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Amtrak fares and availability a mixed bag for summer travel

By Bob Johnston | May 26, 2022

Long-distance trains continue to be impacted by a historic lack of capacity

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Train with electric lcomotive passes interlocking tower near station
Train with electric lcomotive passes interlocking tower near station
A Virginia-bound Northeast Regional train speeds through Princeton Junction, N.J., in June 2014. Corridor trains offer the best chances for fare savings. (Bob Johnston)

CHICAGO — Depending on the route, Amtrak trains can either offer a welcome alternative to record high gas prices or no relief at all. That’s because where sufficient capacity exists, fares remain flexible, but where Amtrak management has failed to marshal the resources to return sidelined equipment to duty, the traveling public suffers.

Corridors offer the best bargains

From Maine to California, many trains operating on Amtrak’s Northeast and state-supported corridors generally have enough seats to allow discounted advance-purchase “saver” fares to kick in. This happens, however, only on a train-by-train basis. If a departure’s patronage reaches a high sellout percentage relative to the seats normally sold in advance for that date — the so-called “booking curve” — the lower fare might not be offered.

For stops between Boston and Virginia, Amtrak touts possible 50% discounts on Northeast Regional trains if tickets are bought at least three weeks in advance, and discounts of 30% on Acela Business Class when purchased 14 days in advance.

A surprisingly complicated array of discounts are offered on other routes, as outlined in this table. (Article continues below)

Table comparing various discount fares available by route

Advance purchase discounts may not always be reflected in the “saver” coach fares quoted for each departure on the Amtrak website, after origination and destination cities, and the date, are input.

Passenger cars on each side of station platform
The Carolinian (left) and a delayed Silver Star pause at Richmond’s Staples Mill station on Feb. 25, 2022. (Bob Johnston)

What isn’t readily apparent is that the discounts from the quoted fare can be obtained by classifying passengers according to their age, disability, and military status in “traveler” and “discounts” drop-down boxes. These discounts are automatically calculated because percentages may vary by service or state. The best bargain for families: children ages 2-12 are always 50% off when accompanied by an adult.

The pricing range can be amazing. For instance, traveling from Philadelphia to Richmond, Va., on June 25, coach fares quoted a month earlier for the seven direct trains are $82, $22 (Carolinian), $114 (Silver Star), $58. $44. $82, and $44 (1 seat at this price). Choices for the same trip, booked May 25 for the next day, May 26: sold out, $146 (both Carolinian and Silver Star), $114, $82 (1 seat), $98 (3 seats), $130.

Overnight trains a different story

Passenger cars on shop tracks
Stored Superliners sit idle at Amtrak’s Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility on April 30, 2022. (Dave Korkhouse)

There is very little fare manipulation for long-distance coaches or sleeping car accommodations. This is a result of management’s shortsighted decision to save costs by sidelining equipment and refrain from hiring enough personnel to maintain and staff these trains. Since early 2022, when Amtrak cut daily frequencies to five times per week on most non-corridor routes and eliminated the New York-Miami Silver Meteor entirely, anyone attempting to book a reservation usually encounters either coach or sleeper sellouts or only elevated “flexible” coach fares offered on days immediately before departure.

How high? The overnighters’ diminished capacity has led to a 35% increase in per-passenger revenue for January-April 2022, compared to the same months in 2019. The figure for state-supported routes is flat and average Northeast Corridor pricing per rider is down 12%.

Since last Monday, May 23, all interregional trains have returned to daily operation except the Meteor (still discontinued), Crescent, and City of New Orleans (both remain five days per week). But he capacity situation remains unchanged and even exacerbated by increased demand.

On May 24, no westbound seats were available out of Chicago on the Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, or Empire Builder. Some coach space did open up on those trains at Bloomington-Normal, Ill., Omaha, Neb., and Portage, Wis., respectively, but there were no overnight sleeping accommodations on the Eagle, Zephyr, or the Southwest Chief. On the Empire Builder, the lone available Minneapolis-Portland, Ore., roomette cost $989 and a bedroom sold for $2,145.

Bring a pillow for your coach seat

What can you do to at least partially defray high costs? One option is to play the segment game, either by breaking up a long trip by stopping over en route or investigating where the train is not sold out between intermediate stations.

People taking pictures of train arriving at station
Passengers greet the westbound Southwest Chief at Las Vegas, N.M., on Oct. 13, 2019. Saving on long distance fares can involve splitting trips between coach and sleeping-car accommodations. (Bob Johnston)

Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief sleeping car space was showing as sold out for the May 26 departure. A closer look revealed a roomette available between Chicago and Topeka, Kan., but a different room opening up at Kansas City. Buying a roomette to Los Angeles on the same train cost $1,142 from Kansas City, $846 from La Junta, Colo., $683 from Las Vegas, N.M. and $565 from Albuquerque. Dining car meals are included for sleeper passengers, but coach travelers still must buy from the cafe car on all trains.

