Questions—and some answers—about Amtrak’s restoration plan
August 12, 2020
Yesterday, Amtrak released a white paper called “Restoring Long Distance Service” that outlines a plan to restore normal service following “temporary reductions to most of [Amtrak’s] Long Distance routes, effective October 1.”
Does this mean 3x service is definitely happening?
No. These proposals are subject to Congressional oversight, and Congress has the ultimate say over how Amtrak’s public grant money is used to operate the National Network. The House of Representatives has passed two bills—HR 2 and an FY2020 transportation budget—that would provide sufficient funding to maintain Amtrak service at existing levels while simultaneously prohibiting the railroad from reducing frequencies. Additionally, committees in both the House and the Senate are contemplating holding hearings in September to examine how the U.S. passenger rail service is weathering the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the Senate has yet to act on either of these critical pieces of legislation. Each day of Senate inaction increases the likelihood of 3x service becoming a reality.
That’s why it’s critical that you take part in our campaign to pressure the Senate to act. Please call your Senators using the capitol switchboard—(202) 224-3121—and tell them you want to see Amtrak daily service protected. Or you can use our online platform to quickly and easily send an email to your Senators.
What benchmarks does Amtrak outline for returning service to daily frequencies?
Amtrak has said that restoration could be complete “as early as late May, and no later than June 30, 2021”—based on the following conditions:
1. Public Health — Is the COVID-19 pandemic under control?
Amtrak will assess COVID-19-related hospitalization rates in the regions through which a given Long Distance route operates. If those rates are stable or declining as of February 15, 2021, this condition will be met.
2. Future Demand — Are customers booking trips near the same rate as in 2020?
Amtrak will compare advance bookings for June 2021 (as of February 15, 2021) to advance bookings for June 2020 (as of February 15, 2020). If the percentage of available seat- and room-miles booked in 2021 is at least 90% of the 2020 percentage, this condition will be met. (Note that calculations of availability for 2021 will reflect any caps on ticket sales to promote social distancing, as well as any other relevant measures adopted to minimize COVID-related risks.)
3. Current Performance — Is ridership close to our projections in our operating plan?
Amtrak will compare systemwide ridership levels for the fall (Q1 of FY 2021) with our FY 2021 operating plan, which already accounts for reduced ridership due to COVID. If the number of passengers is at least 90% of the projected figure, this condition will be met.
We believe these return metrics are still inadequate. We have serious concerns over the dampening effects on passenger demand that these reductions in service will have. With reduced connections, increased uncertainty over when the trains will be restored, and lower levels of onboard service, we foresee a chilling effect on bookings. While our primary goal will be preventing 3x service from being implemented at all, we will continue to work with key transportation committees in Congress to provide greater certainty for passengers and Amtrak-served communities regarding the precise date for a return to normalcy if 3x is implemented.
With that said, we pushed hard—both with Amtrak and with Congress—to establish a fixed date for return, and we’re pleased to see that the railroad is committing to a circling a date on the calendar. Passengers will not spend their hard-earned money if they don’t have confidence the trains will actually be running.
Additionally, it’s important to recognize that the 90% figure in “Future Demand” and “Current Performance” take into account:
- Hard sales caps Amtrak has put in place to accommodate onboard social distancing; and
- Severely reduced ridership levels we’ve seen this year as a result of the pandemic (roughly an 80% reduction in ridership on the long-distance routes in April and May combined).
Will Amtrak really bring the trains back?
Amtrak explicitly states that its goal is for all long-distance service to be restored “by June 30, 2021 so long as our nation and our company are healthy, consistent with restoration metrics, and sufficient funding assistance is provided by Congress.”
Plenty of passengers and online commentators have made it clear they don’t have faith in Amtrak to fulfill this promise, pointing to the “sufficient funding” phrase as a red flag.
We hear you, and we sympathize with this point of view. Given the Southwest Chief bustitution debacle and the many explicit comments about long-distance routes made by former President & CEO Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s credibility with passengers who depend on the National Network is at an all-time low.
However, Anderson’s tenure DID result in increased Congressional oversight of Amtrak—thanks in no small part to the advocacy of groups like ours. We’ve seen signs that the new president, William Flynn, is making moves to repair the fractured relationship between Amtrak and lawmakers. And we believe that lawmakers, when pressured by an engaged electorate, can ensure that essential services like Amtrak not only survive this pandemic, but come out stronger on the other end.
So what to make of “sufficient funding?” One thing we should be very clear about: Amtrak, along with every rail operator and airline in the country, is experiencing extreme financial distress from the precipitous drop in ridership. If Amtrak doesn’t receive any additional funding in FY2021 as part of a federal coronavirus relief strategy, Americans will lose more than daily service on the long-distance routes. We could lose State-supported services, NEC frequencies, commuter services, subway service, transit service… and more.
That’s why it is so critical that you take part in our campaign to get the Senate to act. Use our online platform to quickly and easily send an email to your Senators, or call your senate offices using the capitol switchboard—(202) 224-3121—to tell them you want to see Amtrak daily service protected.
"I wish to extend my appreciation to members of the Rail Passengers Association for their steadfast advocacy to protect not only the Southwest Chief, but all rail transportation which plays such an important role in our economy and local communities. I look forward to continuing this close partnership, both with America’s rail passengers and our bipartisan group of senators, to ensure a bright future for the Southwest Chief route."
Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS)
April 2, 2019, on receiving the Association's Golden Spike Award for his work to protect the Southwest Chief