WASHINGTON — House Republicans are pressing Amtrak to answer questions about six-figure bonuses that top executives received last year despite the rail service’s poor financial performance and low ridership during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to the chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors, two Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee asked the company to explain how it awards bonuses, saying that the payouts to executives seemed to be “inappropriate” and “wasteful.”
The letter was sent after a report by The New York Times in August revealing that Amtrak paid out $2.3 million in short-term incentive bonuses to top executives in the 2021 fiscal year despite reporting its lowest revenue and biggest losses in more than a decade. Nine executives received bonuses exceeding $200,000.
The letter, dated on Thursday, was signed by Representatives Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rick Crawford of Arkansas, the top Republican on the panel’s railroads subcommittee.
Republicans are favored to take back the House in the midterm elections on Tuesday, and with it, the party would also gain control of committees like the transportation panel. Winning the majority would increase the party’s power to conduct oversight and investigations, including placing new scrutiny on how federal dollars are spent.
“Payment of lavish executive bonuses when Amtrak services and revenues remain below prepandemic levels, and financial losses appear permanent, seem inappropriate, wasteful and disrespectful to Amtrak’s nonexecutive frontline employees and taxpayers,” Mr. Graves and Mr. Crawford wrote in the letter.
They noted that Amtrak lost $789 million in the 2020 fiscal year and $1 billion the next year, and that ridership fell by nearly 63 percent from 2019 to 2021, a period that includes the onset of the pandemic.
Christina Leeds, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said in a statement that the company welcomed the opportunity to brief the lawmakers. She said that businesses commonly used employee incentive plans and that Congress had recommended them to the rail service.
“We are pleased to offer these incentives as part of our competitive compensation package, helping us attract and retain talent who have the amazing opportunity to rebuild and expand passenger rail,” Ms. Leeds said. “To earn incentives, Amtrak must achieve a high level of corporate performance in support of our company’s strategic plan — and employees must also meet their individual performance goals.”
The Times reported in August that Stephen J. Gardner, an Amtrak executive who became the chief executive this year, received more than $766,000 in short-term incentive bonuses from 2016 to 2021, more than any other executive. Eleanor D. Acheson, the company’s general counsel, received about $727,000 over that period.
Amtrak has said that it increased its short-term incentive bonuses for managers across the company in 2019 to try to counter retention and hiring issues. The company said it created the bonus program in 2013 after modifying its pension program and closing it off to newly hired employees.
The rail service is still struggling with the effects of the pandemic. Its ridership remains below prepandemic levels as it tries to find ways to attract new customers. But it stands to benefit from a major infusion of federal cash after passage last year of the bipartisan infrastructure package, which included $66 billion in new spending on rail.