Nov 7, 2021 - Axios on HBO

Amtrak chief thrilled by Biden's infrastructure deal

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn told "Axios on HBO" the $66 billion coming to rail through the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will be "absolutely transformational" and "more funding than we've had in our 50 years of history combined."

The big picture: Flynn spoke about Amtrak's 50th anniversary, President "Amtrak Joe" Biden, navigating COVID-19 and preparing for climate change. The setting was the new Moynihan Train Hall expansion of Penn Station in New York, just days before final passage of the infrastructure bill.

  • Amtrak's ridership numbers are now at about 65% of pre-COVID levels and trending up, he said.

Details: About half of the money targeted for Amtrak would go to expanding intercity passenger rail across the U.S. — targeting places where there are now few or no routes.

  • "Phoenix to Tucson is a great example," Flynn said. "Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati. Los Angeles to Las Vegas."
  • As for a dream stop that doesn't currently exist: "I think Nashville would be a great place to stop. I mean, how many country-western songs involve trains?"

Asked if Amtrak's commitment to reducing emissions by 40% by 2030 is enough, Flynn said reductions are "never enough" but would be an "important goal and an important achievement."

  • "We take environmental threat and environmental risk very seriously."

One big question: How successfully will Amtrak comply with federal vaccine mandates by the upcoming deadline?

  • Flynn told me he gets updates on internal COVID-19 statistics daily for the company's more than 18,000 employees. He said about 3,000 have gotten the virus since the start of the pandemic — and around 30 employees had died.
  • About 85% of Amtrak workers had received at least one shot at the time of the interview, up from about 50% in early August.
  • He said the company is emphasizing to its unvaccinated workers the need to protect themselves, fellow employees and customers.
  • "We don't want to see people leave the company, leave the corporation. We want people to be vaccinated, to be healthy and have a great career here. ... Our goal is to speak in human terms."

What we're watching: Flynn told Axios that while he couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation into a deadly derailment in Montana in September, Amtrak will continue to support the NTSB's investigation and "it affects all of us deeply."

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Flynn incorrectly described the company’s arbitration rule. It does not allow litigation as an alternative, and arbitration was not waived in a September derailment in Montana. The story has been updated to remove the inaccurate language.

Go deeper