Omicron Forces Amtrak Service Cuts

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

The Texas Eagle (Chicago and San Antonio) will not run on Wednesdays or Thursdays.

Amtrak has been impacted by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has sickened, albeit not killed, millions of people, even the fully vaccinated, creating staff shortages. Seven months after Amtrak restored full service, the cuts are coming again. Most long-distance trains will be affected, along with some trains on a number of corridors in the East and Midwest, including the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The severity of service reductions will be uniform for most of the long-distance routes, but less so on the corridors in the Northeast and around Chicago.

Amtrak has announced that the cuts will last through Sunday, March 27, a ten-week duration. The coming reductions will not be as severe as the ones instituted in October 2020, which eliminated an absolute majority of weekly long-distance runs, but they will have a negative impact on all trains.

Amtrak’s announcement came on Jan. 14, blaming the COVID-19 virus, particularly the Omicron strain, for the service reductions. Its explanation is plausible on its face, because of other disruptions that Omicron has caused. The release summarized the service reductions this way:

  • Suspension of 8% of Northeast Regional weekly departures between Jan. 24 and March 27.
  • Suspension of 6% of state-supported weekly departures between Jan. 18 and March 27.
  • Suspension of two weekly departures on nine long-distance routes between Jan. 24 and March 27, reducing weekly service from daily to five days per week; routes include the Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Texas Eagle, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and City of New Orleans.
  • Suspension of Silver Meteor daily service between Jan. 17 and March 27, offset by a corresponding increase in capacity, as dictated by demand, on the Silver Star and Palmetto routes serving nearly all the destinations served by the Silver Meteor.

The “8%” and “6%” figures are somewhat misleading, because they constitute averages of new levels of service on lines whose service has been reduced relatively severely and other lines that will suffer no reductions at all. On the long-distance network, though, most trains will run five consecutive days a week, and not on the other two. There are exceptions, though. The Cardinal and Sunset Limited, which have operated on tri-weekly schedules for most or all of Amtrak’s history, will continue to run on their current schedules. The situation is also different on the route to Florida.

Many crew members on local railroads that run full-service schedules speak of their “weekend” after five days on the job, but that expression means two consecutive days off; not necessarily Saturday and Sunday. Nine of the 12 Amtrak trains that ran daily will also have a “weekend off” that will be a pair of days other than Saturday and Sunday, with one exception. For all other trains, those days will occur in the middle of the week or will only include one traditional weekend day.

For all trains, the “off days” will be the same for trains departing both endpoints. For example, the Southwest Chief will leave Chicago and Los Angeles on the same five days of the week (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and not on the other two days (Monday and Tuesday), and they will be the same two days. Here is the list of the days when trains will not run:

  • The Southwest Chief (Chicago and Los Angeles) will not run on Mondays or Tuesdays.
  • The California Zephyr (Chicago and the Bay Area) will not run on Sundays or Mondays.
  • The Empire Builder (Chicago and Seattle/Portland) will not run on Thursdays or Fridays.
  • The Coast Starlight (Los Angeles and Seattle) will not run on Wednesdays or Thursdays.
  • The Crescent (New York and New Orleans) will not run on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
  • The Texas Eagle (Chicago and San Antonio) will not run on Wednesdays or Thursdays.
  • The Capitol Limited (Chicago and Washington, D.C.) will not run on Fridays or Saturdays.
  • The Lake Shore Limited (New York/Boston and Chicago) will not run Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
  • The City of New Orleans (New Orleans and Chicago) will not run on Saturdays or Sundays.

Trains on the Atlantic Route

When trains were cut to tri-weekly schedules in October 2020, trains on the Atlantic route from New York toward Florida ran on a different set of days from the other trains, at least to some extent. The Palmetto, the day train between New York and Savannah via Fayetteville and Charleston (the historic Atlantic Coast Line route) run on a tri-weekly schedule, but there was a train to Florida every day. The Silver Star via Raleigh and Columbia (on the historic Seaboard route) ran on three consecutive days with a weekend-oriented schedule, while the Silver Meteor (which ran on the same route as the Palmetto, and then further south to Miami) ran the other four days.

This time there will again be a different operation on the routes, but one train will be eliminated entirely: the Silver Meteor. The Palmetto and Silver Star will continue to operate every day. As happened during the previous round of cuts, the Auto-train will also continue to run daily, but that train requires a fare for a motorist and that person’s vehicle; with non-motorists allowed as passengers accompanying a fare-paying motorist, but not as foot passengers.

