Pandemic Recovery: A Few “Long-COVID” Effects

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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When the COVID-19 virus struck in March 2020, ridership on passenger trains and rail transit in the United States and Canada fell precipitously. Railway Age, RT&S and International Railway Journal joined to cover that and other events in on the rail scene: passenger, transit, and freight, here in North America and around the world. Then, as events unfolded, we continued to follow ridership and service recovery on Amtrak, VIA Rail, and rail transit. Now, at the 2½-year mark, it is time to report again.

Overall, local rail transit has settled into a stable pattern. Local railroads are running service, mostly at or near pre-COVID levels, although there are some exceptions. Amtrak has not yet recovered to pre-COVID levels, with some trains running less-frequently than before the virus hit and a few still suspended. Schedules on VIA Rail in Canada have not recovered to pre-COVID levels, either, particularly on that country’s few long-distance routes. In a sense, North America’s two national passenger railroads have been experiencing their own “Long-COVID” symptoms.

A Struggle to Regain Ridership

That is the pattern with many transit providers at this writing. The cutbacks in span of service on many lines are over, as most providers have returned to running a full-service day. With ridership down, some have reduced frequencies, so the remaining riders must wait longer for a train, streetcar or light rail vehicle. Some have had difficulties keeping or training enough employees to run pre-COVID service levels, while others have had severe problems with infrastructure or operations that resulted in significant service downgrades, including long disruptions on entire lines. The MBTA in Boston and WMATA’s Metro Rail in Washington, D.C. are notable examples.

Of the major transit systems, San Francisco’s Muni was the hardest hit. The historic cable car and vintage streetcar lines were suspended for a time, and there were significant cuts to other rail transit lines in the city. While we report almost exclusively about rail, it is significant that almost 80% of Muni’s bus routes were suspended in 2020, although the route map has been recovering slowly. Most bus routes and some rail lines in the city ran until midnight, when a smaller “owl” network took over. Today, that changeover occurs at 10:00 pm on most of those lines, two hours earlier than before COVID.

The cable car lines, a major tourist attraction, are back. So are some, but not all, of the local rail lines. Vintage streetcars are rolling again on Market Street’s F line, but not on the E Line along the Embarcadero. Three other lines have returned to full service: J Church, M Ocean View, and N Judah. The K Ingleside and T Third Street lines have been combined. The L Taraval remains suspended, but there is a construction project in the area.

There is also a new start that will soon open in the City by the Bay: the long-awaited Central Subway. It is scheduled to open for service on Nov. 19 as a four-stop line, running only on weekends at the start. There is another new start in the Golden State, which will be coming to Los Angeles soon. The first operating segment of the Crenshaw (K) Line, a Metro light rail line, is scheduled to open for service on Oct. 7. Despite the virus, there were two other extensions of service in California: the BART extension in the Bay area from Warm Springs to Milpitas and Berryessa, and the San Diego Trolley’s Blue Line northward from Old Town to San Diego State University. An extension of the SMART line from San Rafael to Larkspir in Marin County opened in December 2019.

Regional Rail Experiments

Beginning in July 2020, we have reported extensively on changes in commuting by train due to the virus. The story has since spread beyond our pages to the popular media, as more employers and workers contemplate a future when many employees will only go into the office one to three days a week (hybrid situation) or continue to work at home most or all days, as they did since the virus struck.

It is not clear whether the term “commuter railroad” describes local railroads today, as much as it did in pre-COVID times. Ridership is recovering everywhere, but to what extent will that continue? It seems highly unlikely that there will be as many five-day commuters as there were before COVID, especially since new technology facilitates working remotely, a development that could have reduced the number of rides to the office anyway, but the virus helped accelerate that change.

Nonetheless, most local railroads continue to concentrate service in the historic commuting peak, even though ridership on those trains is often lighter than at other times, especially weekends. In the New York area, New Jersey Transit, Metro-North, and the Long Island Rail Road are essentially back to their pre-COVID schedules. SEPTA in Philadelphia runs most of its pre-COVID weekday schedules, but with less of a peak during the traditional peak  periods. Metra in Chicagoland has taken the opposite tack: not restoring much of the off-peak service that was reduced during the pandemic, although it is still experimenting with augmented mid-day service on the UP (historic C&NW) North Line. Metrolink in the Los Angeles has restored some of the off-peak trains that were cut, but service remains sparse.

