Eighth in a Series: Can You Still Get There From Here?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

Until less than two months ago, most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains operated every day.

With the exception of the Cardinal (which has run only three times a week since 1981), that included every train that originates or terminates at Chicago, Amtrak’s main transfer hub. Except for the Florida trains (Silver Meteor and Silver Star), which have operated on differently reduced schedules since July 6, all of the other trains have joined the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited in running only three times per week.

The inconvenience that nearly all of Amtrak’s riders on the long-distance (L-D) trains will now suffer goes beyond merely having their choice of travel days cut from seven days a week to only three. In this article, I will explore that new inconvenience for many Amtrak passengers. I also have an appendix to this article, which sets forth which trains still have same-day connections to other trains, and on which days (if any) such connections are still available. That information is not readily available on the Amtrak website.

For passengers connecting with another Amtrak train at Chicago or somewhere else, not every linked trip will be available three times each week. Some formerly same-day connections are now available only once or twice each week. Others are no longer available at all. Some intrepid riders who still insist on taking Amtrak for a long trip will now have to endure journeys that are much longer than they were when the trains ran every day. I will now look at connectivity and travel time on the “new, improved, tri-weekly” Amtrak L-D network, which has replaced the old network that ran every day.

The current service reductions and consequent connectivity reductions are far more drastic than the infamous Mercer cuts of the mid-1990s, which affected almost all of the trains west of Chicago, but kept most of the trains east of there on daily schedules. For trips consisting of a single segment, everybody’s choice of travel day has been reduced by 57% (43% on the Silver Meteor and 50% for riders going between points previously served by both Florida trains). For linked trips requiring a connection, their options with the same amount of travel time as before have only been reduced by 57% if they are lucky enough to be taking the right combination of trains. The percentage of potential trips that entail the same travel time as previously have been reduced by 72% or 86% for other train-pairs, or clear down to zero, on combinations where there are no same-day connections scheduled any more.

In terms of travel time, lack of a same-day connection increases travel time by at least 24 hours, and maybe 48, depending on the day of the week. Here is an example: A passenger leaving the East for Chicago on a Wednesday can no longer connect to the California Zephyr toward San Francisco and Denver on Thursday. The next train does not leave Chicago until Saturday, but the Friday departures from the East are scheduled to make a same-day connection to the Zephyr. With an extended layover in Chicago, the train fare may be similar, but the total cost of the trip now includes a hotel bill for a night or two in the Windy City, meals, entertainment, fares on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and incidentals. If all trains still had same-day connections in Chicago, the only expenses there would be the cost of one or two meals, a couple of CTA fares, and maybe the price of admission to a museum.

In the fourth article in this series, “Amtrak’s Impossible Demands,” I noted that Amtrak would not restore any train to daily operation voluntarily, unless 90% of pre-COVID-19 bookings are in place by Feb. 21 of next year. I discussed how it is very difficult to believe that Amtrak’s conditions could be met, and the recent strong resurgence of the COVID-19 virus throughout the country makes that clear. So does the fortuity of available connections, or lack of it. I did not even discuss the possibility of a misconnect caused by Amtrak, a host freight railroad or another problem beyond Amtrak’s control. In that event, nobody can be accommodated on a train the next day, because it no longer exists. Except for certain days on the Florida trains, the next train is always two or three days off.

Will Amtrak foot the hotel bill for through-ticketed passengers who miss their connection and must stay in Chicago (or another transfer point) for two or three extra days? Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari answered in the affirmative: “There are no changes to our policy on customers who do not make their guaranteed connections.” Still, even with Amtrak supplying the hotel room and meal vouchers, how many passengers would be willing put up with such a delay more than once, or even take a chance on Amtrak again, once they have suffered such a long delay for the first time? The cost of such missed connections will increase markedly, not only for the passenger, but for Amtrak, too. It will now cost two or three times as much to accommodate each passenger who misses a guaranteed connection when there is no train “tomorrow” but the next one will not leave for two or three days.