There was a time when Amtrak distributed small pillows to every overnight passenger, but the practice has long been discontinued. One thing to keep in mind is that crowds often thin out on mid-route segments, often overnight, so this makes sleeping in a coach seat less of an ordeal than it might seem. The major exception is Auto Train, which makes no stops.

The bottom line for summer travel: try to reserve early enough to avoid sellouts and higher prices. For longer journeys, consider segmenting the trip either by accommodation or intermediate destination. More equipment and personnel may alleviate the company-created capacity crunch, but don’t count on it in the immediate future.

20 thoughts on “Amtrak fares and availability a mixed bag for summer travel

  1. Let me summarize the article: It’s how to find discounts for trains or seats that don’t exist; and/or trains that aren’t worth traveling on. If you actually need to get where you are going on the date you want to travel, America’s railroad can’t do it for you.

  2. So where is the outrage from Congress? Sadly, I don’t know of anyone in Congress that is a champion of Amtrak anymore. In the days of Trent Lott, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Coscia, Gardner and his flyboys would have been called on the carpet long time ago. Now the silence is deafening.
    You could call this incompetence on Amtrak’s part but it’s deliberate. Coscia, Gardner and the flyboys only care about is their precious northeast corridor. Nothing Else Counts at Amtrak. Now more than ever.
    BTW, the Empire Builder has only one Seattle Sleeper this summer

    1. We see the Empire Builder go through Waukesha County (Wisconsin) and we count the cars. Does Amtrak think we’re blind?

  3. My wife and I had planned to take the grandkids on a long distance train trip this summer. But between the uncertainty of service and the prices it ain’t going to happen. I really thought Amtrak Joe would have done something to put Amtrak back on track by now. Looks like I was wrong.

    1. It’s been twelve years since I’ve been on Amtrak outside of Wisconsin and Illinois. My last ride on VIA was 1986. For my next vacation which will be near Olympia, Washington, I gave no more thought to Amtrak than crawling on my belly. This from me who once traveled extensively by rail. And still do if you count Europe.

  4. Those of us not blinded to reality knew Amtrak Joe was nothing more than a bag of hot air. A chance to make an impact with new board members who have a clue was used to give us more of the same. The NEC is Gardner’s baby and the Ivory Tower desk jockeys don’t know how to run a train or provide service. Much like their Class 1 PSR counterparts. Step over a dollar to pick up a penny.

  5. Last Amtrak President/CEO that gave a damn and fought for the company was Claytor. The rest since him did little to help Amtrak with Anderson being the worst. Broadman had somewhat of a vision but kept dropping the ball.

    During Broadman’s tenure, I believe about 8 years mostly during the Obama administration,he only ordered 130 much delayed Viewliner II cars knowing that Amtrak really needed 7 or 8 times that many.

    Now we are 16 months into the Biden Administration and over $66 Billion is dedicated to Amtrak (legislation that passed more than a year ago), how come NOTHING has been done to start the ball moving on acquiring new long distance cars. I know that the government procurement is a lengthy process but you would have thought that proposals seeking car designs would have been released by now. If nothing get’s done in the next few months, it will be years before this opportunity comes along again (I don’t the Democrats will keep control in congress).

    1. Amtrak CEO’s last in office about as long as NFL defensive lineman or MLB managers. I wonder, Paul, if you might add David Gunn to the list of the good ones. He always struck me as competent and dedicated and a true believer in the cause. Which is why the White House eased him out.

      After Joe Boardman retired (and sadly, died shortly thereafter), he became Blessed Among Amtrak CEO’s, as Jewish rail proponents might phrase it. (Boardman was Catholic.) While I don’t exactly dispute that, it did take me by surprise when it happened. What I remember of Boardman while in office was that he fired any Amtrak manager who knew anything, as Dick Anderson was later accused of doing.

  6. Gardner’s plan is taking shape before our very eyes. Starve the LD’s for equipment and staffers, and ridership will dwindle to the point where Amtrak is able to make the case for discontinuance, one train at a time. Does anyone really believe that the Star will return to service?
    Hah!

  7. Although Bob Johnson continues as the last great passenger writer here, reading his sordid details reminds me of Churchill inquiring of the absence of talented army officers in WWII; he was informed the good ones had died in WWI.

