Your Seat in an Amtrak Viewliner Roomette

May 23, 2020

Here is your seat in your Viewliner roomette aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited.

You’ve just boarded and are looking forward to a relaxing trip to the East Coast.

But right now you’re just getting settled in your room as No. 48 sits in Chicago Union Station.

As a sleeper class passenger you were able to board ahead of most passengers so it will be several minutes before the Lake Shore leaves Union Station behind.

One downside to your seat is that it doesn’t recline as much as a coach seat does. But your seat does fold down into a bed, which is a benefit those in coach doesn’t have.

So have a seat and welcome aboard. Your train travel journey is about to begin.

Amtrak’s April Ridership Was Bad, But Bookings for Long-Distance Trains is Looking Promising

May 23, 2020

Amtrak ridership data for April was released this past week and it showed a sharp plunge compared with a year ago.

In April 2020 Amtrak handled 120,000 passengers compared to 2.7 million who rode in April 2019.

The ridership drop is attributed largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northeast Corridor handled 19,000 passengers, a drop of 97.5 percent from a year earlier. It was the steepest ridership plunge system wide on a percentage basis.

Amtrak lost 87 percent of its passengers on the San Joaquin route in California.

Ridership of state-funded corridors fell 96 percent while the long-distance trains saw ridership fall 86.8 percent.

Year-to-date ridership is down 21 percent and revenues has fallen by 19 percent.

Amtrak expects those figures to grow and they might have been larger than they were but for strong ridership and revenue performances earlier in the year before social distancing measures were imposed.

In a related matter, the Amtrak vice president who oversees long-distance trains said the use of prepackaged meals for sleeper class passengers on Western trains will continue for at least another month.

Larry Chestler told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak has begun to see some early signs of recovery on many routes.

However, he cited safety and continued lagging ridership for waiting to restore traditional dining car service to the Western trains.

Chestler said the carrier will evaluate ridership data in late June and determine at that time whether to restore traditional dining car service.

The prepackaged meals have been served to sleeper class passengers on Eastern long-distance trains since June 2019 and were extended to all of those trains last October.

Although the long-distance trains have seen steep ridership drops, Chestler said those declines have been smaller than on other routes.

A recent rise in bookings for long-distance trains have given Amtrak some hope that higher demand is coming, Chestler said.

“Whether that means there’s more demand for summer it’s too soon to say,” he said.

In particular, bookings are trending upward for Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief with some growth also starting to show for the California Zephyr and Empire Builder.

Chestler said bookings are coming back “from the bottom of the bottom,” which Amtrak reached during the period of mid April to early May when it averaged 3,000 passengers a day nationwide.

Since then Amtrak ridership has doubled that, but it’s still well below what it would otherwise be at this time of year.

Some of the ridership of long-distance trains has occurred in regions where corridor trains have been suspended or reduced in frequency.

An example would be the Empire Builder between Chicago and Milwaukee where Hiawatha Service was suspended in favor of a once a day Thruway bus.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak operated seven daily roundtrips between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Chestler said Amtrak management considered continuing into the summer the reduced consists that began operating during the pandemic.

But management elected to move from what he termed “a kind of quasi-minimum” to restoring capacity for the summer.

“Had we reduced to the May levels [for the summer] we would have had a number of trains where we would have been essentially sold out already” in coach, Chestler said.

That doesn’t mean all of the seats would have been occupied because Amtrak for now is selling only half of the capacity of each coach assigned to a train in order to maintain social distancing.

“On the [Southwest] Chief and the [California] Zephyr and the [Empire] Builder there’s more sleepers [and] typically one more coach,” he said.

“We’ve balanced the use of baggage coaches and other kinds of cars to put an appropriate amount of capacity” in place “to capture demand signals from customers,” Chestler said.

Amtrak management is mindful that reducing capacity also could dampen the return of demand because the seats aren’t available.

Amtrak Acknowledges 15 Ticket Offices to Reopen

May 23, 2020

Amtrak acknowledged on Friday that it will reinstate ticket agents in Cincinnati and 14 other stations that lost them in 2018.

The action is in response to a congressional mandate.

