News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak may be planning to combine Capitol Limited and Silver Star: Analysis (updated)

Amtrak may be planning to combine Capitol Limited and Silver Star: Analysis (updated)

By Bob Johnston | July 10, 2024

| Last updated on July 13, 2024

Potential move would ease Superliner shortage, but there could be timekeeping and capacity challenges

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A passenger waits to load her bicycle in the baggage car of the Silver Meteor at Washington Union Station on May 18, 2018. This is the same lower level track used by both the Capitol Limited and Silver Star, two trains Amtrak may combine with single-level equipment beginning in November. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Circumstantial evidence gleaned from Amtrak’s booking site portends mid-November changes to the operation of the Chicago-Washington, D.C. Capitol Limited and the New York-Miami Silver Star. A Trains News Wire review of ticketing availabilities on the two trains indicates tentative plans to combine their operation as a single-level Chicago-Miami train.

Doing so would allow Amtrak to redeploy the Capitol’s three Superliner equipment sets — each now running with two coaches, two sleeping cars, and one diner-lounge, plus any standby Superliners stationed at Washington solely as Capitol backups — to other long-distance departures. The train’s consist currently makes a same-day turn at Chicago, so a fifth set of Viewliners and Amfleet II cars would be required, but the 24-hour layover Superliners sit idle in D.C. would be eliminated.

Amtrak not confirmed any changes will take place. Trains News Wire emailed a detailed set of questions on June 24; on July 13 —  three days after this story was originally published — Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods responded with a statement that said, in full, “Amtrak periodically reviews service plans, and we’ll provide more information when we are ready to do so.”

The company may not be in a position to say more if options involving crew staffing, locomotive fueling, exact equipment deployment, assurances of expedited train handling from CSX and Norfolk Southern, and amenities offered are still being evaluated. Will train names change? Can a roomette be booked from Pittsburgh to Orlando without getting off in Washington?

Nevertheless, beginning Saturday, Nov. 9, from Miami, the northbound Silver Star is showing “sold out” for anyone attempting to book coach or sleeping car space to New York, but inventory is available as far as Washington. Starting the next day, Nov. 10, and every day thereafter, family rooms on the Capitol are “sold out.” Only Superliners have that accommodation, so this would be the first day of the northbound-to-westbound run-through with Viewliners and Amfleet II equipment.

In the other direction, the last day passengers can book the southbound Star from New York is Sunday, Nov. 10, the same day family rooms from Chicago to Washington start to become unavailable.

Do pluses outweigh the minuses? Here is an examination of some of the trade-offs:

Creating a connection for Northeast passengers — minus: The Silver Star does brisk business between populous Northeast Corridor cities and points south. Requiring a transfer at Washington, even across the platform on the lower level of Union Station, would eliminate the inherent value of a one-seat ride. Linking the two trains, however, enables passengers to connect from the northbound Star to the westbound Capitol. No connection exists now because Amtrak won’t guarantee a transfer from the Star’s 3:04 p.m. arrival to the Capitol’s 4:05 p.m. departure. Connecting from the Chicago train to the Miami-bound Star at D.C. currently can be ticketed because it is nearly two hours: 1:05 p.m. to 3:04 p.m.

Locomotive and caboose on display next to passenger station
The northbound Silver Star pauses at Hamlet, N.C. on Sept. 27, 2023, running more than two hours late after a signal outage in Florida. If the Silver Star-Capitol Limited run through were to take place, one train’s delay would affect the entire schedule. Bob Johnston

Timekeeping — a challenge: That said, both trains are occasionally prone to significant delays for a variety of reasons. Linking them together would compound tardiness. Monday, July 8, for example, was a particularly horrible day. The eastbound Capitol departed Chicago 3 hours late due to mechanical issues on July 7. The delay expanded to 5 hours, 51 minutes following heat-related slow orders. The 6:56 p.m. arrival made for a snug connection to the Silver Meteor, which takes a different route to Florida.

Northbound on Monday, the Silver Star lost 4 hours overnight between Camden, S.C., and Hamlet, N.C. for an undisclosed reason and was 6 hours, 39 minutes late into D.C., arriving at 9:43 p.m.

If the fate of each train were tied together, making a same-day equipment turn at Chicago or even overnight at Miami could affect on-time departures in the same way that the eastbound Empire Builder is affected out of Seattle and Portland, Ore., if its arriving westbound counterparts are hours late. On the other hand, though the Star consistently struggles, the Capitol is often 10 to 20 minutes early into its endpoints.

