Amtrak: Clear or Restricting Signals This Summer?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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As states begin or continue the process of allowing more businesses and public facilities to open, some members of the traveling public wonder how many trains Amtrak will run this summer. Amtrak is running fewer trains than ever on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and other corridors, as part of the shutdown of much of the nation’s activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this writing, a few places have loosened some of the virus-related restrictions, while others are planning how and when to do so. Amtrak will probably return to a level of service approaching the schedule at the beginning of March someday, on some lines if not all of them, but nobody knows when. Apparently not even Amtrak is sure and, for some trains, Amtrak lacks the authority to make those decisions.

Railway Age has obtained Amtrak’s Schedule & Consist Plan Summary for this summer, dated May 7. The document says that a few trains will come back this summer, most will not return at least until Labor Day weekend, and almost all of the skeletal long-distance network will run with reduced consists. On the corridors, it claims that some trains will be restored on the NEC, fewer among the state-supported routes. In effect, it sets the signals for the return of service at “restricting” for many of Amtrak’s corridors and at “stop” for some of the trains. It calls for four Acela round trips starting June 1 (three, according to Amtrak’s website), with a reduced schedule on conventional NEC trains. The document did not list schedules, and neither does Amtrak’s website directly, so we checked the Reservations section of the website to get more details.

The website showed more-optimistic indications than the document, regarding a number of state-supported corridors and routes with one daily round trip; and “clear” for most of the corridors, effective June 1. According to the site, some corridors will return to full service slowly as the summer goes on, Keystone service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Downeaster trains between Boston and Maine, shuttles between New Haven and Springfield, and Empire Service in New York State among them. The Pennsylvanian to Pittsburgh and Vermont’s Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express were slated to come back later in the summer, too, according to the point-to-point Reservations schedules.

For other corridors, the website shows solid green: the regional corridors and other trains serving Chicago and other Midwestern points, Cascades trains, and California’s Pacific Surfliner and Capital Corridor routes (but not the San Joaquin route, which the website says will not come back to full service until Sept. 5). The Pere Marquette between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich., is supposed to come back on June 1, too.

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told Railway Age, “The document you have … was not and is not a final plan. Nor is it an announcement of any decision by Amtrak or our state partners. Many of the dates written in it are placeholders and nothing more.” It appears that the information on the website supersedes that on the May 7 document, which seems to confirm the good news. Those predictions sound positive, but can the riding public count on them?

That depends on which component of the Amtrak network you are considering. Amtrak dispatches the NEC and the USDOT owns most of it, so Amtrak has the final say about when Acela or Northeast Regional trains run on it. There are no Acela trains running at this writing, but Amtrak says that there will be two daily round trips between Washington, D.C. and Boston, and one between Washington and New York, starting June 1. The number of conventional trains on the NEC, which has never been lower during Amtrak’s history than it is now, will also increase that day. The NEC is slowly coming back.

Amtrak has been running the long-distance network (or at least most of it) throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and many advocates have given Amtrak high marks for doing so. That will continue, according to Magliari, but with reduced consists of sleeping cars and coaches. “We’re watching the ridership and the boardings,” he told Railway Age, and added that ridership is now about 10% of pre-COVID levels, which means that the remaining riders in the coaches can easily spread out. Amtrak plans to sell seats to only 50% of each car’s regular capacity.

Magliari added that Amtrak is watching purchase patterns for tickets and can adjust consists accordingly. Flexible Dining Service will continue on the western trains at least through the end of June. Magliari also noted that Amtrak has received enough aid under the CARES Act to keep crew members employed, including a robust extra board.

There is one portion of the Amtrak network where schedules are beyond Amtrak’s control, though, and that is the set of state-supported corridors and other trains. The states pay Amtrak to operate corridors outside the NEC in such places as Illinois, California and Washington State, along with a few other trains in Michigan, Oklahoma, Vermont, North Carolina and other states. “We will announce any changes as they are made in collaboration with our state partners, which was the case this week with NCDOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation),” Magliari said.

North Carolina is a case in point. The Carolinian, an all-day run between Charlotte and New York via Raleigh and Richmond, is not on the schedule at this writing, but there is a train running only between Raleigh and Charlotte on that train’s schedule. According to Jason T. Orthner, NCDOT’s Rail Division Manager, the train will return on its full schedule June 1. The three Piedmont round trips between Charlotte and Raleigh ran for the last time on Sunday, May 17. The Amtrak website says that one of those trains (78, which formerly left Charlotte for Raleigh at 7:00 pm and connected with Train 91, the southbound Silver Star, at Cary) will run on June 1, but NCDOT’s news release dated May 13 contradicts that assertion, saying: “The N.C. Department of Transportation is suspending operations of the state-operated Piedmont passenger rail service until further notice due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the department’s revenue.”

