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Analysis: A closer look at the impact of Amtrak’s cancellations

By Bob Johnston | January 17, 2022

Connections are broken and corridors shortchanged in latest reductions

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Passenger train with blue and silver locomotive at station

Revised Amtrak long-distance service schedules, announced Jan. 14

Table showing days of operation for Amtrak long-distance trains
Information provided by Amtrak shows days that long-distance departures are cancelled under service cuts announced Jan. 14.

WASHINGTON — When Amtrak cut back most of its long-distance trains from daily operation in October 2020, in anticipation of reduced demand and a lack of federal funds to keep its network intact, the only day a traveler from Florida could connect to the Capitol Limited or Cardinal at Washington, or the Lake Shore Limited at New York, was Wednesday.

Under the plan Amtrak revealed last Friday, no same-day connections to those westbound trains are possible at all because the Miami-New York Silver Meteor has been cancelled entirely until at least March 28 [see “Amtrak to decrease service on most routes …,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 14, 2022].

The Meteor cancellation also means all connections with trains west of Albany-Rennselaer, N.Y., are broken. With the Silver Star as the only connecting option north and east of New Haven, Conn., only 6 a.m. Acela and 6:10 a.m. Northeast Regional Boston departures will connect southbound; northbound, a connection is shown from the Star to the last Northeast Regional train to Boston (that gets in after midnight) leaving Washington at 4:02 p.m., but through ticketing to the westbound Capitol Limited at 4:05 p.m. isn’t currently allowed. If the train from Florida is late, overnight No. 66 from Newport News has also been cancelled, so there is no backup option.

This is but one of the connection issues apparent in the table above, created from information provided by Amtrak but not currently available on the company’s website.

The grid shows that cutbacks for trains not cancelled entirely were designed so that each train’s mid-route cancellations occur on consecutive days. This theoretically will give Amtrak some wiggle room should sufficient operating, onboard service, or maintenance crews become unavailable along the route, or out-of-service cars and locomotives accumulate. There have been a number of instances of late departures the last several weeks attributed to equipment issues [see “Amtrak struggles to recover from winter weather challenges,” News Wire, Jan. 5, 2022].  

Passenger train with blue and silver locomotive at station
The northbound Silver Meteor prepares to stop at DeLand, Fla., in March 2016. The convenient afternoon stop affords an early morning arrival to passengers headed to Washington DC and Northeast Corridor points, but the Silver Star does not depart this station until 8:24 p.m. and arrive at the Nation’s Capitol until 3:04 p.m. the next afternoon Beginning this week, it will be the only Amtrak option. (Bob Johnston)

The Meteor, which normally operates with three sleeping cars, delivered more revenue in February 2021 — $1.2 million, operating four days per week — than any long-distance train except the daily Auto Train. (It was also topped only by the California Zephyr in February 2020 because that year, the figure included Winter Park Express revenue.) The Silver Star also topped $1 million last February, running on a different route through the Carolinas and serving Tampa, Fla., but that train’s circuitous journey is more than two hours slower than the Meteor.

The cancellations two days per week will also adversely affect corridors with or without additional state-supported service. An example: there will be no Thursday-Friday Empire Builder from Chicago to the Twin Cities, and no Saturday or Sunday St. Paul-Chicago trains. This is a corridor which the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota hope to augment with an additional round trip once infrastructure improvements are made. Also notable in the Chicago hub: no Monday morning City of New Orleans from Champaign, Ill., a city which has also been affected by cuts to state-supported trains.

It basically reinforces the belief of many critics that from Amtrak management’s vantage point, passengers who ride long-distance trains are different than everyone else, even if they don’t ride long distances. The cuts illustrated in the table below will have minimal impact compared to wholesale cancellations on the long-distance routes.

Other ramifications

How did the company get in this position?

Amtrak management has continued to disinvest in national network operating, onboard service, and maintenance staff. After deciding not to reactivate sufficient equipment to capture long distance revenue — its highest revenue-per-passenger segment last summer — the company also made no effort to step up recruiting at crew bases last fall, which has left operations vulnerable to the uncertainties of the labor market and COVID-19 variants.

Trains News Wire learned from an employee in late November that discussions of adding at least one new conductor at a Midwest crew base were not followed up. And in two instances experienced firsthand between October and December, trains were operated on at least one segment without an assistant conductor because no one was available to work that day.

Onboard service workers traveling on one long-distance train when the cutbacks were announced were reportedly told to rebid their positions and were not told that the new five-day-per-week schedule is “temporary.” Rebidding when operational changes occur is standard procedure and doesn’t necessarily mean positions are being eliminated, but the changes exacerbate a sense that job security could be threatened, and thus makes recruitment more problematic.

The new long-distance schedules mean operating personnel away from home at the end of a five-day cycle will either have to deadhead, be vanned back to their base, or be compensated with “held away” pay. This adds costs and may require new transportation vendors to be identified and paid. This was one reason frequency cutbacks during mid-1990s budget squeezes did not achieve anticipated cost savings.

That isn’t a problem now. Congress has repeatedly telegraphed to Amtrak management over the past year that it expects robust investment in the national network, first appropriating COVID-19 relief funds in 2020 and early 2021, then doubling down in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Amtrak reauthorization language in that legislation stresses the importance of long-distance service, and includes $16 billion for national-network investment over five years.

The language was in the bill long before it was passed in November, but Amtrak management has yet to prove it intends to make serious attempts to grow its business rather than fall victim to events precipitated by a lack of vision or investment planning. The latest cutbacks are evidence company leaders still haven’t taken seriously the stated mission to provide national mobility.

— Updated at 1:45 p.m. to correct departure times for two Hiawatha trains in table below.

Table showing Northeast and Midwest trains cancelled by Amtrak as of Jan. 14
These cancellations for Northeast and Midwest trains were announced by Amtrak on Jan. 14.

20 thoughts on “Analysis: A closer look at the impact of Amtrak’s cancellations

  1. Amtrak just discovered that running trains three to five days a week is hopelessly uneconomic. I’m as surprised as anyone.

    Imagine an airline crew that reports to a crew base such as BWI Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall. There’s always a route for them, always a plane scheduled – to Long Island, to Cleveland, to Providence, to Austin, to Las Vegas, to Boston, to New York, to Atlanta, to Orlando. They aren’t paid to sit on their {rhymes with farces} for three days, nor does the airplane sit idle stranded in the snow.

    As for this article talking about “connections” it’s Amtrak we’re talking about. Anyone who leaves Atlanta on the Crescent hoping to make their “connection” might have a rude surprise.

    I got dumped in Birmingham (England) when a hopelessly late train from York to Reading was annulled there. I had to wait a whole hour in Birmingham for another train to Reading, where I had to wait a whole twenty minutes for a local to West Drayton (London). That’s “connection”.

  2. Amtrak Board could use a swift kick in the keister. Sure the Covid variant is running amok (no sympathy for those that didn’t get vaccinated) and will screw up operations yet they need to do a better job of cancellations that affect down the line operations and connections. Yes as soon as more equipment and personnel are available cancellations should disappear but don’t wait weeks to re-install service, change it ASAP daily.

  3. These cuts, made by persons sitting in an office, looking at numbers give NO thought to how a customer is going to get from point A to Point B. My regular trip from Tampa to Pittsburgh is now destroyed. And they(Amtrak) don’t really care. Just more proof that Amtrak is a disfunctional operation!!!!!!

    1. Totally agree, one hour before I read this article I called Amtrak to inquire on my March trip from PHL to Meridian MS, after I had to wait on the phone for 3 hours Saturday to re schedule a west coast trip that was started on the Lake Shore on a cancelled day. They didn’t announce as of yet the schedule for the Crescent and I was trying to be proactive, luckily for myself after seeing this article my Crescent trip is not affected. But others will be and Amtrak should have gotten this information out days ago since Trains magazine was luckily able to post it.

  4. Reading between the lines, the fact that their focus remains on cost-cutting rather than revenue-building indicates to me that they are still committed to ultimately scuttling LD service, government funds and mandates not withstanding. If enough people quit riding the trains because of this kind of nonsense, they will have every justification in dropping trains, one route at a time.

    1. AL DICENSO – In response to another article yesterday, I made a comment just before the article was taken down so most readers wouldn’t have seen it. My post was a list, a very long list, of routes that have gone away over the five decades, including LD’s – the North Coast, the Broadway, the National Limited, the New Orleans to Florida train, Chicago to Florida via Nashville, the Pioneer, the Texas Chief, the Desert Wind — down to the mid-distance like Chicago to Toronto via Lansing, New York to Montreal, Detroit to Buffalo via St. Thomas (Ontario) — down to the short hauls, Chicago to Peoria, Chicago to Janesville, Detroit to Toledo, MSP to Duluth …… if all these trains have gone away, who is to say the remaining LDs are safe? (To be fair, there have been many routes added or frequency increases on some corridors.)

      I may not be this forum’s biggest advocate of the LDs …. but I’ll say this:- it takes a special kind of service provider to worm their way out by providing a rotten product so fewer people would purchase it. Isn’t that what we saw in the two decades before Amtrak?

  5. But, but, but, where is the pushback from our elected representatives now that they handed Stephen Gardner and Amtrak’s Board Chair Anthony Coscia $66b in order to build, not tear down. How is it that these two, with one of them whose term has expired-Coscia-are giving the middle-fingered salute to Congress’ stated wishes and getting away with it? The problem is with a Congress that doesn’t seem to care or has too many distractions about now. And Gardner and Coscia know that. Unless and until Congress and the President remove those two, the rest of the Amtrak do-nothing Board, and all the flyboys Richard Anderson brought in and replace them with folks who want to build instead of tear down, it’s all over.

  6. Amtrak, however deliberate, is implementing the scheduling practice adopted by Southern Railway from 1966 with bad connections of secondary passenger trains to repel riders.
    The railway’s two remaining streamliners, ‘The Crescent’ and ‘The Southerner’ were combined to form ‘The Southern Crescent’ when two connecting lines via Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama no longer conveyed the former to New Orleans.

    1. OENELOPE — Southern Railway? Gamed the system by stopping trains at the state line, meaning trains ran from one inconsequential village to another inconsequential village, with no connections. Not only that, by all accounts the trains were terrible.

      This month marks a half century since I, a native New Englander, took my first trip to the West on the nominally Amtrak but 100% Santa Fe (equipment, crews, commissary, station agents) Super Chief El Capitan. What a wonderful ride in every last detail! Unforgettable. Everything good I’d always heard about the Western trains and more! How does today’s Southwest Chief compare? I don’t want to know and I hope I never find out. Frankly, 99% of Americans also will never ride it.

        1. They ran that train until they didn’t need it anymore. But except for that one train, the Southern RailWAY was the most creative train-off artist of them all.

  7. So proof positive. Lack of funds is not the motivation for Amtrak failure. Things are no differnet now than before: Management does not want to be in the Passenger rail buisness. They work very hard to develop a pR campaign to make the American public that they want to see passenger service succeed and the business to grow, BUT THEY DO NOT. They are comletely satisfied to make the Northeast Corridor successful, since they own the right of way,their mainenance facilities are conveniently located, and, in short, they rule the roost. So no change in philosophy since 1969. We, the travelling public, get screwed as usual.

  8. Amtrak mgmt just keeps spinning their Wheel of Excuses to eliminate the LD routes I predict if this one fails the next will be equipment shortages they will start writing off Superliners as they did with old SF parlor cars as too costly to maintain. If no bids are opened on replacements this year you can bet this will be their nuclear option. I guess they feel empowered enough to take the money Congress dedicated for the national network & redistribute it according to their own priorities namely the NEC. Where are the new Acelas? Too afraid to debut it in the poorly performing NEC market..eh.

    1. You nailed it, Mr. Riley! Btw, in case you hadn’t heard in anything you’ve read on that tragic death of the Amtrak conductor at Westerly, RI, for reasons not explained that Train#163 departed BOS something like an hour late. Top officers at Amtrak and their pathetic shills at the RPA beat up on the freight railroads for “freight train interference” delays but you never hear from those people about Amtrak’s self-inflicted delays, usually mechanical, on

  9. My trip to Florida was cancelled because the return trip couldn’t connect due to Silver Meteor cancellation. (Southbound connection worked with a bit of rerouting.) As a result, Amtrak received 0 revenue instead of $1200. How much lost revenue will they experience?

  10. Who would have thought it fifty years ago that Amtrak would want to do with its schedules what the Class 1’s were trying to do sixty years ago. When you run a service that gets subsidized to the point that it would be cheaper to buy your customer an airplane ticket than try to operate the train, failure is bound to happen. Here’s a solution: privatize Amtrak. Sell it off either in one piece or in pieces and let people interested in earning money while transporting passengers on trains run the operation.

  11. The sum of what Amtrak management ought to learn urgently from passenger train operators in most European countries (like France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland), China and Japan is increasing month by month now and not year after year!

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

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