Happening Now

Some Passengers Aren’t Feeling Amtrak’s Financial Recovery

July 29, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Just like the world’s overheated post-pandemic economy, Amtrak is rebounding fast and having trouble coping with the rebound.

June financial results received this week for Amtrak’s routes show a system recovering sharply from last year, with year-to-date ridership, revenue, and passenger-miles all doubled compared with the first six months of 2021, and yield – the all-important measure of revenue per unit of demand – is up nearly 21 percent from year-ago levels.

But even as balance sheets begin to look better, the passenger experience in many cases is still suffering, thanks to a combination of things out of Amtrak’s control – freight interference, freight railroad labor unrest – and poorly handled service cancellations, which can only fairly be described as self-inflicted wounds.

For the month itself, ridership is up roughly 50 percent, ticket revenues are up nearly 60 percent, and passenger-miles are up about a third. Yield in June was 18.3 percent better than June a year ago.

Acela ridership in June was up 66 percent and revenues were better than double at $38.9 million, and for the year-to-date Acela ridership and revenue have more than tripled from this point a year ago. Overall, the Northeast Corridor is finally showing signs of life after its prolonged coma, with ridership for the year so far up 163 percent to a little less than 6.4 million.

State-supported corridors are up sharply, too, with ridership and revenues year-to-date on these routes both doubling and beginning to reach levels closer to pre-pandemic performance. State route ridership through the first six calendar months was up to 7 million and state-route revenues topped $253 million.

It’s true that the long-distance routes did well enough during the pandemic that they don’t have as far to go to reach recovery levels. Indeed, halfway through 2022 long-distance revenues stood within less than one percent of 2019’s record levels. Ridership nearly doubled during the first six months of 2022 to 2.5 million, and revenues were up 78 percent to nearly $361 million through June. Nonetheless those healthy gains in long-distance ridership and revenues were less strong than the other two business lines.

What’s happening? A few things should be kept in mind. One, many long-distance services were still operating five days a week instead of daily during the period of these financial reports, and you can only buy a ticket and ride a train when that train has seats and is operating. Which gets us to another troubling reality for today’s passengers: suddenly unavailable services, another disincentive to strong rebounds in long-distance travel.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received dozens of complaints from Amtrak long-distance passengers about last-minute cancellations affecting trips which were, in some cases, booked and paid for as long as ten months ago. The root cause is a shortage of mechanical department employees needed to maintain and turn what little equipment Amtrak has for these routes during the peak summer demand period. It’s a perfect storm, and when coaches and sleeping cars become unavailable, Amtrak winds up dropping the car from the consist.

But these passengers are being treated very poorly. Here’s a sample from folks who have reached out to us at the Association:

“our bedroom reservation cancelled and placed in coach for one day”

“happened to us and a few others who were on our [Empire Builder] 2 weeks ago - the poor room attendants were left dealing with frustrated travelers and trying their best to work things out for folks...we also booked our trip 10 months...they had removed a car - but they never notified us!! I found out by watching social media and called to check and sure enough we had been canceled!! we had to change plane reservations and leave a day earlier and then got out in the accessible rooms...No [compensation] was given, we just had the hassle of rescheduling & rebooking on our own. I was traveling with elderly parents and we were out in the accessible rooms in 2 different cars (not the bedrooms we booked & paid for) - the attendant tried to get us moved closer (while dealing with 3 other family’s who had been moved to coach as well) worked with us to make a frustrating situation less tense. Their hands were tied but the service she gave was great, found a place during the day for us to sit together with my parents, etc. Amtrak dropped the ball and then left those working on the train to deal with angry travelers.”

“When that happened to me back in May (downgraded from roomette to Business on the [Lake Shore Limited]), I was irritated as hell, but what can you do? At least they didn't cancel the whole train! And I was where I needed to be in order to get home. Understaffing is still a problem - can't run the trains without people.”

We had understood the problem to be confined to the Empire Builder and a mistake in sending out notifications to certain affected travelers. But it seems the problem is more widespread than that. Last Friday, I got a message from an older couple who had their Bedroom canceled while they were sitting in Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge waiting to board the Texas Eagle. Literally minutes before boarding, they were told they were being downgraded to coach.

As it turns out, their sleeper had broken bunks and couldn’t go out. But this couple was never offered any alternative. From the gentleman’s email to me that evening: “Booked months ago. No notice. No options. We are in our 70s and not comfortable to say the least in coach. Just spoke with Amtrak employee on board who is transferring people from coach to sleepers who just booked on line from St Louis on. Absolutely crazy. I got no help from ticket counter or Guest Rewards agent. I was on hold with customer service twice forever. No one. I have emailed customer service 3 times. No response.”

I was able to reach out to Amtrak executives that evening and as a result this couple started to get some help from Amtrak agents and customer service during their trip. I'm grateful that they stepped in to help, but nonetheless these are the kinds of experiences that give Amtrak and rail travel a big black eye at a time when we're trying to show Americans the promise of the Rail Renaissance.

We all know why we’re here. Amtrak is trying to re-staff an operation that was cut back drastically during the pandemic. They’re offering five-figure bonuses to mechanical employees. They’re launching apprenticeship programs. They’re creating inducements to turn existing mechanics into supervisors so that they can run their programs better. They are trying. But Amtrak is still dropping the ball on the customer-service part of the equation. We can’t fix the staffing problem overnight. But taking better care of customers affected by the situation should be priority one.

Let’s see if I get any phone calls from passengers on trains tonight...