Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

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One Response to “Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer”

  1. Stephen Karlson Says:

    Toward the end of private operation, the Chicago to Florida service was the Illinois Central to Central of Georgia and beyond City of Miami, alternating with the change-trains-at-Louisville South Wind as Penn Central had managed to degrade their part of the operation to a connecting train (although it would on occasion handle a through car carrying salt water for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.)

    The weekend-only train, particularly in summer, was long a thing, particularly into resort country before the era of air conditioning. Consider the various Official Region to Maine services before 1960. The last survival of that sort of thing might have been on Chicago and North Western, where a Sunday only Chicago – Menominee, Mich. turn replaced a Monday – Saturday Chicago – Green Bay service.

    It’s a pain, though, planning a cross country trip, or for that matter a family visit, when ALL the long distance services are on tri-weekly, not-necessarily-connecting, schedules.

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