Without same-day connections, it does not appear that many riders would be willing to spend an extra day or two in Chicago or some other transfer location, unless the layover is actually part of that person’s vacation plans. Of course, when the trains ran every day, anybody could have planned a stopover in such a place at their own cost and expense if they so desired. Now what they get instead is the inconvenience of a vastly increased travel time to their ultimate destinations, while having to spend extra money during the now-extended layover between trains.

To make matters worse, Amtrak’s website does not provide the information contained in this article or its appendix. Even after the cuts were implemented, Amtrak was still showing some daily schedules on its website. Now the schedules list days of departure. The “trip planner” function also shows which departure days feature a same-day connection to another train, but a more-complex itinerary or having two segments without a same-day connection trigger a “service not available” response. Is Amtrak intentionally making it difficult for potential riders to see the schedules? If so, that would help Amtrak enormously in its effort to ensure that its announced 90% threshold for enough demand to restore daily operation is never met, so management would never again have to be saddled with the burden of running long-distance trains every day. Magliari told me, “We expect to resume providing downloadable schedules by the end of this month. However, pouring over timetables is not how most customers book travel. Most customers explore their options or book travel using the desktop or one of the apps. I have several improvements planned for those channels, and customers are welcome to call 800-USA-RAIL for assistance, too.” Those schedules have been posted since he said that, but potential passengers must be sufficiently familiar with Amtrak to use the website, an Amtrak app, or the phone number to make reservations. New riders might not even be aware that trains do not run daily anymore.

In the meantime, I have this information about travel days and connections for you in the appendix to this article. So, if you were planning to take a trip on Amtrak within the foreseeable future, it would be highly advisable for you to check it before you travel, and then check with Amtrak to make sure that the operating days for your trains have not changed. This will save time and effort in determining when you can ride and whether or not you have a same-day connection to your ultimate destination. Not all of the information used in preparing this article came from Amtrak. Some advocates and journalists who are not affiliated with Amtrak have noted the new departure days for the trains, and I used that information to figure out which departures have the connections.

Magliari also told me: “We have been promoting our work to provide a safe travel experience, suspending fees or penalties in most cases and offering very attractive fare promotions. Those efforts and others will continue.” There is no reason to dispute that statement. I have taken advantage of some low fares on the Lake Shore Limited, for a final ride on it as a daily train and for an initial ride on it as a tri-weekly train. Still, will low fares and promotions make up for the higher level of inconvenience to which Amtrak is now subjecting the riders on its long-distance trains? There is no way that Amtrak could avoid suspending at least some fees and penalties, especially since riders booked on certain days no longer have a train that day. How crowded will the trains be in the near future, due to passengers whose trains no longer operate, and who had to be switched to a day when the train they want will run? And how many of those riders will be willing to ride on a day of Amtrak’s choosing, rather than on a day of their own choosing. Not that many, if Amtrak’s experience during the Mercer cuts of the mid-1990s are any indication. Still, time will tell, and I will report results to you.

In 1996, I planned a major itinerary, unaware that the Mercer cuts had devastated service in much of the West and South. It was “dumb luck” that every segment had been booked for a day when the desired train actually ran. The present cuts are so severe that such an outcome is now effectively impossible. I may attempt to book an 18-segment “farewell tour” sometime in the future, for the challenge, the chance to see friends and colleagues around the country one last time as part of a major Amtrak itinerary, and the story that would develop from the trip reports. In the meantime, a few point-to-point trips on the permitted travel days will be enough. I took a circle trip in October, using three trains on the “new, improved, tri-weekly” schedules, but not to any COVID-19 hot spots. I will have a trip report from that particular adventure as the next article in this series.

In the meantime, if you want to know exactly which trains have connections with which other trains, you are welcome to join me “in the weeds” in the downloadable Appendix:

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); an M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); an M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981). The opinions expressed here are his own.