Happening Now

Dear Amtrak: Where Is The Plan?

June 15, 2020

by Jim Mathews / President and CEO

So, it happened. Amtrak today started telling employees that they’ll run the National Network trains – mostly – only three times per week in fiscal 2021. Coronavirus-driven declines have left ridership in tatters, and with the prospect of slow returns to travel and possibly even a “second wave” of infection, Amtrak is taking the opportunity to warn staff, Congress and the traveling public that it will have to cut service “temporarily” until things get better.

Given CEO Bill Flynn's May 25th letter to Congress, this decision is unsurprising. But the fact that it was expected doesn't make it any less disappointing, nor the idea any less misguided than it was 22 days ago when Amtrak telegraphed its intentions and provoked congressional leaders.

For that matter, the idea is as misguided as it was years ago when the folly of three-times-weekly service was first foisted on Amtrak and American policymakers.

And what’s worse? Paraphrasing, Amtrak’s message to Congress today was essentially, “We need you to give us lots more money. Even if you do, we’re going to slash service and send workers packing. Trust us, it’s temporary. But we won’t tell you *how* temporary, or even what standards we’ll use to decide when it’s time to restore service. Just trust us.”

It’s a stunning reversal from just a few months ago, when Amtrak unveiled an incredibly bold, and brave, vision for a future filled with more trains, better trains and better service.

My question to Amtrak today was simple: where is the plan?

Amtrak can’t just announce that it will temporarily suspend just about any meaningful service outside of the Northeast Corridor, the Silver services and the Auto Train without also telling us how they’ll know it’s time to bring the service back.

Let's be clear: this is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Amtrak famously looks for "demand signals" to tell it when to add service. But chopping back to 3X will mute any demand signal before it gets to management. Meanwhile the long-distance services declined the least among Amtrak's three business lines during the coronavirus-induced slowdown, and its services remain essential to the hundreds of small communities across the United States with fewer options than Philadelphia or Boston or New York City. It's no coincidence that the worst-performing trains in Amtrak's system are the two less-than-daily long-distance services. Remaking the entire National Network to emulate this failure is no solution to a temporary -- if dramatic -- decline in ridership. Working with legislators and policymakers to find a way through is the right answer.

Moreover, Amtrak may be setting itself up for failure by losing operating slots on host railroads, losing employees it will need to restore service and possibly losing the rolling stock as well.

What will happen after a year of only running the Chief or the Builder three times a week? Assuming that passengers are still interested, host railroads could tell Amtrak what they tell them every time they want to restore service: “We can’t handle it, we need $2 billion up front before we can consider it.”

Congress has said unambiguously and repeatedly that it views Amtrak as a public benefit, and it does not tie Amtrak's continued operation to its ability to make a profit. And this Congress has been willing to put money where its mouth is, appropriating coronavirus rescue funds for the railroad and contemplating a surface-transportation bill that would give Amtrak three times more money than it has ever had before.

Amtrak told its staff today that Congress can’t be expected to “support us indefinitely to run mostly empty trains.” But at least this Congress has demonstrated a willingness to consider it, at least in the short-term, to preserve the Network and its utility for millions of Americans who may have no other choice.

Our position remains what it was on May 25th: like many congressional leaders, Rail Passengers strongly supports the need to get Amtrak through this crisis with additional funds. Also like many congressional leaders, however, we insist that any additional funds appropriated need to buy certainty for workers and passengers alike. Daily train service must be the very minimum service level.

If Amtrak has a path forward to restoring service, it needs to share that plan with Congress and with us. If Amtrak doesn’t have a path forward, then it needs to explain why anyone should believe the assurances that the move is merely “temporary.” And if Amtrak still believes in the bold vision it outlined for Fiscal 2021 back in February, then it needs to say so. The whole world is sick right now, but when it gets better it will be time for us to travel again. And Amtrak should assure taxpayers and riders that it still wants to expand and give Americans more and better trains.

Where is the plan?