For passengers who would have chosen the daytime schedule of the Palmetto over the overnight schedule of the Silver Meteor for a ride that does not include any mileage south of Savanna, there will be no impact. For passengers going to or from the points in the Carolinas that are served only by the Silver Star, or Tampa or Lakeland in Florida, there will also be no change. There will be additional inconvenience for all other riders, though.

The routes of the two Florida trains diverge between Rocky Mount, N.C., and Savannah, Ga. Every ride between Rocky Mount or a point north of there and Savannah or a point south of there will take longer, because the running time for the Silver Star is four hours longer than that for the Silver Meteor. Half of that difference is accountable to the longer running time in the Carolinas, and the other half to the round trip between Auburndale, Fla. (between Kissimmee and Winter Haven) and Tampa to serve that city and Lakeland. For passengers traveling between the two regions, the trip will be four hours longer than the ride they previously had on the Silver Meteor. A southbound trip will leave its point of origin four hours earlier than the Meteor schedule, while a northbound trip will start from South Florida 3½ hours later and finish eight hours later, if the train runs on or close to schedule.

The Silver Meteor provides direct access between its stops in North and South Carolina and Florida. There will be no such access while that train is suspended and, although it will still be possible to make such a trip, but it will only be possible with a change of trains, a long layover, and a significantly longer travel time from origin to destination. A mid-afternoon or early-evening departure from North or South Carolina on Train 89 drops riders at the Savannah station (eight miles from downtown Savannah, with no commercial activity nearby and no local bus connection; the few local buses that serve the station are timed to connect with the Silver Meteor) at 9:04 p.m. The layover at Savannah is scheduled to last about 7¼ hours; until 4:18 the following morning, so every such trip will now take more than seven hours longer than it used to take. Northbound, the Silver Star is due into Savannah at 1:22 a.m. and anybody proceeding north will have a layover of roughly seven hours, until 8:20 a.m.; another overnight layover in a station located far from the city it serves.

One town will keep its stop, but at different times: Jesup, Ga., located approximately half-way between Savannah and Jacksonville, serves as a stop on the Silver Meteor, but the Silver Star does not normally stop there. It will for the duration, though. The times will not be convenient; at 5:31 a.m. southbound and 12:26 a.m. northbound. Local demand-response transportation does not run at those hours, but at least there will still be a train stopping in the town.

Two Midwestern Corridors Affected

The majority of shorter-distance lines, including corridors radiating from Chicago, will not see any service reductions. Two will, though. The Saluki, Trains 391 and 392, the round trip that leaves Chicago in the morning, turns at Carbondale in southern Illinois, and returns to Chicago in the evening, will be suspended. That happened during the recent cuts that stemmed from the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, and the trains later returned to service. The only train that will continue to run daily will be the Illini, the morning departure from Carbondale that turns at Chicago in the afternoon and arrives back at Carbondale in the evening. The City of New Orleans will also run on that mileage on five days a week.

The line between Chicago and Milwaukee will lose an average of two trains per day. Early trains 329 (6:10 a.m. from CHI, weekdays only) and 330 (6:15 a.m. from MKE, weekdays and Saturdays) will be suspended. So will daily evening trains 341 (8:05 p.m. from CHI), 342 (7:35 p.m. from MKE) and Friday train 343 (11;25 p.m. from CHI). The span of service on the line will be greatly diminished, because the early and late trains will be discontinued. After the change, trains will leave Chicago at 8:25 and 11:05 a.m. and 1:05, 3:15 and 5:08 p.m. every day; a span of service of 8:43; down from 17:15 on Fridays, 13:55 pm other weekdays, and 11:40 on weekends. Trains will leave Milwaukee at 8:05 and 11:00 a.m. and 1:05, 3:00 and 5:45 pm, for a span of service of 9:40, down from 13:20. Even though the service day will be considerably shorter than before, cuts earlier in the COVID era were more severe.

NEC, Empire, Springfield Shuttle Impacts

Service on the NEC will be reduced, but not as severely as during the worst days of 2020. Four weekday trains will be suspended in their entirety, and another will not run south of New York. That one is Train 177, leaving Boston at 5:35 p.m., which will terminate at New York. The suspended trains are 129 (4:25 p.m. from New York to Washington, D.C.), 179 (6:45 p.m from Boston to New York, 170 (4:55 a.m. from Washington to Boston) and 182 (9:20 a.m. from Washington to New York). Two trains in each direction will no longer run on Saturdays: Trains 143 (9:47 a.m. from New York to Washington), 159 (5:05 p.m. from New York to Washington), 162 (6:20 a.m. from Washington to Boston), and 146 (4:25 p.m. from Washington to New York). Two Sunday trains will not run south of New York: 143 and 162 (10:00 a.m. will run from New York to Boston). These cuts are not as severe as those implemented in 2020. There are no Acela trains affected at this time, while all trains of that class were suspended for a while that year.

