News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak capacity challenges continue, but some routes see improvement

Amtrak capacity challenges continue, but some routes see improvement

By Bob Johnston | July 5, 2023

| Last updated on February 4, 2024

Website reservation changes provide less information on sleeping car availability

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Passenger train with baggage car, diner, coach, and sleeper.
The Capitol Limited arrives into Chicago on July 4, 2023, fwith two revenue Superliners — one coach and one sleeping car — that bracket a diner-lounge. Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — Passenger rail continues to be left out of travel discussions, in part because Amtrak lacks equipment to handle everyday cross-country demand, not to mention potential traffic surges triggered by holidays flights grounded by bad weather.

Meanwhile, revisions to Amtrak’s reservation system make it harder for travelers seeking sleeping car rooms to make informed decisions on how to get the best fare.

Here’s an update on capacity and other issues facing those considering long-distance travel.

Capacity changes, timekeeping challenges

 There has been improvement on some routes since post-Memorial Day Trains News Wire reports [see “Amtrak continues to provide mobility in uneven fashion,” June 1, 2023, and “Overcoming Amtrak’s equipment shortage …,” June 2, 2023].

A third Viewliner sleeper has recently been added to the New York section of the Lake Shore Limited (diverted from the New York-Miami Silver Meteor, as in years past). But the New York/Boston-Chicago train still runs with only five coaches west of Albany-Rennselaer, N.Y., compared to six in pre-COVID-19 pandemic years. The result is continued sellouts out of New York.

Passenger train with mismatched equipment and one locomotive in middle of train
On Monday, July 3, the Chicago-bound Cardinal approaches Dyer, Ind., with two Sightseer Lounge cars fresh from Beech Grove leading the triweekly’s short consist of two coaches, a cafe, one sleeper, and one baggage-dorm. James L. Burd

Curiously, the Capitol Limited has lost one of two Superliner sleeping cars since Memorial Day and still operates with only one Superliner coach. This means east-west connectivity is virtually non-existent, when also taking into account the makeup of the triweekly Cardinal: two Amfleet II coaches, one Viewliner sleeper, and a handful of roomettes sold in the train’s baggage-dorm. On News Wire’s recent journey from Florida [see “Dining experience worthy of Viewliners …,” News Wire, July 5, 2023], Amtrak travel through Washington, D.C., wasn’t possible, making a United Airlines flight from Reagan National Airport the fallback choice.

In the West, Amtrak is still missing one of four Coast Starlight equipment sets following a highway grade crossing collision last week [see Coast Starlight derails …,” News Wire, June 28, 2023], resulting in the train’s continued cancellation south of Emeryville, Calif., through at least July 8. Pacific Surfliner service between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo resumed June 30.

The Southwest Chief has gained a third Superliner coach and been spotted with additional sleeping cars, though the Chief, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder continue to suffer significant delays between Chicago and the West Coast.

The Builder’s latest setback involved a July 4 detour over its pre-Amtrak Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (now BNSF Railway) route between Chicago and La Crosse, Wis., to get around a freight derailment [see “CPKC train derails …,” News Wire, July 4, 2023]. As of today (Wednesday, July 5), both eastbound and westbound trains encountered substantial delays waiting for clear track through the wreck site. An equally route-disruptive incident occurred July 2 when unspecified mechanical issues inflicted an 8-hour delay at Chicago on the westbound departure. It short-turned at Spokane (passengers were bused to and from Seattle and Portland, Ore.) but the eastbound train was still running 4 hours late today.

Sleeping car sellouts difficult to discern

Amtrak recently altered its fare display on to show rates for the different sleeping car accommodations, but in so doing removed the customer’s ability to discern how many rooms might be available. Fares for each type were previously accompanied by an “at this price” qualifier. This served a similar function to the sellout percentages offered for coach tickets on all routes with reserved seating.

Demand usually varies by day and city pair. With accommodations extremely limited, Amtrak tends to keep prices high according to the historical demand, or booking curve, for each train on a specific date. Previously, if a fare was in an upper “bucket,” or level, and there were “4 available at this price,” there was a good chance inventory managers or algorithm-driven programs might reduce the fare if fewer travelers purchased the space as the departure date approaches.

This is exactly what happened on the News Wire trip June 22 from Orlando, Fla., to Alexandria, Va. A roomette was originally booked with 25,063 Amtrak Guest Reward points — $706 in cash — on June 8. But on June 16, the fare dropped to $508 with the notation, ”1 room available at this price.”

Exterior of sleeping car with two levels of windows at station platform.
Roomette No. 8 on car 9211 (right foreground) now has a clean window after a stop at the high level-platform at Raleigh, N.C. Bob Johnston

A quick call to Amtrak’s reservation number netted a refund of 7,029 points and a room switch from No. 5 in car 9210 to No. 8 in 9211. The change was especially good news, because even-numbered Viewliner roomettes are always on the left side, meaning a dirty window could be washed at Raleigh, the lone station with a high-level platform south of Baltimore. After the points purchase, the Orlando-Alexandria fare quoted to other prospective travelers rose one level to $607.

