Metropolis

The CEO of Amtrak Thinks Americans Are Ready for Trains Again

And he says sleeper cars are making a comeback.

A double-decker Amtrak train in the golden hour of twilight.
An Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train at Moorpark Station in California. Laser1987/iStock/Getty Images Plus

William J. Flynn took over as CEO of Amtrak at the worst possible time. It was April 2020—one month after the country locked down—and ridership on the quasi-public passenger rail network was down by 97 percent. Two recovery bills later, Amtrak’s finances have been shored up. Though business remains way down, vaccines are rolling out, and Flynn aims to double Amtrak’s pre-pandemic ridership in the next two decades. We spoke last week about what America’s interstate rail system could look like after COVID. We discussed major undertakings like the Gateway Project, the new tunnel beneath the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called the most important infrastructure project in the country. Flynn told me he does not pay attention to the astronomical cost of rail construction in the United States relative to peer countries. He also outlined his beef with freight railroads, explained why he welcomes private-sector competition, and showed me where he thinks Amtrak has room to grow after its 50th birthday next month. Our conservation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Henry Grabar: Looking forward to a post-COVID world, where do you see the places where Amtrak can compete? What sort of trips—by car, by plane—and between which cities? What are the circumstances outside of the Northeast Corridor where you think Amtrak has room to grow?

William J. Flynn: For Amtrak, if you look at the network that we run today, it looks a lot like the network we had in 1971, 50 years ago, when we were created, but boy, population and demographics have changed, right?

There’s 100 million more people in the United States today than there were when Amtrak was created in 1971. And if you look about the shift of where people moved to and where they have moved from, there are 20, 25 dense corridors across our nation where Amtrak has little to no service. And that’s where people have moved to. Think about the corridors in Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson and Flagstaff, and the route between Las Vegas and Southern California. Look at the growth that we’ve experienced in the Carolinas, for example, from Raleigh to Charlotte and Greensboro and Winston-Salem—we started the service there a couple of years ago with two trains a day, and we’re looking to grow that to six trains a day along that route.

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A lot of the growth I’m talking about here would occur on corridors we already serve, but we’re only serving them once a day. Another that comes to mind is Nashville to Atlanta, with stops in Chattanooga. Try to fly that. There’s no service there. It’s a major corridor. It’s an integrated economy. I could go on and on, but I believe these areas of opportunity allow us, over the next 20-year period of time, to double our ridership.

Do you need to make other improvements to make those corridors more reliable—or is it mostly about service?

It’s all of the above. It’s certainly about frequency, right? But we absolutely do need to invest. Only a very small percentage of our total track can support speeds of 90 mph or greater. There will definitely be a need for tracking infrastructure work to get speeds up. There are going to need to be investments in stations.

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Does that require moving resources away from the money-losing long-distance routes that run across the country?

No. Many of the communities we serve have limited alternatives for transportation other than driving a car. The administration and the Hill have prioritized long-distance services because they believe that while it may be losing money, the larger economic benefit is greater than the cost of providing service on the long-distance routes. And I support that.

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I want to ask about the Gateway Project, which is obviously a huge thing for New York City in particular and also for the whole Northeast Corridor. How urgent is the situation?

It’s certainly urgent. Now, is [the current tunnel] safe? Yes. But in terms of underlying core infrastructure, we’ve got several bridges that are over 100 years old, we need essentially new tunnels, and that urgency is not going away. That’s wonderful, wonderful infrastructure. It was built over 100 years ago. It’s performed exceptionally well by any consideration, but it’s time to move forward on those key core projects.

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One parallel that comes to mind in the New York context is the L train tunnel that was flooded by saltwater during Hurricane Sandy. The plan was initially to close it for a year and do a full repair. At the last minute, the governor came in and decided that, actually, it would be possible to do a much smaller-scale repair that purportedly fixed the issues with the tunnel without shutting down service. Any possibility of an eleventh-hour solution like that coming to the North River Tunnels? Is that applicable in this scenario?

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I live in New York, Henry, so I’m very familiar with the L train and the discussion about the L train even before I joined Amtrak. They’re not really comparable. Just the nature of the trains, the weight of the train itself, the volume of traffic that is moving through on the L train simply doesn’t compare with the demands and what’s really needed in the Hudson River. So we’ve heard that idea advanced, but it’s really not a comparable situation to what Amtrak and the commuter railroads require on the Hudson River side. Our tunnels on the East River, those need work, and those can be remedied and repaired, but on the Hudson River, they need to be replaced.

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Another question I have is about the cost. The latest estimates that I saw was that the new tunnel would cost $11.1 billion, which is almost $5 billion a mile, and that’s many times the cost of similar projects in other countries. This is a recurring issue, as I’m sure you know, in tri-state area projects, where the cost is way out of whack with international best practices. What’s going on there?

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I think it depends. I used to live in Japan, in Tokyo. I wasn’t in the railway business then, but I can imagine it would be in that same scale. But I think of it differently. I mean, if we say it’s $11 billion, that’s a very large number for us, but for a tunnel that may last 100 years? It, and all of the other environmental work and considerations that we need to take, and the safety engineering that needs to be put in that tunnel … I don’t know that that’s an astronomical number.

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I’m not saying it’s not necessarily worth it in the New York context. But have you looked at any of the international peer projects in, say, Spain or France or Japan, where they would do similar things for a lot less money? For us, that would mean we could do more things with the savings.

I completely agree with your underlying thought here—are we getting the best return on the dollars that we would be spending to build this tunnel? That’s something we’ll always look at, but that is the best estimate that we have now. If we could do it for less, we would.

