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Turnover At The Top Hits Amtrak At A Critical Time

By Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — As it recovers from its worst accident on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak faces frequent management turnover and structural change, in addition to chronic financial and political challenges.

Former Amtrak executives say the turmoil at the top in recent years has disrupted railroad management and distracted employees from their daily duties.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) executive and now an adjunct professor in railway management at Michigan State University, said: “Rapid changes in management are never good, unless they’re aimed at getting rid of nonfunctioning people. Management turmoil is of concern.”

With upper management in flux, former Amtrak executives say, Amtrak may not have worked aggressively enough after deadly train wrecks on other passenger railroads — on Dec. 1, 2013, in New York and on July 24, 2013, in Spain — to identify fixes on its rail network that could have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured 200.

Both 2013 accidents involved speeding trains that derailed going too fast into a curve. That’s also what happened in the Philadelphia crash, at the sharpest curve between Washington and New York.

“After that kind of accident, everybody is put on notice,” said a former Amtrak executive, who requested anonymity, of the wrecks in New York and Spain. “You would think you would take a look at your sensitive points and say, ‘We don’t want that to happen here.’

“But people are more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their jobs.”

Only after the Philadelphia derailment — at the order of the Federal Railroad Administration — did Amtrak quickly install automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford Junction curve, which would have prevented the fatal derailment.

Amtrak had installed that braking system 24 years earlier on the southbound side of the curve and at several other tight curves on the Northeast Corridor, to automatically slow speeding trains if the engineer doesn’t.

“Certainly one of the reactions to the Metro-North derailment (in 2013) could have been, ‘Let me take a look at all my sharp curves and make sure I have protection for all my sharp curves,'” said rail expert Allan Zarembski of the University of Delaware. “With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it would have been a good idea.”

Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman rejected the argument that Amtrak missed a chance to prevent the deadly Philadelphia derailment.

He said the lack of automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford curve was based on Amtrak’s assumption that trains wouldn’t enter the curve at more than the 80 m.p.h. maximum speed allowed on the preceding straightaway.

“The notion that an engineer might actually accelerate into the northbound curve was not a circumstance we anticipated, and thus we didn’t mitigate for it,” Boardman told a congressional hearing last month. “It was a reasonable decision reached by reasonable experts under reasonable circumstances.”

An Amtrak spokeswoman said that after the deadly Metro-North derailment on Dec. 1, 2013, in the Bronx, N.Y., Amtrak followed safety recommendations from the FRA: reminding employees of rules against speeding; producing a video focused on safety and teamwork; and having supervisors hold face-to-face meetings with employees to discuss the rules reminder and share the video. Amtrak also increased operational tests to verify that its trains were following the speed rules, said the spokeswoman, Christina Leeds.

Boardman, meanwhile, defended Amtrak’s management reshuffle, the latest in a series of reorganizations in the railroad’s 45-year history to try to improve finances and operations and placate Congress.

The recent turnover has affected senior executives and key operational positions.

For example, Amtrak’s chief engineer, Rodrigo Bitar, started his job on May 11, one day before the deadly derailment of Train 188 in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood.

He is based in Philadelphia to manage 4,000 people who maintain Amtrak’s tracks, communications, signals, stations, and bridges, and he is the third person in the critical post in two years.

Amtrak also has had three deputy chief engineers of maintenance in two years, in charge of maintaining track, signals, and traction power.

In addition, in the last two years, Amtrak has installed a new chief financial officer, chief transportation officer, controller, treasurer, chief of research and strategy, general manager for long-distance services, chief of customer services, general manager of state-supported services, and police chief.

“Knowledgeable people are leaving, and no one really wants to work there, just at a time when great things are needed to expand the infrastructure,” another former Amtrak executive, who also requested anonymity, said.

Boardman disagreed, saying that many of the railroad’s management changes are significant improvements, the result of the strategic plan he created in 2011 to reorganize Amtrak into four “business lines.”

“Change is constant,” the Amtrak CEO said. “But these aren’t turnovers, these are additions to try to continue to try to move forward in improving on our strategic plan … to improve safety, customer service, and financial excellence.

“And we’re making progress in all of those areas.”

Boardman cited ridership and revenue growth, new train orders and declining debt the last four years as evidence of that progress.
Amtrak carried 31 million passengers last year, its 11th increase in 12 years, while it collected revenue of $3.2 billion, also a record.

