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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Amtrak’s Debacle

Days into the LIRR’s latest crisis, with trains being canceled and relentless news reports about widespread delays, the LIRR did an extraordinary thing. They placed a leaflet on the seat of every train, inviting commuters to fill out the LIRR’s Customer Satisfaction Survey later this month. The thought bubble over my head read: Oh, no, you didn’t.

Now, I opted against saying this out loud because the train was packed like a clown car at the circus, and all of my energies were spent keeping a sleepy guy in the seat next to me from using my shoulder as a head rest. Yet the LIRR will find it has lots of dissatisfied customers after receiving the completed surveys, even though the LIRR was not to blame for the four days of mayhem (May 9-12) which unfolded after a train derailed in an Amtrak-owned East River tunnel on Sunday, May 8. Indeed, Amtrak owns all the East River tunnels used by the LIRR’s trains into and out of New York City. Amtrak, a creation of the federal government that relies heavily on federal taxpayer support, is the landlord for Penn Station, too.

A quick news quiz before we proceed: can you name Amtrak’s president? I’m going to guess nearly 100 percent of you cannot. By the way, I had no idea about who held Amtrak’s top job until I started writing this column, and that brings me to my first point. Why did LIRR president Helena Williams put herself front and center with the news media last week? Besides assuring LIRR riders that the LIRR was doing the best it could under the circumstances, there was little else within her control. As such, if she wanted to take partial ownership of the crisis, wouldn’t it have helped the LIRR’s reputational cause if Amtrak’s president was standing alongside her as the cameras rolled? Alas, Amtrak president Joseph Boardman chose to hide under his desk.

Amtrak workers slowly resolved an Amtrak problem, and Amtrak consistently underestimated how long it would take for the damaged track to be fixed. The public’s news source on Amtrak’s inability to meet its constantly changing deadlines: the LIRR’s president. Why did Ms. Williams allow herself to become Amtrak’s spokeswoman?

Had I been counseling the LIRR’s president, I would have insisted her first two phone calls go to U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Amtrak pays attention to them because federal lawmakers control their purse strings. Moreover, Senator Gillibrand is up for re-election to a full six-year term in 2012, and applying public pressure to Amtrak in the name of easing a LIRR commuter’s plight gave her a golden opportunity to earn enormous good will with its riders. That moment has passed.

The LIRR is an Amtrak tenant, and Amtrak appears to be an unresponsive landlord. But the general public was hard-pressed to understand the LIRR-Amtrak relationship because every time they lifted their head the LIRR’s president was on TV, saying there was light at the end of the tunnel. How did she know? Amtrak told her it was so.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net