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I want to ask you another construction costs question. The biggest rail project in the country right now is the California high-speed rail project. I know that’s not an Amtrak project, but the cost has tripled from $33 billion in 2008 to more than $100 billion now. And the timeline has been stretched out to the point where we don’t even know when it’s going to be done. I know it’s not your project, but when you look at something like that, are there lessons that you take away from what went wrong there that might be applicable to the stuff that Amtrak is working on?

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We absolutely look for lessons learned. We’ll look for lessons learned in California, but we also look for lessons learned on work that we’ve done ourselves. I don’t have a specific lesson off the top of my head.

In the Northeast Corridor, one-way tickets from Washington to New York on the Acela, bought three months in advance, typically started at over $100 pre-COVID. If you look at the TGV that runs from Paris to Lyon, it’s a similar distance, it’s a similar time. And those fares start as low as $35 and average around $60. Any plans to make this Northeast Corridor service more affordable?

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We actually have quite a number of very attractive fares in place now. We have a number of promotions underway. If you’re buying a week or two in advance, we have very attractive fares out. We have a 45 percent discount on Acela fares right now. We’ve got quite a bit of promotional pricing out there right now.

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But I mean, generally, you’d have to admit that the fares on the Acela are quite a bit higher than for similar routes in other countries.

That’s true. But we also have a different price point on our Northeast Regional trains, which is an excellent service as well. It’s up to the consumer to make their choice as to what meets their needs. [The Northeast Regional runs the same route as the Acela, 30 minutes slower.]

Another way of posing that question would be: Is there a way to increase capacity on that route? We know that there’s all these intercity bus companies that have sprung up to provide similar service, and flights persist—as a second choice, for most people. How do you go about expanding capacity on the Northeast Corridor and bringing more people onto that line?

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I assume we’re talking post-COVID. Ridership right now is at about 25 percent of pre-COVID; capacity [the number of trains operating] is at about 55 to 60 percent. So we’re running quite a bit of capacity, so that as we see growth or spikes or surges, our capacity is leading, not trailing, demand. Let’s talk about the newest Acelas: The eight new Acelas have 25 percent more capacity. Those trains will be rolled out through 2022 and bring a fairly substantial increase in capacity.

There’s been a return of low-cost sleeper trains in Europe, where they’re catching on with young people who don’t want to fly, and maybe want the romance of the experience or something like that. Is that something that you have looked at for Amtrak?

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Right now, our sleepers are essentially fully utilized. I told you that our ridership is in the low 20s right now, compared to pre-COVID times. But our sleepers, when we look at our long-distance trains, we’re actually operating not at 20 percent of demand, we’re operating at 34 to 35 percent of normal on three-day-a-week service down from seven. Several months ago, we had to bring sleeper cars out of storage and put them in service because our sleepers are simply sold out. Travelers like the sleeper product. They find it to be a good deal and they like the fact they can get in a sleeper car and close the door.

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We have some overnight trains on the Northeast Regional, from Boston down through to D.C. We’re putting some sleeper cars on those overnight trains right now to see what the rider acceptance would be of that product as well.

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The elephant in the room is the freight railroads. There are a lot of routes where the percentage of trains that arrive within 15 minutes of schedule is under 50 percent. How do you go about wresting control of some of these tracks away from freight companies? That’s probably going to be a major part of getting service up to par on some of these medium-distance routes you were talking about earlier.

You’re absolutely right. When riding on the freight railroad system, that Amtrak trains actually receive the priority routing they have, per statute, is going to be a key area for Amtrak to address to be able to build out the service that you and I have been talking about. We have a lot of work to do.

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The U.S. government allowed the freight railroads to transfer their obligation to provide passenger transportation to Amtrak. It didn’t ultimately relieve them of an obligation to provide passenger rail, but it allowed them to transfer the passenger rails obligations to Amtrak. And then the bargain in return was you don’t have to provide that passenger rail service, but you do have to provide Amtrak the right to access the tracks and to provide preference to Amtrak trains over freight trains. That’s the essential bargain.

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It sounds like you’re contending that they’re not really living up to that end of the bargain.

Yes, that’s right.

What do you make of the emergence of private companies trying to provide their own passenger rail service? I’m thinking of something like Bright Line, Texas Central, that Victorville-to-Las Vegas project? Do you see them as rivals or proof of concept?

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I think what it underscores is that there is an underlying desire, an underlying demand for quality intercity passenger rail. From an Amtrak perspective, you know, we have the national scale, scope capabilities, and operational expertise to grow and expand routes today. So the fact that private entities see a future of passenger rail underscores our argument that there is indeed a future for inner-city passenger rail. They’re coming at it with their own business models, which is great. But our national rail system is the largest in the world. It is not heavily utilized. There is ample capacity across this network for Amtrak to grow intercity passenger rail—and all the benefits that come with that, the economic benefits, the environmental benefits, contributing to the further economic growth of these mega-regions.

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Let me ask you about what happened a decade ago when there was this big federal commitment to invest in a high-speed passenger rail in some of these target corridors that we’ve been talking about. We already talked about what happened in California, but in other places, there was just a political rejection from Republicans to the whole idea of doing this. Has anything changed since then? Do you think you have more political capital to do this now than you did 10 years ago?

I believe we do. We have good bipartisan support. I mean we had CARES Act support. [No Republicans in Congress voted for the latest coronavirus relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, which included $1.7 billion for Amtrak.]

If you had one single ask from Washington that would make some of the stuff you’re talking about possible, what would it be?

Sure. It’s really three things. But they’re all interrelated. It’s the funding that’s really required on core essential infrastructure across our country. It’s the ability to exercise the right of access that exists by statute for Amtrak—I’ll call that fair access. And then it’s that the preference for passenger over freight be realized. Everyone likes a three-legged stool analogy.

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