The railroad’s operating subsidy from the federal government declined from $565 million in fiscal 2010 to $250 million this year.
Amtrak has never been able to meet its congressional mandate to turn a profit. It received $1.4 billion from Congress this year to cover the operating deficit, as well as capital costs for construction, new vehicles, and debt payments.

Federal aid may be less next year: On June 9, the U.S. House approved a proposed budget that would cut Amtrak’s funding by about 17 percent, or $242 million.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a former Amtrak board member, said: “There are some people where I work who would just as soon kill Amtrak.

“Amtrak needs investment. It needs certainty. It needs dedicated funding,” said Carper, a frequent passenger. He was on Train 188 on May 12, but got off in Wilmington shortly before the wreck in Philadelphia.

Because Amtrak relies on unpredictable annual federal appropriations, the railroad lurches from year to year in a constant state of near-crisis.

“It looks like a company, but it is really a government agency,” said Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “People complain that a ‘real’ company could be more responsive to markets and its customers.

“That’s like getting angry when frogs can’t fly.”

Amtrak inherited decrepit bridges, tunnels, and equipment when it took over passenger service from the private freight railroads in 1971. Since then, its backlog of worn-out infrastructure has been growing.

Now it would require an estimated $21 billion to restore just the 457-mile Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair. Amtrak and eight regional commuter railroads carry 750,000 passengers a day on 2,000 trains on the corridor.

Boardman, Amtrak’s chief executive since 2008, has repeatedly pleaded with Congress for more money to prevent what he warned last year could be “a bigger, costlier, and far more damaging failure than anything we have seen.”

Boardman, 66, a former New York state transportation commissioner with a master’s degree in management science, has responded to Amtrak’s financial straits and congressional demands by redrawing Amtrak’s organizational charts and shifting managers’ responsibilities.

Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia, a New Jersey lawyer who formerly chaired the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said the changes have made Amtrak more efficient, though “it’s a work in progress.”

“I think we can run the company better than we do,” Coscia said. “I think we run it better now than we did last year, and we ran it better last year than the year before. But we’re definitely not out of the woods yet.”

Others, including the union that represents 2,000 Amtrak workers who maintain the tracks, electric lines and other equipment, are much more critical.

“Our senior managers have little or no experience in operating or building a railroad,” said officials of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which is in negotiations for a new labor contract.

“The union’s struggle to maintain safe working conditions is hampered by Amtrak senior management’s lust for complete control and railroad inexperience,” they said in a recent union newsletter.

The union also cited the problems with Amtrak’s “Safe-2-Safer” program identified in a report this year by Amtrak inspector general Tom Howard.

Howard found that reported employee injuries at Amtrak increased from 695 in 2009, when the program began, to 1,301 in 2013, while employee injury claims increased by about 80 percent from 2009 through 2013, with a cost of $80 million.

Boardman dismissed the union leadership’s complaints as self-serving.

He said the union’s “concern has to do with negotiating the next contract and finding an enemy … and there’s no enemy here,” he said. ” … We have very excellent relations with the unions.”

About 85 percent of Amtrak’s 20,000 employees are represented by 14 unions.

Leeds, the Amtrak spokeswoman, said the employees’ reportable injury rate has dropped by 7 percent since October 2014, and the injury severity rate of employee injuries is down by 26 percent since then.

A Republican appointee who headed the FRA before being named Amtrak president, Boardman reduced management in late 2011 with 150 buyouts. That was the year he drafted the five-year strategic plan with a stronger focus on the bottom line and customer services.

Those moves prompted his major overhaul of the management ranks at Amtrak, which through the decades has seen many such restructurings.

Boardman’s supporters say he is under constant pressure from Congress and the Amtrak board to cut costs and increase revenue.

“He’s got a board of directors of 535 people,” said Mathews, the passenger advocate, referring to Congress. “When you have a congressman deciding the price of a hamburger in a dining car, how can you possibly make the best decisions for the customer?
“When you’re in a reactive mode, you’ve lost control of your destiny. I think that’s where they are.”

Boardman, the second-longest-serving president in Amtrak’s history, said he waited longer than his predecessors to reorganize the railroad “because I wanted to understand the problems.”

