By Justin Franz
WASHINGTON — Even as Amtrak hands out pink slips to more than 1,900 employees, officials in Washington D.C. say that more furloughs could be on the horizon if Congress does not give the passenger railroad an additional $4.9 billion. However, Amtrak executives are expressing optimism about the road ahead once president-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office next year.
On Monday, CEO Bill Flynn and other Amtrak executives spoke to the media about the railroad’s urgent funding needs. Presently, the railroad has enough money to maintain its present level of service into December, but Flynn said if Congress doesn’t cut another check it may have to reduce services further. Earlier this fall, long-distance passenger service was reduced to just three days a week and Flynn said state-supported services could be on the chopping block next, which could result in another 1,600 furloughs.
“Our dedicated employees continue to work tirelessly through the pandemic to keep this country moving, advance critical infrastructure and update technology and services, and provide safe transportation to customers,” Flynn said. “However, without additional funding for 2021, we will be forced to further reduce service, defer critical capital projects and make more job reductions despite this important progress.”
In March, when the COVID-19 virus first began to spread in the United States, Amtrak ridership dropped by 97 percent in just one month. Presently, ridership is only 25 percent of pre-virus levels and officials think it will only rebound by 37 percent by the end of Fiscal Year 2021. Amtrak had $2.3 billion in operating revenue during Fiscal Year 2020, a 31.9 percent drop from Fiscal Year 2019. Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia said had it not been for the pandemic, Amtrak might have broken even for the first time in its 50-year history.
During Fiscal Year 2020, Amtrak provided 16.8 million customer trips, a year-over-year decrease of 15.2 million passengers.
Thanksgiving week is usually one of the railroad’s busiest of the year, however, ridership is presently only 20 percent of what it normally is and Flynn said that has dropped even further since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans last week to not travel for the holidays.
Despite the doom and gloom, Flynn and other Amtrak officials were optimistic about the future, particularly with a Biden administration on the horizon. Coscia said that Amtrak officials have been in contact with the presidential transition team and think they will have a very productive relationship with Biden, who has long been seen as an advocate for passenger rail.
“We have a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the incoming administration will be good for Amtrak and good for the traveling public,” Coscia said.