Critics Fear Amtrak Is Using Pandemic to Cut Service That Won’t Return

WASHINGTON — Amtrak has long wanted to cut back on long-distance train routes that span America’s heartland, but political pressure from Congress made it next to impossible.

Then came the coronavirus.

Since March, the pandemic has killed over 128,000 Americans and exacted a higher financial toll on the transportation industry than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Amtrak has not been spared, with an internal analysis showing a 95 percent drop in ridership, and revenue projected to fall by 50 percent in 2021.

In an effort to stay afloat, the rail agency announced last month it would cut up to 20 percent of its work force by October. It also will suspend daily service on long-distance train routes that service over 220 communities across the country, according to industry experts who analyzed the effect of proposed cuts to national train routes when the Trump administration tried to gut the service in 2019.

The moves have been met with intense skepticism, and even anger.

Amtrak received letters from 16 senators last week asking why it needed to enact such steep cuts since it had already received $1 billion in emergency aid. The agency had also requested nearly $1.5 billion in additional funding on top of its standard $2 billion budget request for 2021.

“We are deeply concerned by the downsizing plan,” a bipartisan coalition of seven senators, led by Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, said in its letter to Amtrak. “These cuts would not only dramatically reduce the utility of the nation’s passenger rail network, but would also ignore congressional intent to expedite economic recovery following the pandemic.”

Critics argue Amtrak’s cutbacks are not a surprise, and fall in line with the agency’s recent desires to prioritize profitability and the reduction of long-distance routes. The rail agency receives federal funds but is independently run.

“I fear that the Covid-19 pandemic is convenient reasoning to do that which Amtrak, over the past several years, has determined to do,” said John Robert Smith, a former chairman of Amtrak’s board, “and that is to dismantle the national system.”

A spokesman for Amtrak, Jason Abrams, said in a statement that the agency was cutting back service “to better align our service with demand” during the pandemic.

“We are fully committed to returning this service when demand returns and with adequate funding,” he said, adding: “Amtrak is adjusting its work force to better match this reduced demand. As a first step, we are offering employees a voluntary incentive package.”

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Supporters of continued rail service say Amtrak’s decision will be particularly damaging to small communities where the train provides an economic lifeline and may be the only transit option available to residents.

They also point out that ridership on long-distance routes in May dropped by 78 percent compared with the same period last year, while ridership on shorter routes fell more than 90 percent.

“A lot of people can’t fly, they just can’t get on the plane,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, the vice president at the Rail Passengers Association. “Amtrak is the only way they can get around. Those users of the system have a right to be very concerned.”

On Monday, the rail agency will reduce service from New York to Miami to four days a week rather than each day. Up to 20 percent of the work force, or nearly 4,000 employees, could be let go by October. Most of the network’s 15 long-distance train routes will see daily service cut to three days a week starting in the fall. Even Amtrak’s busiest route in the Northeast Corridor will have fewer trains serving passengers every day.

Amtrak is prepared to cut its operating costs by $500 million in its 2021 fiscal year, which starts in October, anticipating ridership will not return to prepandemic levels because of “changed behaviors, such as increased telework and reduced discretionary income,” according to a letter William J. Flynn, Amtrak’s new chief executive, wrote to Congress in May.

But the agency recognizes that the future is hard to predict.

“Generating estimates of future demand is incredibly challenging, given the unprecedented nature of our current circumstances and the unknowable trajectory of the pandemic,” Mr. Flynn wrote. “Most demand predictions anticipate a second wave of Covid-19 impacts in the fall, and that further complicates any forecast.”

Many in Congress are skeptical, and are asking the rail agency to provide stronger proof that such drastic action is needed even with significant emergency funding from Congress.

“We would like to ensure that reductions in frequencies for long-distance routes do not unnecessarily extend beyond the Covid-19 crisis,” a group of five Republican senators, led by Roger Wicker of Mississippi, wrote last week in a letter obtained by The New York Times. “What data is Amtrak using to justify reductions in service for all of fiscal year 2021?”

Since Amtrak was created in 1971 by Congress to be the nation’s rail operator, it has lost money. Federal subsidies and payments from states have allowed the network to remain operational, and it has become an integral mode of transport in corridors like the Northeast and Southern California.

In 2017, Amtrak’s board hired Richard Anderson, a former chief executive of Delta Air Lines, to take the reins of the rail network and make it profitable and more reliable. His three-year contract recently expired, but he will remain on staff for the remainder of 2020 as a senior adviser to Mr. Flynn.

Mr. Anderson took his charge from the board seriously, and embarked on a mission to trim the work force and improve shorter-haul, more trafficked routes in corridors like the Northeast, while scaling back support for longer-haul and less popular routes that run across parts of America’s Southern, mountain and Western regions.

“We should be looking at breaking up some of those long-distance trains,” Mr. Anderson said last year at a Senate hearing, “and figuring out how we serve the American consumer to provide high-quality service in short-haul markets.”

In 2018, he decided to close an Amtrak reservation call center in California, and told 500 employees they could keep their jobs if they moved to Philadelphia — where the positions were being relocated — in 60 days. Around 100 took the offer, according to the Transportation Communications Union.

The same year, Mr. Anderson tried to significantly cut long-distance service along a 2,200 mile route which stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, and replace the portion from Kansas to New Mexico with bus service. Amtrak abandoned its plans after receiving fierce blowback from members of Congress.

During a congressional hearing last year, Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, said “the idea that Amtrak would think about replacing passenger service with bus service for 400 miles” was something he could not “get over because it tells me your attitude toward that line or maybe toward long-distance nonprofitable passenger service.”

Mr. Flynn has yet to testify before Congress about his vision for the rail network, but he said this week in an interview with The Washington Post that service cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes would remain in effect for the winter and would be re-evaluated on a route-by-route basis next spring and summer.

Critics also warn that cutting service on long-distance train routes makes them a less attractive option, with passengers having to wait days for trips or endure long layovers between connecting routes.

Others point to Amtrak’s statements from as far back as 2000, in which its leadership said attempts to reduce long-distance service “ended up costing the company more in lost revenue than we were able to take out in the way of expenses” because some fixed costs could not be cut even after reducing service from daily to three days a week.

“We’ve done it before,” Mr. Smith said. “It doesn’t pay, it doesn’t save the money and it drives off revenue.”