Before Superliners migrated to the Capitol in the 1990s, Amtrak did offer a through Chicago-Florida coach for a short time. But as former Amtrak executive Mark S. Cane points out [see “Superliner capacity: not a new issue,” Trains Magazine, July 2024], run-through proposals have had a checkered history, most recently with the failure of a brief Capitol Limited–Texas Eagle attempt.

Amenities — a plus: “Flexible” meals were introduced to the Capitol Limited in 2018 as part of the company’s cost-cutting agenda. Having a Viewliner diner serving traditional meals, as the Star now features, would be a welcome upgrade. A properly staffed car capable of accommodating coach passengers offers a double set of windows and spaciousness that would come close to replacing the jettisoned Sightseer lounge.

Revenue capacity — an opportunity: Except in a few low-patronage months as late as 2019, the Superliner-equipped Chicago-Washington train’s revenue consist included three coaches, two sleeping cars, and a transition sleeper. Cuts since 2020 have resulted in numerous sellouts in both coach and sleeping accommodations nearly year-round. The Silver Star usually is assigned two Viewliner sleeping cars and three Amfleet II coaches plus a Viewliner II dining car and Amfleet II cafe.

Another set of single-level equipment would be required for the run-through, with additional “protect” cars at Chicago, in addition to the four Silver Star sets now operating. Amtrak has 15 of 25 Viewliner dining cars in daily service on the Meteor, Star, Crescent, and Lake Shore Limited, so could clearly spare one more. As long as the rest remain operational, some could be stationed at New York and Chicago, while the others cycle through the Hialeah maintenance facility in Miami. Amfleet II coaches and cafes are in short supply, but the coaches could be swapped from day trains, and Northeast Corridor Amfleet I cafes with tables on both sides would be a significant improvement over poor seating and window placement in the long-distance Amfleet II cafes.

But sleeping car capacity will need to be significantly beefed up. That can be accomplished by returning some Viewliner I sleepers sidelined during the Covid-19 pandemic to active service. Trains News Wire has learned that 16 Viewliner I cars on Amtrak’s roster are currently listed as “inactive,” and no Viewliner I overhauls were scheduled in fiscal 2024, which ends Sept. 30. All of the cars’ air brake rebuilding dates expired during the last four years as the final group of 25 Viewliner II sleeping cars were delivered.

Passenger car in shop building
A Viewliner I sleeping car is overhauled at Amtrak’s Beech Grove heavy maintenance facility on Aug. 29, 2016. Amtrak has paused overhauls of the Viewliner I cars, which could expand single-level sleeping car capacity for a Silver Star-Capitol Limited run through. Bob Johnston

Viewliner I work is normally done at the Beech Grove, Ind., heavy maintenance facility, which has been busy maintaining Superliners and returning stored equipment to service. Sidelined sleepers may have been cannibalized for parts, though some cars are most likely in better shape than others.

Ideally, however, a combined Miami-Washington-Chicago train should have a minimum of three Viewliner sleeping cars, since onboard crew must also be accommodated. Adding one sleeper to each of the four existing Silver Star consists, plus three for the fifth set, would mean at least seven of these cars would need overhauls. A tall order to be sure, but one that would pay dividends with revenue and patronage for the foreseeable future even if all the sleepers aren’t operational by the end of the calendar year.

Combining these two trains has its challenges and a myriad of details obviously remain to be hashed out, but the move could open the door to out-of-the-box opportunities that would strengthen connectivity on Amtrak’s long-distance network.

— Updated July 13 at 9:25 p.m. CT with Amtrak statement.

21 thoughts on “Amtrak may be planning to combine Capitol Limited and Silver Star: Analysis (updated)

  1. If the trains are combined, resulting in a Miami-Chicago route, there should also be a New York section. Couldn’t the New York cars be attached to the next Northeast Regional, however late the arrival from Florida?

    1. Amtrak’s essentially running 2 NYC – Miami trains right now, Palmetto + Silver Star.

      Changing the Silver Star to Chicago would still leave the Palmetto there to run NYC – Miami, just one less train a day.

      I’d like to think the numbers back this, that there isn’t so much NYC – Miami traffic to justify 2 through trains. But Amtrak is a political beast. So this may be a move more driven by politics than actual ridership.