Trains between New York and Albany-Rensselaer on the Empire Service in New York State will be reduced by one train a day, Sunday through Friday. On weekdays, Train 234 (7:00 a.m. from Albany) and 243 (8:55 p.m. from New York; the last train of the evening) will be suspended, along with Sunday trains 256 (2:10 p.m. from Albany) and 261 (11:35 p.m. from New York; the last train of the night). 

Finally, there are also cuts slated for the Springfield (Mass.) Shuttles between that city and New Haven. On weekdays, Trains 451 412 (10:59 p.m. from New Haven; the last train of the night) will be suspended, as will Train 450 on Saturdays (8:55 a.m. from New Haven; the first train of the morning). No southbound trains will be suspended on Saturdays, but the Sunday schedule will lose two trains in each direction: Train 450 (8:55 a.m. from New Haven) and Train 416 (7:50 p.m. from New Haven) northbound, and Trains 405 (7:25 a.m. from Springfield) and 465 (4:00 p.m. from Springfield).

Service Reduction Severity Varies

While the average loss of service will not be nearly as severe as Amtrak’s riders experienced in 2020, some regions and some lines will be hit harder than others. 

No state-supported single-frequency trains are slated for suspension, although there is now only one round trip running in Missouri; from Kansas City to St. Louis and back. The one that originated in St. Louis is gone. Outside the Northeast, the Amtrak release announced no service cuts on any corridors, except for two serving Chicago, to Carbondale and Milwaukee. The loss on the Carbondale line will be relatively severe, while the one on the Milwaukee will result mainly in inconvenience, since the runs at both ends of the day will be sacrificed, leaving a shorter span of service. The same thing will happen to a slight extent on the NEC, Albany trains on the Empire route, and Springfield shuttles. 

For riders on the long-distance routes, it will be a different story. None of those trains run more often than once a day, and now there will be two fewer opportunities to travel each week. Missing a connection can cost 72 hours in some cases, and it will be difficult to figure out which train connects easily to other trains. 

When Amtrak cut from daily operation to three days per week in October 2020, I examined every possible connection between one long-distance train and another, reported on which ones still existed, and which did not. Anyone planning to make a connection should check that train’s “days off” because a misconnect on one specific day every week will result in a layover almost 72 hours long at the transfer point. One specific set of connections will be especially risky, if not precluded altogether. Riders on the Silver Star, Train 92, will no longer have a connection to Chicago and other points west of Washington, D.C. on Train 29. Amtrak’s website said “no same-day connections available” in response to my attempt to book it. The connection to Boston is questionable, with the last train of the evening leaving New York less than one hour after Train 92 is scheduled to arrive. Connections to Train 91 are risky but not quite as tenuous, and Amtrak will book them.

IIJA Possible Implications

On its face, the new cuts run afoul of Section 22210 of the new Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act (IIJA), which prohibits Amtrak from reducing service on existing long-distance routes without giving at least 210 days’ notice to members of Congress in the districts that would be impacted by the service reductions. The current round of cuts is being implemented on less than two weeks’ notice, a clear violation of the statute on its face. However, Subsection (c) allows reductions in the event of an “emergency,” an event that could be triggered by track work or a natural disaster. It seems reasonable to conclude that the recent and ongoing cancelations caused by the winter storms that have pummeled much of the nation would qualify as the sort of “emergency” that could end up stopping service for a few days.

The current COVID situation, with the Omicron strain running wild at the moment, is different. Amtrak is imposing a far-longer duration for reduced service; two months or more. Yet it is also colorable that the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus was not foreseeable until it actually started to bring havoc to South Africa and other countries shortly before it spread to the U.S. Omicron is spreading quickly through the vulnerable population (especially the unvaccinated, including the booster), but the worst of the current crisis may have subsided by the time Amtrak plans to restore daily operation on the long-distance trains and bring back the trains that were eliminated in selected corridors, at the end of March.

The “emergency” provision should legitimize the service reductions for now, but will Amtrak restore the trains when it said it would? 

Tags: ,