News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak continues to provide mobility in uneven fashion: Special report

Amtrak continues to provide mobility in uneven fashion: Special report

By Bob Johnston | June 1, 2023

Memorial Day Northeast Corridor trains’ patronage hits 80-90% while one-coach 'Capitol Limited' is sold out into July

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Short passenger train passes under signal bridge
The Chicago-bound Capitol Limited heads through Whiting, Ind., with a baggage car, two Superliner sleepers, a diner lounge and one coach on April 13, 2023. James L. Burd

First of two parts

WASHINGTON — While the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reported a record 2.7 million passengers processed at the nation’s airports on Friday, May 26, a lack of capacity means intercity passenger rail travel was not a Memorial Day weekend travel option for many Americans served by Amtrak long-distance trains.

The problem is not one felt equally across the Amtrak system, however. In the Northeast, where capacity remains available, riders took advantage during the long weekend.

Northeast strength

Though the national media talked about crowded airports and highway congestion, most reports overlooked Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Evaluating Northeast Regional coach, long-distance coach, and Acela business-class patronage on Monday May 29 as of the previous day, Trains News Wire note the following:

Electric locomotive and train arrive at station
Northeast Regional train No. 196 prepares to stop at Amtrak’s BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport station on April 27, 2023 with six coaches, one business class coach, and a cafe. Numerous Northeast Corridor trains were sold out during the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Bob Johnston

— New York-Washington D.C.: All 55 departures between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (includes both directions) were at 80-90% capacity, with six sellouts.

— New York-Boston: All 34 departures between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. (includes both directions) were at 70-90% capacity, with three sellouts.

Each Northeast Regional is usually assigned six to eight coaches, a café, and a business-class car. Trains from New York to Miami or New Orleans usually have three coaches (the Palmetto to Savannah, Ga., has a few more) and each Acela trainset can handle about 260 business-class passengers.

Elsewhere, few choices

Passenger cars on bridge
The southbound Silver Star crosses the St. Lucie Canal near Okeechobee, Fla., on Feb. 7, 2023, with one Viewliner II sleeping car (with wide stripes) and a Viewliner I sleeper trailing a Viewliner II dining car. As Viewliner II sleepers arrived, Amtrak began sidelining Viewliner I cars. Bob Johnston

Away from the Northeast Corridor, sellouts haven’t been limited to holiday weekends on many routes. In part, this is because Amtrak management has failed to prioritize the return of long-distance assets it began removing from service in October 2020 as federally-mandated four-year brake rebuilding dates came due.

As a result, all long-distance trains have been affected to some extent by the lack of available equipment. Rather than expand sleeping car space on Eastern single-level trains with the delivery of 25 Viewliner II sleeping cars during the last five years, or divert cars to other capacity-challenged trains, Amtrak has moved 17 Viewliner I sleepers into the “inactive” category. The information comes from a Freedom of Information Act request to Amtrak by James Tilley, president of the Florida Association of Railroad Passengers.

Limitations of the Capitol Limited

The biggest impact has been felt by travelers relying on trains assigned Superliners. The Chicago-Washington, D.C. Capitol Limited has been operating with one coach, two sleeping cars, and one combination diner-lounge cafe since March, when the second sleeper was added. With a handful of exceptions where one seat or room might be available, it is now sold out every day into July, and thus unable to fulfill mobility needs of people boarding at the 16 stations in six states it serves.

Not having the three and sometimes four coaches it once hauled takes Amtrak out of the transportation mix in these towns. It also effectively chokes off connectivity across the entire network if a journey from one of the cities on the Capitol Limited route connects through Chicago.

Less capacity equals higher fares

Those that can get aboard are paying more. Preliminary ridership and revenue results for April 2023 obtained by Trains News Wire show passenger counts off 33% from the same month last year while revenue rose 26%, as shown in the table below. This translates to a whopping 88% increase in ticket revenue per passenger. More sleeper patrons versus fewer coach riders might explain the Capitol’s big jump, but coach and sleeping car capacity cuts are generating higher fares all over the long-distance network.

Table comparing Amtrak ridership and revenue on several routes

Raising prices as inventory diminishes is practiced every day in transportation, broadcasting, and the concert business. But the above snapshot, comparing April 2023 metrics with previous years, shows that strong travel demand accompanied by sufficient capacity to handle it need not lead to a situation where revenue increases dramatically outpace ridership gains.

