After a ‘near death’ experience, Amtrak prepares for rapid growth

Two years ago, Amtrak was facing a “near-death” experience, Stephen Gardner, CEO of the national passenger rail service, said at a briefing last week with the Association for a Better New York. Both business and travel leisure rapidly grinded to a halt, causing ticket sales to drop 97 percent in a matter of weeks.

Now, the agency is seeing an unprecedented demand for Amtrak seats and rapidly moving to add service to new cities across the nation. Ridership on the Northeast Corridor is only down 15 percent from 2019 levels, with some routes surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s really very positive that even though the world has changed so much in Covid, we see really strong interest in passenger rail and a whole new generation of riders coming into the network,” Gardner said.

The new demand is reflective of different travel needs, Gardner said. Amtrak’s Empire service that runs to Albany has seen “tremendous growth” driven by the number of people who moved to the Hudson Valley during the pandemic. Leisure trips and new customers are behind most of the new sales, influencing Amtrak to add routes to more getaway destinations. The quasi-public authority recently added service to the Berkshires and Burlington, Vermont.

“It’s an example of the shifting decisions around work and lifestyle and location that play to Amtrak’s strengths,” Gardner said.

Amtrak has a goal of doubling its ridership by 2040 to achieve 65 million riders, and predicts it can fully recover the 33 million riders it recorded before the pandemic by 2024. It’s a far cry from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is more dependent on work commutes and recently said it may not see ridership rebound until 2035.

Adding new and more frequent service is essential to achieving that kind of growth, and Amtrak is preparing to oversee billions in capital work over the next several decades. It will get $22 billion in direct aid from the federal infrastructure package. Another $44 billion goes toward competitive transit grants that states can tap into for various rail proposals — with Northeast Corridor projects eligible to receive up to $32 billion, Gardner said.

It’s a significant amount of funding, but still falls short of the kind of investment European transit agencies regularly make to expand and improve high-speed rail service. To put it into perspective, Europe invested $1 trillion in its rail system over the last two decades, Gardner said. With the recent infrastructure package, the United States will have invested $120 billion into rail over the last 50 years.

“We have the system we have, because we haven’t chosen to invest in creating a higher capacity system,” Gardner said. “We can, it just takes time.”

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We are just joined at the hip whether we wanted to be or not — our birth is such that we are integrated at really the deepest levels to make our respective systems work,” Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner on the company’s arranged marriage with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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COMPANIES PLAN OFFICE SPACE CUTS — Commercial Observer’s Celia Young: “Nearly half of companies plan to cut their office space in the next year, joining a growing number who have already done the same, according to a July survey from flexible workspace software provider Robin. Robin’s survey of 250 U.S. companies found that 46 percent plan to reduce their office footprint over the next 12 months. Of those, 59 percent said they would shrink their space by more than half. To make matters worse, for the office market at least, a potential recession will likely encourage firms to start subletting their offices rather than fire workers, according to the survey.

‘For most folks’ balance sheets, it’s people and real estate which are No. 1 and 2 on the budget,’ said Zach Dunn, co-founder and vice president of customer experience at Robin. ‘You get a lot more out of people than real estate in the average company nowadays, and I think that people being prioritized during a recession is not inherently a bad thing.’”

ADAMS TRIES TO GREET ASYLUM SEEKERS — New York Post’s Kevin Sheehan and Lee Brown: “Even border crossers are too scared of the crime-ridden Big Apple. Mayor Adams tried to greet the latest bus load of migrants to get shipped in from Texas early Sunday — but was horrified to find the vast majority had already skipped, admitting it was likely through ‘fear’ of the city. ‘We were led to believe about 40 people should have been on that bus. Only 14 got off,’ said Adams, whom The Post caught having heated words with an organizer during the alarming, unexpected 7 a.m. no-show at Midtown’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The mayor suggested that the most likely reason was ‘that because of the fear that something was going to happen to them if they came to this location, people got off earlier.’”

MTA STEPS BACK FROM ELECTRIC TRAIN PUSH — Newsday’s Alfonso A. Castillo: “Battery-operated train technology, which the LIRR hoped would revolutionize how it operates nonelectrified tracks, has turned out to be too costly, inconvenient and risky to implement any time soon, the railroad said. Long Island Rail Road officials said last month that they would not move forward with the next phase of testing the battery trains, citing costs as one of the main reasons. After a feasibility study, the railroad determined it would cost $26 million to outfit two electric train cars — significantly more than the cost of buying a pair of new train cars. The LIRR’s new M9 fleet cost about $3.6 million per car.

The setback comes as the LIRR faces growing pressure from riders, elected officials and conservationists to modernize its diesel territory, where trains are fewer in number, less reliable, and less environmentally friendly than the rest of the LIRR’s fleet. Diesels compose about 14% of the LIRR’s 1,251 train cars.”

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CITY TACKLES TRASH BAGS ON STREET — New York Times’ Dodai Stewart: “The city’s Clean Curbs pilot program involves a deceptively simple proposal for dealing with the bags of trash that New Yorkers often see waiting to be picked up on sidewalks and corners: Put them in a bin. Sanitation officials placed a few sealed, rat-resistant sheds for trash bags in front of businesses in late June and mid-July. There are two sheds near Times Square and two on Montague Street. The containers are from the Brooklyn-based company Citibin, and more are on the way — a pilot program for residential blocks will roll out in the fall, starting in Hell’s Kitchen.”

ONE OF THE LAST 421-A DEVELOPMENTS PROCEEDING — Crain’s Natalie Sachmechi: “One of the city’s last affordable housing developments built through the 421-a tax exemption program is moving ahead with a $388.4 million construction loan. The new Downtown Brooklyn project, The Brook, is designed to comprise 448,000 square feet of luxury apartments and retail space across two separate sites: the 51-story eastern site at 565 Fulton St. with 591 units, 17,200 square feet of ground-floor retail and 30,000 square feet of amenity space; and the western site at 547–557 Fulton St., which contains 14,000 square feet of retail space.”

— The city Department of Health warned that Black New Yorkers are more likely to fall ill during heat waves.

— A New York landlord is on the hook for more than $2 million as part of a settlement with Attorney General Letitia James.

— The DMV rejected close to 4,000 requests for vanity plates, including one that would read ‘MILFDAD.’

— Newark Penn Station is getting its own renovation, and transit officials are asking the public to weigh in on the plans.

— Staten Island ferry workers pushed for an 18 percent raise over 12 years in their most recent contract negotiation, before labor shortages led to service disruptions.

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