Amtrak president calling it quits

Friday, March 8, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak President George Warrington, who challenged Congress to more clearly define the mission for the nation's passenger rail company and give it more money, is resigning, Amtrak officials said Thursday.

Warrington is leaving to pursue another opportunity, said John Robert Smith, chairman of the Amtrak board of directors. Warrington will stay on for up to 60 days until an interim successor is named, and a nationwide search is under way, Smith said.

Smith did not identify Warrington's new post, but an Amtrak source speaking on condition of anonymity said Warrington will become executive director of New Jersey's bus and rail agency, NJ Transit. An announcement was expected Thursday.

Smith lauded Warrington for his "persistent and visionary leadership."

"Amtrak and its future are larger than any one individual," Smith said. "We hate to lose George, but we'll keep the trains running."

Warrington, 49, thanked Amtrak's employees and cited their "outstanding response" after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I may be changing trains, but I still have great confidence in the team driving Amtrak," he said.

Warrington's resignation was a surprise and comes as the financially troubled national passenger railroad fights efforts to break it up.

His strategy during the four years he headed Amtrak was to have the business grow to fiscal health, but costs rose along with income and ridership. Watchdogs now agree it will not achieve self-sufficiency by the December deadline set by Congress.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, Warrington acknowledged that Amtrak is facing an immediate cash crunch, which he blamed in part on unease among potential lenders.

Warrington said Amtrak's auditors are grappling with how to identify the railroad as a "going concern" -- a business that will operate for at least another year. That declaration would help Amtrak gain access to its line of credit with banks.

"We've worked very hard with our banks and our lenders to reassure them that this Congress is committed to Amtrak," he said.

In a speech last year, Warrington appealed to political leaders to resolve whether the railway's chief mission is to provide national passenger service -- including running certain politically popular but financially ill-advised long-distance trains -- or to break even.

"For 30 years Amtrak has been expected to perform like a business and at the same time serve community needs like a nonprofit organization. We cannot do this," he said.

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group, said Warrington "kept the system together, and we didn't lose any service of significance, and that's not a small feat."

Warrington took the job in December 1997, a year after Congress set the deadline for self-sufficiency and appointed the Amtrak Reform Council to monitor progress. Last month the council sent to Congress a plan suggesting the government break up Amtrak and open passenger rail to competition.

Warrington has threatened to cut some or all of Amtrak's 18 long-distance trains unless it receives $1.2 billion next year -- more than double the $521 million proposed by the Bush administration.

He also trimmed 1,000 of the company's 24,600 jobs and made other cuts in training, advertising and equipment maintenance.

Warrington presided over the introduction of the nation's first high-speed train -- the amenity-filled Acela Express that runs between Washington and Boston and hits a top speed of 150 mph.

Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts who now serves as vice chairman of Amtrak's governing board, said in January that Warrington had assured the board he would stay through the end of 2002.

"This has been a very tough job, and he's been terrific," Dukakis said at the time. "There isn't a single person on the board who isn't a Warrington fan."

In becoming executive director of NJ Transit, Warrington will return to his roots. A native of Bayonne, N.J., he worked at NJ Transit and served as deputy state transportation commissioner before joining Amtrak.

NJ Transit carries 400,000 bus and train riders each day, making it the third-largest mass transit agency in the nation behind New York and Chicago.


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