Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak long distance trains’

Amtrak Begins Recalling Furloughed Workers

March 16, 2021

Amtrak was to begin the process of recalling furlough employees on this week.

An internal memo said 1,250 furloughed workers would be recalled between March 16 and 29 while noting that it would take 90 days to get all of them back to work.

During that 90-day period the furloughed workers will be tested and requalified as needed in their respective positions.

The recalls were mandated in the recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that was approved by Congress and signed by President Joseph Biden.

The legislation appropriated $1.7 billion in supplemental funding for Amtrak to, among other things, restore daily service to 16 long distance trains that operated daily until last year.

The restoration of daily service is to take place on a rolling schedule on May 24, May 31 and June 7.

The Amtrak memo indicated that the first employees to be recalled would be those in train and engine service followed by onboard service personnel.

The affected workers will be contacted by a phone call that will be followed up with a certified letter.

In the memo Amtrak indicated that although workers are expected to respond to the recalls within the time frame outlined in their craft’s collective bargaining agreement, the carrier is seeking to provide some flexibility so workers can take care of personal matters before reporting back to work at Amtrak.

Resumption of Daily Service Yielding Fare Bargains

March 14, 2021

It didn’t take Amtrak long to make available additional sleeping car space and coach seats for the summer on long distance trains that have operated tri-weekly since last fall but will resume daily operation starting in late May.

Daily service will retrn on May 24, May 31 or June 7 depending on the route.

Those who are able to book shortly after the expanded service space and seats went up for sale were able to find some economical fares.

Amtrak’s yield management strategy ties fares to demand. So if you plan to travel this summer on a day when your train would have operated even on its tri-weekly schedule, you would have found high fares, an analysis published by Trains magazine found.

But for those able to travel on days when their train would not be serving the station from which they planned to depart, there are some bargains available for now.

For example, on one day that the Empire Builder was scheduled to operate in early June on the existing tri-weekly schedule coach seats from Chicago to Seattle were priced at,$245 while a roomette was selling for $1,074 for one adult and a bedroom was priced at $1,816 in a family room.

But on the following day coach seats were selling for $150, a roomette was $651, a family bedroom was $842 and a bedroom was priced at $1,210.

Amtrak’s Roger Harris, the carrier’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue, told Trains he is confident that demand this summer for coach seats and sleeping car rooms will be high enough to fill those seats and rooms at fares close to what Amtrak has charged in previous years.

“Under our original restoration metrics, we needed to see forward load factor bookings within 10 percent of historical levels, and we are actually ahead of that for this summer.”

That is likely to mean, the Trains analysis concluded that fares will not be drastically reduced across the board.

Amtrak has boosted its advertising budget by $10 million and Harris said the carrier will attempt to reach travelers through media channels it has not made much use of in recent years, particularly radio and television.

There won’t be a major advertising campaign in traditional media. Harris said Amtrak’s market’s efforts will continue to a more targeted digital advertising approach.

“It’s starting in March, because that’s when people begin planning trips and buying tickets,” Harris said.

Also look for unsold sleeping car space in a few months to be auctioned through the BidUp program that recently launched that enables passengers to upgrade from coach accommodations to business class and first class seats, particularly on corridor trains.

Amtrak Daily Service Also Will Bring Some Service Enhancements

March 13, 2021

The restoration of daily operation to most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains starting in late May will also coincide with a spiffing up of some amenities aboard those trains.

Some long-distance trains are expected to see the return of traditional dining car service.

The intercity passenger carrier said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be assigned to the Silver Meteor and Silver Star between New York and Miami.

The Auto Train sleeping cars will receive new and what Amtrak described as upgraded bedding, towels and linens. These will be provided to other long distance trains with sleeping car service during the summer.

Eastern trains assigned Amfleet II coaches will get new seating cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

Amtrak said cars that went through a multi-year interior renovation program for Superliner and Viewliner I equipment, which includes new seating cushions, carpets and curtains, will enter revenue service this summer.

Although no date was given, new ALC-32 Siemens Charger locomotives will begin pulling long-distance trains this year.

