Congress, rail passenger association question Amtrak cutting schedule

Amtrak has announced it will reduce service on its long-distance trains including The Empire Builder that runs along Montana’s Hi-Line en route from Chicago to Portland and Seattle.

Amtrak plans to reduce long-distance services to three days a week starting Oct. 1.

“Due to the long-term impact of COVID-19 on ridership, Amtrak has made the decision to operate with reduced capacity through Fiscal Year 21,” Amtrak Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Public Relations Manager Marc Magliari said.

He said Amtrak’s goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.

Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer Roger Harris said in a letter to its employees that this is an appropriate response, given the current and near-term market conditions.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, our ridership has been down by as much as 95 percent year-over-year,” the letter said. “It’s climbing back slowly – and it is going to take a long time to return to normal. The demand for our long-distance service is down by 70 percent, even as some U.S. states begin to re-open.”

He said in the letter they expect the systemwide ridership in Fiscal Year 2021 to be only 50 percent of what it was in 2019.

Rail Passenger Association Representative-at-Large Mark Meyer said that Amtrak might just be showing the “most Draconian of scenarios” in order to get additional funding from Congress to continue the current daily operation.

“The other part of this is that, historically speaking, which I can verify with my 40 years of railroading experience managing locomotives, crews, and rolling stock, Amtrak will not save any money in a tri-weekly operation so they will need additional funding anyway,” he said.

Members of Montana’s congressional delegation are fighting the reduction of Amtrak’s ridership.

“Communities along the Hi-Line depend on reliable access to rail service,” Rep. Greg Gianforte said. “I’ll fight Amtrak’s efforts to reduce service and will hold Amtrak accountable.”

Gianforte is leaving his seat in Congress and is facing Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Green Party Robert Barb and Libertarian candidate Lyman Bishop in the general election.

A statement from the office of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Daines has fought against reductions in service on the Empire Builder throughout his time in Congress.

“He is, likewise, concerned with the current proposed reductions in staff and service and will be leading a letter with his Senate colleagues to the president and CEO of Amtrak, expressing their opposition to the changes and asking them to provide more information in regards to their decision,” the statement said.

Daines and with other senators sent a letter to Wednesday to Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer William Flynn.

“We are deeply concerned by the downsizing plan outlined in your supplemental funding request and believe it to be contrary to public interest. These cuts would not only dramatically reduce the utility of the nation’s passenger rail network, but would also ignore congressional intent to expedite economic recovery following the pandemic,” Daines and Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., John Hoeven, R-N.D., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wrote in their letter. “In your FY2021 supplemental funding request you stated “[w]e understand how important Amtrak service is to the nation and, particularly, small communities across the nation where we play a unique role in connecting these communities to the rest of America.” Your request, unfortunately, does not reflect that understanding.”

“For Congress to continue its support for all operations, we need a commitment from Amtrak on what the conditions and timelines of a full resumption of seven-day-a-week service on all long-distance routes would look like, and the costs associated with the reduction and resumption of service,” the letter added.

Daines is facing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who cannot run for re-election as governor due to term limits, and Green Party candidate Wendie Fredrickson in the race for Daines’ Senate seat.

Sen. Jon Tester and other senators also sent a letter Wednesday to Flynn and demanded protection for the rural Amtrak jobs and the long-distance service.

“Rural networks could see trains running three days a week instead of seven, and 20 percent of Amtrak employees could lose their jobs,” Tester and his colleagues Sens. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev.,and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in the letter. “Putting the brunt of budget shortfalls on rural America and its workers is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances, but it’s particularly egregious when Amtrak’s long-distance provided double the revenue of state-supported routes or the Northeast Corridor combined in May. If Congress is going to continue funding Amtrak at historic levels, you need to work to ensure this path forward works for places such as Montana, Nevada and West Virginia alike.”

“For Congress to continue its support for all operations, we need a commitment from Amtrak on what the conditions and timelines of a full resumption of seven-day-a-week service on all long-distance routes would look like, and the costs associated with the reduction and resumption of service,” the letter added.

Meyer said that while Amtrak would save money by not running as often when switching to a tri-weekly operation from a seven-day operation, the reality is Amtrak would lose a lot of connecting traffic.

“For instance, if they are going to run all the trains three days a week, the train runs from Seattle to Chicago, and when you get to Chicago and you are trying to connect with another train running three days a week you are probably not going be able to lock out and have the connection be one of those days, so that will discourage ridership and therefore reduce revenue,” Meyer said. “That’s just exacerbated throughout the system as people try to make trips with connecting trains, so that’s a problem from that perspective.”

Depending how things go with the pandemic, he said, as things pick up and The Empire Builder is running at its regular summer consist with social distancing, the amount of patronage is increasing.

With the train running three days a week it discourages so much ridership it is unknown to how much more equipment can be put or what kind of ridership is being given, he said.

“That has been proven, usually, because the train has been reduced to three or four times a week in the past,” he added. “Amtrak has been around for 49 years and they reduced it to three times a week in 1979 for three years and then to four times a week like in 1977 and 1995, both times the ridership decreased significantly.”

The pandemic also serves as unknown, he said, that shows whether or not the ridership will go back up.

“Historically speaking on the Empire Builder, since 2005, it has been the most ridden long-distance train in the Amtrak system every year except for two years,” Meyer said. “… The ridership does bounce back as you increase the service you provide and that’s pretty much uniform no matter what. If you have lousy service nobody will ride it.”

Ticket agents

Back in December, Congress also ordered Amtrak to restore ticket agents cut the year before in some Amtrak stations including in Havre and Shelby.

Magliari said Amtrak is working to fulfill the congressional mandate to provide customer service with station agents at 15 locations across its network.

“These uniformed workers will be trained to assist our customers with booking and boarding trains, including travel by unaccompanied minors, helping with carry-on baggage and providing information on the status of arriving and departing services,” he said. “These employees will be scheduled to meet customers for all trains.”

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