The big experiment on weekdays is occurring on the MBTA (T) regional rail lines in the Boston area. There is essentially no commuting peak on that system anymore. Instead, mid-day service has been increased on weekdays to hourly on most lines, slightly more on the Dorchester Branch and slightly less on some lines. Caltrain in San Francisco was running two trains per hour in each direction for a while, but peak-commuting service is back, including the Baby Bullet trains running express schedules. Off-peak service still runs twice an hour, but no longer on even 30-minute intervals.

On weekends, only the three railroads in the New York area and Caltrain run hourly service. After eliminating weekend service completely on five of its twelve lines, the T has restored weekend trains that run every two hours on its entire system, except every 90 minutes on the Dorchester Branch. SEPTA had run hourly on several its lines before COVID, but now only the Airport Line runs that often on weekends. The standard of every two hours that became effective after the virus struck is still in effect, although some lines have more trains during certain parts of the day.

Amtrak Partially Recovered

Amtrak service has still not restored service to pre-COVID levels, although the degree of recovery varies among Amtrak’s three business lines. The Northeast Corridor (NEC) and its branches have recovered almost to their pre-COVID levels. State-supported trains and corridors have done relatively well, but some problems remain. Long-distance trains have had their ups and downs since the virus struck, and not all have returned to their pre-COVID operation, either in terms of frequency or capacity.

Although they performed better than the NEC or state-supported trains in 2020, the long-distance trains in Amtrak’s National Network took the biggest hit. Two years ago, all 12 daily long-distance trains were reduced to running tri-weekly (only the Auto-Train, which does not allow passengers to travel without a vehicle, was never reduced from daily operation). After Congress required Amtrak to restore those trains to daily operation, Amtrak did so at the beginning of the summer of 2021. Then, at the end of this past January, Amtrak cut them to five days a week, claiming that the service reduction would only last until March 27. The sole exception was the Atlantic Coast service, where the Silver Star and Palmetto continued to run every day, while the Silver Meteor was suspended entirely.

As we reported previously, some trains were restored to daily operation then, and others were restored at the end of May. Amtrak had announced that the rest would return to daily operation and that the Silver Meteor would return to the rails on Sept. 11, but that did not happen. At this writing, the trains from New Orleans to New York (the Crescent) and Chicago (the City of New Orleans) are still running only five days a week. The Silver Meteor also remains suspended. The new proposed date for restoring those trains to daily operation is Oct. 2 or 3. Amtrak is accepting reservations on those trains for those dates. Barring a last-minute surprise, they will return.

Even if those schedules are restored, the long-distance trains have endured other woes this past summer. Amtrak has reported shortages of employees and has run several long-distance trains with short consists. Not only has that practice left disappointed passengers in its wake, but it has also deprived Amtrak of significant revenue during the peak travel season. That is especially ironic, because the summer of 2022 was the summer when lots of folks who had been cooped up during the COVID pandemic were ready to start traveling again. Those travelers and rider-advocates hope that Amtrak will get service back on its feet again soon, but fear that it will not be easy for Amtrak to recover that well.

Amtrak’s performance on the state-supported side has been spotty, too. We have recently reported about trains in the Midwest being suspended for certain amounts of time, like rolling blackouts when a power company’s capacity is stressed. At this writing, one daily round trip has been suspended on the lines between Chicago and Detroit, St. Louis, and Carbondale, Ill. So has one round trip between Seattle and Portland on the Cascade route. There are still slight reductions in California. There is only one daily round trip from Sacramento on the San Joaquin route, where there had been two, but there is still frequent bus service to Stockton. Service on the Pacific Surfliner between Los Angeles and San Diego still runs at a level slightly reduced from the pre-COVID schedule, although still relatively frequently.

The recovery of service to Canada on Amtrak has been slow. The Maple Leaf between New York and Toronto recently returned to the rails, as did one daily round trip between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. There had been a second train on that route before the virus hit. The Adirondack between New York and Montreal remains suspended, and there is no sign that it will be restored anytime soon. Some advocates fear that it is gone, although others hope that it will return next year. Elected officials from New York State, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, have called on Amtrak to restore the train. On a brighter note, the Ethan Allen Express in Vermont now runs to Burlington. It had run only as far as Rutland until July 19.

