Two Years After COVID: Amtrak Lags, VIA Rail Hopes

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada took major hits in the two years since COVID-19 pushed much of the world into lockdown mode. Today, Amtrak’s service recovery has stalled, while VIA Rail is looking forward to something of a comeback under difficult circumstances later this spring; a comeback that has already begun in part.

Railway Age recently reported on how rail transit is faring in the U.S. and Canada. It certainly spelled misfortune for transit in the two countries, although most local rail transit—subway and elevated lines, light rail and streetcars—has recovered to pre-COVID levels of service without recovering to similar levels of ridership or revenue. Regional railroads, still often called “commuter” railroads, have not generally fared as well; although, as we reported, some are doing better than others. In addition, some have shifted to providing more evenly spaced service throughout the day; others have restored their old “commuting peak” schedules in an effort to bring back on board former commuters; and some have abandoned “off-peak” service on certain lines that used to run at those times.

Editors and reporters at Railway Age and its sibling publications, Railway Track & Structures and International Railway Journal, joined to provide team coverage of the rail-related progress of the virus, which stopped much of passenger and freight railroading in its tracks. Since then, we have reported every six months on the slow recovery of the industry, particularly on events surrounding rail transit as well as Amtrak and VIA Rail, providers of rail corridors and long-distance trains. Amtrak was hard-hit, but a look at VIA Rail’s schedules during the period shows that it was almost obliterated.

As the pandemic started to take hold, ridership on Amtrak plummeted, especially on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and other corridors. NEC service was slashed, including Acela trains, which were eliminated entirely for awhile. Other corridors had service cut to one or two round trips per day. The long-distance routes, which only ran once per day (except for a portion of one route) kept going until early October, when Amtrak slashed service on every route to three times per week. The sole exception was the AutoTrain, which remained scheduled every day, although it is only available to motorists who bring their vehicles along.

Although ridership losses on the long-distance trains were less-severe than on the corridors, Amtrak killed 58% of its weekly runs. Railway Age ran a series collectively called Farewell, Long-Distance Trains? at the time and expressed concern that the 14 trains in Amtrak’s long-distance network would soon be phased out. Congress intervened with money for Amtrak’s recovery and mandated that the trains which ran every day before the virus struck return to daily operation in time for the summer. Amtrak brought the trains back to daily operation in late May and early June. Ironically, Amtrak celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 30 last year, when it ran the lowest overall level of service in its history.

The daily operation was not to last. In January 2022, Amtrak announced that service on long-distance routes would again be slashed, although not as badly as when the railroad scaled down to tri-weekly operation for eight months in October 2020. This time, trains run for five days, with no service for the next two. On the Atlantic Coast, the Silver Meteor is suspended entirely, while the Silver Star and the Palmetto (a day train between New York and Savannah) still run every day. There were also cuts on the corridors, but Amtrak announced at the time that all the trains would be back by March 27; a promise that Amtrak did not keep. We reported on such cuts on Jan. 18—Omicron Forces Amtrak Service Cuts—including a list of days when each long-distance train runs.

The Texas Eagle (Chicago and San Antonio) currently does not run on Wednesdays or Thursdays, but will return to daily operations on March 28.

With little fanfare, Amtrak announced quietly on March 3 that many of the cuts would remain in effect. Daily service on a majority of affected trains would not be restored for at least another two months—maybe longer. Nine trains currently run on the five-day-a-week schedule (as we noted, two that currently run daily and one that has been suspended are Atlantic Coast service trains, while the other two run tri-weekly and have done so for decades).

Of those nine, only the Coast Starlight, Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle, will return to daily operation on March 28. The Lake Shore Limited, Crescent, City of New Orleans, Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder will continue to run on the days they run now. The suspension of the Silver Meteor will also continue. Amtrak is accepting bookings on any day for the six trains currently running five days per week and the Silver Meteor, beginning the week leading up to Memorial Day. Nevertheless, Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told Railway Age that, even though Amtrak is allowing bookings on a seven-day basis, that is not a confirmation that all of the affected trains will actually run daily by that time. If they do not, it will mark the first time that long-distance trains that normally run every day will run on less-than-daily schedules during the busy summer season. Magliari referred to the schedule with the three trains running daily as the “spring schedule” and said that the “summer schedule” is yet to be determined.

There will be an operational change accompanied by an equipment change in the spring schedule. The same sets of equipment will be used for the Trains 21 and 22, the Texas Eagle, as well as for Trains 29 and 30, the Capitol Limited. While the consists will run between Washington, D.C., and San Antonio, Tex., through Chicago, Ill., there will be separate ticketing for segments on either side of the Windy City. Magliari attributed the change to the shortage of employees on the operating and maintenance sides, as well as the fact that both trains are one-night trains, rather than taking two nights.

Part of the rationale behind the change is to move the required 1,500-mile mechanical inspections from Chicago to St. Louis, Mo. That means a new schedule, with more layover time in that city. Schedules will change on the portion of the trip between Chicago and St. Louis, so they will remain the same south of there, on most of the route.

