Amtrak, Seeking to Break Even, Sees Some Light at the End of the Tunnel


Amtrak, Seeking to Break Even, Sees Some Light at the End of the Tunnel

WASHINGTON—Amtrak inched closer to breaking even last year, the company reported Friday, as rising ridership and cost cuts continued a multiyear improvement in the railroad’s financial performance.

Amtrak reported an adjusted operating loss of $29.8 million across the entire national railroad network, significantly beating a previous target of a loss of $75 million in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Its operating loss in fiscal 2018 was $170.6 million.

Operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, the company said, an increase of 3.6% over fiscal 2018.

The railroad’s fortunes were boosted by rising ridership in a strong economy. The railroad recorded 32.5 million customer trips, a record that surpassed the previous year by 800,000.

Ridership on the premium Acela service on the Northeast Corridor grew more than 4%, and was up almost 3% on Northeast regional trains. Ridership on long-distance trains—which have been plagued by delays and unreliability—also grew by almost 1%, the company said.

Amtrak Chief Executive

Richard Anderson

has told Congress that the railroad will break even on the operation of its rail network—not counting the significant amounts it spends maintaining physical infrastructure such as trains, tracks and tunnels—by next summer.

It would, if achieved, be the first time in Amtrak’s nearly 50-year history that the national passenger railroad has reached the break-even point in the traditionally money-losing business of moving people by rail.

Amtrak’s proposals for altering or eliminating some of its long-distance train routes, in favor of more frequent service where the population is growing, is facing opposition among those who fear rural America would suffer. WSJ’s Jason Bellini reports. Photo: Getty

“The best five years of Amtrak’s history have been the last five,” said

Anthony Coscia,

the chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors, in an interview. “We’re within visibility of earning a profit for the first time in the company’s history.”

Mr. Coscia credited the leadership of Mr. Anderson, previously the CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., and his predecessor Charles “Wick”

Moorman,

the former chief of Norfolk Southern Corp., for helping the railroad grow its operating revenue while cutting costs.

The company said it had boosted its capital investment by more than 9% to $1.6 billion in the past fiscal year. The company goal is to eventually spend $2 billion annually on improvements to Amtrak-owned tracks and trains, relying on a blend of funds from ticket sales and grants from the federal government.

Amtrak is a private corporation, chartered by Congress to operate the national passenger rail network, and almost fully owned by the government.

Critics of the railroad’s management have long challenged Amtrak’s accounting.

The company says it makes money on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, and loses money on long-distance routes that crisscross the rest of the country. Supporters of the long-distance routes, which Mr. Anderson seeks to overhaul or cut, say that Amtrak understates the expense of maintaining the rail corridor in the Northeast, and inappropriately attributes costs of the corridor to the long-distance system.

Amtrak highlighted the money it has spent on the rail network in the 2019 fiscal year, saying it has improved performance and helped to drive ridership.

Amtrak spent $713 million on infrastructure improvements, such as new concrete rail ties, helping to improve travel speeds and ride quality in the Northeast Corridor. The company also introduced a safety-management system that was influenced by the airline industry—from which Mr. Anderson has recruited top executives—and finished installing a federally mandated anticrash signal system, with the exception of a small section of low-speed track in Chicago.

Amtrak says the money it has spent on the rail network in fiscal 2019 has improved performance and helped to drive ridership.


Photo:

Adria Malcolm for The Wall Street Journal

Amtrak has also upgraded the interiors on regional and Acela trains, started construction of a new Acela fleet, launched a procurement process to replace cars on the regional train fleet, and awarded a contract for 75 new diesel locomotives for the national network.

In the interview, Mr. Coscia said the improving financial performance at Amtrak would help the railroad as it prepares to approach Congress, and possibly private investors, to support its enormous capital needs, including new tunnels in Baltimore and New York and major upgrades along the entire Northeast Corridor.

“The stronger we become as a company, the better we are at convincing people that we have ability to take their capital and invest it in a way that’s good for the company and good for the country,” he said.

Write to Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com

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