VIA Rail Clawing Back

At the worst of the pandemic, there was very little service on VIA Rail. Toronto-Montreal/Ottawa corridor service hosted only one or two daily round trips. Outside those corridors, trains normally ran three times a week before COVID, but many were suspended for months, and others were reduced to operating only once a week.

Three long-distance routes, the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver, the Ocean between Montreal and Halifax, and the no longer officially named Skeena between Jasper, Alberta, and Prince Rupert, B.C., now run twice a week. Day trains between Montreal and Jonquiere and Senneterre, Quebec and between Sudbury and White River, Ontario, are back to their tri-weekly schedules. They had made only one weekly round trip previously, on weekend-oriented schedules.

VIA Rail’s corridors are doing better, too. There are only slight reductions from pre-COVID schedules,. One frequency between Montreal and Toronto, the railroad’s busiest line, has been eliminated. There is only one daily round trip between Toronto and Sarnia, Ontario, where there used to be two.

Overall, VIA Rail’s recovery has been strong, although its network was always more skeletal than Amtrak’s, and it has been more than three decades since long-distance trains ran every day. There were many more routes then, including the original Canadian on the CP main and the Super Continental on the CN main, much of which now hosts the current version of the Canadian for two round trips each week.

Uncertain Future

It is difficult to predict what the future holds for passenger trains or for transit in the U.S. and Canada. This is a time of economic and political uncertainty, a war in Europe the likes of which has not been seen since 1945, the rise of authoritarian nations, and an ongoing struggle to prevent the U.S. from joining their ranks. Still, getting away from global and national catastrophes for the moment, there are some notable trends that appear to affecting rail in the two countries.

These trends must be viewed in the larger picture, as non-automobile transportation generally is in decline. Buses are disappearing rapidly in the U.S., and they have all but disappeared in Canada. Airlines are not doing well, either. The prognosis for motorists is guarded, as fuel prices are unstable and usually high, and electric vehicles are beyond the reach of many motorists. Still, the prognosis for non-motorists, whether by circumstances or by choice, is grim. It will take a large-scale political effort to save Amtrak and VIA Rail, and much more to improve them. Any proposed new passenger train service may encounter fierce opposition, as CSX and Norfolk Southern have demonstrated at proceedings before the Surface Transportation Board (STB) over two proposed Amtrak round trips between New Orleans and Mobile.

While there are initiatives to restore lost long-distance trains, like one on the historic Northern Pacific route of the North Coast Limited in Montana, it appears very difficult to believe that such trains could return to the rails in the foreseeable future. Amtrak lacks sufficient equipment to run the few trains in its skeletal network today, and has not yet ordered equipment to replace the Superliners, now almost 40 years old (though it has been replacing its diesel-electric fleet with new Siemens Chargers and also has new single-level cars coming to replace aging Amfleet equipment). A lack of equipment has also resulted in downgrades to some state-supported trains.

At the local level, service on streetcar, light rail, and subway/elevated lines seems to have reached a plateau for now, even if it turns out to be a meta-stable one. Levels of service have not generally returned to pre-pandemic schedules (that goes for bus service, too), but it has recovered on many lines from the deepest cuts that were imposed in 2020, at least to some extent.

We will know much more in about three years, as the COVID relief money awarded to transit providers during the worst of times, and that includes federal operating support for the first time, runs out. Given the propensity of many employees to work from home when they can, and of some employers to refrain from forcing them back into the office five days a week, transit providers will have less farebox revenue than they had before the COVID era, so it is unclear what they will be able to do. One thing we know for sure is, if they don’t get the money needed to keep running current levels of service, there will be cuts. In places like New York City and New Jersey, those service reductions could be drastic.

There is also a wild card in the deck: the COVID virus itself. It’s still out there, and it is good at mutating, even as it becomes less virulent. It is still killing people, though, and anything can happen. It appears unlikely that it will become more destructive as time goes on, but nothing is impossible, and all bets could be off. I continue to hope that each of these reports at six-month intervals will be the last, as trains and transit return to pre-COVID levels of service. I hope this time that, at the three-year mark, I can report that service is back to prior levels. If my hope is unwarranted, I will tell you in March.

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.