Despite plummeting ridership and revenue, Amtrak’s new president and chief executive officer said the passenger railroad is in a position to recover from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What exactly that recovery looks like and how long it might take is unclear.
On Thursday, President and CEO William J. Flynn spoke to the media about his first week on the job, but like every facet of American life today, the pandemic dominated the conversation. Flynn was joined on the media call by Chairman of the Board Tony Coscia and Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner.
Since the pandemic began in early March, ridership on Amtrak has plummeted by approximately 95 percent and just 4,000 people are riding daily. A number of services have either been cut back or suspended altogether. Flynn said it was unclear if the railroad as seen the “bottom” yet when it comes to ridership but that in recent days passenger counts have been steady. Coscia estimated that Amtrak will lose at least $700 million because of the pandemic.
Flynn said that before the coronavirus outbreak, Amtrak had been on track to break even in 2020 for the first time in its almost 50-year history because of steps made by his predecessor, Richard Anderson. In 2019, the company reported $3.3 billion in operating revenues for the fiscal year, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous year, and $29.8 million in losses, an 83 percent improvement over fiscal year 2018. The railroad also cut its operating losses by $400 million the previous year. Flynn said those steps will help Amtrak recover once people start traveling again.
“The foundation we have built in the past several years is still there and it’s a solid one,” he said. “Our focus is on recovery and figuring out what that recovery will look like.”
As part of that focus on recovery, Amtrak is looking at how to give passengers peace of mind that they are safe when traveling by train. Flynn said that has meant reducing the number of seats Amtrak will sell on a train by up to 50 percent so that people can practice effective social distancing on board. The railroad is also looking at creating a “touchless environment” where passengers will interact less with people and more with devices. Gardner said that people will soon be able to pre-order food onboard the train via their phone app instead of having to go to the cafe car, ordering and then waiting for it to be prepared.
The railroad is also delaying some capital improvement projects amid the drop in ridership. However, other projects, like the introduction of new Acela trainsets, are moving forward unchanged.
Prior to coming to Amtrak, Flynn was the president and CEO of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, Inc. He has also held senior roles with CSX Transportation, Sea-Land Services, Inc., and GeoLogistics Corp. Flynn replaced Anderson on April 15.
—Justin Franz, Railfan & Railroad Magazine