He acknowledged that he has encountered resistance from certain managers and employees, but said most have embraced his changes.

Howard, the Amtrak inspector general, reported last year that Amtrak had made “significant progress implementing its 2011 strategic plan and accomplishing positive results,” while noting that “a number of challenges remain to be addressed.”

Those challenges include attracting and keeping key employees, “and this challenge will intensify as experienced employees in key positions retire or migrate to other business opportunities,” according to the inspector general’s report.

In another report, Louis Thompson, a former Federal Railroad Administration official and a railways adviser to the World Bank, said last year:

“Over its lifetime, Amtrak has had just enough political support to survive but never enough to invest properly or to prosper in any single market, and there is no convincing reason to think this will change significantly with the existing organizational structure.”

Photo: Investigators examine the train derailment site on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, after a northbound Amtrak train crashed in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia the night before. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In Parched California, Beware Of Humans Near Dry Brush

By Peter Hecht, The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Authorities say alleged marijuana farmer Freddie Alexander Smoke III was indifferent to the danger of fire.

They say Smoke, a 37-year-old Sacramento man, did not consider that his rental truck and its hot exhaust pipe might ignite the dry grass on July 11 as he was hauling supplies to a pot garden in Shasta County.

The ensuing Bully fire scorched 12,661 acres over the next 15 days. Smoke was initially charged with pot cultivation and recklessly causing a fire. Then authorities found the body of a man who died fleeing the fire. Soon Smoke faced more serious charges, including involuntary manslaughter.

While the fire became an unusual criminal case, human-caused fires in California are a recurring, problematic phenomenon.

The nearly 4,000-acre Sand fire in El Dorado and Amador counties broke out last week when another motorist apparently drove on flammable grassland. Last year, the devastating 30,000-acre Rim fire near Yosemite National Park was ignited by a hunter who lost control of an illegal campfire.

The overwhelming majority of wildfires in California are caused by humans. California averages 7,432 wildfires a year as a result of human activity, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 900 of those result from arson.

The greatest danger of accidental fire comes from people improperly burning brush or debris, followed by people operating power equipment — like lawn mowers and weed whackers — in hot or dry conditions. Vehicle-induced fires rank next on the list, followed by improperly tended campfires and fires caused by smoking.

Egregious cases can bring criminal charges or lawsuits to recover firefighting costs.

“It is surprising that people can be that disconnected from the landscape around them,” said Susie Kocher, a natural resources adviser and researcher for University of California Cooperative Extension in South Lake Tahoe. “If you are accustomed to the danger of fires, you pay attention to the environment. And on windy drought days, those are red flag days — when you should not do anything stupid.”

With the severe drought putting California in extreme fire danger months earlier than normal, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are offering fire safety tips in a campaign called “One Less Spark.”

Cal Fire’s suggestions: Don’t drive onto dry grass or brush. Do your mowing before 10 a.m. and never when it’s windy or dry. Obtain a permit for any welding or grinding work, and don’t do it in an area without brush clearance and a shovel and a fire extinguisher at the ready.

Debris burning is banned in the fire season. During other times of the year, people are warned to keep piles small, have a water supply available, and never leave a smoldering pile unattended by an adult.

Meanwhile, a California campfire permit is required on public lands other than supervised campgrounds. To reduce danger, people are advised not to burn in illegal areas and to drown campfires with water before leaving, stir them with a shovel, and leave them cold enough that they can put a finger in the ashes.

Because of, “everything is preheated right now, with high temperatures and low humidity,” said Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Mathison. “It sets the stage for explosive conditions statewide. And when we get one of these human causes, it’s off to the races with fire.”

Nationally, humans cause an average of 62,631 wildfires a year, burning about 2.5 million acres, according the National Interagency Fire Center. Fires caused by lightning burn the most acreage — 4.1 million a year. But they are far fewer in number, an average of 10,000 fires a year.

Despite public safety campaigns and the ubiquitous mantra of Smokey Bear — “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” — some people just don’t get it. “You can only go so far in helping people to be smarter,” Kocher said.

For example, a wildfire broke out near Lake Tahoe in July 2002 because someone riding a gondola at the Heavenly resort thought it was a fine idea to flick a lit cigarette out of the gondola window. The careless smoker was never identified.

