Amtrak struggles to recover despite staffing issues

Amtrak saw some 10 million travelers return to the rails in the United States last year. It was great news for the railroad which saw passenger numbers plummet during the early days of the pandemic and then slowly return as people hesitantly returned to travel.

This surge in demand, which Amtrak chief financial officer Tracie Winbigler called “incredible” on Thursday, saw 22.9 million trips made on the railroad in fiscal year 2022 which is completed in September. Ridership was about 85% of pre-pandemic levels at the end of the period and continued to recover.

But the return of travelers could have been better if there had not been a key element: the capacity of the trains. Amtrak operated only about 80% of its 2019 schedule in fiscal year 2022, about five points below the recovery in passenger numbers. And on the Northeast Corridor, the railroad’s busiest line that connects Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., ridership was 10% higher than three years ago, despite fewer trains. .

The result is a classic imbalance of supply and demand: higher fares for travellers. Although Amtrak does not release average fare data, revenue was down only 15% from fiscal year 2019 to $2.8 billion in fiscal year 2022, which is completed in September. It’s also about five points better than the resumption of rail service last year.

“2022 was a capacity challenge,” Amtrak Chairman Anthony Cosica said at a meeting of the railroad’s board Thursday. He added that the biggest problem was the “level of staffing”.

Businesses in the US economy struggled to meet staffing needs as they lacked capacity. Several airlines suffered operational meltdowns in the spring, including Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, which were widely attributed to staffing issues. The situation forced carriers to cut schedules and, according to air trade group Airlines for America (A4A), the industry operated about 15% less capacity during the peak summer travel season than what she had planned at the beginning of the year.

“Coming out of the pandemic, the labor issue is a deep-seated issue that has affected many businesses,” Cosica said. “We have a problem getting people, training people” at Amtrak.

And Amtrak faces “acute challenges” restoring its workforce, particularly in some key areas like machinists, CEO Stephen Gardner said Thursday. “We couldn’t overcome the attrition rate,” he added, referring to staff who voluntarily retired or left for other jobs during the pandemic. About 90% of Amtrak staff who were involuntarily laid off during the crisis have returned to their jobs.

The staffing situation is not expected to normalize in the current fiscal year, which ends in September 2023. Despite plans to hire more than 3,100 frontline staff – the railroad has hired 3,700 last year – Amtrak still expects to operate slightly less capacity than four years ago. from. It predicts around 28 million passenger trips this year, or 90% of 2019 levels.

It is not until fiscal year 2024 that Amtrak expects capacity to fully recover and ridership to meet or exceed 2019 levels.

Connect with us

Amtrak continues to make progress, albeit slowly, on the Connect US plan to expand nationwide rail service that it unveiled in 2021. The plan calls for new or expanded rail service to approximately 160 communities across the country that would be partially funded by the $66 billion. allocated to passenger rail in President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

“We are entering a new tide for passenger rail in America, and Amtrak’s future could never be brighter,” Gardner said.

But getting the trains running will take longer – probably much longer – than many hope. Amtrak’s board described little concrete progress on Connect US’ expansion plan at the meeting. Two corridors that have been mentioned, if only in passing, are the recent agreement with freight railroads to resume passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, and work with North Carolina and Virginia to reactivate the so-called “S-Line” corridor between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, for passenger rail travel. No timelines were provided for either project.

Where the board did report progress was on a number of infrastructure upgrades to the Northeast Corridor. For example, the replacement of a bridge over the Susquehanna River in Maryland and the Connecticut River Bridge in the state of the same name have been mentioned. The two projects, along with many others already underway along the corridor, resolve the long backlog of railway maintenance and, when completed, will enable faster rail service.

The lack of details on Connect US’s progress was no surprise. In late 2021, Gardner told a congressional committee that, given the lead time required by many of these projects, it would take about 18 months — or until mid-2023 — for work on many to begin. seriously.

Also on Thursday, Gardner said Amtrak still needs state and local support for all of its capital projects, even with the availability of federal funds. Money from the bipartisan infrastructure law, for example, can only be used for 80% of the total cost of new passenger rail lines, for example.

“Amtrak is not a unit player,” he said. “We can’t say tomorrow ‘we want to stop here and issue an edict'”.

The railway opened two service extensions in 2022, although both were launched before the pandemic. In July, passenger trains returned to Burlington, Vermont, for the first time in 70 years, and Amtrak inaugurated direct service to Pittsfield, Mass., in the Berkshires from New York.

Equipment Challenges

In another parallel with the airlines, the availability of equipment – ​​railcars and engines in this case – is also limiting Amtrak’s takeover. New trains for its flagship Acela high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor are not expected to enter service until “late 2023”, as Gardner’s presentation put it, at least two years behind schedule. And new train sets – or both engines and carriages – for the busy North East regional service are also being delayed by at least two years until 2026.

“There is no off-the-shelf product, in most cases, available,” Gardner said of Amtrak’s equipment supply issues. “We don’t have the domestic supply base.”

Compared to Europe, the US rail market is “tiny”, he said. This creates many “challenges” for suppliers and the supply chain.

Gardner cited Siemens’ new train cars for Amtrak services in California and the Midwest as an example. Purchased by the states of California and Illinois, the railroad planned to have about 60 of these trains in service today. However, due to delivery delays and other issues, only about 30 are working.

Airlines face similar challenges with the supply of new aircraft. At the Skift Aviation Forum in October, Air Lease Corp. executive chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy said all of the lessor’s new planes were arriving late, with some up to six to seven months late. . These problems at Airbus and Boeing have slowed the global recovery of airline capacity.

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