They will replace the ubiquitous P42DC units that have been maintays since the middle 1990s.

The Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station in New York will get a new Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers.

Unspecified enhancements will be made to the Auto Train.

It also remains to be seen how Amtrak will handle the restoration of traditional dining car meals.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said the carrier needs to work through the health implications of dining car operation.

“Communal dining is probably a non-starter for now, and you can work backward through food preparation and delivery,” he said.

Harris did not say which trains would receive traditional dining service. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic began Amtrak had ended full-service dining car service on all eastern long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

Traditional dining aboard the western long distance trains ended early in the pandemic in favor of serving prepackaged meals.

“It’s important to figure this out because it involves the recall of employees for the daily service this summer, so it’s a rather intertwined process,” Harris said. “There will be some food service decisions in the coming months but there will be further developments in the next year, as we get our new team really focused on this.”

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains to Resume Daily Service

March 11, 2021

Amtrak said Wednesday it will reinstate daily service on 12 long-distance routes starting in late May.

Trains on those routes shifted last year to tri-weekly or quad-weekly service in the wake of steep ridership declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of expanded service came hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pandemic relief package that contains increased funding for Amtrak.

The legislation also contains a mandate that routes that had daily service until last year resume daily operation and that furloughed employees be recalled.

President Joseph Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion bill on Friday.

Two routes, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will be unaffected by the changes because those routes have operated on tri-weekly schedules for years.

Amtrak has already resumed selling tickets for the expanded days of operation on the 12 routes.

Trains returning to daily service on May 24 include the Chicago-Emeryville, California, California Zephyr; Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight; Chicago-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, and the Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles Texas Eagle.

Daily operation returns May 31 for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans, Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Resuming daily operation on June 7 will be the New York-New Orleans Crescent, New York-Savannah Palmetto, and the New York-Miami Silver Meteor (via Savannah) and Silver Star (via Raleigh).

In a news release, Amtrak said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be making their debut on the Silver Service trains.

The Auto Train had continued to operate daily and its operations will remain unchanged.

Amtrak will receive $1.7 billion in emergency pandemic aid, which will help fund restoration of daily service on long-distance routes.

Senate Increases Aid for Amtrak, Public Transit

March 9, 2021

The U.S. Senate last Saturday increased COVID-19 relief funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The changes were made during consideration of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by the Senate by a vote of 50-49.

The Senate increased by $1.25 billion the funding for public transit over what the House approved on Feb. 27 and also increased the funding for Amtrak over the House-passed levels.

The bill now goes back to the House for further consideration. The House passed a modified version of the legislation providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 emergency funding.

Although some senators proposed amendments that would have cut, transferred or removed the aid to public transit, few of those amendments received a roll call vote and note were approved.

However, the Senate did approve an amendment to make 23 public transit programs eligible for federal Capital Investment Grants.

The House is expected to take up the amended version of the bill today and if approved it would go to President Joseph Biden for his signature.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak. That is a $200 million increase in funding from what the House approved last month.

Under the Senate version of the legislation $970 million will go toward the Northeast Corridor while the national network will receive $730 million.

The bill also provides $285 million to Amtrak “in lieu of commuter rail and state-supported route payments.”

The bill includes $166 million “to restore service on long-distance routes and to recall and manage furloughed employees.”

The breakdown of other public transit funding in the bill includes $26.09 billion for transit systems in urban areas and $317 million for grants in rural areas.

Also approved was $50 million in grants to benefit services for seniors and those with disabilities, $2.21 billion for operating assistance grants  pertaining to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and $250 million for Small Start projects that are recipients of a CIG allocation or an applicant in the project development phase.

Bill Would Mandate Daily Service for Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

February 26, 2021

A Montana senator has introduced legislation to require Amtrak to reinstate daily service to most of its 15-long distance routes.

The bill sponsored by Jon Tester (D-Montana) also would require the passenger carrier to reinstate furloughed workers.

Last October, Amtrak reduced the frequency of most long-distance trains from daily to tri-weekly.