Passenger train with Chicago skyline in background
A seven-car City of New Orleans backs into Chicago Union Station on May 27, 2023.  The train is required by Canadian National to operate with seven Superliners to ensure proper signal shunting. Bob Johnston

In comparison, the City of New Orleans carries seven Superliners: three coaches, a sleeping car, transition sleeper, dining car, and Sightseer Lounge. That’s because for reasons Canadian National has not explained, every passenger train traveling at maximum authorized speed on the CN’s north-south main line through southern Illinois must run with seven Superliners to ensure track circuits for signals and highway crossings are properly shunted.

Thus, the train approaches the coach capacity that the Capitol Limited used to provide. Both the City and Northeast Corridor trains show similar ridership and revenue increases compared to previous years. This is evidence that where sufficient capacity exists, growth can follow.

Belatedly, Amtrak has begun to add equipment to some long-distance train departures: a coach here (on the Southwest Chief) or a sleeping car there (on the Empire Builder’s Seattle section). Trains News Wire asked Amtrak in March for details about how individual train capacity was being adjusted after receiving reports from sleeping car passengers who were downgraded to coach after the car line in which they had booked was dropped. Amtrak declined to provide its blueprint, saying “our consist plan and the effective date of changes is commercially sensitive information.”

What can be done to return more sidelined equipment to active service? Part 2 will explore that question.

14 thoughts on “Amtrak continues to provide mobility in uneven fashion: Special report

  1. “What could be done to return more sidelined equipment to active service?”–My fantasy is to be Warren Buffett-wealthy, ask how can I donate cash to Amtrak so wreck-damaged coaches, diners,sleepers sidelined at Beech Grove can be quickly be repaired, updated if necessary and back on the road within say, 90 days. The above account of the Capitol LImited’s consist is ridiculous–just ONE coach? C’mon, this is crazy! Amtrak can do better but apparently upper management is deaf to those on the front lines

  2. Everyone knew that when the Republicans controlled the White House TRUMP), NO new Equipment was ever going to be purchased for Amtrak. But the Republicans controlled the White House for only 4 of the last 14 1/2 years. Democrats talk a good game but still nothing happens. Amtrak only got 150 cars, and they had problems and were 2 to 4 years late on delivery. When Obama took office the newest cars were already 14 or 15 years old and the newest locomotives were about 16 years old. That means the newest stuff was approaching midlife. The remaining cars and locomotives were approaching, if not exceeding it’s expected life cycle. Yet we still are using these same pieces of junk.

    Not counting equipment for the Northeast corridor, Amtrak needs to acquire a minimum of 1000 new cars and another 250 locomotives to replace the rolling junk we have now. Double that amount if route expansion ever becomes reality.

    Yes their is a market for high speed rail in this country but Their is NO need for high speed rail throughout the whole country. People don’t see the whole picture. If they had HSR line from LA to NYC it still would take a minimum of 21-22 hours (more like 24 hours) or basically 1 full day. You have to factor in a number of intermediate stops for setting out and picking up passengers as well as servicing (Watering and loading supplies for 3 meals etc.).This would be a lot faster than it is now (only about a fourth of the time it takes now if on time), it still can’t compete with jet travel. A LA to NYC flight takes 5 1/2 to 6 hours or one fourth the time of HSR or 1/16th the time it takes now. In this day and age 90-95% of the people want to get to there destination as fast as possible. The remainder 5-10% like to relax and enjoy the experience.

  3. What else is new? we all know that Amtrak loves the Northeast Corridor and its state supported routes much more than its long distance lines. If they cared about their long haul routes as much, they would know that it would be a feasible plan to take the speed restriction on the Chicago to Carbondale trains so they can pull all of those wasted Superliners, being run empty for axle counts, and reserve them for long distance lines. Remove those 14 Superliners from those trains and you could add two additional coaches to the Capitol Limited, which is totally sold out for all of June and an additional coach to a couple of other trains potentially. But no, Amtrak cares so little about it’s long haul network that management is completely ignorant of revenue generating opportunities that do exist.

