By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Amtrak's board fired its president yesterday, nearly a week after a government investigation found repeated management problems with the rail service.
David L. Gunn's firing comes after a three-year tenure marred by clashes with the Bush administration over the direction of the financially beleaguered national rail service.
Amtrak Chairman David M. Laney praised Gunn's tenure but said that the railroad needed immediate changes and that Gunn resisted those changes. He said no particular event triggered the unanimous decision by the four-person board.
"It was more of the things that David was not seeing done or resisting from being done that led us to conclude that he's not the right guy at the helm as we try to move forward," Laney said.
David Hughes, Amtrak's chief engineer, was named acting president and chief executive until a permanent replacement is found.
Amtrak's management has come under heightened criticism recently. Last week, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that said Amtrak needed fundamental improvement in many areas, including cost control, goods and services purchasing, and overall accountability.
In response to the GAO report, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta on Monday criticized Amtrak's operations and promised stricter oversight of the railroad's finances. He said he hoped the report would be a "turning point" that spurred the railroad to "clean up its act."
Gunn said he was surprised by the board's decision but suspected his job might be in jeopardy after hearing Mineta's comments. "It sounded like they were then trying to set up an excuse," he said.
Gunn said he believed he was fired because he opposed the board's plan to split off the Northeast Corridor into a separate subsidiary, a move that had been endorsed by the Bush administration. The Amtrak board's four voting members were all appointed by President Bush.
The plan was authorized by the board on Sept. 22, but the vote was not disclosed. When the plan was first reported last month, Laney said that separating the Northeast Corridor would allow Amtrak to better manage the high maintenance costs of the 456-mile line between Washington and Boston.
Amtrak has never turned a profit in its 34 years, and it has $3.5 billion in long-term debt. Its chronic financial problems have prompted calls for drastic measures.
The Bush administration has suggested ending Amtrak subsidies and turning passenger rail into regional services operated by the states with federal grants. The White House budget proposal for fiscal 2006 did not include any Amtrak funding.
Congress granted Amtrak about $1.2 billion in the past fiscal year. Last week, the Senate approved $1.4 billion in annual funding for 2006; in June, the House approved $1.17 billion. The two houses must now reconcile the difference.
This summer, Gunn described the administration's plan as being designed by "policy wonks and politicians." He said yesterday that the administration intends to dismantle the railroad. "They have a very different vision for the place. Zero funding, bankruptcy and break it up. My efforts were not being helpful in what they were trying to accomplish," he said.
Laney denied Gunn's assertions. "Nobody on the board envisions any of those three scenarios," he said.
Known as a blunt but skilled manager, Gunn, 68, came out of retirement after a long career in passenger rail to lead Amtrak in 2002. He declined an invitation in 1994 to serve as Amtrak's president.
From 1991 through early 1994, he served as general manager of Washington's Metro system. He won praise from passengers for cleaning up Metro's bus and rail system by repairing and replacing aging cars and buses.
But Gunn did not enjoy the political aspects of the job and upset some members of the Metro board by making operating decisions without consulting them.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) defended Gunn and called the firing "a crushing blow to Amtrak's hopes for success and reform."
In addition to the GAO report, Amtrak has faced other problems recently. In April, it was forced to shut down its popular high-speed Acela Express line for nearly three months after it discovered hairline cracks in 300 of 1,440 brake disks.
Amtrak has also been the subject of several recent race-discrimination lawsuits filed by employees and passengers. It settled one of those suits last week for an undisclosed sum and agreed to track complaints better.
Gunn, who maintains dual residence in Northern Virginia and Nova Scotia, said he had no plans other than to go hiking in the mountains of Virginia. "I don't have to get another job. I was doing this because I believe in the company."