Amtrak President and CEO Bill Flynn cautioned last week that the passenger railway faces near certain cuts with long-term ramifications if an additional $4.9 billion in funding is not received from Congress.
“If the current level of funding is extended in a continuing resolution beyond Dec. 11, 2020, and supplemental funding isn’t provided,” Flynn said, “we’re going to be unable to avoid taking fairly difficult actions that could have long-lasting effects.”
The federal government subsidizes rail travel in various ways. For example, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. — or Amtrak — received appropriations of about $1.5 billion in 2017 and $1.9 billion in 2018 to subsidize intercity passenger rail services.
Attending the press conference, which was held as a telephone conference call, were reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Politico, The Missourian and other publications.
According to Amtrak officials, ridership across the country is down by more than 15 million passengers this year. Flynn said there was a 97 percent drop in ridership last month as conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic worsened across the country.
At the Washington station, ridership on the Missouri River Runner is down 75 percent compared to previous years.
In 2019, the local station reported 12,917 passengers boarded the train at Washington, according to data provided by Amtrak.
In 2018, the number of passengers was 15,890, which ranked the station as the seventh busiest train station in Missouri, leading Arcadia, Independence, La Plata, Poplar Bluff, Sedalia and Warrensburg.
Ridership on the Missouri River Runner peaked in Washington in 2017 when 16,112 passengers boarded the train.
According to a report issued by the Rail Passengers Association, a D.C.-based industry association, more than 152,700 people rode on the Missouri River Runner last year, which is down from the railway’s highest number of passengers of 199,500 in 2013.
The Missouri River Runner sees a variety of travelers, according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari, including those who are going to Kansas City or St. Louis for sporting events or to Jefferson City for an event at the state Capitol. Riders from St. Louis and Kansas City also take the River Runner for quick day trips to Washington and Hermann, which has its own downtown rail station and typically averages more than 23,000 riders per year.
Many of the passengers arriving at Washington’s station are from Kirkwood, according to the Rail Passengers Association report.
The same report also ranked the Washington Station and the Kansas City Station as the ninth highest revenue generators for Amtrak.
Amtrak Board Chairman Tony Coscia said that given current trends and future projections, ridership and revenue are expected to be down 63 percent by the end of fiscal 2021 unless significant changes are made regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials had initially projected that ridership would fall by 50 percent — a stark contrast from the previous fiscal year when Amtrak broke ridership records across the country.
If no additional funding is received, Flynn said as many as 1,600 employees operating state-supported trains, such as the Missouri River Runner, could be furloughed.
“When we have to make those decisions depends on how long the uncertainty remains,” said Senior Executive VP Stephen Gardner, who was also on the call.
Magliari said while cuts will be made across the country, there are currently no plans to further reduce the Missouri River Runner’s operations. In late March, Amtrak went from two round-trip, cross-state passenger trains a day to one round trip per day in Missouri.
Train 314 goes from Kansas City to St. Louis. It departs from Kansas City at 8:15 a.m., departs from Jefferson City at 11:18 a.m., departs from Washington at 12:31 p.m. and arrives in St. Louis at 1:55 p.m.
Train 313 goes from St. Louis to Kansas City. It departs from St. Louis at 4 p.m., departs from Washington at 5:06 p.m., departs from Jefferson City at 6:22 p.m. and arrives in Kansas City at 9:40 p.m.
In addition to reducing the number of trains, the train service also has slashed the number of tickets sold per passenger car and implemented new cleaning measures to improve sanitation.
Limiting ticket sales to half of the train car capacity has allowed passengers to socially distance themselves from one another. A “capacity indicator” has been added to Amtrak’s ticketing website so those who are purchasing tickets can see how many people have already bought tickets.
Train passengers and Amtrak staff also are required to wear a mask while onboard and in the station, unless they are actively eating or drinking while stationary. The trains are also equipped with an onboard air filtration system that circulates fresh air every four minutes.
Magliari said even though there are no cuts slated for the Missouri River Runner, Amtrak would welcome any effort by users of the rail system to contact their federally elected officials.
“Locally, we would just ask people to do anything they can do to encourage their friends and family to take a ride on Amtrak,” Magliari said. “If they want to reach out to their federal officials about the need for more funding, we would certainly welcome it.”