Archive for March, 2020

Dining on the City of New Orleans

March 26, 2020

There have been times when Amtrak sought to give the dining cars on its long-distance trains a touch of the cuisine associated with a region served by the route.

In the case of the City of New Orleans that meant food associated with the Crescent City.

But more often than not, the dining car fare on the CONO was the same as it was elsewhere.

Shown is the menu that was in use in 2012. Although not obvious from the dinner entrees shown inside, the diner on a March night that I was traveling from New Orleans to Chicago did feature a catfish dinner that would be similar to one you might find on a menu in a New Orleans restaurant.

And I can say it was tasty and enjoyable.

Amtrak, Transit to Get Aid in Stimulus Package

March 26, 2020

Aid to Amtrak and public transit agencies was part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.

The intercity rail passenger carrier is to get $1.018 billion of which $526 million is for the national network, $492 million is for the Northeast Corridor, and $239 million is for state-supported routes.

The amount matches what Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said the carrier expects to lose in the current federal fiscal year due to a dramatic drop in ridership and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public transit agencies are slated to receive $25 billion operating expenses. The bill waives a requirement that transit agencies use their own funds to receive federal assistance.

Another $25 billion was awarded for transit infrastructure grants to be doled out based on fiscal 2020 allocations in four areas: Urbanized Area Formula Grants; Nonurbanized Area Formula Grants; State of Good Repair; and High Density and Growing States.

The stimulus bill now moves to the House, which is expected to vote on it on Friday morning.

USA Today reported that House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland expected his chamber to approve the bill on a voice vote before sending it to President Donald Trump.

Amtrak Trims More Service, Brightline Suspended

March 26, 2020

Additional Amtrak service reductions have been announced and Florida intercity rail passenger operator Brightline has suspended all service.

The latest Amtrak cancellations include reducing the level of service of Missouri River Runner service effective March 30

The two daily roundtrips between St. Louis and Kansas City will be cut to one with trains leaving Kansas City at 8:15 a.m. and St. Louis at 4 p.m.

The St. Louis-Kansas City corridor was the last in the Midwest to be unaffected by the COVID pandemic-induced service reductions.

Effective today Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has ordered all Amtrak in that state to be suspended.

The Vermonter, which normally operates between Washington and St. Albans, Vermont, will not operate north of New Haven, Connecticut.

On its reduced schedule, the Vermonter will not operate on Sundays.

The Ethan Allen Express, which normally operates between New York and Rutland, Vermont, will not operate north of Albany-Rensselaer, New York.

Scott said he took the action after consulting with Amtrak. He also issued a stay-at-home order for residents of his state and directed the closure of in-person, nonessential businesses in order to minimize unnecessary activities outside of homes.

In Florida, Brightline, which is owned by Virgin Trains USA, laid off 250 of its more than 300 South Florida workers this week.

Brightline said on Wednesday that it was suspending all service in the wake of the pandemic.

The layoffs included Bob O’Malley, vice president of corporate development.

In a statement, Brightline said it hoped to rehire most of its workers once service resumes, but said it could not say when that might be.

A report in the Miami Herald said more than 700 construction workers on a project to extend Brightline track to Orlando remain employed.

TSA to Require Security Training

March 26, 2020

The Transportation Security Administration will require effective June 22 railroads and public transit agencies to provide security training to certain employees to help them identify terrorist-related threats.

The requirement is part of a new rule recently published in the Federal Register.

The rule applies to higher-risk freight railroad carriers, public transportation agencies, passenger railroads and bus companies.

They must provide TSA-approved security training to employees performing security-sensitive functions.

“The training curriculum must teach employees how to observe, assess and respond to terrorist-related threats and/or incidents,” the rule states.

The rule also pertains to security coordinators and the reporting of security concerns to include bus operations. Currently, that requirement applies only to rail operations.

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains Safe for Now But Anderson Still Wants Permanent Cut in Network

March 24, 2020

Although Amtrak President William Anderson has said the long-distance network of trains will stay in place for now, he continues to argue that it needs to be reduced.

Richard Anderson

Anderson sent that message last week during an online town hall meeting with Amtrak employees.

He did note that Amtrak is cutting the capacity of long-distance trains by 40 percent of seat miles.

That has resulted in some trains operating with reduced consists including a four-car Capitol Limited.

If Congress fails to grant Amtrak emergency funding to cover revenue losses triggered by a massive downturn in ridership and revenue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandenic, Anderson said there are contingency plans in place “to further reduce the network to match capacity to demand.”