Two short-distance corridors will return to full schedules on March 28: Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis., and the portion of the Empire Service route between New York and Albany. Other corridor trains that were cut in January are not coming back—at least not at the end of March. Trains 391 and 392, the Saluki, remains suspended. That was the round trip from Chicago to Carbondale, Ill., in the morning and returning in the late afternoon, for an evening arrival in the Windy City. Some shuttle trains between New Haven, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., have not returned, but Amtrak’s schedules on the line comprise only part of the service. The rest is provided by the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Hartford Line. Some NEC trains have not returned, either. For example, Trains 66 and 67 between Boston, Mass., and Newport News, Va.—still known as the “Night Owl” unofficially—remain suspended.

Amtrak’s continued service reductions may conflict with the Congressional mandate stated in §22210 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA; also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL). That provision prohibits Amtrak from reducing service to less than daily on long-distance routes without giving at least 210 days’ notice to members of Congress who represent the districts where those trains run. Subsection (c) allows temporary reductions in the event of an “emergency,” which is normally triggered by an outage or by track work. The current “emergency” started in late January and was slated to last for nine to ten weeks. It has now been extended two more months for two-thirds of the affected long-distance trains, and Amtrak has still not promised a date on which it will end and all affected long-distance trains return to daily operation. It appears that Amtrak considers the current shortage of employees to constitute an “emergency” for that purpose. For almost 20 months from early October, 2020 through at least late May 2022, there will have been only seven months when all long-distance trains have run every day historically did so again.

The spring schedule will not include Amtrak trains to Canada, either. Magliari said that restoring those trains requires getting crews qualified, including VIA Rail crews for the portion of Trains 63 and 64 (the Maple Leaf) between Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Toronto. The part of the route in New York state still runs.

Service on VIA Rail suffered even more than Amtrak’s throughout the past two years. Corridors in Ontario and Quebec that once hosted multiple trains were cut to one or two daily round-trips in 2020. The schedule has recovered somewhat, but is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.

The service recovery has had its ups and downs, though. Some trains were added last year, but on Jan. 19, 2022 the carrier reduced service on its corridor routes by one to three frequencies per day in each direction. In a Jan. 13 press release, VIA Rail reported that this “temporary service reduction in the corridor has been carefully planned in order to provide essential service on all routes.”

Some of those cuts remain in effect, but the schedule at this writing looks better. The basic schedule calls for three daily round-trips between Montreal and Quebec City, four between Montreal and Ottawa, five between Toronto and Montreal and Toronto and Ottawa (with some adjustments for weekend schedules), three between Toronto and Windsor (actually Walkerville), and still only one between Toronto and Sarnia.

The few long-distance routes in Canada fared worse. While the Hudson’s Bay between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba, always ran (the name is now unofficial), the few other routes in Western and Atlantic Canada were suspended for some of the time, and the ones in the West now run only once a week: the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver, the Skeena (the name is also unofficial) between Jasper, Alberta, and Prince Rupert, B.C. The trains from Montreal to Jonquiere and Senneterre, Quebec, now leave Montreal only on Fridays and return on Sundays. The train between Sudbury and White River, Ontario (on the original Canadian Pacific Canadian route) also only runs once per week: from Sudbury on Saturdays and returning on Sundays. The Ocean between Montreal and Halifax now runs twice a week, leaving both endpoints on Wednesdays and Sundays. It ran three times a week before the virus hit. The Canadian is slated to get a second weekly departure, too: leaving Toronto on Wednesdays (in addition to Sundays) and Vancouver on Fridays (in addition to Mondays). That was its pre-COVID frequency.

On-board services were curtailed, as well. Food service was suspended on the train to Churchill, Manitoba, even though the trip from Winnipeg is scheduled to take 45 hours each way. On the Canadian, sleeping car passengers were required to stay in their rooms, except for breakfast and dinner in the dining car (lunch was delivered to their rooms). The 1954-vintage dome and lounge cars were closed on all the long-distance trains where they ran as part of the consist. In short, the experience that goes with rail travel was not offered. The Jan. 13 release that announced cuts in corridor services also said: “There will be no reductions in frequencies at the moment on any other routes, but some on-board services have been modified,” while trains on non-corridor routes were running only once per week.

Things seem to be looking up for some of the long-distance trains, though. According to VIA Rail, dome and lounge cars on the Canadian and the Ocean are again open, and berth accommodations are scheduled to become available on the Canadian soon, along with the deluxe staterooms called “Prestige Class” sleeping accommodations. As mentioned, schedules on that train and the Ocean will also increase to two departures per week, rather than only one. The trains to Senneterre, Jonquiere, White River and Prince Rupert will continue to run only once per week, instead of tri-weekly.

In the long run, VIA Rail is in trouble, according to Railway Age Canadian Contributing Editor David Thomas’ Feb. 17 report. He reviewed VIA Rail’s three-year corporate plan and reported: “VIA Rail’s future depends upon a rapid rebound in domestic travel and global tourism to restore operating revenues, the beneficence of rival railways in renting track and station access, and above all, a greatly expanded largesse on the part of present and future national governments.”

We don’t know what the future holds, especially in these uncertain times. The immediate threat of a new variant of the COVID virus coming back with a vengeance seems to have subsided, but nobody knows what will happen in light of the war in Ukraine. Travel on Amtrak and VIA Rail could boom this summer, or ridership could remain weak.

We do know that VIA Rail is in trouble and has not restored some of the trains that ran until two years ago. The same holds for Amtrak, despite widely held expectations that Amtrak’s schedule and services in summer 2022 would look much like they did pre-COVID. Time will tell. Our advice never seems to change: Ride all the trains you can while you know you still can. Anything can happen.  

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