Amtrak Execs Defend Move to Tri-Weekly Trains

Amtrak management is not counting on Congress to direct it to continue operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules this fall and winter but will maintain the status quo if so directed by lawmakers.

In an interview with Trains magazine, Amtrak President William Flynn and Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner said the carrier has not developed contingency plans to operate its long-distance trains daily after October when it will be implementing tri-weekly service on all routes except the Auto Train.

“I don’t envision a situation where Congress is giving us something above the $3.5 billion,” Gardner said, “And they are not being fairly clear about what they expect in terms of operating levels.”

He was referring in part to Amtrak’s request for $1.475 billion in supplemental funding on top of the carrier’s $2.04 billion budget request for federal fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The House has approved $10 billion in funding for Amtrak in FY2021 along with a mandate to continue daily service on all routes that have it now.

However, the Senate has yet to act on the FY2021 appropriations bills. The Rail Passengers Association reported last week that Congressional hearings on Amtrak funding may be held in September.

“If Congress directs us to operate a seven-day service we will,” Flynn said.

But he warned that if Congress doesn’t provide suitable funding Amtrak will “have to make additional cuts to the workforce, and it would certainly affect our capital plans and suggest reductions on the Northeast Corridor and perhaps elsewhere on the national network.”

Flynn said Amtrak has not developed contingency plans for operating a daily long-distance network past October.

During the interview, both Amtrak executives defended the move to tri-weekly service with Gardner saying the situation this year is quite different than it was in 1995 when Amtrak reduced the operation of several, but not all, long-distance trains to tri- and quad-weekly after a consulting firm recommended that as a way to save money during a budget crunch.

A Government Accounting Office report later noted that the projected savings largely failed to materialize as expected because some costs did not fall as much as expected.

“We feel good about being able to save significant dollars for a limited period, and that makes sense because demand is so low,” Gardner said.

Amtrak has projected that operating long-distance trains at tri-weekly levels will yield a savings of $150 million.

Gardner, who serves as Amtrak’s chief operating and commercial officer, acknowledged that tri-weekly operation of trains is not ideal.

“Three days per week is not a good solution in a normal revenue environment [but] we’ve done our homework,” he said.

Trains also reported on Monday that earlier versions of the metrics Amtrak said it will use to determine when to return long-distance trains to daily operation were rejected by Capitol Hill staffers.

The staffers apparently proposed using metrics including airport bookings along long-distance routes and system-wide percentage drops in ridership since April.

Those suggestions also sought to chart long-distance ridership from October to May, something the Trains report said would overlook the strength of holiday-period travel.

Amtrak revenue in July was down 82 percent when compared with July 2019.

The 15 long-distance trains contributed 54 percent of the ticket revenue and long-distance trains income was down 61 percent when compared to July 2019.

Northeast Corridor revenue was down 93 percent and state-supported revenue was off 83 percent.

In the meantime, Amtrak has ceased selling sleeping car space starting Oct. 5 on the days that long-distance trains will not operate.

A statement issued by Amtrak on Monday said the carrier hopes to restore some or all long-distance service to daily operation in 2021, but that will hinge on adequate federal funding in FY2021 and at this point it is unclear how much money Amtrak will receive.

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