Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak long-distance trains’

Expanding Capacity and Dining Car Service Moving at Slow Pace, Amtrak Officials Say

September 24, 2021

Top Amtrak executives gave a glimpse of Amtrak’s near-term future this week during a meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and many rail advocates are likely to frustrated and encouraged at the same time by what they heard.

On the positive side, Amtrak is moving to make dining car meals available to passengers other than just those holding sleeper class tickets. It is even working toward upgrading dining car meals on eastern long distance trains.

Yet it will take some time before coach passengers anywhere will be able to buy dining car meals.

Also expected to take time will be increasing capacity on long-distance trains because the cars needed to do that are in storage and Amtrak needs to bolster its mechanical work force before those cars can be put back into revenue service.

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, said the passenger carrier is still seeking “to get the service right” before opening dining car meals to coach passengers.

A first step in that direction will be taken in October when business passengers aboard the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will be able to buy dining car meals.

Harris cited a litany of factors for moving slowly to open up dining car meals to more passengers.

He said many on-board crew members have returned from furloughs imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and Amtrak doesn’t want to overwhelm them with such tasks as collecting cash and overseeing COVID restrictions.

“Our intention all along was to get to a point where we could offer it to coach customers,” Harris said.

He described the Coast Starlight move as a trial run to see how it plays out.

“The idea is to start small and work through the issues that we inevitably will encounter by opening up the dining car to more customers,” Harris said. “Then if the test is successful, we will roll it out to additional markets.”

As for the eastern trains, Harris said Amtrak is consulting with a food vendor who has worked with the passenger carrier to enhance meals served on Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor.

The vender is working with Amtrak “with a lot of menu items to find out what will work well within the constraints of single-level dining cars.” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that many passengers riding eastern long-distance trains have complained about repetitive food offerings.

Starting in June 2018 Amtrak began moving away from full-service dining cars on eastern long-distance trains in favor of food prepared off the trains and reheated onboard.

That service eventually evolved to one bowl entrees with a few side items.

“By trying to offer different types of foods that are more appealing we think we can substantially upgrade the food offerings on the East Coast,” Harris said.

“We’re also looking at putting on new types of ovens and other kitchen equipment to be more creative in the types of food offerings we have.”

Amtrak initially chose its western long-distance trains for upgraded dining car service because it had the ability to restore employees on those trains and dining is such a critical part of the experience,” Harris said. “We wanted to live up to the expectations of our customers there.”

However, the return of full-service dining has yet to come to the Texas Eagle, in part because of equipment shortages that also have limited capacity of long distance trains.

Harris acknowledged that equipment shortages stem from decisions made last year about how much equipment to put in storage and how many mechanical jobs to cut.

At present, the Coast Starlight is the only Superliner-equipped long-distance trains with a coach devoted to business class.

Those passengers receive a free bottle of water and an “onboard credit for food and beverage purchases.”

Both the Eagle and the Capitol Limited have been operating for the past several months without a Sightseer Lounge car.

“Eighteen months ago we had to decide how much fleet we were going to be able to run and how much money we were going to spend on overhauls and how many employees we thought would be able to work on the equipment because we didn’t have enough demand to justify keeping the system running at historical levels and we didn’t think we would have enough money from Congress at that point,” Harris said.

“So what you see running on the system is all the equipment we have available,” he said.

He said some employees took early retirement, resulting in a reduced mechanical staff.

“We have to re-recruit for some of those [positions]; there is this unintended effect, but at this point unavoidable where we have to work through this backlog to get back to what was once our historic fleet availability, and that will take some time.”

He indicated that Amtrak is likely to be working through the winter to get transition sleepers back in service so that rooms now being taken by crew members can be sold to the public.

Also speaking to the RPA conference was Executive Vice President-Major Program Delivery Laura Mason.

She said the Amtrak would be able to step up replacement of aging equipment now used in the national network if Congress approves an infrastructure bill now pending in the House.

The bill has also received Senate approval. Of late, the infrastructure bill has been hindered by political wrangling in the House.

Even without the infusion of capital funding Amtrak hopes to get from the infrastructure bill, Harris said the carrier has been slowly replacing its fleet over the past five years with new Acela trainsets, new Viewliner cars and Venture cars being built by Siemens for use in state-funded corridor services.

Amtrak also has chosen Siemens to build replacement cars for Amfleet equipment used in the Northeast Corridor.

“This is not something Amtrak really has a deep bench on, in terms of doing procurements, so we really need to tackle these sequentially. So, there’s some elements of the Amfleet replacements that we need to wrap up still from that procurement, and then we will begin to have the capacity to work on the long-distance procurement,” Harris said.

