Amtrak sees service cuts without an additional $1.48 billion for 2021

Some routes are carrying just 10 percent of their normal ridership, the railroad's top executive says in a letter to Pelosi, Pence

An Amtrak Acela Express pulls out of Washington's Union Station. (Roll Call)
An Amtrak Acela Express pulls out of Washington's Union Station. (Roll Call)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 7:00am

Amtrak's top executive said Acela and other Northeast Corridor routes could be curtailed if Congress does not approve $1.48 billion in supplemental funding in fiscal 2021.

In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday, Amtrak President and CEO Bill Flynn said the money was needed for Amtrak to continue to operate minimum service levels across the passenger rail network and continue necessary capital investments.

Amtrak had already requested $2.04 billion — $714 million for the railroad’s Northeast Corridor and $1.33 billion for its national network — for fiscal year 2021. The additional request, which would be on top of that $2.04 billion, would provide $909 million to the Northeast Corridor and $567 million to the national network. 

“As the severity and duration of this pandemic and its economic fallout become clearer, we are seeking supplemental federal funding for the next fiscal year,” Flynn wrote.

[House spending bill would boost transit, Amtrak, highways]

Amtrak previously received $1 billion in a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved in March to help soften the pandemic's blow this year.

In the 12-page letter to Pelosi and Pence, Flynn asked for the additional money to be approved either through a future pandemic response bill or through the annual transportation spending bill. 

Fewer riders

He said the drop in ridership has been stark: many of the railroad’s routes “are struggling to reach 10 percent of the ridership levels we had only months ago.” Amtrak expects ridership to drop from the 32 million passengers it saw in 2019 to slightly more than 16 million riders in fiscal year 2021. 

Flynn wrote that Amtrak has worked to reduce operating costs by about $500 million, including saving $150 million by temporarily reducing train capacity and restructuring the workforce to save an additional $350 million.

Still, Flynn argued, further federal investment is needed.

The letter includes a chart predicting what would happen with and without supplemental federal dollars. Without the additional dollars, the Northeast Corridor’s regional and Acela service would be reduced; with the money, those services would be moderately reduced or normal.

Long-distance routes, such as the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to California, the Auto Train, which operates from Virginia to Florida, the Southwest Chief, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and the City of New Orleans, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans, would be at risk.  

President Donald Trump has targeted long-distance Amtrak routes, and his proposed fiscal 2021 budget would have cut $375 million from Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and $689 million from its national network.

"Amtrak trains inadequately serve many rural markets while not serving many growing metropolitan areas at all," that budget summary read. 

But Congress has traditionally nixed those proposed cuts, sharply defending the passenger railroad. 

This year, however, Amtrak will be jockeying with airports, transit, and other modes also devastated by the pandemic.