Later in the town hall Anderson reiterated a comment he’s made often that some parts of Amtrak’s national network need to be permanently discontinued.

“And given the amount of cash burn we have, I’m certain the long-distance network is going to be very different longer term,” he said. “We’d like to avoid it, but if we can’t get the kind of funding out of Congress that we need, then we need to face that issue and will have a contingency plan to do that. But that will be only a worst-case scenario because we don’t want to furlough employees.”

During the town hall session Amtrak said Amtrak has slashed capital spending from a planned $2 billion to $1 billion by focusing only on necessary “state-of-good repair” work.

Management salaries will be cut by 22 percent to 7 percent with the reductions falling as pay grades decrease.

The incoming Amtrak president, William Flynn, has agreed to forego his annual salary. He will take over for Anderson on April 18.

Amtrak has suspended its 401K retirement program match and is asking non-union employees to take voluntary time off or reduce their weekly hours to 32 per week.

An analysis of Anderson’s comments by Trains magazine said that his assertion that it takes $2 billion “over two and a half years  . . . to keep the long-distance network operating” is suggesting that expense would vanish if those trains were discontinued.

Trains said that figure is a largely allocated expense figure that Amtrak uses to to imply that they are avoidable costs.

That has been challenged by various rail passenger advocates and elected officials on routes served by those trains.

Before the pandemic began, Anderson said Amtrak had been “running 91 percent above plan” for fiscal year 2020, which ends in late September.

Overall ridership and revenue had been up by 6.5 percent.

But with both now plunging, Anderson said full year revenues are projected to be down $1 billion and Amtrak projects a $840 million loss even with expense reductions of $110-$150 million.

FRA to Take Another Crack at Amtrak on-Time Rule

March 24, 2020

Federal regulators are taking another stab at promulgating rules to define on-time standards for Amtrak.

The Federal Railroad Administration last week suggested that the rule would set a minimum performance standard of 80 percent.

In a news release, the FRA said its proposal would give Amtrak, its passengers, service providers, the FRA and others a common tool to help objectively gauge intercity passenger rail travel.

“Eighty percent is a minimum standard,” said FRA Administrator Ronald Batory. “We expect many routes will be much more reliable. Clarity should help all parties ensure compliance.”

To develop the standard, FRA said it and Amtrak consulted with many stakeholders, including the Class I railroads that host Amtrak trains, states, labor unions, an advocacy group that represents Amtrak riders, and the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

The rule would contain additional measurements for evaluating how well Amtrak serves the public, including financial performance and customer service metrics.

The FRA said the proposed rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register in the near future.

Public hearings, likely to be held online, will also follow a 60-day public comment period.

Stimulus Bill Would Give Amtrak $1B, Transit $20B

March 24, 2020

Amtrak would get $1 billion and public transit agencies would receive $20 billion under a $2 trillion stimulus bill making its way through Congress the Rail Passengers Association reported.

The public transit aid would be broken down to $16 billion for urban transit systems and $4 billion for rural transit agencies.

Amtrak’s funding would be allocated at $492 million for the Northeast Corridor state-supported services and $526 million for the national network.

RPA said news reports indicate that as a condition of receiving aid Amtrak would be required to recognize unions, maintain worker benefits and provide unemployment assistance.

The money is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

San Joaquin Service Being Trimmed

March 24, 2020

Amtrak service on the San Joaquin route in California will be reduced on March 26 due to COVID-19 pandemic.

A news release issued by the San Joaquins Joint Powers Authority said the changes are due to falling ridership, travel restrictions and the need to maintain appropriate social distancing aboard the trains.

Ridership of the San Joaquin route has fallen by 70 percent in recent weeks.
Trains 701, 702, 703, 704, 714, and 717 are being suspended.

This will temporarily end direct train service to Lodi and Sacramento, which will continue to be served by Thruway Buses to/from all operating trains.

For the time being café car service has ended in order to eliminate risks from food handling and reduce unnecessary onboard passenger movement. Emergency snack packs and water will be distributed to passengers at no charge.

Station lobbies are being temporarily closed at Hanford, Fresno, Merced, Modesto and Martinez but trains will continue to stop there.

Reduce station hours will be in effect at Bakersfield, Stockton, Sacramento, Emeryville and Oakland.