Other stations set to regain ticket agents include Marshall, Texas; Texarkana, Arkansas; Topeka, Kansas; Meridian, Mississippi; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Hammond, Louisiana; Charleston, West Virginia; Fort Madison, Iowa; Ottumwa, Iowa; Garden City, Kansas; La Junta, Colorado; Lamy, New Mexico; Shelby, Montana; and Havre, Montana.

Those stations lost their agent because they averaged less than 40 passenger boardings a day.

Cincinnati was the largest city to lose a ticket agent during that 2018 wave of ticket office closings.

It will take several weeks for the ticket offices to reopen.

Over the next four to six weeks Amtrak will post job openings and follow that up with interviewing and training.

The carrier has said the station jobs will be part-time and pay $20 per hour.

Cincinnati, which is located on the route of the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal, handled 11,382 passengers in 2017, an average of 36.4 passengers for the 313 days the station was open that year.

Ridership fell to 8,482 boardings in 2018 although some of that might have been due to a construction project being undertaken at Cincinnati Union Terminal.

Amtrak used a temporary station facility that was difficult to find.

In 2016, Cincinnati handled 12,481 passengers, which met the 40 passengers per day threshold. The passenger count in 2015 was 12,503.

In statement issued on Friday, Amtrak said those hired for the 15 stations will be uniformed workers trained to assist passengers with booking and boarding trains, including helping with unaccompanied minors, carry-on baggage and providing information on the status of arriving and departing trains.

The agents will be scheduled to meet customers for all trains.

Applications for the jobs will be available online at jobs.Amtrak.com. However, the carrier said before it hires outside applicants it will initially seek to fill the jobs internally.

The Amtrak statement said the Cincinnati station will not offer the services Amtrak requires to carry minors ages 13-15 traveling on their own.

It attributed that to the time of day when rains arrive in Cincinnati. Nos. 50 and 51 are scheduled to reach Cincinnati in the dead of night between 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.

The federal law prompting the return of the agents is contained in the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 that became law in December 2019.

It directed Amtrak to provide a ticket agent at every station that had agent position eliminated in fiscal 2018.

Acela Prototype Hits 165 mph in Test Run

May 23, 2020

Amtrak said this week that its Acela prototype trainset reached a high-speed testing milestone by traveling at speeds up to 165 mph at the Transportation Technology Center near Pueblo, Colorado.

The prototype left the Alstom factory in Hornell, New York, where it was assembled, on Feb. 17 to travel to the Association of American Railroads test center in Colorado to undergo six months of dynamic testing.

Amtrak plans to put its new Acela fleet into revenue service in the Northeast Corridor in 2021.

The speed mark that the Acela prototype hit is faster than the planned 160 mph speeds Acela trains will travel in revenue service.

The prototype is expected to return to New York after the testing is completed and be given its interior appointments. Alstom is building 28 new Acela trainsets for Amtrak.

Amtrak Board Nominees Advance to Senate Floor

May 23, 2020

Three nominees for seats on the Amtrak board of directors were approved by a Senate committee this week on a 14-12 party line vote.

Their nominations have been sent to the Senate floor for confirmation.

The nominations of Joseph Gruters, Lynn Westmoreland and Rick Dearborn had been languishing for months.

That action followed the Trump administration naming two additional nominees for the Amtrak board, Chris Koos and Sarah E. Feinberg.

Ranking Senate Commerce Committee minority member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) opposed the advancement of Gruters, Westmoreland and Dearborn because they did not have bi-partisan support.

“These nominees, in my opinion, are controversial and have not appeared before this committee in the current Congress,” she said. “Further, they have been on committee markups multiple times only to advance on party-line votes. I hope that we can continue to work through these issues and questions on a more bipartisan basis.”

Westmoreland is a former Congressman who was nominated in October of 2017.

While in Congress he voted in 2009 and 2015 to end all Amtrak funding.

During his confirmation hearings, Westmoreland said he now understood the importance of government funding to Amtrak.

Dearborn is a former member of the Heritage Foundation, which has consistently called for the elimination of Amtrak.

