Creative thinking could lessen pandemic’s impact on train riders

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, September 10, 2020

In my last column (and I apologize for having been away from these virtual pages for the last five months), I discussed the opportunities that the ongoing crisis could present to the U.S. passenger rail industry. For Amtrak and other operators to position themselves for growth on the other side of the pandemic will require outside-the-box thinking in order to maximize cost-effectiveness without turning away the core customer base that is continuing to ride trains during the pandemic. 

Passengers board Amtrak's westbound Capitol Limited in Pittsburgh, Penn. near midnight on Sunday night, Aug. 2, 2020. Under Amtrak's service reduction plan, this train would not serve Pittsburgh on Sundays. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Less than a tenth of the number who were commuting by train during peak hours and in the peak directions before COVID are doing so now, and it’s looking like commuter volumes may never return to what they were. Agencies must start to rethink rail services that are designed to serve, and derive most of their ridership from, the traditional commuter market. They must adapt these routes to serving as all-day bi-directional regional connectors, or else it is doubtful that these routes will survive long-term.

A plurality of over 40% of Amtrak’s current ridership uses long-distance trains, and demand for sleeping car accommodations has increased as these facilitate social distancing more than most other forms of travel. In a sleeping car room with the door closed is perhaps the only way one can fairly safely travel mask-free these days. Why would a company facing a sharp decline in revenue sabotage the one product that is performing the best? 

Amtrak’s current plan to reduce frequencies on its national network trains to three times weekly — at least halving the system’s utilities by breaking many same-day connections — and furlough over 2,000 employees shows that its management remains stuck in its old self-defeating mindset. As the Rail Passengers Association’s research has shown, this move would bring about negative long-term consequences that would more than outweigh any temporary savings the carrier may gain — and whether the move would save much money at all is an open question, given that the overhead costs would remain while revenue is cut nearly in half. 

My colleague Bill Stephens may be right that the threat of cutting service and laying off workers is merely a political ploy to get the emergency relief it needs from Congress — one on which the company does not actually intend to follow through. Even if that’s true, it does not change how colossally short-sided the idea is, especially considering that it is one Amtrak has tried before with predictable consequences: while some routes eventually returned to daily service after three years, others were discontinued.

If Amtrak management were to exercise at least a little creativity, there are ways it could adjust service while retaining at least once daily service to many stations that would lose daily service under the current plan (or have already been without it since July 6). These shifts would require negotiating temporary modifications with the carrier’s state partners. 

Amtrak's eastbound Cardinal, which has operated thrice weekly since 1979, receives passengers in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 7, 2020.
For the New York-Florida market, instead of cutting daily service to points like Columbia and Tampa by running the Silver Meteor Monday-Thursday and the Silver Star Friday-Sunday, Amtrak could have run a through daily train on the Silver Star route combined with the Carolinian and Palmetto to connect to stops on those routes not served by the Star. Carolinian passengers could take the Star and make a cross-platform transfer at Raleigh’s high-median-platform station for points between there and Charlotte, while passengers for points between Rocky Mount and Savannah on the Meteor route could connect to a truncated Palmetto at Richmond or Savannah.

On the West Coast, with the cooperation of the regional Joint Powers Authorities, the Coast Starlight could temporarily become a Portland-Sacramento train (thereby needing at least one less consist and crew), either the Capitol Corridor or Pacific Surfliner could be extended to connect with the other and preserve service over the Starlight route south of Sacramento, and a Cascades schedule could be adjusted to provide a convenient Portland-Seattle connection.

In the Midwest, either the Illini or Saluki could be temporarily extended south to Memphis on days the City of New Orleans will not run, and the Carl Sandburg could go as far west as Kansas City on the Southwest Chief route on days the Chief will not operate, with the Illinois Zephyr protecting service to Macomb and Quincy, Ill. A Hiawatha round-trip could be extended to St. Paul Union Depot on days the Empire Builder will not run. Equipment for state-supported service could also augment try-weekly service on portions of the Texas Eagle and Lake Shore Limited routes that aren’t already shared with state-supported services.

Nothing that Amtrak or rail transit agencies do now can obviate the need for continued emergency federal funding to get operators through the pandemic without having to make painful longer-term service cuts to close their budget gaps. Sadly, the Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate is failing the country by refusing to take up relief bills passed by the House. It appears the best we can hope for is a few scraps from a continuing resolution until after the election — but there’s always a chance that enough pressure from voters could turn the tide. There’s never a bad time to call or email your Senators.

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