August 2016 Amtrak Report

I have read the August report and these are the items that I found interesting:

1.       The report is dated September 27, 2016 and posted either late on the 28th or early on the 29th. This is a bit earlier than last month but in line with the months previously. Usually the last month, September is posted late so I would not expect to make another report until November.

2.       The Amtrak ridership figures were good. Revenues from Passengers were up slightly from last August, however, other revenues were off significantly and other expenses were up sharply. 

3.       For the current fiscal year minus September, Amtrak had a cash operating loss of $198.9 million. For the entire fiscal year 2016 Amtrak is now predicting a total cash loss of $223.9 million which is an improvement of $20.1 million forecast at the end of July. Seeing that Congress appropriated $288.5 million for operations, it is hard to see why Amtrak is concerned with its cash balance. It is also insulting that Amtrak is closing a number of stations (by eliminating station agents) to conserve a difficult cash balance.

4.       The same thirteen product lines still show operating surpluses:

Acela $272.5 million

Northeast Regionals $180.2 million

Washington-Newport News $6.1 million

Washington-Lynchburg $2.9 million

Carolinian $2.7 million

Maple Leaf $2.4 million

Vermonter $1.1 million

Washington-Richmond $0.9 million

Washington-Norfolk $0.6 million

Ethan Allen $0.5 million

Keystone $0.3 million

Auto Train $0.2 million

Hoosier State $0.2 million

The total for Virginia was $10.5 million as all four product lines in the commonwealth continue to show operating surpluses. 

5.       Cost Recovery remained at 98% and Food & Beverage improved to 57.8%.

6.       The Chief Engineers report is still AWOL. This makes 11 months without this report. The Profit and Loss, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flows have been missing for 23 months. 

7.       The Chief Mechanical Officer’s report shows that in August, Amtrak overhauled: 19 Amfleets, 11 Superliners (one of which was formerly in the wreck category), 2 Horizons, 1 Viewliner, 1 Surfliner, and 1 complete Acela Train set.

8.       For the year to date Amtrak is running 285,020 passengers ahead of last year for a total of 28,695,513. It needs about 2,200,000 in September to equal last year, and 2,300,000 plus to set a new annual record.

In September of 2015 Amtrak carried 2,4728,811 passengers and 2,519,591 in September 2014. So it is quite possible for Amtrak will set a new annual record. Since all but one day of September has elapsed when this was written and with outages only on the Springfield-New Haven line during the month, it is very likely that we will be hearing good news on this front.

9.       Authorized spending increased in August by $7.848 million, mostly in Engineering and Environmental. As is usual towards the end of a fiscal year, actual spending forecast is down another $88.915 million more.  

Actual capital spending for the year to date is $1,280.271 million (after deducting debt service). So far this year $50.353 million has been spent on Gateway and $19.069 million on Acquisitions. (This is a mere $307 thousand more than at the end of last month. ADA expenditures are $21.9 million so far this year.

10.   Employment is down another 177 positions since the end of July to 20,215. This is third month in a row that significant reductions have taken place. The total loss in the three months is 489.

11.   The big news is that Congress passed a budget bill that contained a continuous resolution through December 9, 2016 which the President signed on September 29, 2016 which is two days before the end of the fiscal year. While that got the headlines, the bill also fully funds for the entire year the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Military Construction budget, and Amtrak. Also money was put aside to address the ZIKA epidemic. The Amtrak money totals $1,390 million (same as the last three years) but is allocated $235 million for the NEC and the remainder {$1,135 million} for the national system. This allows Amtrak to maintain only one set of accounts to reflect the Congressional mandate to separate the finances of the NEC from the rest of the system.

It is less than the total of $1,420 that the Senate had approved last spring as well as the House Appropriations Committee. When the Senate and Congress return after the election, they may try to pass some separate stand-alone appropriations bills or they may try to pass an omnibus spending bill to cover the remaining 11 budget bills. NARP will try to get additional money put into the THUD (Transportation and Housing & Urban Development) portion. Most likely to get funded would be CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Initiative) that was not covered in the bill that got passed. There is also the State of Good Repair category as well as the Restoration and Enhancement of Train services as well as a direct appropriation to Amtrak. The amount for the National System is very much needed and hopefully will used in part to obtain additional equipment. However the NEC probably needs a lot more money if any critical initiatives are to be commenced in the next year.  The NEC Commission estimated the basic “Engineering” needs of the corridor for fiscal 2017 was $542 million. Amtrak estimated last February that the operating surplus of the NEC after debt service on the ACS64 Sprinter Locomotives would be $275.9 million. Another $143.2 million would come from Commuter Access payments and $83 million excess from Infrastructure and Investment Development for a total of $502.1 million. Of this money Amtrak would also have to pay an estimated $71.7 million for  maintenance of equipment used on the corridor. Subtracting the basic engineering and maintenance from $502.1 million leaves a balance of minus $111.6 million. So this leaves after the appropriation of $235 million about $123 million available to start any new initiatives.

There are a few projects ongoing such as the high level platforms and third track at Kingston that obviously need to be maintained and completed. Therefore it will be a challenge to get much progress on the tunnels under the Hudson and the North Portal Bridge.

Meanwhile, no new equipment has come from either CAF Industries (the Viewliner Order) or Nippon Shayro (Midwest and California Corridor Cars). At least Siemens is producing the new tier four diesels (Chargers), while going directly to the states, each locomotive delivered will free a diesel for Amtrak. This will allow retirement of the worst diesels and hopefully increase the number in inventory.

At Brunswick, Maine one of the train sets is now using the mostly completed maintenance facility. Some track work (replacing ties is going to result in some interruptions over the next two months, so the inauguration of the third round trip to Brunswick will not take place until mid-November. 

                As noted above one of the stations shuttered was Westerly. The trains will still stop but access to the waiting room, rest rooms and the quik track machine is no longer possible. Amtrak has cited the increase use of the quik track machines as one reason for the elimination of agents. But if you cannot get to the machine it is not much use. Amtrak also suggested that passengers buy their tickets on the train, which mean the passenger is out of luck if the train is sold out. Moreover it is only 10 to 20 minutes between Westerly and the next station in either direction which does not give the conductors much time to sell the tickets before new passengers get on at the next stop. Keep in mind that the State of Rhode Island owns the building and is maintaining it as a passenger station. Amtrak is paying little to no rent for its space. Last, the agent may have received a pink slip rather than reaching retirement. This means the agent will continue to be paid for the immediate future for doing nothing. Also losing their agent was Back Bay, but there will at least be MBTA agents who can handle emergencies and provide some security. Across the nation other stations are also losing their agents. One wonders If the bean counters figured out how much they could save if they eliminated all the agents at Penn Station in New York. Just provide automated announcements as to which track the train will arrive.

Steve Musen

Rhode Island representative to NARP’s Council of Representatives