How hard-hit industries can plan for the future: Lessons from Amtrak IT

Bringing services back stronger than ever will be one of the biggest challenges in Amtrak’s history. Judith Apshago, VP of IT for Amtrak Corporate and Operations Technologies, shares lessons on prioritizing in uncertain times
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It’s that time of year when organizational leaders are planning for the year ahead. With the global pandemic having an outsized impact on so much of what we do, it’s critical that IT leaders focus on how to strategically help their businesses move forward. 

In many ways, Amtrak was prepared for the quick and massive shift to remote work prompted by COVID-19. In the years leading up to it, we had developed a strategy to enable communications both internally and by our customers via any device, from anywhere, at any time. 

All the preparation in the world, however, could never make up for the hit our industry has taken.

As a result of this groundwork, we easily shifted to work from home for our corporate staff and rapidly deployed new web and mobile functionalities for customers in the wake of the pandemic – including the ability to choose seat assignments to make sure they are socially distancing, as well as new onboarding experiences that are streamlined and touchless. Time to market is essential and the ability to deploy change in weeks versus months (as in the past) was instrumental to demonstrate rapid response to our customers.

All the preparation in the world, however, could never make up for the hit our industry has taken. Prior to the pandemic, Amtrak was poised to have its best year ever. Now, we must be ready for the possibility that it may take years before we return to the ridership and revenue levels we saw prior to COVID-19. Organizations across many industries are facing this same reality.

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Our company is confronted with one of the biggest challenges in Amtrak’s 50-year history – to recover from the impact of the pandemic and do the hard work of bringing our services back stronger and more customer service oriented than ever. Over the past several months our executive team has had some very tough conversations about our business – where we can cut costs, where we should invest, and which initiatives are still a priority – while ensuring that we balance reactionary thinking in the short-term with strategic thinking for the upcoming fiscal year and beyond. In IT, we’ve done the same.

Here’s a look at how we’ve done that and what we’ve learned.

Reprioritizing for the future

As we closed fiscal year 2020 and began fiscal year 2021, much of what we’ve been working on is how to strategically move forward. As a business, we have balanced the need to respond to the impact of COVID-19 in the short-term with continued focus on strategic initiatives for the longer-term, including the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall in New York in January, the introduction of new trainsets such as the next generation Acela coming in late 2021, and moving forward with large infrastructure projects. 

We know that we need to invest in technology in order to be more efficient and position ourselves for the future, but like businesses everywhere, we also need to save money.

We know that we need to invest in technology in order to be more efficient and position ourselves for the future, but like businesses everywhere, we also need to save money. Just as our business had to make some difficult reductions in our workforce in order to operate as a leaner company, we also restructured our IT organization to become leaner while still investing in critical areas like information security. We’ve also continued to invest in modernizing Amtrak’s legacy platform technology and infrastructure, as well as strategic business initiatives. Working in collaboration with business leaders, we’ve had to rethink which initiatives to prioritize.

It’s been important for us to maintain an eye on the future, despite what’s happening now, so we’ll be well-prepared when we do reach recovery.

Lessons learned

Planning for the future when uncertainty abounds isn’t easy. In planning for the year ahead, we’ve learned a few critical lessons.

Establish a strong partnership with business leadership.

What’s most important for our IT organization is making sure we’re working on the right initiatives. Being in lockstep with business leadership has been critical in this process.

Before the pandemic, we had an approach where we’d ask the business for their list of requested projects for the coming year. Then, over time, we’d whittle that “wish list” down to the critical projects we needed to focus on within the available budget.

Being at the table with business leadership and making sure that we’re aligned on where we’re spending has shown that our IT priorities are actually business priorities.

Now, as we heavily weigh budget considerations and how to get the most value of every dollar we spend, we’re evolving our approach. We worked with the business to establish two to three year business technology roadmaps to ensure that IT priorities align with the business strategy. These roadmaps, which will be reviewed and updated regularly with our business partners, remove us from the “wish list” concept, better align with business priorities, enable us to better manage delivery expectations, and help us with multi-year planning.

Being at the table with business leadership and making sure that we’re aligned on where we’re spending has shown that our IT priorities are actually business priorities. If we’re not fully transparent in making sure we’re working on the things that are the most important to the business, then it’s not a good use of the company’s money nor will it move our organization to where we want to be.

Prioritize projects that enable flexibility.

In the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how long this disruption would last. Like others, we reacted and made changes based on what we knew at the time. As more information became available, we adjusted those plans. While we had hoped we’d see a recovery sooner, it’s now unlikely that we’ll see a full recovery for a few more years.

IT must be nimble and able to make quick adjustments to the portfolio based on business priority changes and funding/financial challenges.

That uncertainty makes it tough to plan too far ahead. IT must be nimble and able to make quick adjustments to the portfolio based on business priority changes and funding/financial challenges. To do this we need to avoid large scale multi-year implementations, and rather execute according to roadmaps that make small incremental improvements. It’s important, though, to think as long-term as possible and start to put into place changes that will allow greater flexibility in the future. 

For us, that’s meant reprioritizing some initiatives that were placed on the back burner prior to the pandemic.

For example, we quickly realized that when we adjusted train schedules in response to reduced ridership, there was a ripple effect of manual work that had to happen to make those changes and push the new schedules to the workers. In the future, if we suddenly need to run a train three days a week instead of five, we want to be able to quickly make those changes and have the various dependent systems update simultaneously.

We also accelerated some system changes to customer-facing systems to directly impact the customer experience including train capacity indication when booking a ticket, advance seat selection, boarding changes, and various system enhancements to provide a more touchless experience with booking and onboard the train.

Another priority that will help us in the future is our enterprise asset management system. This will help us be a lot more proactive in how we manage our assets — whether trains, tracks, or any of the equipment we use in our yards. Using predictive and condition-based maintenance, we can better manage those assets and extend their lives, contributing to improved safety and better cost management.

Balance short-term and long-term.

It’s hard to know exactly where we’ll be three months from now, never mind a year from now. Despite that, you can’t lose sight of your long-term strategic goals. It’s easy to ignore the future and focus on what’s directly in front of you, but it’s not smart. You have to find the right balance, addressing today’s needs while continuing to make progress on the solutions and enhancements that will allow the business to thrive long-term.

In our business, many changes are planned well in advance and can take several years to develop. For example, technologically advanced trainsets, such as the Amfleet replacement cars or the ALC-42 locomotives, are ordered years in advance and require advance work by both the business and IT in preparation for their delivery. Work on these strategic initiatives must continue in parallel with addressing more immediate needs.

Through all of the uncertainty and volatility of this past year, we’ve been very careful only to make changes that are necessary, well-thought through, and in line with business priorities. We’re balancing the needs of today while thinking about the future and making decisions that better position us to move the business forward post recovery. 

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Judith Apshago is an accomplished IT executive with extensive experience leading IT organizations through major change and partnering with business leaders to drive process improvement and digital transformation.

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