Less than daily operations of two New York-Miami routes began last July while two other routes, the Sunset Limited (New Orleans-Los Angeles) and Cardinal (Chicago-New York) have operated tri-weekly for several years.

Only the Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia, and Florida has continued to run daily.

Amtrak cited steep ridership and revenue declines triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic for reducing the frequency of its long-distance trains.

In introducing his bill, Tester said in a statement that Amtrak’s service reductions “were an unacceptable attack on rural America.”

Tester’s bill would authorize and appropriate federal grants to Amtrak to pay for reviving daily service and recalling furloughed workers.

In a statement, Amtrak said it wants to resume daily service on route that had it before the pandemic and to recall furloughed workers.

The statement noted that a pandemic relief bill approved by a congressional committee contains funding to do that.

That bill is pending before the full House of Representatives.

Tester said he hopes that daily service on Amtrak long-distance routes can be achieved before the start of the summer travel season.

Amtrak Says Congress Can Mandate Daily Service

January 30, 2021

Amtrak has signaled that if Congress wants long-distance trains to operate daily rather than tri-weekly it can make that happen by mandating it and providing funding.

Since last October all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes have operated on tri-weekly or quad-weekly schedules.

At the time those reduced schedules were implemented Amtrak cited steep ridership declines that followed in the wake of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has since said that daily operation of those trains will be restored once they meet certain public health, ridership and future demand criteria.

However, in a statement Amtrak said Congress could override those standards.

“If Congress provides the direction and the needed funding, we would restore long-distance services to daily,” Amtrak said.

Earlier in the week, Amtrak had asked Congress for $1.5 million in emergency pandemic aid, saying that money is needed to recall workers furloughed last year and avoid future furloughs during the balance of the federal fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.

Amtrak’s subsequent statement was an elaboration of how the passenger carrier would use the money it has requested.

Aside from reducing the frequency of operation of long-distance trains, Amtrak has suspended operations of some state-funded corridor trains as the states funding those trains have reduced how much they are spending on Amtrak service.

In its statement, Amtrak said employees who worked aboard those suspended trains would still be recalled if Amtrak gets the money it requested.

These recalls will be made even if individual states opt not to increase their funding of Amtrak corridor services and thus the trains they once worked aboard remain suspended.

Those recalled workers “could go wherever their seniority allows them; it might not be on an extra board, but they would be recalled and employed,” Amtrak said in the statement.

Rail Passenger Future Gains Some Clarity

December 29, 2020

With the signing of legislation this week granting another round of federal stimulus funding and giving final approval to federal spending for fiscal year 2021, we now have some clarity on what the nation’s rail passenger system will look like over the next several months.

It is likely to look a lot like it does today, meaning it will be more Spartan that it was a year ago with long-distance trains continuing to operate on less-than-daily schedules and reduced levels of corridor service trains.

Amtrak was granted $1 billion in pandemic emergency funding, which Amtrak CEO William Flynn characterized as a band aid that will get the passenger carrier through to the spring when he said additional funding will be needed.

That’s the same level of emergency funding Amtrak received from the CARES Act adopted last March in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The latest emergency aid given Amtrak bans it from furloughing additional workers or reducing services further, but that is not the same thing as a mandate to restore service that has already been suspended or recalling workers who have been furloughed.

In a statement, Flynn tied service restorations, employee recalls and moving ahead on capital projects to Amtrak receiving additional funding next year.

As for FY 2021, Amtrak received $2.8 billion of which $1.3 billion is for the national network and state-supported corridor services.

That is not much more than the $2 billion the passenger carrier sought back in February before the pandemic began and well short of the $4.9 billion for FY2021 that it sought last October.

The legislation contained a policy rider expressing the sense of Congress that Amtrak is to operate long-distance routes in order to provide connectivity throughout the intercity passenger carrier’s network and provide transportation to rural areas.

That is far from being a mandate to restore daily operation to trains that shifted to less-than-daily operation, primarily tri-weekly, last October and July.

The rail passenger advocacy community may be united in believing that less-than-daily long distance trains are a bad idea, but Amtrak management is doing it anyway.