Mason said Amtrak is “laying the groundwork to receive the substantial infusion of federal funding” contained in the infrastructure bill.

 “With the state of our infrastructure today and the funding that we have hopefully coming towards us with the infrastructure bill, we need to be able to build up the capacity to do multiple billion dollar programs, to have just not one focus but many,” she said.

 “We have $40 billion of planned critical infrastructure, facility and fleet investments that we need to turn into a reality.”

Mason also said Amtrak faces the challenge of recruiting future workers.

 “One of the big challenges to the industry is how do we get people excited and involved?” she said. “We need to recruit at all levels; I think entry-level is very important, but also mid-level.

“We need to bring in people from different industries and help them see the rewards that come from working in rail. That you can do well by doing good, and also that you can have a tremendous positive impact.

“I talk about this when I go out recruiting, about the impact. Do you want to affect tens of thousands of people a day? Hundreds of thousands? Millions of people a year? You can do that in transportation.”

She said Amtrak might need to appeal to younger would-be employees by tying the transportation industry to climate change.

“I say: Make it your day job; come work in rail. If you want to combat climate change, help be part of the solution of making rail and carbon neutral transportation an option for everybody,” Mason said.

Amtrak Now Operating Daily in NEO

June 1, 2021

Amtrak is now operating daily through Northeast Ohio. For the first time since last October the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited ran in both directions early this morning as Amtrak implemented the second phase of its resumption of daily service of long distance trains.

Last week the Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Coast Starlight resumed daily operation on May 24.

On May 31, the Capitol and Lake Shore along with the Southwest Chief and City of New Orleans resumed daily operation.

The next round of trains to go back to daily service will be the Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Crescent and Palmetto on June 7.

The Cardinal and Sunset Limited will continue to operate tri-weekly as they have for many years.

In a related development, the Rail Passengers Associated reported it has learned traditional dining car service will return to Amtrak’s western long distance trains on June 23.

On its own website, Amtrak reports only that traditional dining has been suspended through June 30.

More details on the revamping of Amtrak’s dining service are expected to be released this week.

Stimulus Money Conveyed to Amtrak

April 28, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation said this week that it has conveyed to Amtrak $1.69 billion in economic stimulus funds authorized by the American Rescue Act of 2021.

The funding includes $728.6 million for Amtrak’s long distance and regional trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak was directed by Congress to allocate $174 million of that total to offset what the carrier charges states for corridor services.

However, the law does not require states to restore their Amtrak corridor services to pre-pandemic levels.

Most states reduced their corridor services during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a plunge in ridership.

Several states have begun restoring suspended services but others have yet to announce their plans.

Among the routes yet to be fully restored is the Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac).

The route had three roundtrips pre-pandemic, but since March 2020 the level of service has been a single daily roundtrip.

Some Illinois and Missouri routes also continued to operate below pre-pandemic levels.

The directive also mandated that Amtrak return long-distance service to daily operation if they operated as such before last year.

Amtrak has said daily operation will be phased in over a three-weekly period beginning May 24.

The Northeast Corridor will receive $969.4 million of which $109.8 million will go to states and commuter railroads to cover their share of capital costs Amtrak charges them for using the Northeast Corridor.

Another $100.8 million will be used for debt relief that Amtrak incurred before the legislation was adopted on March 11.

Amtrak Begins Recalling Furloughed Workers

March 16, 2021

Amtrak was to begin the process of recalling furlough employees on this week.

An internal memo said 1,250 furloughed workers would be recalled between March 16 and 29 while noting that it would take 90 days to get all of them back to work.

During that 90-day period the furloughed workers will be tested and requalified as needed in their respective positions.

The recalls were mandated in the recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that was approved by Congress and signed by President Joseph Biden.

The legislation appropriated $1.7 billion in supplemental funding for Amtrak to, among other things, restore daily service to 16 long distance trains that operated daily until last year.

The restoration of daily service is to take place on a rolling schedule on May 24, May 31 and June 7.

The Amtrak memo indicated that the first employees to be recalled would be those in train and engine service followed by onboard service personnel.

The affected workers will be contacted by a phone call that will be followed up with a certified letter.

In the memo Amtrak indicated that although workers are expected to respond to the recalls within the time frame outlined in their craft’s collective bargaining agreement, the carrier is seeking to provide some flexibility so workers can take care of personal matters before reporting back to work at Amtrak.

Resumption of Daily Service Yielding Fare Bargains

March 15, 2021

It didn’t take Amtrak long to make available additional sleeping car space and coach seats for the summer on long distance trains that have operated tri-weekly since last fall but will resume daily operation starting in late May.

Daily service will retrn on May 24, May 31 or June 7 depending on the route.