It is still possible to know if you are getting a “deal” by checking adjacent dates (as shown by the difference between a comparison at noon today of $508 Orlando-Alexandria price on July 7 versus $798 on July 9), but gauging a sense of urgency to act is now missing — and clearly existed for both those prices. By 6 p.m., the fare on July 7 had risen to $706, and roomettes on July 9 were sold out.

This the latest example of Amtrak deciding passengers don’t need some form of information — joining onboard maps, route guides, and printable grid timetables.

20 thoughts on “Amtrak capacity challenges continue, but some routes see improvement

  1. To Bob Johnston – As a follow-up on Southern Cal matters, here is the latest unconfirmed info (from local sources) on Surfliner and Chief/Starlight:

    Surfliner service to/from San Diego County (and SCRRA commuter service to/from Oceanside) to resume by Monday July 17th. I hope to visit San Clemente this coming week to check progress on the retaining wall below Casa Romantica, keep in mind this service outage is a fluid situation (pun intended!)

    The Starlight resumption is a bit more complicated, made more so today by #3 arriving LA almost 12 hours late. Amtrak cancelled #4 Thursday 7-6 with the apparent intent of using that trainset to reconstitute a 4th Starlight set, possibly as early as Saturdays #14. This would also allow Chicago 3 days to assemble enough cars for #3 on Sunday. Due to todays delayed 3 arrival into LA, the earlier set of #3 had to go out tonight (Friday) as #4, meaning that todays #3 late arrival would become the basis for the 4th Starlight set, probably a day later then hoped. There is also a Sunset consist in LA on Friday but it departs late Friday night, so filling in with a Sunset trainset was not a great option today.
    Consists of #3-4 for food service can vary and have run with 2 diners, a cross-county cafe/Sightseer lounge, and even just one food service car if needed.

    As a side note, Sightseer lounge 33041 has been in the Surfliner pool for many months as a spare Surfliner SeaView cafe car, and unfortunately the car is currently on one of the two Surfliner sets isolated south of San Clemente. Once the slide area reopens and the car can rotate back into LA, this car could rejoin the long-distance fleet which is short on lounges as we know. Thanks – Walt

    1. Walt: Quite a bit of information there outlining operational challenges–thanks for filling everybody in!

    2. Re “Amtrak cancelled #4 Thursday 7-6…” Yet 4 arrived Ft Madison Sat 7-8 at 3:21 (4:32 late). So 4 must have departed LAX 7-6 unless what I saw was short-turned.somewhere.

  2. One last comment I promise. I wish Bob Johnston was in Congress and chaired a committee with oversight of Amtrak. That would make Trent Lotts dressing down of Tom Downs in 1995 look like a cakewalk.

  3. Look at the patheticly short Capitol Limited and Cardinal in the photos.
    The Capitol is no longer worthy of that name. Daniel Willard, Bill Howes to name a few are turning over in their graves

  4. How much longer will we have to put up with clown show of Coscia, Gardner and the fly boys? The death spiral that Amtrak is in seems to be getting worse. One bright spot is the Builder got its second Seattle sleeper at least for the summer.
    Congress has been AWOL regarding Amtrak. RPA has become a stooge for Amtrak and according to RPA, everything’s coming up roses where in reality nothing can be further from the truth.
    No surprise that Illinois chose Metra to operate the proposed Chicago to Rockford train.
    Mike Lustig

  5. At the same time, the Silver Meteor, which just regained traditional dining also lost a sleeping car. Now it’s down to two taking up prices on rooms. The neglected Texas Eagle still remains without its sightseer lounge car and a full dining car, while all the other long haul routes in the west have both of these.

  6. Here is another one from the above article “A quick call to Amtrak’s reservation number”, The call may have been quick but waiting for a representative isn’t???

  7. My opinion is that the Amtrak roomette price of $508 to $706 is ridiculously non-competitive versus flying one way between Orlando and Reagan Airport at Alexandria VA. One could buy one way tickets on 9 non-stop flights (JetBlue or American) tomorrow (Friday 7/7/23) for prices ranging between $89 to $179 and make the trip in less than 2.5 hours v. a minimum of 17 hours and 18 minutes on Amtrak’s Silver Meteor.

    1. John you are so right. I don’t understand why railfans get so riled up about Amtrak’s lousy service and high fares. Either use Guest Rewards points or fly. Recently I took the LSL to Chicago to attend Pullman Days. I booked a Boston roomette to Albany and a NYC bedroom from there to Chicago. (I do this to prevent the situation where the train is either cancelled due to CSX track work or the sleeper is bad ordered and they try to put me in a coach overnight to Chicago.) The trip was OK except for the dining car experience. After the event I booked a business class seat to St. Louis to visit a friend. After the visit I booked an Amercian Airlines First Class seat back to Boston. The three trips were all fine. But the advantage of the plane was that for less than the price of a sleeper from Chicago to Boston I traveled first class from St. Louis to Boston leaving and arriving the same day (2 3/4 hours) rather than spending two days on the train. And I was far more comfortable. A quick bus ride back to Portland, ME and I was almost home long before the LSL left Chicago and another two-day trip on Amtrak to Boston that would have required an overnight in that city. That is why so many more people fly than take the train. I’ve learned to do the same.