An earlier nomination of another former Congressman, Todd Rokita, has yet to be resubmitted to the Senate.

Rokita voted a number of times in favor of amendments to slash or eliminate Amtrak funding.

Koos is the mayor of Normal, Illinois, while Feinberg formerly served as administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Previous moves to advance Amtrak board nominees to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote were stymied by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) who objected to Amtrak’s efforts to separate the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief into two separate trains connected by a bus service between western Kansas and Albuquerque.

Texas Landowner May Appeal Case State High Court in Bid to Thwart Texas Central Plan

May 23, 2020

A Texas landowner seeking to block Texas Central from surveying his land for a planned high-speed rail service has vowed to take his fight to the Texas Surpeme Court.

James Miles contends that Texas Central is not an actual railroad, a claim that was rejected earlier this month by a state appeals court.

The appeals court ruled that not only is Texas Central a railroad but it also an interurban electric railway.

Miles has until July 22 to appeal the ruling against him and there is no guarantee the Texas high court will agree to accept his appeal.

At the center of Miles’ argument is his contention of the meaning of the word “operating” in Texas law.

He has argued that because Texas Central is not yet operating that it is not a railroad under Texas law because it does not have track and stations that would give the outward appearance of a functioning railroad.

The appeals court rejected that argument, citing another law approved by the Texas legislature saying that for purposes of interpreting states statues that court are to read “words in the present tense [to] include the future tense.”

An appellate judge in rejecting Miles appeal said that to accept his argument would mean the courts were ignoring a stated legislative intent.

The judge acknowledged that Texas Central does not yet have railroad infrastructure in place but it has taken steps to create and operate a railroad in the future.

Amtrak No. 30 in Pittsburgh

May 22, 2020

Amtrak’s eastbound Capitol Limited was running rather late on this March 1995 day when I captured it on slide film in Pittsburgh.

I had arrived aboard the soon to be discontinued west of Pittsburgh Three Rivers and after disembarking we learned that No. 30 was way behind schedule.

My recollection is one of the P42DC locomotives malfunctioned en route and had to be set aside.

We stuck around to watch the Capitol arrive and then depart before continuing on our way.

I had to catch a Greyhound bus for Akron while my traveling companion got a ride to Cleveland.

Track Work to Affect SB CONO Schedule

May 22, 2020

Track work by host railroad Canadian National has resulted in temporary schedule changes for Amtrak’s southbound City of New Orleans.

On May 22 and 26 Train No. 59 will depart Jackson, Mississippi, at 12:50 p.m, 90, minutes later than normal and operate on this later schedule at all intermediate stops of Hazlehurst, Brookhaven, McComb and Hammond to New Orleans.

The service advisory did not say if the arrival time in New Orleans will be affected.

Pennsylvanian, Keystones to be Restored June 1

May 22, 2020

Amtrak announced this week that the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian will resume service on June 1.

On the same day Amtrak will begin restoring Keystone Service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Keystone service will initially be nine weekday roundtrips with six roundtrips operated on weekends.

There will be no Keystone Service between Philadelphia and New York for now as there was before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Amtrak said all trains will operate at less than full capacity to allow for social distancing.

Other service restorations set for June 1 include restoration of Acela service with three weekday roundtrips.

Northeast Regional service will increase from eight to 10 roundtrips in the Northeast Corridor.

Some Pacific Surfliner Service to Undergo One Day Schedule Change to BNSF Freight Move

May 22, 2020

Amtrak said that a specialized equipment move by freight carrier BNSF will result in a one day schedule change for some Pacific Surfliner service.

On May 24, Train 785 will be canceled. Train 796, which normally operates between Goleta and San Diego, will terminate at Los Angeles.

Thruway Bus 3596 will provide alternate transportation between Los Angeles and San Diego, serving all intermediate stops.

Other schedule changes that day include Thruway Bus 4591 departing Los Angeles at 9:55 p.m., 2 hours and 25 minutes later than normal to connect to Train 593, operating later at all stations from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara.

Bus 5885 will connect to earlier Train 579 at Los Angeles. Bust 5710 will not stop at San Pedro or Long Beach.