Those who are able to book shortly after the expanded service space and seats went up for sale were able to find some economical fares.

Amtrak’s yield management strategy ties fares to demand. So if you plan to travel this summer on a day when your train would have operated even on its tri-weekly schedule, you would have found high fares, an analysis published by Trains magazine found.

But for those able to travel on days when their train would not be serving the station from which they planned to depart, there are some bargains available for now.

For example, on one day that the Empire Builder was scheduled to operate in early June on the existing tri-weekly schedule coach seats from Chicago to Seattle were priced at,$245 while a roomette was selling for $1,074 for one adult and a bedroom was priced at $1,816 in a family room.

But on the following day coach seats were selling for $150, a roomette was $651, a family bedroom was $842 and a bedroom was priced at $1,210.

Amtrak’s Roger Harris, the carrier’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue, told Trains he is confident that demand this summer for coach seats and sleeping car rooms will be high enough to fill those seats and rooms at fares close to what Amtrak has charged in previous years.

“Under our original restoration metrics, we needed to see forward load factor bookings within 10 percent of historical levels, and we are actually ahead of that for this summer.”

That is likely to mean, the Trains analysis concluded that fares will not be drastically reduced across the board.

Amtrak has boosted its advertising budget by $10 million and Harris said the carrier will attempt to reach travelers through media channels it has not made much use of in recent years, particularly radio and television.

There won’t be a major advertising campaign in traditional media. Harris said Amtrak’s market’s efforts will continue to a more targeted digital advertising approach.

“It’s starting in March, because that’s when people begin planning trips and buying tickets,” Harris said.

Also look for unsold sleeping car space in a few months to be auctioned through the BidUp program that recently launched that enables passengers to upgrade from coach accommodations to business class and first class seats, particularly on corridor trains.

Amtrak Daily Service Will Also Bring Some Service Enhancements

March 13, 2021

The restoration of daily operation to most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains starting in late May will also coincide with a spiffing up of some amenities aboard those trains.

Some long-distance trains are expected to see the return of traditional dining car service.

The intercity passenger carrier said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be assigned to the Silver Meteor and Silver Star between New York and Miami.

The Auto Train sleeping cars will receive new and what Amtrak described as upgraded bedding, towels and linens. These will be provided to other long distance trains with sleeping car service during the summer.

Eastern trains assigned Amfleet II coaches will get new seating cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

Amtrak said cars that went through a multi-year interior renovation program for Superliner and Viewliner I equipment, which includes new seating cushions, carpets and curtains, will enter revenue service this summer.

Although no date was given, new ALC-32 Siemens Charger locomotives will begin pulling long-distance trains this year.

They will replace the ubiquitous P42DC units that have been maintays since the middle 1990s.

The Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station in New York will get a new Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers.

Unspecified enhancements will be made to the Auto Train.

It also remains to be seen how Amtrak will handle the restoration of traditional dining car meals.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said the carrier needs to work through the health implications of dining car operation.

“Communal dining is probably a non-starter for now, and you can work backward through food preparation and delivery,” he said.

Harris did not say which trains would receive traditional dining service. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic began Amtrak had ended full-service dining car service on all eastern long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

Traditional dining aboard the western long distance trains ended early in the pandemic in favor of serving prepackaged meals.

“It’s important to figure this out because it involves the recall of employees for the daily service this summer, so it’s a rather intertwined process,” Harris said. “There will be some food service decisions in the coming months but there will be further developments in the next year, as we get our new team really focused on this.”

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains to Resume Daily Service Starting in Late May

March 11, 2021

Amtrak said Wednesday it will reinstate daily service on 12 long-distance routes starting in late May.

Trains on those routes shifted last year to tri-weekly or quad-weekly service in the wake of steep ridership declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of expanded service came hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pandemic relief package that contains increased funding for Amtrak.

The legislation also contains a mandate that routes that had daily service until last year resume daily operation and that furloughed employees be recalled.

President Joseph Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion bill on Friday.

Two routes, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will be unaffected by the changes because those routes have operated on tri-weekly schedules for years.

Amtrak has already resumed selling tickets for the expanded days of operation on the 12 routes.

Trains returning to daily service on May 24 include the Chicago-Emeryville, California, California Zephyr; Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight; Chicago-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, and the Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles Texas Eagle.

Daily operation returns May 31 for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans, Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Resuming daily operation on June 7 will be the New York-New Orleans Crescent, New York-Savannah Palmetto, and the New York-Miami Silver Meteor (via Savannah) and Silver Star (via Raleigh).

In a news release, Amtrak said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be making their debut on the Silver Service trains.

The Auto Train had continued to operate daily and its operations will remain unchanged.

Amtrak will receive $1.7 billion in emergency pandemic aid, which will help fund restoration of daily service on long-distance routes.

