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Service reductions and staff layoffs are in prospect as Amtrak seeks to cut costs in the face of a coronavirus-led collapse in ridership, reports Joseph M Calisi.
Amtrak is caught in the midst of a vortex that began in March with the emergence of the Covid-19 virus and its devastating impact on the US economy.
What has happened to the US national passenger rail corporation is a microcosm of worldwide events. In the first quarter, Amtrak was vibrant, reporting the highest ridership levels in its history, and predicting that it might break even in the 2020 financial year for the first time since its establishment in 1971. But then the traffic seemed to vanish overnight. Within a matter of days, ridership had collapsed and a huge hole had developed in the operator’s finances.
Reporting a 96% drop in daily ridership and a 95% decline in forward ticket bookings as a result of the pandemic, Amtrak broadly halved its service levels by mid-April. It suspended all Acela Express trains between Boston and Washington DC, as well as regional services from New York to Charlotte, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the Boston – Brunswick Downeaster, and the Pere Marquette from Chicago to Grand Rapids. Other routes and connecting bus links were put onto a reduced frequency.
Social distancing grew into not only a metaphor but a rallying cry for safety. Middle seats disappeared, while twin seats shrank into singles because of the need to maintain a 2 m spacing between passengers. Trains were being disinfected daily or before they went into service, while UV light was deployed in an effort to control the spread of the virus. At stations and onboard the trains, hand sanitisers and alcohol wipes became part of the new travelling experience. Other service changes included the introduction of ‘touchless kiosks’ to replace machines in many stations, and the provision of pre-ordered, packaged meals to replace traditional dining cars.
Other Covid-19 measures included reducing ticket sales to 50% of capacity, accepting only cashless payments in stations and on trains, and displaying signs to promote physical distancing in high footfall areas such as waiting rooms, ticket offices, escalators and lounge entrances. Clear protective barriers were retrofitted at staffed stations where necessary.
Photo: Joseph M Calisi
With the suspension of Acela Express, Amtrak’s Regional trains provided the main service on the Northeast Corridor. An ACS-64 electric loco arrives at New Haven Union station with a Regional service from Boston on June 25.
On April 10, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced that the Federal Railroad Administration would be making available $1·02 bn to support Amtrak through the pandemic, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act. This was intended to support efforts ‘to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the spread of’ Covid-19 ‘and its impacts on operations and business’.
The Cares Act funding was intended to offset the loss of ticket revenue, ensuring that the corporation could continue to pay its employees and fund essential asset management and renewal programmes. Out of the total, $492 m was allocated for the Northeast Corridor and $526 m for National Network Grants covering the rest of the country. Of this, at least $239 m was to be used to mitigate the impact on 28 state-supported routes, where the state governments would otherwise be required to make up any revenue shortfalls.
Despite this emergency federal support, on April 22 Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia indicated that the operator expected to lose more than $700 m in the financial year to September 30. Amtrak is now asking for a further $1·5 bn to cover actual and projected losses for FY 2020 and 2021.
A few days later, newly appointed President & CEO Bill Flynn announced that Amtrak would gradually begin restoring services from May 11, insisting that ‘Amtrak continues to operate as an essential service for those who must travel during this public health crisis. Our services will be even more critical as our nation recovers.’
Adding that ‘the safety of Amtrak’s customers and employees is our top priority’, he explained that all passengers would be required to cover their nose and mouth while using both trains and connecting bus services. The mandatory face coverings could be removed when passengers were eating in designated areas, in private rooms, or when seated alone or with a travel companion in a pair of seats.
Amtrak began to reinstate some of its suspended Acela high speed services on the Northeast Corridor from June 1, when Northeast Regional frequencies were also increased. That brought a 110% increase in revenue for the NEC and state-supported business groups to $12·4 m for the following month, and a 128% increase in passenger-km. But while the passenger loadings began to recover, the figures were nowhere near the levels seen in the first two months of 2020.
In a bid to encourage ridership, Amtrak launched a summer sale promotion offering discounted travel on its long-distance trains between mid-August and the end of September. Promising ‘contact-free, safe travel from time of booking to the moment of arrival’, it offered customers the chance to ‘travel in the comfort of a private room at a discounted price’. Anyone booking a Roomette could take a companion for free.
‘In addition to all the safety precautions we are taking to make rail travel safe, Roomettes offer a one-of-a-kind way to reach your destination in comfort, space and privacy’, suggested Executive Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer Roger Harris. ‘During this time, more customers are selecting our private rooms and this promotion makes it easier for more people to try these unique accommodations for the first time.’