    Evoking by heart how Amtrak persists in hitting the bumper post includes, at a minimum:
    1) A highly politicized corporate management lacking the requisite experience in passenger railroading. Jumping to Amtrak from being a Capitol Hill staffer or airline jock does not cut it. Doubtful they have learned anything from the era of Reistrup, Claytor, or Gunn.
    2) A depleted Board of Directors offering non-existing expertise so desperately required to solving the self-created problems of Amtrak. This has generated the worst possible problem, with a Board lacking the knowledge and unable to demand effective accountability, nor able to provide meaningful stewardship.
    3) Failure of leadership at the top trickled down to negatively impact the entire rail service, including operations, staffing, pricing, food & beverage, marketing, etc. producing a persistent negative:
    a) Yield Management is a frustrating circular chase; not even a thought towards reasonably priced daytime sleeper compartments.
    b) Despite coach seat reservations available in ticket offices and via phone from the 1930s-1971, Amtrak could not re-invent it; which now only delays boarding trains en route looking for seats, let alone together.
    c) Lack of operating a coach designated for “shorts” (as the railroads did) requires use of lounge space for those passengers.
    d) Under-staffing wait staff in diner prevents turning tables faster. Lack of imagination to serve coach passengers in one-half of diner, or, at tables in lounge, forfeits revenues and PR.
    e) Western railroads did not experience issues relying on 48-seat diners, as they were augmented by grill/lounge cars offering full meals and beverages to both Pullman and coach passengers.
    4) Naïveté shined a bright light on Amtrak leadership by failing to properly understand and adjust staffing, equipment maintenance, and recruitment during the pandemic. This has resulted in breaking daily schedules and severely reduced consists to kill revenues and offer little more than an over-priced ride.

    Given this scenario embracing Amtrak’s repetition compulsion to fail, do not be surprised that FlixMobility has already moved to fill in the vacuum between Seattle-Vancouver created by Amtrak’s inability to return the “Cascades” until at least December. Soon, even the most enthusiastic politician in Congress will wake-up and realize pouring $66 Million into Amtrak will be a waste.

    Such a nightmare would have never been if the Santa Fe was given the mantle to manage the national passenger rail system. Certainly, the states along the NEC would have paid their share, instead of enjoying a free ride per Gardner’s slide ruler.

    1. I would be remiss not to point out Amtrak’s position is not helped by the hyper-politicalization of the Secretary of Transportation focused on his bike, or before, a DOT secretary enraptured with her family’s shipping business. In reality, Amtrak suffers from not having an FRA Administrator of the rare esteem and knowledge of Ron Batory.

      1. Buttigieg doesn’t know his thumb from his armpit. His big cause is trying to undo the construction of freeways in black neighborhoods six and seven decades ago. Which BTW isn’t even true. Detroiters still howl that the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway took out a black neighborhood. Actually, that was only part of the Chrysler Freeway, which in turn is only one freeway among several. Truth is, most Detroit freeways were built in (at the time) white neighborhoods. Buttigieg lacks the judgment talk intelligently about his own pet cause. As for Amtrak, Buttigieg doesn’t know a locomotive from his own caboose. His corrupt boss, Amtrak Joe, is down to his last functioning brain cell.

  8. Gardner, Coscia, et al need to keep the LD trains on minimal life support as a smoke screen for the failing money pit NEC & the state supported svcs are its kitty cash. Those idle LD cars in Beech Grove are lost revenue but if they put them into service the LD routes will show their worth in increased ridership but mgmt will have none of that to show up their Acela failure. True there are no more Amtrak advocates in DC anymore everyone is bailing out even in state legislatures leaving us with a bunch of antisocial sociopaths on the heels of four years of a dysfunctional White House with the King of the sociopaths who topped it off with an insurrection as a cherry on the top.

  9. I sure would like to force the top officers at the RPA and its state/regional affiliates all of whom are nothing more than Amtrak shills, to read this article and all the posted comments. And then force ‘em to reply.

  10. Gunn and Boardman were CEO’s during my work time. I met them both personally and I was very impressed with Gunn. He appeared to me to be very competent with no hidden agenda other than to build the Company including the LD routes. Amtrak was so money starved for a time, that they were close to folding the tent completely. Gunn was able to pull Amtrak out of the fire. If my memory treats me correctly, G W Bush was president at the time. I got the impression, they did not see eye to eye.

  11. Does anyone know the exact number of passenger cars stored at Beech Grove and other locations that could be utilized fir the LD trains? Or the usual consists of
    the EMPIRE BLDG, SE LIMITED, COAST DAYLIGHT, and other LD trains.

    Bill Grant
    Columbus, OH

  12. As of the end of FY21, Amtrak had racked up a total loss of $40.1 billion since its inception. Adjusted for inflation, the loss in 2017 constant dollars is approximately $82 billion.

    For FY19-21, the long-distance trains had a total loss of $1.6 billion compared to $238 million for the state supported trains and an operating profit of $228 million for the NEC. Assuming the NEC wears 70 percent of Amtrak’s capital charges, i.e., depreciation, interest, and miscellaneous charges, the fully allocated losses were $2.1 billion for the long-distance trains, $738 million for the state supported trains, and $1.5 billion for the NEC.

    What the taxpayers spend for highways, airways, and waterways has nothing to do with what they spend or should spend on passenger rail. The key question is where to trains make sense. For my money it is in relatively short, high density corridors where expansion of the airways and highways is cost prohibitive. The long-distance trains make no economic sense.

  13. How about requiring every Senator and Congressman to travel on Amtrak at least one overnight trip per year in coach. Also require any member of the Transportation Committee to take a long distance trip by coach at least quarterly. Every time the Secretary of Transportation goes anywhere he should be required to use the government transportation system, Amtrak. Unless they really know what our money and their votes are paying for nothing will change.

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