After nearly 50 years of financial losses, Amtrak is inching toward a profit for the first time.
Earlier this month, the railroad announced glowing figures for its last fiscal year (October 2018 to September 2019). There were a record-high 32.5 million customer trips — a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers. Amtrak still lost $29.8 million but is on track to break even in 2020.
“We are growing and modernizing Amtrak,” Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia said in a statement. “We have an industry-leading safety program and have invested billions in improving the customer experience, resulting in more people choosing Amtrak as their preferred mode of transportation.”
Amtrak’s growth was led by the Northeast Corridor. Travel grew 4.3% on Acela, the express line from Washington, D.C. to Boston; 2.9% on Northeast Regional; and 2.4% on state-supported lines, which include Virginia stops in Richmond, Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Roanoke. The release also cited better collaboration with state partners, with a specific mention of increased schedules to Norfolk.
The improvements were not free. Amtrak also spent a record-high $1.6 billion in capital asset investments. Passengers saw those dollars through newer equipment, a stronger mobile app and station upgrades, among other items. But Amtrak saved money with “sustainability” initiatives, including better lighting, less idling, and recycling programs. Since 2010, the railroad said it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17%.
Record ridership on the rails is promising. It’s a step away from the congested car travel polluting our air and a chance to recoup dozens of hours lost sitting in traffic.
But is the news all rosy? One contentious change made by the railroad in January was a new “terms and conditions” clause. “Please read the Arbitration Agreement carefully because it applies mutually to You and Amtrak and requires that you resolve claims and disputes with Amtrak on an individual basis through arbitration and not by way of court or jury trial,” the Amtrak page reads.
A Friday Politico report cited concerns from advocates, charging it is a broad, anti-consumer policy that impedes passengers’ ability to sue. An Amtrak spokesperson told Politico the change would yield greater efficiency and not affect most customer issues. The adjustment stands out after a $265 million settlement went to families involved in a 2015 Philadelphia crash that killed eight and injured more than 200 riders.
Congress is expected to join the debate. We urge passengers to take a look, too. Record ridership on the rails is a good success story — one that should not cost customers their rights.