WASHINGTON — Amtrak, the passenger railroad agency, will furlough over 2,000 workers in the coming weeks because of a steep decline in ridership and revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to company officials.
The job cuts represent nearly 10 percent of Amtrak’s roughly 20,000-member work force and will take effect as the agency begins its new fiscal year, which starts in October. The rail agency will cut 1,950 workers from its unionized work force and 100 employees from its management ranks. Cuts among union jobs could increase or decrease by 2 percent, officials noted in an internal email.
The reductions come as Amtrak’s response to historic fiscal challenges receives scrutiny from rail advocates and federal lawmakers.
Critics say the agency should focus less on cuts to its work force and declines in service and instead ensure the rail network operates close to normal at a time when it is seen as an attractive alternative to air travel. In some areas of the United States, Amtrak provides the lone mode of public transportation, rail advocates say.
“Amtrak’s announcement that they will furlough over 2,000 employees is disappointing and unacceptable,” said Representative Daniel Lipinski, Democrat of Illinois and a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Amtrak workers provide an essential service to travelers and communities. These workers deserve better from Amtrak leadership.”
In a statement, an Amtrak spokeswoman said the job cuts were necessary because the rail agency was experiencing “slow recovery of ridership and revenue” from the pandemic. Amtrak receives federal funds but is independently run.
Since March, ridership on Amtrak has fallen by 95 percent, and projected revenue for 2021 has declined by 50 percent. In response, Congress has bailed out the rail network with nearly $1 billion in emergency funds. But William J. Flynn, Amtrak’s chief executive, has asked lawmakers for an additional $1.4 billion in emergency funds, predicting revenue and ridership will continue to remain low into 2021.
Mr. Flynn has told congressional leadership that Amtrak is prepared to cut $500 million in operating costs if it does not receive more emergency funding. In June, he outlined a plan that would cut up to 20 percent of the company’s work force and reduce service on long-distance routes that serve the middle of the country.
Federal lawmakers responded with intense skepticism, asking why Amtrak needed to enact such steep cuts when it had already received nearly $1 billion in emergency aid. The agency’s request for an additional $1.4 billion is on top of its standard $2 billion budget request for 2021.
“We are deeply concerned by the downsizing plan,” a bipartisan coalition of seven senators wrote in a letter to Amtrak. “These cuts would not only dramatically reduce the utility of the nation’s passenger rail network, but would also ignore congressional intent to expedite economic recovery following the pandemic.”
Critics are particularly concerned about Amtrak’s plan to reduce daily service on its long-distance train network to three times per week. They say any cuts to long-distance routes, which run across parts of the Southern, mountain and Western regions, would make the company a less reliable and less attractive option to travelers who depend on the network.
Advocates note that long-distance routes across the country are faring better than on those that were more popular before the pandemic began, including shorter routes like those in the Northeast Corridor.
Long-distance ridership was down 62 percent in July compared with July 2019, while ridership on those relatively shorter routes through more urban areas was down more than 80 percent, according to an analysis by industry experts.
Others point to Amtrak’s statements from as far back as 2000, in which its leadership said attempts to reduce long-distance service “ended up costing the company more in lost revenue than we were able to take out in the way of expenses” because some fixed costs could not be cut even after reducing service to three days a week.
House lawmakers will hold a hearing next week to discuss Amtrak’s response to the pandemic.