1990 that one of our board members, the former Governor of Rhode Island Joe Garrahy, a Democrat, was attending a fund-raiser for Democrat Congressional candidates Congress when, low and behold, the Bush Administration’s Office of Management and Budget Director Dick Darman walked in. As our Board member knew this fellow from many White House visits as Governor, he laughed and asked what on earth a top Republican appointee was doing at a Democratic fund-raiser in Rhode Island.
As it so often turns out in politics, things are seldom what they seem– and rather than a high-level “fraternizing with the enemy” incident, the Republican OMB chief was merely visiting an old college chum --- who happened to be running for Congress as a Democrat.
“So what are you up to now, Governor?” asked Darman, since he knew Governor Garrahy had not sought reelection.
“Well, Dick,” replied the Governor, “We’re trying to get the Northeast Corridor project re-started, but you keep stopping it.”
“What’s the ‘Northeast Corridor Project?’” asked Darman.
It wasn’t even on his radar screen! The Governor explained that there was a $125 million authorization for the electrification of the Northeast Corridor – enough to get the project rolling again --- left over from the Carter Administration, but that each time the Democrat-controlled Congress had tried to appropriate the money, the White House would block it.
The next thing I knew, I was getting a call from Joe Garrahy. “Get your hair cut and your suit pressed. You’re going down to the White House.”
And so down we went, Joe Garrahy, myself, our then-executive director Lincoln Chafee, later Senator Chafee from Rhode Island, New York Power Authority Chair Dick Flynn, and George Bush’s top fundraiser from the 1988 New Hampshire primary, Bob Pullman. I must say it was a stellar bunch, but with Bob in the room, we got their undivided attention.
It took three meetings, but finally, Janet Hale, Dick Darman’s deputy for transportation, turned to us on September 21, 1991, and said, “Okay, okay, we aren’t going to parade in the street with signs for trains, but no more body blocks.”
“That’s all we want,” I replied, and within two weeks Senators Lautenberg and Moynihan were able without serious opposition to put the $125 million that had been authorized 10 years before, but not appropriated, into the budget.
I called Graham Claytor to see how it would be allocated. “Don’t worry Jim, I’ve already spent it,” he told me happily, saying that it would be used for the design engineering needed to get the project going.
Since that time the progress on the Northeast Corridor went forward aggressively. In 1992 Congress appropriated $155M,the next year $168M, the year after that $199.5M and so on, until finally we began to get up into Everett Dirksen territory. And it looked to me that, as bad as things looked for the national system right then, at least the Northeast Corridor Project was going forward. So then it was about mid-1994 that I began looking around the country for other folks like us in the Northeast who might be trying to do, in their regions, what we were doing in ours. And lo and behold, much to my surprise, I found a lot of them: in the Pacific Northwest, with the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project; in the Midwest, with the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Midwest regional Rail Initiative; in the Deep South at the Southern Rapid Rail Commission; in Texas as the Texas Eagle Mayors fought to save their train, and build upon it; in Virginia, in the Carolinas, and in Upstate New York --- and on and on, and yet not a peep of national news coverage which to me, as an ex-newsmen in my youth, seemed like a terrific story: The revival, against all odds and more money, of what was once the greatest rail system in the world --- and what will be, and I am here to tell you this, what will be the greatest rail system in the world once again.