The operator also waived its change and cancellation fees for reservations made on any trains to the end of August. However, it continued to limit the number of passengers booked on most services to allow for physical distancing in seating areas.
Amtrak’s long-distance services remain under threat with the switch to tri-weekly operation. In 2018 politicians defeated proposals to cut back the Southwest Chief, seen calling at Albuquerque, New Mexico.
More cuts ahead
Despite this up-beat promotion, swingeing cuts are in prospect for the long-distance business, with company officials telling Congress in July that most routes would be cut from daily to thrice-weekly from October 1 unless further federal support was forthcoming. This includes signature trains such as the Lake Shore Limited, Empire Builder and California Zephyr, which actually posted higher loadings and revenues during June than the shorter-distance routes. The move has raised concerns among observers who believe that Amtrak is trying to kill off its national network and focus on regional corridors, as controversially proposed by former CEO Richard Anderson.
Many rail advocates argue Amtrak should provide a public service and not be run on a purely financial rationale. Questioning the operator’s ridership and cost figures, they point out that the trains provide inter-city connections between many origin-destination pairs not covered by other services, and a reduction to tri-weekly operation would remove connections across the country, jeopardising essential travel as well as revenues from leisure ridership.
Amtrak’s Chief Operating & Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner has insisted that ‘we are committed to assessing the travel needs continuously and to restoring service levels when appropriate. We regret the impact of these planned changes on our customers, employees, and communities across the nation and we hope to restore some or all of this service back to daily in 2021. But, with ridership down by 80% and more and federal funding levels unclear for FY2021, we must take appropriate steps to align our service levels with current demand.’
Gardner said some long-distance services could be reinstated from June 2021, if key benchmarks are achieved by mid-February. This includes passenger footfall at selected major airports, as an indicator of increasing travel demand, while train bookings in the remainder of this year need to reach 90% of the levels seen in the same period in 2019.
Having warned earlier this year of a possible 20% cut in staffing to reduce costs, Amtrak confirmed at the beginning of September that it was looking to furlough more than 2000 employees from October 1, including 1950 of its unionised workforce and 100 managerial positions. Almost a third of the cuts are onboard staff, who have borne the brunt of safeguarding the public throughout the pandemic.
The hardest hit regions will be around Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle, where the service reductions have been greatest.
There was an immediate kickback from politicians, including the Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines & Hazardous Materials Daniel Lipinski, who described the decision as ‘disappointing and unacceptable’. He pointed out that ‘Amtrak received nearly $1 bn in Cares Act funding with the directive from Congress that they would use the funds to help prevent furloughs. Amtrak has had months to come to Congress and request additional funds if money was needed to help keep workers on the payroll.’
Lipinski said the Rail Subcommittee would be holding an urgent hearing with Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn, as well as ‘workers and passengers affected by Amtrak’s actions’.
Transport Workers Union International Railroad Division Director John Feltz described the move as ‘a slap in the face’ for dedicated employees ‘with decades-long careers of service to Amtrak. They are front-line workers who have jeopardised their health and safety, as well as the health and safety of their famiwlies, while working throughout this pandemic.’
Former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson controversially proposed that the carrier should focus its efforts on short and medium distance corridors rather than providing a national network.
Whither passenger rail?
Although Amtrak has begun taking delivery of new Siemens Chargers to replace its ageing fleet of P40 and P42 diesel locomotives, and a consortium of states is procuring new rolling stock for regional operations, it urgently needs to find an estimated $10 bn to begin the renewal of its long-distance fleet, where many of the Superliner and Amfleet vehicles are more than 40 years old and can only continue operating with an FRA waiver. That will undoubtedly require Congressional backing, and the legislators are unlikely to appreciate the proposed cuts to their trains.
Meanwhile, the reduced quality of service during the pandemic has raised some philosophical questions as well as economic ones. While Amtrak has been caught up in circumstances not entirely of its own making, some of the decisions it has made do seem questionable, to say the least.
Station staffing levels are suffering as positions have been eliminated and passengers are being asked to handle their own baggage. Food on trains is another issue, as not only is the quality of the snacks and meals in question but elimination of the dining cars and social distancing have halted the random round-the-table discussions between passengers which was a popular feature of on-train dining.
It all seems so different to just a few years ago, when proponents were arguing the case for increased passenger rail service as a way of reducing US dependency on roads and aviation, providing additional choices and a more sustainable alternative. Now, far from attracting new riders, Amtrak risks losing its existing loyal passenger base, who may soon feel that the on-train experience has become so bland that they give up and drive or fly to their destinations instead.
This article first appeared on www.railwaygazette.com
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