Service Cuts Likely for Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

Thus far during the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic Amtrak’s long-distance trains have been spared service cuts.

But that will soon change.

In a letter to Congress dated May 25 Amtrak said it is seeking $1.475 billion in “supplemental funding” to maintain “minimum service levels across the rail network” and continue capital projects.

This will be on top of the $2.04 billion that it requested for its regular federal fiscal year 2021 appropriation.

Even if it gets the additional funding, Amtrak said it plans to reduce the frequency of service on most long distance routes to less than daily service.

The passenger carrier also said it may cut its workforce by as much as 20 percent.

Amtrak said during the pandemic its routes are at best handling 10 percent of the ridership that they had as recently as February and that for FY2021 the passenger carrier expects ridership to be 50 percent of what it would have been otherwise.

The letter, written by Amtrak President William Flynn, acknowledged that projecting future ridership and revenue is difficult given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and all the unknowns surrounding its trajectory.

However, most projections anticipate a second wave of infections in the fall and Amtrak expects that to depress ridership between September and February.

Recent polling data shows half of the respondents saying they would be reluctant to ride a train in the next six months and more than a third said they it could be a year or more before they would ride a train.

“Furthermore, when demand returns, we anticipate that changed behaviors, such as increased telework and reduced discretionary income, will likely impact ridership, along with capacity limits that may be needed to achieve social distancing on our trains,” Flynn wrote.

Aside from cutting long-distance service to less-than-daily service, Amtrak said it will sharply cut Northeast Corridor service to match demand.

Flynn said Amtrak expects reduced services in state-funded corridor service and is working with the states to determine what they will be able to fund in FY2021, which begins on Oct. 1.

“While our state partners will ultimately make these decisions in coordination with us, many of them have been clear that they will not be able to maintain currently reduced service or resume suspended service without supplemental funding,” Flynn wrote.

Amtrak said it would restore service levels to what they had been once ridership recovers sufficiently to support it if adequate funding is available.

Flynn’s letter contained few details as to how much reduction in frequency of service would occur in the next fiscal year unless Amtrak receives supplemental funding.

An appendix mentions consolidation of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Palmetto and hints that without additional federal funding some corridor services might be suspended or discontinued.

All long-distance trains except for the Auto Train are expected to operate at a lower level of service even if Amtrak receives the supplemental appropriation.

Without the supplemental appropriation, all long-distance trains except the Auto Train are said to be “at risk.”

In a message to Amtrak employees on Tuesday, Flynn conceded that Amtrak’s planned spending cuts “will cause stress in the organization.”

He said the carrier will seek to “minimize the negative impact” by offering incentives for employees to leave the company or retire before resorting to layoffs.

Flynn said Amtrak management is still figuring out how much it plans to reduce its workforce and how to assign those who remain on the payroll.

Amtrak expects to cut $500 million in expenses as a result of reducing frequency of operation and capacity ($150 million) and workforce reductions ($350 million).

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