Orthner blamed reduced demand for rail service—a decrease of 80% to 90%—for the demise of the Piedmont service. As for when the trains will return to the schedule, he did not make any promises. He told Railway Age: “Our commitment to rail service generally is there. We’re trying to match restoration of rail service with the revenue picture and demand.”

North Carolina is like many other states at this writing. Retail stores are beginning to open with limits on customers, but food is only available for takeout or delivery, and personal-services businesses are still closed. There is still limited bus service on Greyhound between Raleigh and Charlotte, but motorists can enjoy all of the mobility that they had three months ago, as they can in other places. The problem that rail riders and motorists both face is that there are not many places to go these days, but advocates hope that the decision in North Carolina to suspend the Piedmont trains will not signal a national trend.

Since this article was originally posted, indications are improving in Pennsylvania.  According to an Amtrak news release, the Pennsylvanian between New York and Pittsburgh will be getting a Clear signal, effective June 1. Trains on the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg will come back, too, but under restriction.  There will be nine round trips on weekdays and six on weekends, compared to the former schedule of 13 on weekdays and seven on weekends. Except for the Pennsylvanian, there will be no through trains to and from New York. All service will run only between Philadelphia and Harrisburg for now.  Seats on Keystone trains were unreserved historically, but they will be reserved now “to allow for physical distancing,” according to Amtrak.

North of Massachusetts, there are no trains running in New England, either. Vermont’s two trains are suspended, as are all Downeaster trains that normally serve New Hampshire and Maine. There were no trains between Boston and Maine from 1965 until 2001, and neither are there any today.

Dr. Richard Rudolph is an advocate who lives in Portland, a member of the Maine Rail Group and Chair of the Rail Users’ Network (RUN; of which this writer is a member of the Board). He complained that, since highways are open, only motorists can travel. “The Concord Coach Lines buses and the trains are both gone” he told Railway Age, and said that the only bus still running to Boston is a single daily Greyhound run (Concord Coach suspended all operations on March 28). “The schedule doesn’t allow you to get to a destination on the ‘T’ and do anything in Boston. People without cars are totally dependent on Amtrak. How can you go to places that Amtrak serves when there are no trains?”

The Downeaster trains are suspended until at least May 31. Rudolph is not convinced that any trains will come back in June. “After that [May 31], who knows?” he opined, and his concern may be well-founded. The suspension might last much longer. According to the Amtrak website, there will be one weekday train making a commuter-type schedule to Boston starting on July 1, with full service not set to return until Labor Day Saturday, Sept. 5. Maine authorities could still extend the suspension of full service beyond the summer. Rudolph also noted that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA, the operating authority for the Downeaster service) is still paying its employees and accumulating overhead costs, even though it is not running any trains.

The prospects for the future can make any non-motorist nervous, along with motorists who like to take the train when they can. One such prospect is the loss of state support for the Amtrak trains they ride. Indiana’s Hoosier State, which provided service between Chicago and Indianapolis on the four days per week that the Cardinal did not run between those cities, ran for the last time on June 30, 2019. North Carolina ordered all trains on the Piedmont corridor suspended to save money.

Advocates and potential riders hope that the latest decision in North Carolina will not signal a new trend, but the percentage of Americans who are out of work is approaching those from the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With other pressing needs for limited state and local funds, will states remain confident that they can afford to continue funding trains for Amtrak to run? Illinois doubled service on all three of its state-supported corridors in 2006, but now all of those additional trains are gone. So are many other state-supported trains, for how long is not known. The same is true for other corridors, where the participating states have increased service over the years.

The future in uncertain, even for Amtrak. The state-supported trains are facing a Restricting indication at best, and a long-lasting Stop indication at worst. Like a frustrated conductor on a train forced into the hole, Amtrak must “call Dispatch” to find out when its “state partners” will turn a Restricting signal to Clear, or at least a Stop to a Restricting. The trains that go to Canada will need Canadian authorities to grant permission to proceed, and that could take a long time, too. VIA Rail’s long-distance trains that used to run across Canada are suspended at least until November 1. Amtrak is doing better than that, with most long-distance Amtrak trains running on regular schedules, and Amtrak planning to restore service on the NEC. For the state-supported Amtrak trains, though, all of us continue “waiting on Dispatch,” and we may be doing so for a long time to come.

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