In the midst of controversy surrounding scale-backs in meal services; widely held beliefs that current management is targeting long-distance trains for elimination, or at the very least, truncation; and accusations of questionable accounting methods, Amtrak on Nov. 16 announced preliminary “record revenue and earnings” for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2018. “Strong management and improved product delivery and customer service led the company to its best operating performance in company history, despite challenges during the year,” Amtrak said.
Preliminary results for FY2018 show an unaudited, adjusted operating loss of $168.0 million, “the best Amtrak operating performance to date, improved 13.3% over FY 2017’s total [operating loss] of $193.7 million”; ridership of 31.7 million customer trips, “steady year-over-year, with growth offset by reductions due to service disruptions”; unaudited, adjusted total revenue of $3.38 billion, an increase of 2.2% over FY2017; and capital investment (excluding milestone payments and other third-party contributions) of $1.46 billion, “the highest level of capital investment in recent Amtrak history.”
Amtrak said Northeast Regional and State Supported lines saw growth in ridership, while Long Distance service was down 3.9% “due to the hundreds of trains truncated or canceled due to weather events, infrastructure outages, planned repairs and poor on-time performance across much of the host railroad network used by Amtrak trains. In response to two significant derailments early in FY2018, Amtrak began implementation of a Safety Management System (SMS), a proven safety program that anticipates and mitigates risk, and continued its aggressive efforts to implement Positive Train Control (PTC).”
The $1.46 billion in capital includes “state-of-good-repair work on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), equipment refreshes, station upgrades, technology improvements and other customer-friendly benefits that support the long-term future and growth of intercity passenger rail.”
Amtrak also touted:
- “Began implementation of an SMS, a proactive, data-driven safety program used in many complex industries. We are the first major U.S. railroad to deploy SMS and have already seen improvements in a broad range of train safety metrics.”
- “Installed operational PTC on more than 13,000 miles of the Amtrak network. When 2019 arrives, we expect to have nearly all of our track, all of our training, and locomotive PTC work complete. Amtrak plans to be operating PTC across nearly all tracks we control and across a significant portion of the host railroad network.”
- Invested in customer-facing enhancements (1), including a refresh of Amfleet I and Acela Express interiors, as well as improved Wi-Fi service.”
- “Manufacturing began for the new Acela Express fleet [from Alstom], which will increase capacity and redefine the customer experience on Amtrak’s premium NEC service.”
- Started an en-route train cleaning program on the NEC, which has received positive feedback from customers who noticed the cleaner onboard experience (2).”
- “Issued an RFP for new or rebuilt locomotives to supplement and replace our aging National Network diesel locomotive fleet, and an RFI for passenger vehicles to replace our Amfleet I equipment used on Northeast Regional trains and several State Supported services.”
- “Modernized and improved the passenger areas of stations, including new restrooms in New York, and added lactation suites (3) at several major stations.”
- “Invested more than $51 million on ADA-related design and construction improvement projects at more than 100 locations nationwide.”
- “In coordination with our Gateway Program partners, advanced critical elements of the Hudson Tunnel Project including preliminary engineering and environmental review, began early construction on Portal North Bridge and are working with the Federal Transit Administration on financial plans to begin major construction on both projects (4).”
- “Improved the reliability and performance of our infrastructure by completing our FY2018 New York Penn Station renewal work on time and budget and completing an overhaul of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge.”
- “Made investments to double our infrastructure maintenance capacity by committing $370 million on new equipment for improving the NEC.”
- “Together with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, launched new service to Roanoke, serving more than 54,000 customers in the first year.”
- “In partnership with North Carolina, added a third frequency to the daily Piedmont service between Raleigh and Charlotte, serving more than 13,000 customers.”
- “With our state partners at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, launched additional Amtrak service on the Springfield Line and assisted the state in their implementation of CTrail Hartford Line Service, which carried a combined total of more than 21,000 customers over its opening weekend and more than 10,000 customers during the first full week of operation.”
- “Added Thruway bus service for customers to connect to the Empire Service, Lake Shore Limited, and Maple Leaf trains at Amtrak stations in Rochester, Syracuse and Utica, N.Y., and at Harrisburg, Pa., for connections to State College, Lewisburg and Williamsport, Pa., as well as several other locations.”
- “Offered real-time and frequent information via social media @AmtrakAlerts and @AmtrakNECAlerts.”
- “Implemented new contemporary food service (5) on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited and introduced new menus on the Northeast Regional.”
