Silent Spring

Someday trains will again roll over these rails but at the moment we don’t know when or how long it will take to recover from lost revenue and ridership.

The rails in the Cuyahoga Valley are gaining rust in the spring rain as they await the trains to resume operating.

Amtrak has curtailed service in most corridors and suspended service altogether on some routes in the face of sharply reduced bookings and skyrocketing cancellations.

Ridership of public transportation has plunged by high double digits. Most agencies continue to run buses and trains, but at reduced levels.

Tourist railroads that operate in the spring have shut down. Restrictions on large gatherings have led to cancellations of railroad club meetings and train shows.

The nation’s railroads are reporting a downturn in intermodal traffic and bracing for more traffic volume declines due to an economic downturn that is the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are likely to be fewer trains for railfans to watch and photograph. Then again this is not an ideal time to go railfanning even if you can probably get away with it.

This will be long remembered as the silent spring when such terms as “flattening the curve,” “sheltering in place,” and “social distancing” became part of the everyday lexicon.

No one can say yet when life will return to normal. Even when it does the economic effects are expected to last a while, perhaps for months.

There will be a recovery, but how long will it take?

Like the virus itself, there is much uncertainty surrounding that question, but a few conclusions seem likely.

Amtrak executives had been boldly talking about 2020 as the year it achieved the financial break-even mark from an operational standpoint.

That won’t happen now and the intercity passenger carrier is saying it needs $1 billion to overcome losing millions from lost bookings and trip cancellations as well as other expenses related to combating the pandemic.

Earlier, Amtrak has been talking up a program of service expansion if Congress would give it a dedicated pool of money to help states get corridor services in unserved or underserved areas up and running.

That proposal, which is tied in with the carrier’s fiscal year 2021 appropriation as well as a new surface transportation law that Congress needs to approve to replace the existing law that expires on Sept. 30, was always going to be a long shot. Now the odds of it receiving funding seem even longer.

Passengers will in time return to Amtrak. Suspended services will be reinstated. Many trips that were canceled or postponed will be moved to another time.

But not all of them. Some trips that were scrapped won’t be made. Those who didn’t ride during the spring will not necessarily increase their patronage to make up for missed trips.

Public transit faces a similar situation. Ridership will increase as people return to work in their offices, major public events resume, and social distancing restrictions are eased.

But it may take months for ridership and revenue to recover and budgets are going to be tight even if public money is offered to transit agencies to help them make up what was lost.

Tourist railroads, including the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, were fortunate, if that is the right word, that their shutdowns occurred in the off season.

The pain for the CVSR would be greater if the shutdown had occurred during the summer, fall and Polar Express seasons when ridership peaks.

But much of the ridership and revenue the CVSR lost this spring is gone.

People are not going to double or triple their patronage once the trains resume operating to make up what they missed in March and April.

The wild card in all of this is how the economy performs. The recession that some economists are predicting will dampen business for Amtrak, public transit and tourist railroads because fewer people will be traveling for work or pleasure.

Some predict the recession will be relatively short and the economy will be juiced by pent up demand once life returns to normal.

Railroad restoration efforts could take a hit if charitable giving falls off during a recession as seems likely. The timeline for some if not most projects will be extended.

It may be that some operations will not survive the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

Just as some with underlying health issues will die as a result of contracting the virus, some organizations that were already operating on tight margins may succumb when lost revenue pushes them over the edge.

Rail passenger advocates may find that their agenda will shift to an all out battle to save existing levels of service rather than pushing for expansion.

Congress is spending trillions of dollars on fighting the pandemic and trying to shore up the economy.

Later this year deficit hawks in Congress can be expected to take aim at such things as Amtrak and public transportation funding in the FY2021 federal budget as a way of offsetting emergency funding approved months earlier during the depths of the pandemic.

The budget process may not be business as usual.

Back at the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, I remember Henry Paulson, who was secretary of the treasury at the time, say amid the talk of what the government should be doing to bolster the economy, “first we must make it through the night.”

As I write this we are still seeking to make it through the night of the pandemic. We keep hearing medical experts say it will get worse before it gets better. It takes time to flatten the curve.

In the meantime transportation has shifted to survival mode.

We may not have been in this exact place before, but we’ve been in similar places and managed to get through the night. Yet what a long night it can be.

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