Amtrak is not out to kill the long-distance train

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited leans into a curve on Norfolk Southern trackage in Otis, Ind., on June 19, 2020. The train, which operates daily, is among the long-distance services that would be reduced to triweekly under an Amtrak plan to save money during the pandemic. TRAINS: David Lassen
Some of Amtrak’s most ardent supporters view the railroad’s plan to reduce nearly all long-distance trains to a triweekly schedule as a sign of impending doom. They contend that the cutbacks, effective at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, are the latest attempt to kill the long-distance network.

This is, in my view, an overreaction fed by recent Amtrak missteps. There’s no evidence the triweekly service plan is part of some diabolical plot to end the long distance train as we know it. Instead, it’s simply a bad idea born from crisis.

Last week, in a webcast interview with The Washington Post, CEO William Flynn said Amtrak is fully committed to its long-distance trains, which he called an essential part of the system. The long-distance network, he noted, enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress. And he said long-distance service is one of the keys to doubling Amtrak ridership over the next 20 years.

Those are four critical points from Amtrak’s new boss. So why, then, has Flynn proposed reducing long-distance service?

The answer should be obvious. We are in unprecedented times as the pandemic has nearly wiped out travel demand. In April, Amtrak ridership plunged to just 3% of pre-pandemic levels. Put another way: Amtrak carried 3,000 passengers a day when normally 90,000 souls would board its trains. This blew a gaping hole in Amtrak’s budget, and it’s why Amtrak temporarily withdrew the Acela from service, greatly scaled back other frequencies on the Northeast Corridor, and reduced service on state-supported routes. 

Ridership is slowly climbing out of this hole. But Amtrak expects that ridership will remain 50% below pre-pandemic levels for the next year or more. The reality is that’s a guess, and no one really knows how long or how much the pandemic will sap travel demand. Nonetheless, Amtrak must do the fiscally responsible thing by running fewer trains as its ridership and revenue fall off a cliff.

Left relatively untouched until now has been long-distance service. Amtrak claims, without showing its math, that reducing long-distance frequency from daily to triweekly will save $150 million in next year’s budget. The Auto Train will continue to operate daily, however, and Florida service was trimmed this week. The Silver Star is operating triweekly, while the Silver Meteor is operating four days per week. This arrangement largely preserves daily service, with the notable exception of stops in the Carolinas where the trains’ routes diverge.

The problem elsewhere is that Amtrak’s long-distance trains form a skeletal network that offers just one daily departure from the vast majority of stations. You can’t cut service in a skeletal network without removing bones. And that weakens the whole system and creates a host of other headaches.

A sole daily departure is not a particularly useful travel option for many people; three day a week service is virtually useless. Triweekly service will only further reduce ridership and revenue not just on the long-distance network, but on connecting regional trains as well, making projected savings illusory. Amtrak learned this lesson when it retreated from daily service on several long distance routes in the mid 1990s. Triweekly service also raises the risk that long-distance trains could lose their daily slots on a Class I host railroad or two. Then what?

The ink was barely dry on Amtrak’s triweekly service announcement last month when 16 senators from states served by the long-distance network wrote to Flynn, protesting the decision and demanding answers. The senators’ key question: How will Amtrak know when daily service should be restored? 

Amtrak has not yet officially responded, so far as I know. Flynn’s answer to this question in his Washington Post interview was unsatisfying because it did not offer specifics on what would bring back daily service. Amtrak, he said, will consider not just bookings and ridership, but the state of the pandemic and broader levels of travel demand, such as airline trends.

My guess is Amtrak ultimately won’t pull the trigger on triweekly service in October. Here’s why.

Amtrak, seemingly stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, is not just a transportation company. As a quasi-government corporation it’s also a political animal. And the long-distance network is the political glue that holds Amtrak together. The grand bargain is that senators and representatives from states served by long-distance trains support the Northeast Corridor, while in turn those from the Northeast Corridor back the long-distance network. You have to think that Amtrak people are smart enough to not upset this balance that keeps federal funds flowing.

There are several ways daily long-distance service could be preserved beyond Oct. 1. 

One is that an element of the House’s INVEST in America Act – maintaining daily service for long-distance trains – could be picked up in the Senate. 

Alternatively, both chambers could decide to grant Amtrak’s request for $2.47 billion next year, but only on the condition that daily long-distance service is preserved where it exists today. 

Or Amtrak could simply bow to political pressure and keep the trains running every day. Amtrak will be able to tell the anti-Amtrak faction in Congress that they tried to live within their means but their hands were tied by the people in Congress who would not permit long-distance service to be cut.

In an uncertain world, one thing’s certain. This is just the latest funding crunch for Amtrak, which has lurched from crisis to crisis in the past five decades. It will emerge from this one just the way it always has: The company will continue to receive enough money to survive but not enough to thrive.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on twitter @bybillstephens

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