January 30, 2009

WASHINGTON (Jan. 30)—Less than a year after he was confirmed as a member of the Amtrak board of directors, former Macomb, Ill., Mayor Thomas C. Carper was unanimously elected by his fellow directors to be the board’s new chairman.

The appointment was immediately hailed by the Illinois Legislative Board as a positive development for the growth of the nation’s passenger-train system.

“Tom is an old friend of the UTU, in Illinois and nationwide, not only because of his strong support for passenger trains, but also for his dedication to programs that grow local and state economies and generate well paying jobs,” said Illinois Legislative Director Bob Guy. “This is great news. Amtrak has a board chairman who really ‘gets it.’”

A native of the small town of Buda on BNSF’s Chicago-Galesburg main line, Carper served from 2003 until 2009 as West Central regional director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s “Opportunity Returns” program. In that capacity he worked to bring new industry into an area whose economy and people he understands intimately. A Vietnam veteran and a well known local businessman in Macomb, he served as that city’s mayor from 1991 to 2003.

Former UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said he became friends with Carper when he too was serving as a mayor, in Riverdale, a Chicago suburb.

“We met at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting and formed a fast and lasting friendship,” Szabo said.

But the meeting with Szabo was not Carper’s first exposure to the importance of passenger trains. As mayor of Macomb, he learned that the city’s biggest employer, Western Illinois University, was heavily dependent on Amtrak’s daily Illinois Zephyr. Of the 12,000 students attending the school, 6,000 were from the Chicago area and most were using the train to visit their families on weekends. The college actually was using the train service as one of its recruiting tools.

Local businesses also considered the Zephyr vital to a town without air service and located more than 50 miles from the nearest Interstate. Whenever anti-rail zealots threatened Amtrak’s budget, Carper and his allies successfully defended the Zephyr and other state-supported trains against cutbacks.

But Carper’s approach to trains was offensive as well as defensive. As soon as he became mayor of Macomb, Carper joined the Amtrak Mayors Advisory Council, where he quickly realized that additional passenger-train service was needed by hundreds of other communities large and small across the U.S.

In 2004 Carper and Szabo collaborated in an effort to get the Illinois Municipal League to advocate an expansion of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s state-sponsored trains from three daily frequencies to seven—the largest expansion in state-supported passenger trains since Maine opened its Downeaster service with four daily round trips in 2000.

The petition Szabo and Carper circulated collected signatures from 230 mayors and other municipal officials and is believed to have led directly to the General Assembly’s May 2006 decision to double the state’s passenger trains budget from $12 million to $24 million.

The four additional state-supported Amtrak trains, which debuted Oct. 30 2006, have now virtually doubled the state’s Amtrak ridership while adding 45 new railroad jobs. Despite the recession, ridership has continued to grow at double-digit rates, causing many trains to be sold out on weekends and during holiday periods. Macomb has been a major beneficiary of the expansion, with two daily departures instead of the former single daily train.

“If you look carefully at the roster of current and former Amtrak board members, you will find almost none with the kind of passenger-rail advocacy experience that Tom Carper has,” said Guy.

“Tom not only has the business and governmental background to be a strong Amtrak chairman, he also has the grass-roots experience needed to understand how ordinary Americans use their trains and how a bigger and better passenger-train system can drive economic growth at the state and local levels,” he said. “Tom has seen the new trains he advocated translate into job growth, ridership growth and business growth.”

“I look forward to tackling the exciting challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” Carper said after his election. “Amtrak is ready to play a growing role in strengthening our transportation system and our economy.”

The five-member board consists of four voting members, two Democrats, Carper and Hunter Biden; and two Republicans, Donna McLean and Nancy Naples. Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman is a non-voting member of the board. Historically, the chairman of Amtrak is from the same party as the current president.

Former Chairman McLean, who was named vice chairman, said, “With the change in administration, its best for the company to have Tom as chairman. I am pleased to be able to work with Tom and the rest of the board as we face the exciting and challenging years ahead.”