Tickets can be purchased via amtraksanjoaquins.com, the Amtrak app, by calling 800-USA-RAIL, and onboard from the conductor with cash.

Top Amtrak Executives to Take Pay Cuts

March 23, 2020

Amtrak said over the weekend that it is taking what it termed aggressive steps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including reducing the salaries of its top executives.

For now Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said Amtrak will not lay off employees.

An internal memo sent by Amtrak Senior Vice President Stephen Gardner said incoming President William Flynn will not draw his Amtrak salary during the crisis.

Gardner said Amtrak faces a loss of $1 billion due to plunging bookings and widespread cancellations of existing reservations.

The intercity passenger carrier has asked the federal government for a supplemental appropriation to cover lost revenue.

The pay cuts will take effect April 1. Flynn is scheduled to replace Anderson in the CEO chair on April 15.

Amtrak will suspend its its 401(k) matching contribution for management employees through the end of the calendar year.

“We recognize these actions have a serious impact on our employees and their families,” Gardner said in the memo. “But we are taking this action to help protect everyone. We appreciate your support as we work our way through this crisis together.”

Other measures being taken by Amtrak include ending all non-safety-critical hiring; cutting discretionary travel, professional fees, and advertising spending; and deferring non-priority capital expenses.

In a dial-in town hall meeting for Amtrak workers held on Friday, Anderson said the carrier is seeking to avoid involuntary furloughs.

The carrier will meet a commitment in current labor agreements granting employees a 3.5 percent pay increase on July 1, but Anderson called for union leaders to consider delaying but not cancelling the increase until Amtrak ridership recovers.

Anderson hinted that if the unions balk at delaying the pay raise the carrier might revoke its non-layoff stance.

“General chairmen need to get engaged and figure out how to do this if we are to avoid an involuntary furlough, given that we don’t have any business anymore,” Anderson said.

“We have been through a lot of tough times with Amtrak—from host railroads that want to put us out of business, to presidents who don’t want to fund us, to [a] Congress that doesn’t always want to properly fund us, and to states and private companies that would like to take over our services,” Anderson said.

He said Acela ridership in the Northeast Corridor has fallen by 92 percent, Acela reservations are down by 99 percent and bookings for long-distance trains have declined by 64 percent.

Anderson expects those numbers to worsen as additional government imposed restrictions are placed on personal mobility.

“On 9/11, we knew specifically what the root cause of the problem was at the time, [and] the transportation system recovered fairly quickly,” Anderson said. “In this instance, we don’t have clear direction of what the end point of the coronavirus is.”

Amtrak has more than $3 billion of cash on hand but Anderson said the carrier must continue to pay operating expenses and pay interest on its existing loans.

It has halted spending on capital projects except those needed to keeping trains moving.

“By any measure, the economy is in recession,” Anderson said. “We can’t just count on Congress to close our gap.”

Saying there is no reason to operate empty trains, Anderson said Northeast Corridor service has been cut by 40 percent and 10 routes have reduced service with more service cuts coming.

Although the long-distance network will remain intact, Anderson said 40 percent of its seat capacity has been removed in the form of operating fewer rail cars.

“We need to be aggressive in preserving our cash,” Anderson said.

“I’m certain that the long-distance network will be very different longer term,” he said. “Over the past three or four years, it has taken more than $2.5 billion of federal money to keep the long-distance network operating, and if we don’t have the subsidy from the Northeast Corridor and state [supported corridor] trains bearing their share of the national network, the loss gets that much bigger.”

Anderson acknowledged that the steps Amtrak has taken are “demoralizing,” but said it would be be more demoralizing to tell people they don’t have a job anymore.

“That’s what we are working to avoid. If we just stood here and didn’t do anything, and one day in July or August we told everybody that the company was near liquidation and that we were going to lay off 10,000 or 15,000 people, that would be far more demoralizing. That would be irresponsible,” Anderson said.

In the meantime, Amtrak announced it will suspend all Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor on Monday.

Northeast Corridor service will be covered by a schedule of Northeast Regional trains operating at 40 percent of the regular weekday schedule.

Until now Amtrak had suspended only a small number of Acela Express trains.

Acela service carried 3.5 million in 2019 of the 12.5 million ridership in the Northeast Corridor.

Other service cuts today are set to be implemented in California and North Carolina.

Latest Amtrak Cuts Include Station Closings

March 21, 2020

Although no Amtrak long distance trains have thus far been spared from service suspensions, they are getting shorter consists.

