Flynn, who led the company through the coronavirus pandemic slump and the recovery efforts, will remain at the company as a senior adviser to Gardner through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The change is the latest at the railroad as it tries to recover from a pandemic ridership slump while planning for the infusion of billions of dollars from the federal infrastructure package.
“With the Biden administration and Congress just having made a transformational investment in intercity passenger rail, this is the right time to transition the leadership of the company for the long-term to help guide Amtrak’s promising future,” Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia said in announcing the transition. “Stephen has the business skills, industry knowledge and vision to improve and modernize service for the next generation of Amtrak’s customers.”
Gardner, 45, has been at Amtrak since 2009 and has served in various leadership roles, including chief operating and commercial officer. He was named president a year ago, in charge of day-to-day operations, and leads the company’s effort to grow service and ridership. He will hold both president and chief executive roles starting in January.
“I am really fortunate and very humbled to have this opportunity to work on this incredible mission that Amtrak has,” Gardner said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve got a lot to build.”
At a House hearing this month, Gardner praised Congress’s passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, saying the allocation of $66 billion of new funding for rail will help kick-start more intercity passenger train service and improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of the nation’s rail networks.
Amtrak this year put out a map and a vision for what an expanded rail network could look like by 2035. It includes 39 new routes and increased frequencies on 25 existing routes. The company estimates the expansion could mean 20 million more passengers annually using Amtrak, which had a record 32.5 million passenger trips before the pandemic hit.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement praised Flynn’s leadership during the pandemic and welcomed Gardner as Amtrak continues its “robust recovery from the pandemic and lays the groundwork to expand and improve service” with infrastructure funding.
In March last year, when Flynn was announced as chief executive, railroad officials said they expected him to stay at Amtrak longer than his two predecessors, carrying on progress that included record-setting growth, financial milestones and service improvements. He had retired from Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings on Jan. 1, 2020, after a 13-year tenure in which he served as president. Flynn will leave less than two years after taking the role, having led Amtrak through the biggest crisis in its 50-year history.
The health crisis derailed prospects for positive earnings last year as ridership and revenue plunged 97 percent. Ridership has rebounded to about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Coscia credited Flynn for prioritizing safety and advancing improvements, infrastructure projects and the company’s diversity goals.
“This was one of Amtrak’s most challenging periods in its 50-year history,” he said in a statement. “Bill has built a strong foundation for continued safe and reliable operations, innovation and growth.”
Officials at the company said Flynn’s timing for stepping down was partly driven by a desire within Amtrak to install long-term leadership as Amtrak exits the pandemic emergency and enters a phase with a financial boost from the infrastructure bill.
The infrastructure funding is expected to spur the largest expansion in Amtrak’s history while kick-starting repair and replacement projects across the passenger rail network. It will help address Amtrak’s repair backlog, improve stations, replace old trains and create a path to modernize the Washington-to-Boston corridor, the nation’s busiest. It would be the biggest boost of federal aid to Amtrak since Congress created it.
Gardner, who will be one of the youngest chief executives at Amtrak, said he plans to focus on servicing customers, bringing passenger rail service to new cities, replacing aging rolling stock and advancing projects to address major chokepoints. Among those are the $4 billion replacement of the 148-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in Maryland and an $11.6 billion plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River, a structure more than a century old that sees about 200,000 daily passenger trips in the New York area.
“We really have a new era of investment with this bipartisan infrastructure law and that allows us to modernize our core assets and grow the network to meet the 21st-century needs of the United States,” Gardner said. “It’s a huge job ahead.”
Before coming to Amtrak, Gardner worked as a congressional staffer. Earlier in his career he held various operating and managerial positions with Guilford Rail System’s Maine Central Railroad in Maine and Massachusetts, and the Buckingham Branch Railroad in Virginia. A native of Arlington, Gardner was an intern at Amtrak from 1993 to 1994 at Union Station.