Amtrak is expecting at least $700 million in losses with ridership dropping 95 percent across all routes as people abide by social distancing and stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, according to company officials.
The transportation company was expecting to break even this year for the first time in its history, former CEO Richard Anderson said last year. Now, the outlook is grimmer, though how much is not yet clear.
“Part of our focus now is to think about what our recovery will look like,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “This pandemic will have a major impact on our business, and we are analyzing what that might be. That’s hard to estimate at this point.”
Meanwhile, Amtrak mechanical and engineering workers are taking advantage of the lull in ridership to work on projects to improve the tracks, Flynn said. Major projects, such as the new Amtrak fleet, will also move forward.
“We continue to execute on our major projects, everything from Acela 21 through to Gateway,” he said.
Amtrak responded to the ridership decline by temporarily suspending several routes and modifying services on the majority of routes, said Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Audit and Finance Committee at Amtrak.
As emergency funding was doled out to companies providing essential services through the CARES Act, Amtrak received enough funds to avoid furloughs and layoffs along with major operational reductions, Coscia said. Flynn, who was hired as CEO on March 3 and began the job on April 15, also donated his compensation to the company.
Amtrak has implemented several initiatives to curb contact among passengers. Currently, no more than half of the capacity of a train is allowed to be filled to maintain a safe distance from other passengers. All employees are also required to wear masks and gloves on the trains.
To further ensure social distancing, the company will roll out touchless features at stations, such as alerting passengers about boarding information via text message, implementing new kiosks with advanced features, and allowing customers to pre-order food for pickup to avoid waiting in line.
As for how Amtrak will move forward with the “new normal” once the pandemic passes, officials couldn’t say for sure.
“We’re conducting a fair amount of research to see what ramping up will look like," Flynn said. “It’s not clear.”
The company is working with multiple states to gauge what post-pandemic ridership may look like.
Flynn stressed the importance of breaking even financially in the future, but couldn’t give a definitive timeline given the nature of the pandemic and uncertainty about when ridership numbers might rise again.
“At this point, we don’t have a firm date by which we think we will break even in part because we still don’t know what the level of ridership will be," Flynn said.
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