  8. Using the words “Amtrak” and “improvement” in the same sentence is among the most naively optimistic oxymorons in the explored universe.

  9. Many years ago the late (and much missed) (R.I.P.) George H. Drury, TRAINS-MAG’s unsung and under-appreciated staffer, did any article on Switzerland. One of the small railroads he reviewed had the unfortunate abbreviation “FART”. I assume the Swiss corporate name isn’t trademarked in USA, so maybe Amtrak could use it.

    1. It’s the “Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi”, which operates the Swiss part of the scenic Centovalli railway from Locarno to Domodossola.

    2. Charles that is the nick name for the Fresno bus system: Fresno Area Rapid Transit!

  10. I’ve got one for you. We booked an Amtrak trip to New York several months ago. Yesterday ( July 4), we show up at Penn Station and don’t see our train listed under departures. So I go to the ticket counter to find out why. I’m told it’s up there and the guy looks and says, ” Oh, it’s not!!! Let me find out why.”. Turns out July 4 is a holiday with trains running on a Sunday schedule. Turns out the train we booked doesn’t run on Sundays.
    1. Why did the system even allow me to book the train ? 2. I received absolutely no communications from Amtrak telling me the train wasn’t running. No text, no emails. 3. The system wanted to charge me $280 on top of what I had already paid to change to the next train. INSANE. Fortunately I was talking to an agent who was very good and had a customer first focus He questioned the same thing. I book a trip on a train that isn’t running and get charged more to get one that is. He made several phone calls and talked to several people in the office and got it taken care of. Amtrak is just completely broken.

  11. Here are the latest job postings for Amtrak Beech Grove, July 2nd.:
    Carmen Journeyman
    Coach Cleaner
    Electrician Journeymen (2)
    Boilermaker Journeyman
    Sr. Electrical Engineer- Control
    Lead Quality Assurance Analyst

    These are the postings and I have no further information.

  12. Regarding the equipment shortage I recently watched videos on You Tube that showed equipment both passenger cars and locomotives sitting on storage tracks in various forms of disrepair and decay at the Beechgrove shops and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is is the same at Amtrak’s other shops and repair facilities. True some of the equipment is ready for the scrap heap but until that time comes that equipment should be fixed up repaired and sent out to serve the demand for passenger rail travel until whenever the so called new equipment arrives that we are all holding our breath waiting for it. Years ago the railroads were very good and creative when it came to fixing up and repairing old cars and locomotives and getting some mileage out of them until it was time to finally retire them. From what I seen in the video, it don’t look like there is much activity or none at all at Beech grove. It would appear that this a deliberate attempt by Amtrak to cut service and eliminate trains from the schedule and put all their eggs in one basket this being the NEC which by the way is struggling along with worn out Acela trainsets the new replacements wont be going into service until late 2024 if that even takes place. The NEC isnt exactly up to par either with all the work and money being poured into replacement and renewal. Nobody cares about Amtrak or passenger train travel certainly not the politicans or the bumblers running Amtrak except to collect their yearly bonuses and their salary for a job not being done properly. Of course passenger train travel is not mentioned anywhere in the news outlets or the media. Why bother when there isn’t any trains operating or if one does come along it is a poor representive of rail travel and certainly enough to drive any potential travellers away. You can’t expect people to use the train when the planes don’t operate or gas prices are high because there isn’t any trains to run or coming. A very sad and disgraceful picture of our transportation system in this country . We are so focused on and spending billions to go the moon and then Mars where there is really nothing there for us except that we need another planet to mess up after we can done destroying our planet and we can’t even find the money or the right management to oerate a decent passenger train network for this nation of ours
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  13. Kind and sincere note/suggestion to the open-minded Amtrak administrators: Please review again and again in detail the sleeping-car Online reservation application(s) of Austria’s great ÖBB-Nightjet!

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

    1. Mr. Ustin: Amtrak management at DC headquarters doesn’t want to know or see what Nightjet or any other passenger operator who wants to give good service and grow the business is doing. Amtrak wants to run the business off everywhere but the sacred Northeast Corridor and a few lines that feed it. To CEO Stephen Gardner and Board Chair Anthony Coscia NEC stands not only for Northeast Corridor but also for Nothing Else Counts. And the pathetic and useless people in “Amtrak Joe” ‘s transportation department are sitting by while the place crumbles. It’s self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts. But at the end one has to wonder what’s in it for Gardner, Coscia, and the rest of the C-suite at DC headquarters?

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