Amtrak to furlough employees, reduce services

Chad Frey
Amtrak is planning to furlough employees, and cute the frequency of long distance trains, in October if congress does not pass an aid package that contains funding for the railroad.

Wednesday the U.S. House subcommittee of Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials hosted hearing on Amtrak’s response to COVID-19 — seeking information specifically on the reductions in service to long distance trains and announced furloughs to workers starting Oct. 1.

More than 2,000 employees, including 700 on-board service workers represented by the Transport Workers Union of America, will be furloughed by Amtrak beginning October 1.

In Kansas, the Southwest Chief uses train and engine crews based in La Junta and in Kansas City. They are members of the BLET (engineers) and SMART (Conductors).

Amtrak employment in Kansas is about a dozen employees overall.

About $1 billion was received from the CARES Act to avoid furloughs — however Amtrak starts a new fiscal year Oct. 1. Amtrak has requested an additional $4.9 billion for the next fiscal year, however, that funding has not been approved. It is contained in HR 2, which is currently sitting on the desk of Mitch McConnell, waiting to be see in the Senate.

“If we are not able to achieve supplemental funding … that means reductions of service across the company and a reduction in the workforce,” said William Flynn, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak. “… That will mean very difficult decisions.”

Flynn told the committee that the railroad would lose about $250 million per month, and could face bankruptcy if additional funds were not approved and cuts were not made.

Nearly all long distance trains, including the Southwest Chief which stops in Newton, are set to reduce to three-day-a-week service from a seven-day-a-week service.

According to the Rail Passengers Association, the long distance routes create an economic impact of $4.8 billion to the communities services each year. The association also claimed Wednesday that long distance trains were the strongest economic performer for Amtrak during the pandemic — long distance train ridership has fallen 68 percent during the pandemic, compared to 90 percent in the Northeast Corridor.

“Today, during COVID, long distance makes up 45 percent of Amtrak’s revenues, compared to 21 percent a year ago,” said Jim Mathews, President and Chief Executive Officer, Rail Passengers Association. “[It] has contributed the largest share of Amtrak revenues every month since March. That could all change on Oct. 1 if congress cannot act.”

“These adjustments are temporary. There is not a secret plan as critics might suggest. … I am 100 percent committed to our long distance network and its future,” Flynn said.

Amtrak attempted to move long distance trains to three times a week in 1994, but was rebuffed by then President Bill Clinton and congress.

The plan was first hinted at in March. Last month the railroad updated ticketing websites and schedules to reflect the service education — and notified passengers by letter of the need to move transportation to other dates.

“Cutting daily service could drop a least a $2.3 billion bomb on ‘flyover country,’ while possibly only saving Amtrak 213 million. Overall the damage could top $3 billion if Amtrak’s plan for nine months of degraded service stretches another quarter to a full year,” Mathews said.

Flynn told the committee without additional assistance from Congress the company would have to “make very dramatic” cuts and the company could go to bankruptcy. He stated without supplemental funding, long distance funding would be cut.

“If HR 2 would become law, that would be game-changing for Amtrak. …. But we do not have that funding yet,” Flynn said.