Amtrak is ending daily service to hundreds of stations and blames the coronavirus pandemic, the railroad said this week.
Starting Oct. 1, most Amtrak long-distance trains will operate three times a week, instead of daily, the company said in a memo to employees Monday.
The carrier is also planning to enter fiscal year 2021 with reduced train frequencies in the Northeast Corridor, the busiest in its network, and on its state-funded routes, the company said.
The downsized operations come as Amtrak prepares to cut up to 20% of its staff in response to the financial crisis left by the pandemic. Demand for service – and the company’s revenue – plummeted to historic lows starting in mid-March as states implemented strict coronavirus lockdowns.
“Congress is not going to support us indefinitely to run mostly empty trains,” Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer said in the memo to employees. “We need to demonstrate that we are using our resources efficiently and responsibly.”
Amtrak said last month that it needs nearly $1.5 billion in supplemental funding from the federal government to maintain “minimum service levels,” anticipating that ridership will not recover to pre-pandemic levels in fiscal 2021. Even with the supplemental funding, the company said, it would need to cut service and personnel to stay afloat.
Amtrak estimates that ridership in the next fiscal year may reach 16 million, or about 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
Ridership was down 95% during the pandemic and the Northeast Corridor, which had several virus hot spots, was hit especially hard. Even as states begin to reopen, ridership remains down 90%.
While the company’s plan to slash long distance daily service was not a surprise, some rail advocates said Amtrak is wrong to reduce daily service to communities across the country, some places in which the train is the only transportation option. They said, those routes saw the smallest declines in ridership during the pandemic. According to Amtrak, demand for its long-distance service is down by 70%.
“Let’s be clear, this is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association said in a statement. “The long-distance services declined the least among Amtrak’s three business lines during the coronavirus-induced slowdown, and its services remain essential to the hundreds of small communities across the United States with fewer options than Philadelphia or Boston or New York City.”
Mathews estimates that as many as 461 stations outside the Northeast Corridor will lose daily service. He said Amtrak could be “setting itself up for failure by losing operating slots on host railroads, losing employees it will need to restore service and possibly losing the rolling stock as well.”
The Long Distance service, which includes 15 routes, is Amtrak’s least profitable. It also is the most dependent on government subsidies. But the routes also have a strong fan base of train aficionados who take to the tracks to travel across America and of people from parts of the country where airports are not easily accessible.
The Auto Train, which travels from the Washington suburbs of Lorton, Va., to the Orlando, Fla., area, is the only long-distance route that will continue to operate daily, Amtrak said. According to the company, the Auto Train has remained strong, even during the pandemic, maintaining a loyal ridership of people who migrate between Florida and the Northeast between seasons.
The New York-to-Miami Silver Meteor will run four times a week, so the stations it shares with the Silver Star are served daily, officials said.
Amtrak’s two existing triweekly trains
The following routes will go from daily operations to three times a week: California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), Capitol Limited (Washington to Chicago), City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans), Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles), Crescent (New York City to New Orleans), Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle), Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago), Palmetto (New York to Savannah, Ga.), Silver Star (New York to Miami), Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles), and Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio).
Ross Capon, president emeritus of the Rail Passengers Association, said having less than daily service on the long-distance trains will end up costing Amtrak more in the long run. One reason, he said, is that the new schedules will not allow for good same-day connections.
“This could be the last summer for reasonably scheduled long-distance trips,” Capon said.
Amtrak said plans are also to operate 32% less frequently in the Northeast and 24% less frequently for the state-supported service beginning Oct. 1.
In a statement, Amtrak attributed the decision to operate at reduced capacity through fiscal 2021 to “the long-term impact of Covid-19 on ridership” and said “Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.”