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Amtrak touts record ridership, revenue for fiscal 2019

Commuters head toward the Acela for their morning commute northbound in Washington in September. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Amtrak carried a record 32.5 million passengers in the 2019 fiscal year with record growth on the Northeast Corridor and state supporter lines, officials with the railway system said Friday.

Amtrak officials said the company also inched closer to breaking even in the last fiscal year, reporting new financial milestones. Amtrak’s total operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, up by 3.6 percent from the previous year, the company said.

“Our expectation is that in 2020, we will actually make money, we will have positive earnings for the first time in the company’s history,” Amtrak Board Chairman Anthony Coscia said at a morning news conference. “This is an unbelievable accomplishment that a short period ago no one would have thought it was possible.”

Amtrak reported an adjusted operating loss of $29.8 million across its network in fiscal 2019 that ended Sept. 30. This was an improvement of 82.6 percent, compared with its operating loss of $170.6 million in fiscal 2018. Amtrak has eliminated nearly a half a billion dollars in operating losses in the last decade, Coscia said.

Officials said the record financial gains reflect the company’s continued cost management efforts and its ability to attract new riders.

Amtrak president and chief executive Richard Anderson on Friday characterized fiscal 2019 as a solid year for Amtrak, marked by steady and consistent improvement on all measures and activities across the railroad. He said the financial milestones and safety and operational improvements would earn Amtrak the confidence of customers and policymakers.

“We listened, we invested, we improved, and our customers are noticing a difference,” Anderson said. “And we are not stopping. We have an aggressive plan to continue to advance our safety program, refresh train interiors, improve amenities, and renew stations and infrastructure.”

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Amtrak is touting its successes days before Anderson is set to testify before Congress about Amtrak’s current state and its future. A House transportation subcommittee will hold the hearing “Amtrak Now and Into the Future” at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

In recent years Amtrak has received about $1.9 billion annually in federal subsidies. Most of it goes to support its national network, including long-distance trains that are heavily subsidized. About $600 million goes to investments on the Northeast.

Amtrak said it made $1.6 billion in capital improvements in fiscal 2019, resulting in gains in service reliability and customer satisfaction. Among the changes were the railroad’s continued effort to refresh train interiors with new seat covers, cushions and carpets. Some stations, including Washington’s Union Station, got enhanced lounges.

On top of that, $110 million in technology upgrades made bookings easier for customers, including through an improved mobile app. And Amtrak also said last year it completed the installation of the automatic-braking system known as Positive Train Control on all tracks it owns and controls, and it is in full compliance with the federal mandate.

Anderson said 93 percent of trains left the station on time in fiscal 2019, a potentially good sign for improvements on train delays that have plagued its national network for years.

“It is very important for this railroad to run on time if we want to have the confidence of our customers and our policymakers,” Anderson said.

Amtrak’s chronic delays across its national network create a multimillion-dollar problem.

Amtrak is expected to invest $2 billion in this fiscal year, officials said Friday.

An internal survey found 9 out of 10 customers gave Amtrak good marks, the railroad said. Still, some of its recent actions to save money have proved to be unpopular. Train aficionados and passengers have pushed back on Amtrak’s decision to kill the dining car on its one-night long distance trains east of the Mississippi. Amtrak said it is reinventing its dining service to create more “flexible” and “contemporary” dining options that will save Amtrak money and attract a younger generation of riders.

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Amtrak has also beefed up sale promotions, adding more buy-one-get-one ticket sales, even on its premium fares, to boost ridership. This latest ridership report of 32.5 million reflects a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers. It is the highest in Amtrak’s history. Ridership was 22.5 million when Amtrak introduced the Acela Express in the Northeast two decades ago.

Ridership for all Northeast Corridor services reached 12.5 million, an increase of 3.3 percent from 2018. State supported routes saw a 2.4 percent growth, reaching 15.4 million passengers. Amtrak’s 15 long distance routes carried 4.5 million passengers last year, an increase of less than 1 percent.

Amtrak’s goal is to run the operations of the railroad with a positive net revenue and use the federal subsidies and other grants to reverse decades of underinvestment in the railroad and maintain a state of good repair, officials said. Amtrak has a backlog of $33.3 billion in projects needed to bring its assets to a state of good repair; over $28 billion of that is in the Northeast Corridor.

“We are growing and modernizing Amtrak. We have an industry-leading safety program and have invested billions in improving the customer experience, resulting in more people choosing Amtrak as their preferred mode of transportation,” Coscia said earlier in a statement. “These changes have put us on track to [break even] in 2020, which would be a first in Amtrak’s history.”