Amtrak’s Ongoing Service Cuts Reflect Lack of National Network Investment: Analysis

The north direction silver star pauses in Kissimmee, Fla. – where the Amtrak station is adjacent to the SunRail station next to the locomotives – on February 22, 2022. With silver meteor suspended service, it is the only train from Florida to the northeast. (Bob Johnson)

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

Only the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-San Antonio, Texas, Texas Eagle; and the Seattle-Los Angeles starry coast will resume daily operations on March 28. Complete Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawata new york service and increase Empire Corridor the frequencies also return [see “Amtrak extends cuts to seven long-distance routes into May,” Trains News Wire, March 3, 2022].

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told News Wire that as of mid-February, “vacancies in the mechanical department are pressing.”

Shrinking workshop staffing means many locomotives and passenger cars, sidelined since 2020 frequency reductions attributed to the pandemic, have not returned to 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 link between our staffing levels and the size of our teams,” Magliari says. “We have said it will be several months before we have full active fleet availability and that remains the case, including our own staffing challenges and those of our suppliers.”

But is the problem the pandemic, or did management have more proactive options to preserve revenue and mobility?

The cuts came despite long-range strength

When the travel market crashed in March 2020, the company abruptly canceled all ongoing training and hiring programs. Given the revenue uncertainty of the then decimated Northeast Corridor service, Amtrak instituted voluntary and forced buyouts for fiscal year 2021 to conserve cash.

Five-car passenger train with the Chicago skyline in the background
The shelved equipment led to smaller trains. the Texas eagle leaves Chicago on January 4, 2022 with two coaches, a sleeper, a combination coffee shop and a baggage car. Limited capacity is pushing prices up and sales are dampening revenue by turning away potential passengers. (Bob Johnson)

Part of the company’s initial survival plan was also reducing most long-distance trains to quarterly departures in October 2020. This happened even though ridership during the first pandemic summer – before trains became available. vaccines, but when the full national network continued to operate—showed that long distance was the most resilient segment of Amtrak’s business.

This force has been constant. In January 2022, when the new reductions took effect. long-distance trains generated $30.3 million in ticket revenue, compared to $31.1 million for all northeast regional trains and To that service. And this despite a significantly reduced long-distance capability and the raging Omicron variant.

But Amtrak stuck to its original plan to cut nationwide service and employment, rather than adjusting its operations, hiring and maintenance plans for 2021 to reflect opportunities created by evident demand. . This despite receiving $4.4 billion in various forms of federal funding ($1.5 billion in March 2020 CARES Act funds, $1 billion in December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and $1.9 billion in dollars from the US rescue plan adopted in March 2021). The total is almost double what had been Amtrak’s annual credit.

The latest COVID-related grant made Congress’ intent clear: It was intended to “prevent further layoffs of employees and prevent further reductions in the frequency of railroad service and on any long-distance route,” according to a summary. of the US Department of Transportation.

Yet the company continued to languish in the inertia created by employee buyouts robbing the company of valuable institutional knowledge; de-emphasized marketing; cost-based management incentives; and the elimination of onboard amenities – moves that began in late 2017 under the leadership of Chairman Tony Coscia, former CEO Richard Anderson and current CEO Stephen Gardner.

Even as the bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021 targeted an additional $16 billion for investment in Amtrak’s national network over the next five years, management was catching up on rebuilding its workforce. .

Automatic train vs.. silver star

Passenger train on the station platform.
Viewliner II sleeper Westfield River 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 sleeping car inventory was not sold as prices did not reflect the increase stocks. (Bob Johnson)

Amtrak has since ramped up hiring, but the company won’t say whether capacity will be increased or whether sidelined Superliners like Sightseer lounges or transition sleepers will ever return to the capitol limited Where Texas eagle. In the meantime, it is prudent not to overextend the capacity to serve passengers reliably if there is not enough equipment and personnel to answer the bell.

Corn The trains News Wire also observed evidence that management failed to effectively manage the 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 scrapping the New York-Miami silver meteor During Florida’s busy winter and early spring season, News Wire questioned the wisdom of ditching its second-largest long-distance winter revenue earner and 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 endpoints via a different route, Amtrak has committed to increasing the composition of this train to accommodate more passengers by adding the Meteors coaches and sleeping cars. Instead of three cars and two Viewliner sleepers, the train would operate with four cars and five sleeper cars. This presented an opportunity for Amtrak managers to actively pursue revenue by deviating 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, D.C., for a month before the scheduled Feb. 24, 2022, the trip revealed rooms for one adult costing $447 or $607 (except $706 on three dates). Much more limited rooms cost between $1,209 and $1,589. Coach seats remained constant at $139, but dropped to $111 weeks in advance until bookings exceeded 30%, and increased to $182 when bookings exceeded 70%. Most housemates, including the Feb. 24 departure, have stuck to $508 a day for the past month. This is the second lowest price “category” offered, unchanged from when the two Star and Meteor exploited.

Passengers in a lounge car, some standing at the counter to purchase food and drink
A Automatic train the line for the lounge car service extends to two cars on February 28, 2022. Coach dining has been abolished, so coach passengers must buy food from the cafe and customers from the coach- beds must eat in their room. (Charles St.Clair)

In contrast, prices were actively managed on the Sanford, Florida, Lorton, Virginia, Automatic train over the same period. Excluding vehicle transportation costs, roomette rates were adjusted from $382 to $652 if demand warranted closer to departure dates, while room rates ranged from $665 to $1,254 $. The limited number of Superliner Family Rooms started at $611 and went up to $1,043. Automatic train northbound coach fares during the period generally held steady at $115, although some dates temporarily dropped to the often-promoted $89.

Each departure has a different request. If there is enough capacity, prices can be lowered to attract more customers; if people don’t buy accommodation by the time a train leaves the station, the company receives nothing. Lower fares may also have promotional value, such as a recent Automatic train The $29 coach fare promotion attests to this.

If the management had used the same tariff manipulation with the The silver star five Viewliner berths, more rooms could have generated revenue. There were no northbound sleeping car sales silver star in February. It is not possible to determine the number of unsold rooms on each departure by performing a daily price check, but an onboard survey of this February 24, 2022 trip from Orlando showed 16 roommates and at least three rooms unoccupied overnight.

Decisions made by management over the past two years have hampered Amtrak’s ability to effectively operate its national network through 2022, but it’s not too late to develop and implement a plan that redistributes equipment and personnel to regain lost ground.

About Jun Quentin

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