Continued cuts in Amtrak services reflect lack of investment in the national network: analysis

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The passenger train stops at the station at sunset
On February 22, 2022, heading north Silver star takes a break at the Amtrak station in Kissimmee, Florida on February 22, 2022. Con Silver Meteor suspended service, this is the only train from Florida to the Northeast. (Bob Johnston)

WASHINGTON – Amtrak management blames “shortages of personnel and hiring skilled technical personnel caused by the pandemic” for continuing service five days a week on seven long-haul routes after March 27, when it initially stated that full schedules would be restored. The cuts began in mid-January.

Chicago-Washington only Capitol Limited; Chicago-San Antonio, Texas, Texas Eagle; and Seattle-Los Angeles Coastal starlight it will resume daily operation on 28 March. Complete Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service and the rise of New York Corridor of the Empire the frequencies also return [see “Amtrak extends cuts to seven long-distance routes into May,” Trains News Wire, March 3, 2022].

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

The decrease in workshop forces means that many locomotives and passenger cars, sidelined since 2020, the frequency cuts attributed to the pandemic, have not been put back into service. Increasingly in recent months, cancellations or late departures from terminals when incoming equipment is delayed or malfunctions occur when spare parts are not available.

“There is a direct connection between our staffing levels and the size of our stocks,” says Magliari. “We have said it will take many months before we have full availability of the active fleet and this remains the case, including our staffing challenges and those of our suppliers.”

But is the problem the pandemic or has management had more proactive options to preserve revenue and mobility?

The cuts came despite the long-range force

When the fund exited the travel market in March 2020, the company abruptly canceled all ongoing training programs and hires. Given the uncertainty of revenue from the then-decimated Northeast Corridor service, Amtrak instituted voluntary and forced acquisitions for fiscal year 2021 to save money.

Five-car passenger train with the Chicago skyline in the background
Set aside equipment led to smaller trains. The Texas eagle departs Chicago on January 4, 2022, with two coaches, a sleeper, a diner-café combination, and a baggage car. Limited capacity pushes prices higher and sold out holds back revenue by alienating potential passengers. (Bob Johnston)

In October 2020 part of the initial business survival plan was to reduce the majority of long-distance trains to three-weekly departures. This happened even though the number of passengers occurred during the first pandemic summer, before the vaccines were available, but when the entire national network continued to function – it showed that long haul was the most resilient segment of the business. Amtrak.

That force was constant. In January 2022, while the new cuts were taking effect. long-distance trains generated $ 30.3 million in revenue compared to $ 31.1 million for all northeastern regions and Acela service. This happened despite the substantially reduced long-range capability and the furious Omicron variant.

But Amtrak has remained true to its original plan to reduce service and occupancy of the national network, rather than adjusting its 2021 operations, hiring and maintenance plans to reflect the opportunities created by obvious demand. Nonetheless, it received $ 4.4 billion in various forms of federal funding ($ 1.5 billion in CARES Act funds in March 2020, $ 1 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of December 2020 and $ 1.9 billion from ‘American Rescue Plan approved in March 2021). The total is nearly double what Amtrak’s annual budget had been.

The latest grant related to COVID clarified the intention of Congress: it was intended to “prevent further employee layoffs and prevent further reductions in the frequency of rail service and on any long-distance route,” according to a summary from the Department of Transportation. .

However, the company continued to languish in the inertia created by employee acquisitions that deprive the company of valuable institutional knowledge; de-emphasized marketing; cost-focused management incentives; and the elimination of onboard services – moves that began in late 2017 under Prime Minister Tony Coscia, then CEO Richard Anderson and current CEO Stephen Gardner.

Even as the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law aimed at an additional $ 16 billion for investments in the Amtrak national grid over the next five years, management was catching up in rebuilding its workforce.

Automatic train against. Silver star

Passenger train at the station platform.
Sleeping Viewliner II Westfield River it is one of five northbound sleeping cars Silver star as it stops next to the Carolinian in Richmond, Virginia on February 25, 2022. A significant portion of the train’s sleeper inventory remained unsold as prices did not reflect rising inventories. (Bob Johnston)

Amtrak has since stepped up hiring, but the company will not say whether capacity will be expanded or whether sidelined Superliners like Sightseer lounges or transition sleepers will ever return to. Capitol Limited or Texas eagle. In the meantime, it is prudent not to over-extend the ability to reliably serve passengers if there is not enough equipment and personnel to answer the doorbell.

But Trains News Wire also noted evidence that management failed to effectively manage inventory of available assets. This could capture a larger share of a long-distance travel market poised to grow in the coming months.

When Amtrak announced it was eliminating New York-Miami Silver Meteor During Florida’s busy winter and spring travel season, News Wire questioned the desirability of ditching its second largest 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 end points via a different route, Amtrak has promised to increase the consistency of that train to accommodate more passengers by adding the of meteors carriages and sleeping cars. Instead of three carriages and two Viewliner couchettes, the train would operate with four carriages and five sleeping cars. This presented an opportunity for Amtrak managers to actively pursue revenue by moving away from a rigid pricing strategy dictated by limited capacity elsewhere. [“Seeking the pricing-capacity ‘sweet spot’…” News Wire, Jan. 24, 2022].

What happened? A price check for each north direction Silver star from Orlando, Florida, to Washington, DC, for a month ahead of schedule February 24, 2022, the trip revealed that bedrooms for an adult cost $ 447 or $ 607 (except $ 706 on three dates). Much more limited bedrooms cost $ 1,209 to $ 1,589. Coach seats remained constant at $ 139, but dropped to $ 111 weeks in advance until bookings jumped over 30% and jumped to $ 182 when bookings surpassed 70%. Most of the bedrooms, including the February 24 departure, were held at $ 508 each day during the previous month. This is the second “bucket” with the lowest price offered, unchanged from when both Star And Meteor operated.

Passengers in lounge carriages, with some standing at the counter to buy food and drinks
A Automatic train the line for the lounge-car service extends back two cars on February 28, 2022. The restaurant of the coach has been eliminated, so passengers on the coach have to buy food from the bar and customers of the sleeping car have to eat in their rooms. (Charles St. Clair)

Conversely, prices were actively managed from Sanford, Florida, to Lorton, Virginia, Automatic train in the same time frame. Excluding vehicle transportation costs, bedroom rates were changed from $ 382 to $ 652 if demand was justified as departure dates approached, while bedroom prices ranged from $ 665 to $ 1,254. The limited number of Superliner family rooms started at $ 611 and reached $ 1,043. Automatic train Fares for northbound buses during the period generally remained stable at $ 115, though some dates dropped temporarily to $ 89, often promoted.

Each departure has a different question. If there is sufficient capacity, prices can be reduced to attract more customers; if people don’t buy accommodation before the train leaves the station, the company gets nothing. Lower rates can also provide promotional value, such as a recent one Automatic train The $ 29 bus fare promotion attests.

Management had employed the same tariff manipulation with the Silver star five Viewliner beds, more rooms could have generated revenue. There were no out of stock sleeping cars heading north Silver star in February. It is not possible to determine how many rooms remained unsold on each departure by conducting a daily price check, but a survey aboard that February 24, 2022 trip from Orlando showed 16 roomettes and at least three bedrooms unoccupied overnight.

Decisions made by management over the past two years have hampered Amtrak’s ability to effectively operate its national grid for the remainder of 2022, but it is not too late to develop and implement a plan to redeploy equipment and personnel to regain the ground it has. has been lost.

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