  2. Interesting. What happens to people like me who already have tickets from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore for Nov. 23, 2024. I brought my tickets over 2 months ago. A layover in DC would just about make the whole trip a waste. I took the same trip in March ’23, and was over 3 hours late into Baltimore. I think this plan will drive some passengers away, and may make the “Capital” unreliable to connect with west bound western trains.

  3. A lot of negativity in the comments. Let Amtrak try the service and grow the demand from Chi to FL and when equipment shortage eases, restore a route directly through the South opening up a bunch of new city connections.

  4. The connection would be more reliable if the Capital were combined with the Meteor rather than the star.

  5. A thought. If STAR is rerouted would expect that the Meteor will need at least one additional coach and sleeper on each train set to carry the riders from north of NYP to Baltimore on to Soputhern destinations.?

  6. Hmm. As always, the details matter. Retaining some run-through cars between New York and Miami is highly desirable.

  7. In the event of line closures and train wrecks, Superliner trains have been subjected to cancellation and truncated operations due to equipment shortage. So, single-level passenger trains are not unique to this problem under Amtrak’s deferred maintenance policy.

    The proposed run-through of single-level equipment on the ‘Silver Star’ and the ‘Capitol’ illustrates the greater versatility of single-level passenger cars. The ‘Silver Star’ can still carry through sleeping cars to/from New York via the frequent ‘Northeast Regional’. Pre-Amtrak, trains originating/terminating in Washington had through New York Pullman sleeping cars.

  8. Mr. Johnson: This speculation has been around the railfan community for at least 3 months including different calendar time for starting the service. Did you just here of it? Maybe the STAR could leave MIA a couple hours earlier to make better connecting times in WASH. However, that does begin to crowd the Meteor to Winter Haven. As some one posted Palmetto restored to MIA as Silver Palm is a good idea. That however would require 2 more single level train sets which do not appear to be found.

    1. Forgot to mention what if a single level train set is involved in some kind of incident?

    2. Alan,
      Yes, the “circumstantial evidence” in Amtrak’s booking system has been there for several months, but exploring the potential challenges of a run-through, such as equipment availability as you point out, takes some digging. At some point Amtrak will decide on specifics and fill in the blanks.

  9. If this were to happen, how about extending the Palmetto to TPA/MIA like it once did when the train was called the Silver Palm?
    Oh wait. That would cut into Stevie and his top management bonuses which is a higher priority than running a well run passenger train system

  10. Run the “Star” with through cars Florida-New York to maintain NE Corridor service. Would involve switching in D.C. of course. Is there enough equipment to pull this off? Reminds us how much a Chicago-Florida train direct via the heartland is needed instead of the circuitous route through D.C.

  11. It’s already in the works! Effective November 10th, the reservation system does not have a lower level coach option on the Capitol. At the same time, inventory is frozen on the Star btw DC and New York!

  12. how does this add capacity without confounding complexity and increased vulnerablities? And I thought Amtrak wanted to eliminate LD service? Also, how does this improve service to short haul riders, if space is always taken up by longer distance passengers? Honestly, it is easier to fly rather than face the real risk of disruptive travel for a two day trip. I remain skeptical.

  13. This has been bandied about before. One of the significant issues of current practice is service space in Ivy City as it is now tailored for corridor trains. The long distance Superliner set sticks out like a sore thumb. Removing a train from Ivy City and consolidating servicing to Chicago and Hialeah for a 2000+ run could be efficient.

    1. If everything goes right it still goes wrong. It’s for the sake of equipment turns, not travelers.

      Anyway, might not happen, at ths point it’s an informd guess on the part of a knowledgeable journalist.

  14. I would think this should have been tried during the summer and not before the fall Holiday rush.

    Also it might make sense to split the Meteor in Orlando and run a leg to Tampa which will no longer have a direct connection to the Northeast.

  15. Why would Amtrak want to start this service prior to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That would just give the NE Corridor one train – Silver Meteor. Traditionally a heavy travel period, even as Amtrak sort of downgrades it with limited supply of sleeping cars and coaches. I can imagine how many people are turned away either buy sell outs or high fares.

    If they were to connect the Star and Capitol, then by all means there should be a minimum of a 3 layover in DC. Everyday it seems the Star is up to 2 to 3 hours late northbound, except today it’s on time.

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