The downsides of less-than-daily service have received a lot of ink and bandwidth from railroad trade publication and railfan magazines, but that hasn’t moved the needle of Amtrak management’s behavior much if at all.

Amtrak has shown some sensitivity to the accusation that reducing long-distance trains to less-than-daily service is part of a larger plot to eliminate those trains.

In interviews and congressional testimony Flynn has tried to frame the service cuts as a temporary response to plunging ridership triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has also devastated ridership of airlines and buses.

He and Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia have sought to underscore that Amtrak is committed to having a national network.

That is not necessarily a commitment to operating that network at the same level of service that existed at the beginning of 2020 or even operating that network in perpetuity.

Flynn’s most recent statement about the latest emergency aid said nothing about when daily service will return to long-distance routes.

He told Congress in October that daily service might be restored in May “when financially possible.” That is hardly an ironclad promise.

In looking back at the fight over the past few months over rail passenger service cuts a couple of conclusions come to mind.

First, without public funding there are not going to be passenger trains of any kind. That particularly has been illustrated by the service cuts in state-supported corridor service.

The Chicago-Detroit corridor went from three trains a day to one, which reduced service to the lowest level it has been in the nearly 50 years of Amtrak operation.

Other corridors that had multiple daily frequencies saw service cuts as well and a few state-supported corridors that were suspended have yet to resume operations.

Second, passenger train advocates continue to lack the political clout needed to realize their visions of an expansive intercity passenger rail network.

Advocates have done well at keeping Amtrak funding at a suitable level to maintain a skeletal level of intercity rail passenger service but have failed to prevent Amtrak and its state partners from making service cuts when ridership and revenue plunged during the pandemic.

Congress has not shown a willingness to unlock the federal piggy bank to open-ended levels of financial support for intercity rail passenger service.

Getting intercity rail passenger service back to where it was in early 2020 is going to be a long, hard slog.

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but it might take much longer to get there than many want to believe.

Although it seems likely that significant numbers of people will want to travel again, airline industry observers have talked about a four-year time frame to get air service travel back to where it was before the pandemic took hold.

It is not unrealistic to think intercity rail service might be operating under a similar time frame.

It may be that pent up demand will move that up slightly in the next year or two but that is going to hinge on how quickly the economy grows and how soon larger numbers of people feel confident that traveling and unfettered social interaction are safe again.

‘Amtrak Joe’ May Favor Passenger Rail, But That Doesn’t Mean a Pending Passenger RenaissanceHeadline

November 24, 2020

President-elect Joseph Biden is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because during his time in Congress he commuted to Washington aboard Amtrak.

Biden took an interest in the intercity passenger carrier and former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine this week he believes Biden will be supportive of Amtrak’s national network.

The Biden administration won’t be taking office for another two months and it remains to be seen what policy positions it will take and how those will affect rail passenger service.

I would not expect, though, Biden’s election to presage the type of robust passenger rail renaissance that rail passenger advocates have dreamed about for decades in which federal funding spigots gush forth billions of dollars to fuel large scale rail passenger expansion.

What might be more realistic is the type of stimulus funding for specific improvement projects that the Obama administration pushed through Congress in its first two years.

That did not, though, result in any expansion of Amtrak’s long-distance network and only a minimal effect on corridor services.

It remains to be seen what the new administration’s position will be toward federal funding of intercity rail service, particularly the long-distance routes. Past administrations have sought to shift funding for the latter to the states served by those routes.

There has been just enough political support of federal funding of the long-distance routes on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to keep that funding flowing. I would expect that to continue during the Biden years.

I would expect a Biden administration to be less hostile toward funding Amtrak’s national network.

You won’t see budget proposals calling for replacing long-distance trains with buses as a first step toward phasing out federal funding of the long-distance network.

Biden budget proposals might seem to favor expanding the national network through a proposed infrastructure program.

But don’t expect to see anytime soon, if ever, increased frequencies of service on existing routes, say, two or three trains a day between Chicago and New York, or new long-distance routes.

