In an election like no other, voters in a number of metropolitan areas decided whether their transit districts would raise taxes to spend more money on local transit.
Author: David Peter Alan
It has now been more than six months since the COVID-19 virus hit the United States and Canada, and also hit transit hard in both nations. The riders disappeared. On some systems, ridership dropped as low as 5% of prior levels. Service plummeted in many places, too. Here at Railway Age and its sibling publications, we kept track of the downward progress of everything on rails: freight and passenger/transit. This writer was on the team that documented rail transit’s decline. Ridership is beginning its slow upward climb; how far up it will eventually go is anybody’s guess. So is service; in some places more than others. This article will present a comprehensive look at how rail transit is returning.
Thus far in this series, we have focused on the narrow issue of Amtrak’s service reduction from daily to three-times-a-week on its entire long-distance train network. We discussed costs, ideology, Amtrak’s impossible demands for restoring daily service, and what Congress can do to prevent the harm that Amtrak management is inflicting on the riding public and their communities.
On May 24, Amtrak President William J. Flynn wrote to Vice President Michael Pence (in his capacity as President of the Senate) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, demanding a supplemental appropriation of $1.475 billion, and threatening to cut service on every long-distance (L-D) train (except the Auto Train, which is only available for travelers with a motor vehicle) from daily operation to only three departures per week. Most of the reductions are in place as of this Oct. 5 posting, although Amtrak cut service between New York and Florida in half on July 6.
Amtrak is poised to implement the most far-reaching service reductions in its history, Oct. 1. Every long-distance (L-D) train that currently runs every day will be lose more than half of its departures; reduced to running only three times per week. In the past, Amtrak reduced operation of some trains to three or four days a week, the most notable being the infamous Mercer Management cuts of the mid-1990s, which proved that cutting service increased costs by a greater amount than it saved. In other words, restricting the choice of travel days not only inconvenienced customers, but also cost Amtrak more. Despite that experience, Amtrak is about to reduce service on every L-D train, except for the Auto-Train, by 57%.
Time is running out for daily operation of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. It could also be running out for the very concept that a train could provide reliable transportation between far-flung communities every day, with same-day connections to other trains, at least in this country. With various exceptions, this has been the basis of Amtrak’s long-distance train network for the first 49 years and five months of its corporate existence, as well as for nearly 140 years before Amtrak began operations in 1971.
For almost half a century, passenger rail service in the United States has resided in the public sector. Despite its unusual statutory charter, Amtrak’s voting shares belong to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Every transit agency that runs trains in its metropolitan area is owned by some sort of public entity, whether based in state or local government, or a separate public-sector authority. Times are changing, though, and certain private-sector entities have expressed interest in running passenger railroads.
Beginning Oct. 1, Amtrak is reducing service on its entire long-distance (L-D) train network from daily to three departures per week, except for the two trains that already run only tri-weekly-only schedules, and the Auto Train.
The honeymoon between Brightline, the private-sector luxury passenger train in Florida, and the Virgin brand is over. It lasted for fewer than two years. When we reported about the change in branding from Brightline to Virgin Trains USA late in 2018, it appeared that the edgy and innovative Brightline brand was headed for oblivion. It now seems that the COVID-19 virus is responsible for the reversal of events that led to a parting of the ways. Whatever the reason, the Brightline brand will now live again.
Exactly a century ago, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1920, diversity in music took a giant leap forward. The occasion was the first recording session that featured a black popular singer, backed up by a jazz band from Harlem, performing the first record widely accepted as an example of the blues. That event changed the music business forever, and reinforced the universal kinship felt by everyone who plays jazz, or has a serious interest in it. It is not unlike the kinship shared among those of us who are serious about our trains, our transit, and the policies and procedures that keep them in service.