- “Reached new seven-year labor contracts with all unions providing reasonable wage increases for employees and medical plan cost control (6).”
- Streamlined the Amtrak management staff, creating service line leaders for strategic focus and redirecting staff to business-critical positions (7).”
“We made significant advancements to improve safety and the customer experience, posting our best operating performance in company history” said Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia. “We remain on track to cover total operating costs from ticket and other revenues in the next few years, which will allow us to focus funding on business improvements and expansion (8).”
“With refreshed train interiors, improved amenities and renewed stations and infrastructure, our customers are noticing a difference,” said Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson. “We are continuing to make passenger rail the preferred mode of travel for business and leisure.”
Editor’s Notes (translating much of the euphemistic, corporate-speak nonsense language in Amtrak’s press release):
(1) Passenger car upgrades.
(2) Cleaner passenger car interiors.
(3) Private, portable cubicles for breast-feeding mothers not much bigger than an ADA-sized porta-a-potty. A nice touch, though.
(4) The Trump Administration so far has refused to provide any federal funding for the Gateway Program.
(5) Cold boxed meals instead of hot food served in a dining car. Various Amtrak sources have told Railway Age that the brand-new CAF USA-built Viewliner II dining cars—part of a multi-million-dollar-order for baggage cars, sleepers and diners—are having their expensive cooking equipment removed and undergoing conversion into lounge cars.
(6) Reduced medical benefits, including a higher employee contribution.
(7) Laying people off and giving those who are left more responsibilities. For example, Amtrak is closing its Riverside, Calif., reservations center in January, laying off 550 people. According to a report in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Tim Griffin said in a Nov. 14 internal memo to employees that operations in Riverside would be consolidated with its reservation center in Philadelphia. “By consolidating our operations, we will be able to use our resources more efficiently, lower overall operation and utility costs and require less managerial staff,” he wrote. “Employees, with the exception of managers, can apply for work in Philadelphia.” Griffin also noted that about 90% of Amtrak’s customers now book their travel online and that over the past five years, the number of calls received at contact centers has declined by close to three million calls. He wrote that “at our busiest time, only 25% of our agents are on the phone at the same time.” Workers and union leaders who represent Amtrak employees claim Amtrak has contracted with a third-party operator in Florida and are paying workers there less money. The minimum wage in Florida is $8.25. Griffin’s email does not mention the outsourced operation. His memo said Amtrak will sell the Riverside facility. Sal Rodriguez, President of Local 2511 of the Transportation and Communication Union, which represents Amtrak workers in Riverside, said call center employees earn between $15 and $28 hourly. Rodriguez also confirmed Amtrak said it would be possible for some Riverside workers to relocate to Philadelphia, where operations will be expanded. “They know people are not going to want to leave their homes and families in this area and move to Philadelphia,” he said. Griffin’s memo stated Amtrak “will work with each employee individually to review their options going forward, which may include transferring to Philadelphia or pursuing open Amtrak positions, as their union contract permits.” Rodriguez added that he believes employees were misled this spring when told by the company that an outsourced operation would be created only to fill in when there was overflow work at existing call centers. “We thought that was just going to be to fill in the peaks and valleys,” he said. Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari told the Southern California News Group in June that the company was “seeking a business process outsourcer (BPO) to allow us to better meet variable service demands and lower our costs. In general, Amtrak retains higher staffing levels to meet demand, and our costs far exceed industry norms. Moving to an operation supplemented by a BPO will significantly improve our overall operation. No employee will be laid off as a result of outsourcing.” Dan Thomas, a retired Amtrak employee who worked at the Riverside call center for 18 years, said the company “is not being forthright.” He said Amtrak claims it needs only one call center but is not mentioning the Florida operation because it’s not staffed by Amtrak employees. “And the supervisors in Riverside went to Port St. Lucie, Fla., to train their replacements,” Thomas said. “I feel bad for those poor people out there.” The Riverside Press-Enterprise said that “an Amtrak spokesperson reached by phone would not respond to questions.” This is typical of the stonewalling, smoke-and-mirrors and outright hostility Amtrak has been showing to the press, trade or other, under Anderson, who, for the record, has refused interviews with Railway Age and other industry publications.
(8) This sounds a lot like the late George Warrington’s “Glide Path to Self-Sufficiency” line of hooey from 20 years ago.
For additional insight, see Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner’s two articles on Amtrak, also published in the November issue: