News & Reviews News Wire Continuing Amtrak service cuts reflect lack of national network investment: Analysis

Continuing Amtrak service cuts reflect lack of national network investment: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | March 4, 2022

Personnel and equipment shortages, management’s failure to focus on revenue growth are factors in ongoing issues

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Passenger train stops at station at dusk
The northbound Silver Star pauses in Kissimmee, Fla., — where the Amtrak station is adjacent to the SunRail station next to the locomotives — on Feb. 22, 2022. With Silver Meteor service suspended, this is the only train from Florida to the Northeast. (Bob Johnston)

WASHINGTON — Amtrak management is blaming “staffing and hiring shortages for skilled technical employees caused by the pandemic” for the continuation of five-day-a-week service on seven long-distance routes after March 27, when it originally said full schedules would be restored. The cutbacks began in mid-January.

Only the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-San Antonio, Tex., Texas Eagle; and the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will resume daily operation on March 28. Full Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service and increased New York Empire Corridor frequencies are also returning [see “Amtrak extends cuts to seven long-distance routes into May,” Trains News Wire, March 3, 2022].

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told News Wire that as of mid-February, “vacancies in the mechanical department are acute.”

The diminished shop forces mean many locomotives and passenger cars, sidelined since 2020 frequency cuts attributed to the pandemic, have not been returned to service. Increasingly over the last few months, cancellations or late departures from terminals when inbound equipment is delayed or malfunctions occur when spares aren’t available.

“There is a direct connection between our staffing levels and sizing of our consists,” Magliari says. “We’ve said it will be many months before we will have full availability of the active fleet and that remains the case, including our own staffing challenges and those of our suppliers.”

But is the problem the pandemic, or did management have more proactive options to preserve revenue and mobility?

Cuts came despite long-distance strength

 When the bottom dropped out of the travel market in March 2020, the company abruptly cancelled all in-progress training programs and hiring. Given the uncertainty of revenue from then-decimated Northeast Corridor service, Amtrak instituted voluntary and forced buyouts for fiscal 2021 to conserve cash.

Five-car passenger train with Chicago skyline in background
Sidelined equipment has led to smaller trains. The Texas Eagle leaves Chicago on Jan. 4, 2022, with two coaches, one sleeper, a combination diner-café, and a baggage car. Limited capacity pushes prices higher and sellouts curb revenue by turning away prospective passengers. (Bob Johnston)

Also part of the initial corporate survival plan was cutting back most long-distance trains to triweekly departures in October 2020. This came even though ridership during the first pandemic summer — prior to the availability of vaccines, but when the full national network continued to operate — showed long distance was the most resilient segment of Amtrak’s business.

That strength has been consistent. In January 2022, as the new cutbacks were taking effect. long-distance trains generated $30.3 million in ticket revenue compared with $31.1 million for all Northeast Regional and Acela service. This was despite substantially reduced long-distance capacity and the raging Omicron variant.

But Amtrak stuck with its original plan shrinking national network service and employment, rather than adjusting its 2021 operating, hiring, and maintenance plans to reflect opportunities created by obvious demand. This was in spite of receiving $4.4 billion in various forms of federal funding ($1.5 billion in CARES Act funds in March 2020, $1 billion in the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and $1.9 billion from the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021). The total is nearly twice what had been Amtrak’s annual appropriation.

The last COVID-related grant made Congress’ intention clear: it was meant to “prevent further employee furloughs and to prevent further reductions to the frequency of rail service and on any long-distance route,” according to a summary by the U.S. Department of Transportation.      

Still, the company continued to languish in the inertia created by employee buyouts depriving the company of valuable institutional knowledge; de-emphasized marketing; cost-focused management incentives; and onboard amenity elimination — moves that began in late 2017 under board chairman Tony Coscia, then-CEO Richard Anderson, and current CEO Stephen Gardner.

Even as 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law targeted an additional $16 billion for Amtrak national network investment over the next five years, management was playing catch-up in rebuilding its workforce.

Auto Train vs. Silver Star

Passenger train at station platform.
Viewliner II sleeper Westfield River is one of five sleeping cars on the northbound Silver Star as it pauses next to the Carolinian at Richmond, Va., on Feb. 25, 2022. A significant portion of the train’s sleeping-car inventory went unsold as pricing did not reflect increased inventory. (Bob Johnston)

Amtrak has since stepped up hiring, but the company won’t say whether capacity will be expanded or if sidelined Superliners like Sightseer lounges or transition sleepers will ever return to the Capitol Limited or Texas Eagle. Meanwhile, it is prudent to not overextend the ability to reliably serve passengers if there isn’t sufficient equipment and personnel to answer the bell.

But Trains News Wire has also observed evidence that management has failed to effectively manage inventory in the assets that are available. Doing so could capture a greater share of an intercity travel market poised to surge in the months ahead.

When Amtrak announced it was eliminating the New York-Miami Silver Meteor through the busy winter and early spring Florida travel season, News Wire questioned the wisdom of dropping its second biggest long-distance winter revenue producer and the only same-day connection option to and from other routes [see “Analysis: A closer look at the impact of Amtrak’s cancellations,” News Wire, Jan. 17, 2022].

With Silver Star serving the same endpoints via a different route, Amtrak vowed to increase that train’s consist to accommodate more riders by adding the Meteor’s coaches and sleeping cars. Instead of three coaches and two Viewliner sleepers, the train would operate with four coaches and five sleeping cars. This presented an opportunity for Amtrak managers to actively pursue revenue by departing from a rigid pricing strategy dictated by limited capacity elsewhere [“Seeking the pricing-capacity ‘sweet spot’…” News Wire, Jan. 24, 2022].

What happened? A check of pricing for each northbound Silver Star from Orlando, Fla., to Washington, D.C., for a month prior to a planned Feb. 24, 2022, trip revealed roomettes for one adult costing $447 or $607 (except for $706 on three dates). Much more limited bedrooms cost $1,209 to $1,589. Coach seats stayed constant at $139, but dipped to $111 weeks in advance until bookings rose above 30%, and increased to  $182 when bookings surpassed 70%. Most roomettes, including the Feb. 24 departure, held at $508 every day during the preceding month. This is the second-to-lowest pricing “bucket” offered, unchanged from when both the Star and Meteor operated.

Passengers in lounge car, with some standing at counter to purchase food and beverages
An Auto Train line for lounge-car service stretches back two cars on Feb. 28, 2022. The coach diner has been eliminated, so coach passengers must buy food from the café, and sleeping car patrons must eat in their rooms. (Charles St. Clair)

In contrast, prices were actively managed on the Sanford, Fla., to Lorton, Va., Auto Train over the same time frame. Excluding vehicle transport costs, roomette fares were adjusted from $382 to $652 if demand warranted as departure dates approached, while bedroom pricing ranged from $665 to $1,254. The limited number of Superliner family rooms started at $611 and topped out at $1,043. Auto Train northbound coach fares during the period generally remained steady at $115, though some dates dipped temporarily to the oft-promoted $89.   

Every departure has different demand. If there is sufficient capacity, pricing can be lowered to attract more customers; if people don’t buy an accommodation by the time a train leaves the station, the company gets nothing. Lower fares also can provide promotional value, as a recent Auto Train $29 coach fare promotion attests.   

Had management employed the same fare manipulation with the Silver Star’s five Viewliner sleepers, more rooms could have generated revenue. There were no sleeping car sellouts on the northbound Silver Star in February. It isn’t possible to determine how many rooms went unsold on every departure by making a daily pricing check, but an onboard survey of that Feb. 24, 2022, trip from Orlando showed 16 roomettes and at least three bedrooms unoccupied overnight.   

The decisions management has made over the last two years have hobbled Amtrak’s ability to effectively operate its national network through the remainder of 2022, but it is not too late to develop and implement a plan that redistributes equipment and personnel to regain the ground that has been lost.

28 thoughts on “Continuing Amtrak service cuts reflect lack of national network investment: Analysis

  1. Airlines are making cuts too. United stopped serving several cities in its most recent round of cuts. One example was Lake Charles, Louisiana. This is a town that is served by Amtrak, albeit, 3 times per week. Airlines are not the answer either.

    The current Amtrak management created this mess, and created the mess of flexible dining. They need to go ASAP.

    The morale among current employees is low. IMHO it is imperative to fire management ASAP. The new management needs to focus on improving employee morale, improving onboard service, and hiring people to replace those that were furloughed.

    In recent travels, I have encountered newer employees who are doing a good job and who have a proper customer first attitude.

  2. When Jimmy Carter was elected President in 76 and Brock Adam’s was his DOT Secretary many, including myself) thought at the time, happy days are here and everything will be coming up roses for Amtrak.
    What happened? We lost the North Coast Hiawatha, Lone Star, Floridian, National Limited Champion and Hilltopper.
    Fast forward to the present and Amtrak Joe (that name makes my skin crawl). History looks to be repeating itself. It’s worse now with less than daily trains, equipment breaking down and Gardiner and the fly boys are ignoring the dangers. No $66 Billion for Amtrak until Gardiner and the rest of Amtrak management and BOD are gone.

    1. Good, short analysis Mike and to the point. Let’s go back to Passenger Train Journal some time around 1974, an article showing that Canada with a fraction the USA population had about as many intercity trains, CNR and CPR, as Amtrak did at the time. (Of course Canada had many fewer commuter trains.) Soon, VIA Rail Canada came in. VIA started off as a real passenger system. For example you could ride from Edmonton to Calgary, an obvious route. Or Montreal to Saint John.

      After fifteen or twenty years, VIA shrank to a plaything for well-financed Japanese tourists who wanted to see the Rockies. The shrinkage continued until VIA became essentially nothing. The difference betwen today’s VIA Rail Canada and the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay is the length of its irrelevant track.

      Think Amtrak is any better? For now, yes, it is.

      PS – I don’t put down the “flyboys”. The “flyboys” could fly you where you were going. I wrote a novel which included a fictional flight on Delta from Detroit Metro (the Delta, ex-NWA terminal) to Ottawa, non-stop. Something told me, pause and look it up. I looked it up. There was a flight (pre-COVID) nonstop DTW to Ottawa. (Likely a WestJet flight with a Delta code.) After that, I never joined the finger pointing at Amtrak “flyboy” Richard Anderson. His NWA/ Delta could fly my fictional characater to Ottawa from Detroit.

  3. Reading these excellent accounts here since January by Bob Johnston evidences a clear message: ‘Amtrak’s chickens are coming home to roost!’

    How soon will even Congress eventually wake-up to realize they have been played like a fiddle by what Amtrak excels best at–throwing the manure to see what sticks to the wall; relying upon the lack of transparency and the mystery of Amtrak economics that would make Pravda jealous?

    Although far too late in the game, what does it take for Congress to realize Amtrak is not professionally run, but rather, operated like a candy store? The lack of railroad operational experience in corporate management explains the lack of competent decision-making to discard its skilled labor force and halt recruitment and training. This pathetic lack of foresight was compounded by stopping the shopping of equipment.

    With an inadequate number of Board members, let alone having a non-functioning Board failing to utilize its past experience to steward Amtrak and hold its management accountable, the Board failed to oversight corporate management to prevent poor decisions by management re staffing and maintenance; let alone the overt failure to address the pure economics of ticket pricing; consists to meet sufficient equipment demand. Even a candy store strives to maximize profitability.

    As the dream of “America’s railroad; a national passenger rail network” has gone the way of regional meals in the dining car, the mission of Congress must change now to claw-back the funds ($66M) it provided to Amtrak, as it is clearly apparent that without significant changes in Amtrak’s leadership, allowing Amtrak to control these funds without any meaningful oversight will be like “spitting in the wind.”

    1. Absolutely right Mr. Singer. At this point that $66b needs to be clawed back. If Gardner and Coscia had planned to dump all of it into the NEC while no one’s looking, everyone is distracted by the horror in Ukraine, they need a severe awakening. And then Congress needs to re-write the PRIIA Section 209 to include the NEC states. Then it will be judgement day for Stephen Gardner’s, Anthony Coscia’s “sacred way”.

  4. One of the most telling figures is that when the Empire Builder crashed in Montana, there were 146 passengers and 16 crew or fewer than 10 passengers per crew member. I believe that a Northeast Corridor 8 car train would have only 7 crew members and charge 1.5 to 2 times the per mile coach fare.

  5. I see the bored, old Rightwing goofs who play with model trains and foam over their favorite model of freight locomotive are on here with their usual uninformed political rants about Amtrak. The entire Amtrak Board is overdue to get replaced, and if Gardner can’t get things back together promptly, he should be shown the door with them. Every advocate for passenger rail, regardless of political affiliation, should be contacting their representatives about this. If you are anti-passenger rail, go play with your toy trains and let the adults worry about actual transportation.

    1. Yeah Mr. Conway, you are exactly right on “showing Gardner the door”. He and the airline guys Anderson brought in are using the wrecking ball Anderson left when he departed. But talking to our Congresscritters and Senators, and one can only get as far as their staffers, is useless. Why? Because they don’t ride except maybe for an occasional photo op between two stations 30m apart. They have never experienced the good (if there’s still any left), the bad, and the ugly riding an LD for 18-22 hours and never will. Riding Amtrak isn’t socially acceptable to them, even the ones who claim to be soooooooooooooooooooooo supportive of passenger rail. FRA Administrator Amit Bose not long ago traveled to CHI and gave a well-publicized, at least to the railfans it was, pep talk in the Great Hall about all the wonderful new and improved trains the CHI hub would have as a result of the passage of the IIJA. (Gotta wonder if he knew that 2 miles south of the Great Hall were a stable of Siemens SC44s suffering from repeated Mech failures both on departure and out on the road.) But here’s the thing. Bose didn’t ride Amtrak in either direction making the trip. THAT’S HIS JOB!
      As for Bob Johnson’s last thought, “…but it’s not too late to develop…”. Unless Gardner, all of Anderson’s “flyboys”, Board Chair Anthony Coscia and the entire Board, are replaced SOON, yes it will be too late. It may already be.

    2. Oh I forgot, recently, NY Governor Kathy Hochul (D) and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D) traveled to DC for meets and greets with the party faithful. We are talking the Northeast Corridor here, right. They both flew. Btw, Mayor Wu is a regular T subway rider although I forget which line. And Gov. Hochul has been seen on the NYCity Subway and rode a demonstration train through the new East Side Access route LICity-Grand Central.

    3. MARK – I see your point Amit Bose’s Chicago trip. Yes, some people, a few, do ride Amtrak end to end, like Washington to Chicago. It’s expensive as well as time-consuming, inconvenient and uncomfortable. Amtrak’s strength is the intermediate points. Typically most riders on the LDs are not the end to end market. That’s what airplanes are for.

  6. It remains unfortunate that individuals who do not adhere to the “on topic” rule drive folks away from the site and are not themselves banished.

  7. The Southwest Chief has had some very encouraging advance bookings for the upcoming Spring break period! Some segments have been sold out for weeks already! The demand is clearly back, but what does Amtrak do? They don’t add any additional coaches, and refuse to go back to daily service! Success and the future viability of our national rail passenger system is staring at them in their face, and they are dispassionate.

  8. And you either know nothing or care little about CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere and the fact that by the time even people like you can see the effects we may well be beyond the tipping point. We must understand that when all this is obvious to the deniers it may well be too late to remediate the problem. Biden realizes that we must act before it becomes obvious to the less informed. The tobacco industry denied the delirious effects of smoking for years. The energy industry must be suspected of doing the same. We all know what has been said about people whose livelihood depends upon not understanding something that effects it negatively or simply denying it for short term gain. Biden and his advisors are attempting to help us make a difficult transition before we hit the tipping point, if we have not already, beyond which we will have lost control. It is simply the intelligent decision. If by doing this they are proven wrong we have lost but relatively little. If by doing nothing they are proven wrong life as we have known it could be over for good with catastrophic consequences. The conservative position, I would think, is to take action that could prevent or minimize the far worse outcome. Paying more for our energy now is in all likelihood the conservative and more intelligent gamble.

  9. Didn’t they just get a huge pile of cash from this idiotic administration ?
    No mater how much they get,this will never change.

    1. This idiotic adminisration is too busy buying Russian oil to do anything about Amtrak. Biden has the cognitive ability of a senile chipmunk, but without the senile chipmunk’s moral compass.

    2. Here you go again, as was said by we all know which former president. The hesitation with respect to Russian oil is not due to cognitive failure. The administration is considering the effect on oil prices before taking action. Given that any energy price increases will be blamed on him, especially by Republicans, I think we can all understand, except, of course, by myopic, right wing ideologies. Ask yourself a few questions, Landey. You have no creditability.

    3. All conservatives know what Biden is up to. Joey has done everything he can to lessen domestic petroleum production.
      We’d not need a drop of oil from the Nazi Putin if we produced our own. That’s what any Republican would tell you. The Democrats know it as well but few are saying so. But Biden would rather buy oil from Vladimir Hitler than return us to the energy independence we had under Trump.

      On this issue my credibility is 100%. And yes I do blame energy cost increases on Biden… on that issue I’m 100% credible as well.

  10. Bad Management all over the wall. Truly need to clean house and stop this BS pricing policies that confuse too many people and in too many cases cheaper to fly or drive.

  11. The more inconvenient that you make a service the less likely the need to produce it. People shift to substitutes, form new habits and are less likely to EVER return.

  12. Anyone left from senior management that approved the buyouts/furloughs should be fired. The first Congressional aid packages were passed to provide firms money so that they wouldn’t have to reduce the number of employees.

  13. What? No comments so far?

    What’s to comment on? There’s no hope for Amtrak, even with Joe Biden, a corrupt, senile supposedly pro-Amtrak US President fumbling his way to or toward the oval office.

    To me, Amtrak is becoming a memory, largely pleasant. In a half century I’ve gone from riding Amtrak trains all over America, to riding only the Midwest corridors, to not riding Amtrak at all. As a frequent flier of Southwest Airlines and an occasional patron of Jet Blue, Delta or Air Canada, I’ve seen the lie that Amtrak matters. No, it’s a niche business. At best.

    Trains only work with multiple frequencies, 2x daily or 3x daily, and with many routes connecting to each other. Three or five times a week with no connectivity doesn’t make it.

    1. You’re right, Charles, this is getting repetitive and tiresome. I applaud Bob Johnston for continuing to hammer away, but the comment section, from the usual suspects, could be boiled down to “Please see previous posts.”

    2. Oh Landey: How much longer must we tolerate your right wing rants. Joe Biden may not be all we would like but he is not senile any more than are you. Certainly, he may possess the imperfections we all do, including yourself. However, the leadership he has demonstrated during the present Ukrainian crisis has been heartening. With respect to your Amtrak criticisms, I largely agree with you. On a recent trip from Albany, N. Y. to Denver I too found the Amtrak experience disappointing to the point that when asked about the trip I had to say to others that I can not recommend it. The most positive aspect I mentioned was a sound night’s sleep between Omaha and Denver. I related that I fell asleep in the former and experienced nothing until approaching the latter; and this in a coach seat. I will admit that I did bring a pillow along with me. Thank god we no longer have Republicans controlling D.C. during the present crisis. Can you imagine Trump dealing with the present crisis. He would resolve it by taking Putin’s side and abandoning NATO. Oh my god!

    3. We might remember that Putin did not invade anybody while Trump was in office and oil was much cheaper. I heard yesterday that Russia had been making plans for about one year—from right after Biden’s inauguration. We can assume Trump would have kept oil prices low by continuing to allow a high level of American extraction. With lower oil prices, Putin could not afford to invade. You must agree that Biden’s policies have directly raised oil prices and made Russia wealthier.

      As for Amtrak, my experience is that it combines the worst aspects of buses and planes. The only good thing is that it’s on rails, which I of course like.

    4. Mr McDonald, This off topic, but the world is a much more dangerous place today than it was before Mr Trump left office. Mr Biden’s domestic energy polices are the root of the present international crisis. On one hand he criticizes and partially, halfheartedly sanctions Russia, but with the other hand we import more oil a day from Russia (i.e. feeding the corrupt hand that is biting you) than (a by now) completed Keystone XL Pipeline would be providing. Instead, and to make this rail related, BNSF and CP will continue to move Bakken and Canadian Tar Sands (more environmentally dangerously) by rail.

    5. Conveniently ignoring the billions in subsidies that airlines and airports have gotten for decades while Amtrak limped along.

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