An online report said the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited is operating with one P42DC locomotive, one sleeper, one food service car and two coaches.

Some Amtrak station waiting rooms are being temporarily closed.

In a service advisory posted on its website, Amtrak said waiting rooms in Kalamazoo and East Lansing, Michigan, are closed and passengers will not have access to the station restrooms.

The notice said station caretakers will be present to answer questions, provide direction and help operate wheelchair lifts.

Amtrak recommended that rather than waiting outside on the platform that passengers use the Amtrak app or other means to check train status while waiting in their personal vehicles for their train to arrive.

Other stations that are closed include those in Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Altoona and Johnstown.

All Amtrak service has been suspended at those stations.

Other stations that continue to have service but which are closed include Bloomington-Normal, Illlinois; Burlington, Iowa; Dodge City, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska; Lawrence, Kansas; Plano, Illinois; St. Petersburg, Florida (Thruway bus service stop)

In the case of the Normal station, passengers will have access to the Uptown Garage and its complimentary one-hour parking.

Garage elevator access will lead only to the street level. Platform access will be from the exterior of the building only.

Customer Service Representatives will be present on the platform 30 minutes before scheduled departure times to continue checked baggage service, unaccompanied minor service and special services.

The service hours at the Gallup, New Mexico, station has been modified. Passengers will have access to the interior of the station for the 30 minutes before the train arrival time.

Additional service suspensions have also been announced.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation said that starting March 23 Piedmont Service trains 73, 74, 77, and 78 are suspended.

Piedmonts 75 and 76 will continue to operate as will the New York-Charlotte Carolinian.

In California, Pacific Surfliner service will be cut in half on March 23 and further reduced on March 24.

On March 23, Trains 561, 565, 579, and 593 will operate as scheduled but Trains 569, 573, 583, 591, 595, and 759 are cancelled.

Trains 763 and 777 will operate according to the schedule between San Diego and Goleta but there will be no service north of Goleta.

Trains 767 and 785 will operate according to the schedule between San Diego and Los Angeles with no service north of Los Angeles.

Trains 564, 580, and 584 will operate as scheduled but Trains 562, 566, 572, 578, 590, 782, and 792 are cancelled.

Train 796 will operate according to the schedule between Goleta and San Diego but with no service between San Luis Obispo and Goleta.

Effective March 24, scheduled will be further modified and subject to additional change based on ridership and public health conditions.

Trains 759, 561/1761, 565/1565, 569/1569, 573/1573, 583, 591/1591, and 595 are cancelled. Trains 763 and 777 will operate according to the schedule between San Diego and Goleta with no service north of Goleta.

Trains 767/1767 and 785 will operate according to the schedule between San Diego and Los Angeles but with no service north of Los Angeles.

Trains 562, 566/1566, 572/1572, 578, 782, 590/1590, and 792 are cancelled.

Train 774 will operate according to the schedule between Los Angeles and San Diego with no service between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles.

Train 796 will operate according to the schedule between Goleta and San Diego with no service between San Luis Obispo and Goleta.

Service to San Luis Obispo will be preserved through limited bus connections from Santa Barbara. The Coast Starlight will also continue serving San Luis Obispo.

In northern California, the San Joaquins Joint Powers Authority, Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority and Amtrak have agreed on the following service reductions.

Amtrak San Joaquin service will be suspending the Emeryville and San Francisco Thruway Bus Route (Route 99) on March 21.

Passengers traveling to San Francisco are encouraged to utilize BART via the Richmond Station.

On March 26, Trains 701, 702, 703, 704, 714, and 717 will be suspended and remaining trains will not have lead service attendants or food service.
Train 719 will no longer stop at Richmond because of the BART reduction in hours.

On the east Coast, Amtrak’s Downeaster service will see further service reductions to two roundtrips a day.

On March 21 and 22, Trains 692, 694, 693 and 695 will operate.

Between March 23-27 trains operating will include Nos. 680, 682, 681 and 684.

North of the border, VIA Rail Canada has said the suspension of the Montreal-Halifax Ocean, Toronto-Vancouver Canadian, and Jasper-Prince Rupert service has been extended to May 1.

Effective March 23 Montreal-Senneterre and Montreal-Jonquiere, Quebec, trains will be cut o one round trip per week, as will Sudbury-White River, Ontario, service.

Such an-board and in-station services such as baggage handling and restaurant access will also be curtailed.