Bill Would Mandate Daily Service for Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

February 25, 2021

A Montana senator has introduced legislation to require Amtrak to reinstate daily service to most of its 15-long distance routes.

The bill sponsored by Jon Tester (D-Montana) also would require the passenger carrier to reinstate furloughed workers.

Last October, Amtrak reduced the frequency of most long-distance trains from daily to tri-weekly.

Less than daily operations of two New York-Miami routes began last July while two other routes, the Sunset Limited (New Orleans-Los Angeles) and Cardinal (Chicago-New York) have operated tri-weekly for several years.

Only the Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia, and Florida has continued to run daily.

Amtrak cited steep ridership and revenue declines triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic for reducing the frequency of its long-distance trains.

In introducing his bill, Tester said in a statement that Amtrak’s service reductions “were an unacceptable attack on rural America.”

Tester’s bill would authorize and appropriate federal grants to Amtrak to pay for reviving daily service and recalling furloughed workers.

In a statement, Amtrak said it wants to resume daily service on route that had it before the pandemic and to recall furloughed workers.

The statement noted that a pandemic relief bill approved by a congressional committee contains funding to do that.

That bill is pending before the full House of Representatives.

Tester said he hopes that daily service on Amtrak long-distance routes can be achieved before the start of the summer travel season.

Amtrak Says Congress Can Mandate Daily Service

January 30, 2021

Amtrak has signaled that if Congress wants long-distance trains to operate daily rather than tri-weekly it can make that happen by mandating it and providing funding.

Since last October all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes have operated on tri-weekly or quad-weekly schedules.

At the time those reduced schedules were implemented Amtrak cited steep ridership declines that followed in the wake of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has since said that daily operation of those trains will be restored once they meet certain public health, ridership and future demand criteria.

However, in a statement Amtrak said Congress could override those standards.

“If Congress provides the direction and the needed funding, we would restore long-distance services to daily,” Amtrak said.

Earlier in the week, Amtrak had asked Congress for $1.5 million in emergency pandemic aid, saying that money is needed to recall workers furloughed last year and avoid future furloughs during the balance of the federal fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.

Amtrak’s subsequent statement was an elaboration of how the passenger carrier would use the money it has requested.

Aside from reducing the frequency of operation of long-distance trains, Amtrak has suspended operations of some state-funded corridor trains as the states funding those trains have reduced how much they are spending on Amtrak service.

In its statement, Amtrak said employees who worked aboard those suspended trains would still be recalled if Amtrak gets the money it requested.

These recalls will be made even if individual states opt not to increase their funding of Amtrak corridor services and thus the trains they once worked aboard remain suspended.

Those recalled workers “could go wherever their seniority allows them; it might not be on an extra board, but they would be recalled and employed,” Amtrak said in the statement.

Ex-Amtrak President Says it May be a While Before Biden Puts his Stamp on Amtrak

November 11, 2020

During his time in Congress, Joseph Biden often traveled on Amtrak to and from Washington from his home in Delaware, thus earning him the moniker “Amtrak Joe.”

Although he won’t become the nation’s next president until late January, speculation has already begun as what effect his election will have on Amtrak.

Former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine he believes Biden will be supportive of the national network.

Downs recalled riding with Biden in 1994 aboard a Metroliner and discussing Amtrak’s funding needs.

“‘Listen, Tommy. I can count!” Downs recalls, quoting Biden. “‘I need 51 Senators who support funding for Amtrak. And they come from around the rest of the country. If they don’t have a dog in the fight, Amtrak can’t survive,’ he told me.”

However Downs also believes it may be some time before Biden might begin to exhort any influence over Amtrak.

Downs believes Biden will not be supportive of the current management’s scaling back most long-distance trains to tri-weekly operation.

Noting that Biden once visited the Amtrak maintenance facilities in Wilmington and Bear, Delaware, Downs recalled Biden saying during his visit,  “‘I know Amtrak stops at 542 communities and all of those folks are important to Amtrak.’”

Downs, who headed Amtrak between 1993 and 1997, was critical during his interview with Trains about reducing the frequency of service of the long-distance trains.

“My immediate concern is [management’s] dismemberment process of pulling apart the long-distance trains. You start with the dining car, reducing service to three days per week where you kill the network effect, and then for reasons I can’t begin to understand there are no online schedules available for all the trains — this is an intentional attempt to kill the long-distance train service.”

He predicted that if the service cuts are not reversed soon “there won’t be any service to save.”

Amtrak’s fifth president described the long-distance trains as “an odd mix of essential service linking rural and urban communities and a land-cruise business; if you cut both of those, I don’t know how you ever get them back.”