We recently asked Flynn, Amtrak’s chief executive, about its condition, the demand for train service, staff cuts and its plans for growth.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
The coronavirus crisis hit Amtrak just as you joined the company. What have these past few months been like?
Certainly, they’ve been very busy. My appointment was announced in early March, and March was such an impactful month for our country and certainly for Amtrak. We saw a dramatic decline in our ridership, similar to what the passenger airlines saw. By the end of the month, it was a drop of 97 percent. Where we would normally carry 90,000 to 100,000 riders a day, at the beginning of April we were down to 3,000 riders per day.
In March and April, [our focus] was on responding to the pandemic, ensuring that our employees and our customers are safe and then understanding what levels of adjustment we needed to make in the service. May into June, we got to restore service to better understand what demand looks like and then plan for 2021. At the same time, [we] absolutely continued with our plans for the future of the company.
What is the current demand?
We are seeing ridership improve. We had a very low level of ridership in April, then a gradual improvement from May into June and June into July.
We understand that companies and customers are going to change their travel patterns. They may travel less or differently. So we’re very actively engaged in creating new customers along with reaching out and ensuring that our existing customers come back. Some of the promotions that you’ve seen are not only directed at current customers, they’re certainly directed at new customers.
I [recently] took the train from Washington to New York, and I was talking with the conductors on board and the folks in the cafe car, and they were excited. They were telling me, ‘look, we’ve seen a lot of new riders here, younger people who told us it was their first time taking the train and they liked it.’ That’s exciting because an important part of our work going forward is to create new customers and not only have them be a one-time rider, but become a lifelong customer of Amtrak.
Amtrak announced in May a plan to reduce staff by up to 20 percent, or 3,700 of the company’s 18,000 workers. Why is that necessary?
We need to resize the company for the level of customer demand that we are going to see in the near and immediate term. We’ve said that we’re planning for about 50 percent of the ridership, compared with 2019, our last full year of operations before the pandemic.
In our conversations with Congress, we said that we would need $1.475 billion of supplemental investment above the $2 billion that we had already asked for fiscal year 2021. At the same time, we told them that we would be implementing a number of measures to reduce costs.
In reducing costs, we had to look at the workforce. That’s very painful. It’s nothing we ever want to do, but believe we need to. [We] put in place a voluntary incentive plan for people to consider and decide if it makes sense for them to leave the company. We are evaluating the results of that [process] and [working to determine] the number of furloughs that we’re going to need to take to balance the size of the operation.
The plan to reduce service on long-distance trains starting Oct. 1 has drawn criticism. Can you reassure riders that these changes are temporary?
We are absolutely committed to operating the long-distance network. That’s a very clear commitment on the part of the company.
Ridership levels during the winter decline dramatically. What we’ve said is we will move most of the long-distance network to a three-times-a-week service during those months. And then as we come into the new calendar year, late January or February, we’ll look at a number of factors that we believe will indicate to us where and how we restore greater levels of service.
It makes sense to us to reduce a number of the trains to three times a week, evaluate those in the winter, plan for restoration in the late spring or early summer when the ridership typically returns.
What will Amtrak look at to return to pre-coronavirus levels of service?
We need to understand the state of the country and the state of this pandemic. Has it subsided dramatically? Has demand [for travel] begun to improve? That’s one of the things that we certainly are going to look at, not just demand at Amtrak, but demand for travel overall.
Should there be a pandemic or other economic forces that dramatically reduce the level of ridership below the [projected] 50 percent level and dramatically impact the economics of the company, we’ll have to look and consider that at that time.
What is the vision and plans for growth amid the pandemic?
We continue to invest in our company for the long term. We’re committing to run a great railroad, and what that means is to provide excellent service to our customers with an exceptionally high degree of safety.
Plans include the introduction of the new Acela [train sets], expected to occur in 2021. We’re excited about the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall later in the year in New York. We’ve announced a commercial agreement for a substantial renovation of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Earlier on, we placed a substantial order for a large number of new diesel [locomotives] for our operations on the national network, and we’re working toward an order for a number of train sets that would replace quite a bit of our current, other than Acela, fleet.
Because of a lower level of train operations on our networks [we have been] able to substantially advance engineering work on our track and bridges and other infrastructure. We’re very much committed to the expansion of intercity travel. We think it’s a key component of our country’s longer-term mobility strategy.