Two years later, a man target-shooting on public lands near Reno apparently didn’t consider the high winds and dry conditions. A bullet ricocheting off a rock sparked a 2,744-acre wildfire that destroyed six houses and 22 cars and required 25 aircraft and 500 firefighters to extinguish.

In 2007, an improperly extinguished campfire near Seneca Pond was blamed for the Angora fire that destroyed 254 houses near South Lake Tahoe, caused more than $150 million in damages and ran up a firefighting bill of $23 million. The camper was never found.

In 2008, a Shasta County judge levied a $2.25 million fine against Matt Rupp, a state parolee who accidentally set a fire that destroyed 86 houses while mowing a dry field in 105-degree heat.

One of California’s most devastating fires, the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, was set by a novice hunter who got lost and ignited a small fire to alert rescuers. The fire grew to 273,246 acres, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and killed 15 people.

One of Colorado’s most horrific events had a uniquely human cause. The 2002 Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes, was started by a seasonal Forest Service worker who called it an accidental act of passion. Terry Lynn Barton said she was burning a letter from her estranged husband. She was sentenced to six years in prison.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Herron said fire officials can only hope to increase understanding of the drought and elevated fire danger.

“We’re trying to educate the public that human-caused fires are very preventable,” said Herron, who is based in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management District. “You just have to be careful.”

AFP Photo/Jorge Cruz

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Man Dies After Shooting Himself With Shotgun While ‘Showing It Off’

By Rosemary Regina Sobol, Chicago Tribune

A 31-year-old Evanston, Ill., man is dead after he accidentally shot himself with his shotgun while “showing it off” with friends Sunday night, authorities said.

Eric Zyzanski was pronounced dead at 11:35 p.m. at Evanston Hospital, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Police responded to an apartment at 9:45 p.m. for a person who had shot himself, according to a written statement from Evanston police.

A resident in the apartment ran to a neighbor’s home to call the police and when officers got there, they found the 31-year-old on the floor with a shotgun wound to his head, and a shotgun lying beside him, the statement said.

Police learned the victim was with several friends when he retrieved his gun and began showing it off, the statement said. His friends became alarmed and told him to put it away but he removed two to three rounds, held the gun to his cheek, and told his friends it was empty before he pulled the trigger, the statement said.

Evanston Police Department Cmdr. Diane Davis said Zyzanski was the legal owner of the gun and that no foul play is suspected.

Detectives interviewed the friends who were in the apartment and all of them gave consistent accounts of what had happened, according to the statement. Evidence technicians processed the scene and the body and the evidence corroborated the witnesses’ accounts.

Photo: Rob Bixby via Flickr

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The Person You’re Most Likely To Kill With Your Gun Is You

In 1979, there were nearly two automobile fatalities for each gun death. According to a study by Bloomberg, by 2015 firearm fatalities will surpass motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has ignited a debate about gun safety, which is typical after a mass shooting. However, President Obama, in a speech to the residents of Newtown, CT, vowed to do more to stop gun violence. If this is true, he’ll have to take a look at the leading cause of gun deaths — suicide.

Eighty-five Americans are shot dead every day. Of those 53 — or 62 percent — are suicides.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. You’re more likely to die in an accident and much more likely to die in a hospital suffering from heart disease or cancer. But if you’re going to die by a firearm, it will probably be the result of suicide.

There are 51,438 licensed retail gun stores in America, more than three times the number of McDonald’s restaurants.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy, told Bloomberg that it’s unclear if gun ownership is linked to violence. But there seems to be a clear link to gun availability, and familiarity with guns and suicide.

Harvard University study conducted in 2007 found that “States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm suicide and overall suicide.”

Adolescents who commit suicide by firearm generally use the family gun. Veterans have continually demonstrated high rates of suicide by firearm. Suicide by firearm is, of course, much more effective than other methods.

Gun deaths have been slowly rising since 2000, while deaths related to motor vehicles have plummeted since 2007.

Those who oppose further regulation of guns make the argument that guns are necessary for self-defense.

The 2011 study “Guns in the home provide greater health risk than benefit” showed that a gun is more likely to send a family member to the emergency room or the morgue than to ever be used against an intruder.

As the nation considers what can be done about gun violence, the issue of how to protect gun owners from themselves definitely needs to be considered.

 Photo: Reuben Yau via Flickr