Archive for the ‘Amtrak News’ Category

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.

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.

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.

Dining Cars to Remain Sidelined Through June

May 22, 2020

Full-service dining is not expected to return to Amtrak’s western long-distance trains until late June at the earliest, a story in Railway Age reported.

Amtrak in April suspended full-service dining on those trains in favor of the “flexible dining” service it provides on eastern long-distance trains of serving to sleeper class passengers a limited array of meals that are prepared off the train.

No sources were named for the information about full service dining restoration, but the article did quote an Amtrak spokesman as saying that a widely reported company internal planning document was not a final plan for service restorations of suspended services this summer.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the document was not an announcement of any decision by Amtrak or its state partners that fund corridor services.

“Many of the dates written in it are placeholders and nothing more,” he said.

Magliari said Amtrak will continue to operate its long-distance trains with reduced consists but that could change.

“We’re watching the ridership and the boardings,” he said.

Amtrak officials are monitoring ticket purchase patterns and the passenger carrier can adjust consists to meet increased demand.

Magliari said Amtrak is currently handling about 10 percent of the ridership it had before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The carrier has been selling only 50 percent of the capacity of its coaches in order to enable passengers to practice social distancing.

Magliari said Amtrak received enough aid from the federal the CARES Act to keep crew members employed, including a robust extra board.

Amtrak Host Railroads Push Back on FRA OT Rule

May 21, 2020

Running a passenger train schedule between one station and another should seem like a straight forward process.

Take such factors as distance and maximum speed allowed over the length of the run to determine “pure running time.” Then factor in station dwell times. The result is a schedule.

In fact those are factors Amtrak has used to create its schedules.

But during a recent public hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration over its proposed rule mandating on-time performance standards for passenger trains, Amtrak’s host railroads argued that schedule making it more complicated than that.

The host railroads want the FRA to require rather than suggest that Amtrak and its host railroads conduct periodic negotiations over schedules.

As the host railroads see it, current Amtrak schedules are not realistic because they were set years if not decades ago and conditions have changed since then.

Norfolk Southern told the FRA that Amtrak schedules need to account for “operating and market conditions affecting the railroad, including infrastructure capacity, traffic volumes, traffic mix, and maintenance needs.”

NS contends that Amtrak is unwilling to adjust schedules in response to these factors.

The proposed FRA standards would define a train as on-time at any given station if it arrives within 15 minutes of its published schedule although that would be weighted by the level of use that station typically sees.

A recent analysis of the issue published on the website of Trains magazine laid out some of the various factors in the on-time rule making dilemma.

If Amtrak and its host railroads were forced to negotiate new schedules, the process would likely become protracted as each sought to advance its own underlying agendas.

For the host railroads that is likely to include lengthening schedules rather than contracting them.

Railroads have a financial incentive to demand longer schedules. Amtrak pays them incentives to operate trains on time. It penalizes host railroads by withholding those payments if trains are late.

Typically, schedules include “recovery time” to enable a late train to get within its schedule at some point.

Recovery time tends to be placed toward the end of a route. You can find it by calculating the scheduled running time from the terminal, say Chicago, and the next station on a route.

It is not unusual for the scheduled running time into Chicago from that station to be twice what it is for trains leaving Chicago.

However, in some instances, recovery time is built in around specified en route check points.

Another sticky issue involves routes with multiple host railroads. If a train arrives late onto the tracks of railroad B because of delays incurred while on the tracks of railroad A, railroad B doesn’t want to be penalized for that.

Yet Amtrak’s host railroads argue that will occur if the proposed FRA standard is adopted.

In their comments to the FRA, some host railroads were critical of Amtrak for refusing to show them certain information including passenger boarding information at individual stations.

That is important information, railroads say, because the built-in dwell time at any given station needs to take into account how many passengers it typically handles.

Because passenger counts at any given station are subject to change, host railroads contend that the dwell time at some stations may be outdated given the passenger traffic there and thus not “reasonably achievable.”

Trains found after reviewing the testimony and written statements of the parties that participated in the FRA hearings that Amtrak’s host railroads generally favor a single measure rather than multiple definitions of when a train is late, depending on the length of the route traveled.

Amtrak’s host railroads through their trade group, the Association of American Railroads, challenged complex on-time definitions in court in previous litigation over a section of a federal law mandating the setting of on-time performance standards for passenger trains.

The Rail Passengers Association in its statement to the FRA expressed the fear that Amtrak’s host railroads are playing a long game of seeking to engage in endless litigation and regulatory proceedings in an effort to forestall on-time standards that are not to their liking.

Rail passenger advocates argue that if the host railroads get their way Amtrak schedules would be reset to be so slow that fewer people would want to take the train.

Passenger advocates also contend that without a mechanism in place to penalize Amtrak’s host railroads for their failure to dispatch trains on time there will be no incentive for the hosts to ensure passenger trains adhere to their schedules.

The Trains analysis noted there was widespread criticism by host railroads and passenger train advocates alike over Amtrak’s refusal to share operating information with the public.

This includes Amtrak’s Customer Satisfaction Index. Amtrak argues that information collected to calculate that index is proprietary.

The FRA is accepting public comments on its proposed rule through June 1.

Whatever it decides probably isn’t going to make everyone happy and it could even leave all parties somewhat to greatly dissatisfied.

Everyone involved in this matter has their own agenda and it’s probably inevitable that those agendas will conflict.

Each party wants someone else to give up something that is valuable to them that they are not willing to surrender no matter what “compensation” they may get in return if indeed there is anything to be gained by giving in.

Commissions Get Bridge Replacement Plans

May 21, 2020

The harbor commissions of the Connecticut towns of Old Saybrook and Old Lyme have received proposals to replace a century-old bridge on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor over the Connecticut River.

Amtrak plans to spend $400 million to replace a bascule bridge constructed in 1907 with a new bascule bridge that would be located 52 feet south of the current bridge.

The commissions in both cities have been asked to determine whether the proposed project is consistent with their harbor management plans.

The commission in Old Saybrook has signaled that it agrees with the proposal and suggested two river closure periods that would occur outside of boating season.

It also wants Amtrak to consider reuse of the current roadbad as a public access point.

The commission in Old Lyme has yet to act on the proposal, saying it needs further information.

2 Named to Amtrak Board of Directors

May 19, 2020

The Trump administration announced it intends to nominate Sarah E. Feinberg and Chris Koos to Amtrak’s board of directors. Both are Democrats and would fill seats on the board set aside for that party.

Feinberg is interim president of MTA New York City Transit and previously served as Federal Railroad Administrator and as chief of staff to former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

She also once served as director of policy communications at Facebook and director of Global Communications and Business Strategy at Bloomberg.

A West Virginia native, she is the founder of Feinberg Strategies and received her B.A. from Washington and Lee University.

Koos has been mayor of Normal, Illinois, since 2003. He serves on the advisory board of Transportation for America, is a member of the Uptown Normal Business Association, and, since 1979, has served as the owner and operator of the retail specialty stores Vitesse Cycle Shop and Often Running.

Both nominations require confirmation in the U.S. Senate.

BNSF Track Work to Disrupt San Joaquins

May 17, 2020

BNSF track work will result in changes in the operations of the San Joaquins on May 29 and 30.

On May 29, Train 718 will terminate at Wasco, California.

Thruway Bus 5818 will originate at Wasco and provide alternate transportation between Wasco and Bakersfield.

On May 30, Train 711 will originate at Wasco. Thruway Bus 5811 will provide alternate transportation from Bakersfield to Wasco and will depart from all stations from San Diego to Bakersfield 15 minutes earlier than normally scheduled.