Amtrak Chief Pleads for Nearly $5 Billion to Survive Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s chief executive, William J. Flynn, urged House lawmakers on Wednesday to provide $4.9 billion for the national passenger rail agency, warning that additional cuts to its service and work force would be needed to “stave off bankruptcy” if Congress did not provide any further emergency funding.

Mr. Flynn’s warning, during a hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that lasted more than two hours, came as his response to fiscal challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic had come under intense scrutiny from rail advocates and federal lawmakers.

His request for funding is an increase from previous levels. In May, Mr. Flynn requested nearly $1.5 billion in emergency funds in addition to the $2 billion in annual funds that Amtrak receives from Congress. The rail agency receives federal funding but is independently run.

Last week, Mr. Flynn announced the agency was furloughing over 2,000 workers by October, which represents nearly 10 percent of Amtrak’s 20,000-member work force. In June, Mr. Flynn announced daily service on Amtrak’s long-distance routes that span America’s heartland would be reduced to three times per week.

Critics have said Amtrak’s personnel cuts disproportionately hurt union workers, who will have difficulty finding jobs during a pandemic where unemployment stands at over 8 percent. Rail experts also warn that service cuts on long-distance routes will hurt riders and local economies where Amtrak is often the only mode of public transportation.

“Let me be clear, these adjustments are temporary,” Mr. Flynn said, adding that “there is no secret plan or hidden agenda” to use the pandemic to achieve what critics denounce as longstanding goals of Amtrak leadership to cut less popular long-distance routes.

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc for Amtrak and provided a tough challenge for Mr. Flynn, who became the rail agency’s chief executive in April, after years as the head of a cargo and passenger aircraft leasing company.

Amtrak ridership fell by over 95 percent during the height of the pandemic, and projected revenue for 2021 has declined by 50 percent. In response, Congress bailed out the rail network with $1 billion in emergency funds.

Mr. Flynn has told congressional leaders that Amtrak is prepared to cut $500 million in operating costs if it does not receive more emergency funding to help weather projected declines in ridership and revenue into 2021. His plan allots for up to 20 percent of the company’s work force to be cut.

At the hearing on Wednesday, committee members criticized Mr. Flynn for enacting job cuts after receiving emergency funds as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus passed by federal lawmakers in March.

Congress “provided over $1 billion in CARES Act funding for Amtrak with the understanding that part of the funds would be used to prevent furloughs,” said Representative Daniel Lipinski, Democrat of Illinois. “So Amtrak’s announcement that they will furlough over 2,000 employees on Oct. 1 is extremely disappointing.”

Rail advocates also said that Amtrak’s service reduction on its long-distance routes, which serve nearly 220 communities across the Southern, mountain and Western regions, would be a tremendous blow to local economies for very little in cost savings.

“Cutting daily service could drop at least a $2.3 billion bomb on flyover country while possibly only saving Amtrak $213 million,” said Jim Mathews, the chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group.

Union leaders who represent a majority of Amtrak’s labor force also questioned Mr. Flynn’s decision to keep retirement benefits in place for management-level employees while furloughing 1,950 union workers in the coming weeks.

Mr. Flynn said those benefits were necessary to retain management talent at the company.

“We urge Amtrak to reverse course and prioritize the rank-and-file, frontline workers who interact directly with our riders,” said Amy Griffin, the president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 1460. “This money would not just keep thousands employed, but preserve safe and healthy rail travel for the communities we serve.”

Senate Republicans on Tuesday released a pared-down coronavirus stimulus plan, which would provide federal aid to unemployed workers, schools, farmers, the Postal Service and small businesses. No emergency funding for Amtrak is in the proposal, according to an Amtrak spokesman.

The rail agency’s request for aid is echoed by leaders across the transportation sector. Public transit agencies are requesting $36 billion in funds, in addition to $25 billion received in March. Privately owned school bus and motor coach companies are requesting $15 billion in support. Airport leaders are asking for an additional $10 billion in aid, while passenger airlines are requesting $25 billion in payroll relief.