Likewise, what position will the Biden administration take on supporting federal funding for corridor service? Many passenger advocates want repealed a federal law requiring routes of less than 750 miles to be paid for by state and local funding. Getting that done won’t be easy.

A Biden administration will be receptive to spending federal dollars on such Northeast Corridor projects as the Gateway Project to build new tunnels leading into New York City.

There is a long list of capital improvements for the NEC on Amtrak’s wish list, yet it remains to be seen how many of those will benefit from federal funding directed their way with the help of Biden administration support. Some probably will but not necessarily all of them.

The future of rail passenger service hinged on how much money Congress is willing to spend on it.

We’ll get a preview of that soon because lawmakers must approve another continuing resolution to extend authorization for federal spending in fiscal year 2021, which began more than a month ago, or approve an FY 2021 budget plan.

Amtrak has been adamant that without more money than it asked for earlier this year – just over $2 billion – it will have to furlough more workers and make additional service cuts.

It is not yet a sure thing that Amtrak will get the additional funding it wants.

There continues to be talk about another round of emergency pandemic spending and, of course, Amtrak wants a cut of that, too.

Yet the same conservative senators who opposed a stimulus package before the election can be expected to continue to  balk at what they view as excessive pork barrel spending that further balloons the national debt.

How much money the Biden administration will be able to get for transportation spending will hinge on the makeup of the next Congress. Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit by a slim margin.

In a best-case scenario for Biden, the Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. Yet Republicans may well continue to control the Senate.

In his interview with Trains, Downs predicted it would be some time before Biden’s influence over Amtrak and passenger rail will be felt.

The incoming president’s initial agenda will be dominated by responding to the pandemic and other pressing national and global needs.

How many times a week Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operate is not on that list.

Perhaps the best that will happen during a Biden administration is Amtrak’s route network eventually will return to whether it was in January 2020.

Most long-distance trains will operate daily again and all of the suspended state-funded corridor service will be restored. That won’t happen overnight.

I expect more studies, lots of speeches and many proposals couched in how environmentally friendly passenger rail is.

Those don’t cost much, but when it comes down to actually paying for those ideas, that’s another matter altogether,

That why rail passenger service in the United States remains limited and will continue to be so other than, perhaps some incremental changes.

Ex-Amtrak President Says it May be a While Before Biden Puts his Stamp on Amtrak

November 10, 2020

During his time in Congress, Joseph Biden often traveled on Amtrak to and from Washington from his home in Delaware, thus earning him the moniker “Amtrak Joe.”

Although he won’t become the nation’s next president until late January, speculation has already begun as what effect his election will have on Amtrak.

Former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine he believes Biden will be supportive of the national network.

Downs recalled riding with Biden in 1994 aboard a Metroliner and discussing Amtrak’s funding needs.

“‘Listen, Tommy. I can count!” Downs recalls, quoting Biden. “‘I need 51 Senators who support funding for Amtrak. And they come from around the rest of the country. If they don’t have a dog in the fight, Amtrak can’t survive,’ he told me.”

However Downs also believes it may be some time before Biden might begin to exhort any influence over Amtrak.

Downs believes Biden will not be supportive of the current management’s scaling back most long-distance trains to tri-weekly operation.

Noting that Biden once visited the Amtrak maintenance facilities in Wilmington and Bear, Delaware, Downs recalled Biden saying during his visit,  “‘I know Amtrak stops at 542 communities and all of those folks are important to Amtrak.’”

Downs, who headed Amtrak between 1993 and 1997, was critical during his interview with Trains about reducing the frequency of service of the long-distance trains.

“My immediate concern is [management’s] dismemberment process of pulling apart the long-distance trains. You start with the dining car, reducing service to three days per week where you kill the network effect, and then for reasons I can’t begin to understand there are no online schedules available for all the trains — this is an intentional attempt to kill the long-distance train service.”

He predicted that if the service cuts are not reversed soon “there won’t be any service to save.”

Amtrak’s fifth president described the long-distance trains as “an odd mix of essential service linking rural and urban communities and a land-cruise business; if you cut both of those, I don’t know how you ever get them back.”