A New Era for Passenger Rail: A Conversation with Amtrak's Leadership
By Sophie Guiny, WTS-DC
There was an energetic buzz in the National League of Cities’ conference room ahead of the event jointly organized by WTS-DC and Women in Government Relations (WGR) on the future of passenger rail. The event was an opportunity to hear directly from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s CEO, and Amtrak’s top female leaders on the exciting times ahead for Amtrak as the organization prepares to receive historic levels of funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Four panelists joined moderator Caroline Decker, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and National Rail Business Director at WSP, in person at the event: Laura Mason, Executive Vice President–Capital Delivery, Nicole Bucich, Vice President, Network Development, Qiana Spain, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, and Tracie Winbigler, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Attendees joined in person and via Zoom. In keeping with the hybrid nature of the event, Stephen Gardner participated in the conversation virtually.
Mr. Gardner kicked off the conversation with some introductory remarks. He noted that rail has, since the 1960s, focused on moving goods, not people, even though the U.S possesses the largest rail network in the world. He emphasized Amtrak's opportunity to rethink this network to connect more people and make passenger rail more competitive with other modes. With the historic commitment from the federal government to passenger rail, Amtrak will focus on three priorities -- rebuild Amtrak’s business post-pandemic, leaning on a new generation of leaders that will define the future of Amtrak; modernize assets, leveraging $22 billion in funding under the IIJA; and expand the network through partnerships with USDOT, states and host railroads.
The conversation then turned to the panelists, who each outlined their background and role at Amtrak. It was interesting to note that all four women had joined Amtrak relatively recently, just before or during the pandemic.
Qiana Spain highlighted the major hiring efforts ongoing at Amtrak, which are being supported by initiatives to improve employee retention. She discussed Amtrak's emphasis on improving culture and empowering employees, as well as focusing on increasing diversity, inclusion and belonging.
Traci Winbigler discussed how excited she was about the future, and how her team was working hard at putting in place new processes to ensure accountability as Amtrak receives unprecedented levels of federal funding. She noted that while the funding amounts are large, they are only a down payment on what will be needed to transform passenger rail, and that inflation is an issue to be monitored.
Laura Mason noted the need to transform public sector delivery so it becomes more effective, looking at newer delivery mechanisms to make projects faster, cheaper and less risky. There are three major capital investment portfolios slated for IIJA funding: fleet and facilities (with a complete revamping of the fleet, from the Acela to long-distance trains, and upgrades to associated maintenance facilities), infrastructure (including landmark projects such as the B&P Tunnel in Baltimore, and Gateway) and stations (with the opportunity to transform passenger experience in DC and Chicago, among others).
Nicole Bucich previously worked for the Northeast Corridor Commission and is looking to build relationships throughout the country to expand Amtrak’s network. She discussed the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) launch of a new Corridor Identification Program, which will provide overarching guidance for the future expansion of the national passenger rail network, and will support the allocation of funding.
When asked what he hoped his message would be five years from now, Stephen Gardner concluded the discussion by emphasizing the fact that the IIJA funding was only a small part of what was needed to recover from decades of deferred investment in passenger rail. So, his hope is that over the next five years, Amtrak will build enough momentum by delivering, among other things, new routes and an improved passenger experience to convince Congress and future administrations to continue investing in passenger rail.
WTS-DC thanks Stephen Gardner, Laura Mason, Nicole Bucich, Qiana Spain, Tracie Winbigler and Caroline Decker for generously sharing their time and insights with our chapter. WTS-DC also thanks WGR for planning this event with us and National League of Cities for hosting the event in its state-of-the-art hybrid conference space.