Amtrak Looking Toward Post Pandemic World

Amtrak management is studying a number of scenarios for ramping service back up once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

In the meantime, though, the passenger carrier expects to lose $700 million in adjusted operating earnings as a result of the pandemic.

Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia along with new CEO William Flynn and Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner gave those assessments during a conference call with news reporters.

Amtrak ridership across its system has fallen by 95 percent and it has suspended 57 percent of its services.

Amtrak is receiving $1 billion in emergency federal aid and Coscia said that assistance will enable Amtrak to avoid having to tap its capital reserves and avoid employee layoffs.

He said that before the pandemic began Amtrak was “on track” to break even in operating earnings by Fiscal Year 2021 for the first time in the railroad’s history.

That figure counts as revenue funding that Amtrak receives from various state governments to operate corridor service.

Flynn said the carrier has been taking advantage of the lower ridership period to perform track work and other “critical” projects.

In looking to the future, Flynn said Amtrak officials are studying touchless technology at fare gates and changing some food service.

One idea being explored is enabling passengers to pre-order food and beverages from café cars.

Flynn said Amtrak expects it will take three months or more for ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels.

It is not clear when that clock would start. Some governors have been talking in recent days about easing social distancing restrictions on or after May 1, although some forms of social distancing are expected to remain in place either by mandate or recommendation.

Flynn said Amtrak has been researching various ideas of what the pandemic recovery will look like and have created several service plans based on “surveys of customer sentiment.”

In some instances, Flynn indicated, Amtrak will “introduce product ahead of demand.”

“We have to demonstrate to our customers that we have an attractive product that they will value when they come back,” Flynn said.

Gardner said Amtrak is looking at implementing new ticketing kiosks and text messaging to inform passengers where to head once they arrive at their station.

The downloadable schedules that have been removed from the Amtrak website will be reintroduced once services are restored.

Flynn said none of Amtrak’s unions have thus far shown an interest in delaying or giving up negotiated wage increases.

“But we continue to work with union leadership so they understand where we are in this crisis and how we are going to move forward,” he said.

Trains magazine reported that Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said 58 percent of onboard service employees are on an extra board that guarantees them 150 hours per month of work.

Regularly assigned employees are guaranteed a 180-hour month, so their pay cut works out to about 16 percent.

“Engineers and conductors have a 40-hour-a-week guarantee, but many of them previously worked assignments that included overtime, which has been reduced,” Magliari said.

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