    1. If Amtrak cares so little about long-distance trains, why has it begun the process of requesting manufacturers’ statements of interest in producing new long-distance passenger cars?

  4. With many long distance trains often being sellouts there obviously are people who want to ride Amtrak. But management and the board of directors act to turn potential passengers away by not providing enough equipment. The question is who has the power to influence Amtrak and its board to change. I voted for Biden and the Democrats thinking they would improve Amtrak. But the Biden administration is content to let it limp along like always. A Republican administration would try to eliminate Amtrak outright which is what the GOP has been trying to do for the last fifty years.

    Sure, the Democrats passed a big infrastructure package with money for Amtrak. But the millions and billions will do no good unless Amtrak and its board are forced to run a good railroad including long distance trains. Biden’s Amtrak board appointments are disappointing. He should wipe the slate clean and bring in an entirely new forward thinking board as well as appoint a new Transportation Secretary.

  5. I got a good laugh out of “commercially sensitive information” when it comes to passenger consists. Really? Who is your competition? Who is going to take business away from you if this information is revealed? Oh, and guess what? You’re still a PUBLIC entity, so this hiding behind such an excuse is utter BS. You, Amtrak, are accountable to the American public, so start acting that way.

    1. The unmitigated gall of these idiots using that “our consist plan and the effective date of changes is commercially sensitive information” line is just infuriating! Absolutely ridiculous!

  6. If all the LD equipment was available & utilized those trains would still sell out, but Amtrak mgmt wants to hobble the LD routes to perpetuate their claim that they loose money & the NEC is the big winner. They continue to spread all the losses from the NEC across the entire system with their smoke & mirrors acctg methods. They speak of all the new state supported corridors they would like to establish ya.. sure more rubes to overcharge & launder the extra for the NEC. Nothing is going to change until Amtrak is split into separate entities each with their own mgmt, board & funding. But that would also expose the NEC’s free ride they have been getting.

  7. Bob Johnston’s reporting is the reason I subscribe.
    I do wish he would reach out to elected officials like Jon Tester to see what can be done to pressure Amtrak’s management to prioritize returning long distance equipment to service.

  8. You can’t expect much or things to improve at Amtrak when you have a bunch of political hacks and bumblers running the system. Long distance routes that only see one train daily or maybe three times a week is not going to cut it or make any sort of money for Amtrak. People would ride the train if it is a viable option and there is frequent service and more trains operating on their routes. Also needed is a robust ad and public relations ampaign to inform the public that there are trains running. Not surprising that half the country thinks that trains don’t operate anymore in this country and a whole generation of young people growing up will only know about trains from reading about them either in books or online or watching an old movie or two that has a train in it. Most of them never seen or will never see an actual train or ride in one. This is a nation brought up on air travel and automobile travel. Passenger rail travel has a place in this country and people will ride trains but only if you have the right people running the system and have the knowledge, skills and experience to make it work and that includes attracting a new and younger generation to work in the rail industry. Also withing the rail industry itself when corporate greed no longer controls operation and if and when both freight and passenger operations can learn to work together and not be at each others throats. Maybe we need a total revision or replacement for Amtrak but we can look forward to operaters like Brightline in Florida that can be the new shining future and pathfinder to better passenger rail service that will provide more frequent reliable service and at a price that travellers can afford.
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  9. Amtrak will never serve many markets. For example, travel between the Midwest and Florida is extremely heavy by airplane and by automobile. We will never see train travel from Milwaukee to Orlando, or MSP to Tampa. That said, wouldn’t it be nice if Amtrak did add a few cars to the to provide capacity on the few markets it does serve?

  10. Since AMTRAK has no rail competitors, how can its consist plan and the effective date of changes be “commercially sensitive information?”

    1. JAMES — Some corporate spin falls on its face. Some corporate PR flacks are total idiots. Then again, would you expect better at Amtrak?

  11. Some day, just SOME day, I hope the suits at Amtrak “get it”, but I’m not holding my breath…. Just come to grips with the fact that outside of a very few corridors, Amtrak will never be operating truly High Speed trains. BUT, that doesn’t mean people won’t ride. Consumers WILL RIDE with the expectation of REGULAR, TIMELY SERVICE, more than “once a day FREQUENCY, and on equipment that isn’t OLDER than their parents……

You must login to submit a comment