Amtrak announced last week that it’s long distance train routes, including the Southwest Chief, which serves Trinidad and Raton, will be cutting service back to three days per week starting in October.
The announcement comes on the heels of poor ridership numbers starting in April related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amtrak had expected more than 2.4 million riders in the month of April. Instead, less than 2 million hopped aboard long-distance trains, representing a 22 percent loss. The decrease in ridership accounted for $328 million in losses. On average, the trains were only 47 percent full, according to the company.
“Due to the long term impact of COVID-19 on ridership, Amtrak has made the decision to operate with reduced capacity through fiscal year 2021,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
Changes to the long-term train routes will take place on Oct. 1. Magliari said trains would start to run everyday again when (or if) demand is higher.
In a statement, Amtrak attributed the decision to operate at reduced capacity through fiscal year 2021 due to “the long-term impact of Covid-19 on ridership” and said, “Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.”
The downsized operations come as Amtrak prepares to cut up to 20 percent of its staff in response to the financial crisis left by the pandemic. Demand for service — and the company’s revenue — plummeted to historic lows starting in mid-March as states implemented strict coronavirus shutdowns.
“Congress is not going to support us indefinitely to run mostly empty trains,” Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said in the memo to employees. “We need to demonstrate that we are using our resources efficiently and responsibly.”
Amtrak said last month that it needs nearly $1.5 billion in supplemental funding from the federal government to maintain “minimum service levels,” anticipating ridership will not recover to pre-pandemic levels in fiscal 2021. Even with the supplemental funding, the company said, it would need to cut service and personnel to stay afloat.
The California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief, cost the organization $80 million in the month of April. This would make the two trains the second and third biggest deficits among long-distance train routes, respectively. Only the Empire Builder route lost more money — $300,000 more than the Californa Zephyr.
The Southwest Chief had 135,000 passengers and an average capacity of 52 percent. The California Zypher had 184,000 riders in April but only 43 percent rider capacity.
In February, before the coronavirus pandemic led to shutdowns, Amtrak fell just 2 percent short of its planned passenger number, with 47,000 fewer passengers than expected on long-distance trains.
Amtrak estimates that ridership in the next fiscal year may drop to 16 million, or roughly 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Ridership was down 95 percent during the height of the pandemic. Even as states begin to reopen, ridership remains down 90 percent.
While the company’s plan to slash long-distance daily service was not a surprise, some rail advocates said Amtrak is wrong to reduce daily service to communities across the country where the train is the only transportation option. Besides, they said, those routes saw the smallest declines in ridership during the pandemic. According to Amtrak, demand for its long-distance service is down by 70 percent.
“Let’s be clear: this is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said in a statement. “The long-distance services declined the least among Amtrak’s three business lines during the coronavirus-induced slowdown, and its services remain essential to the hundreds of small communities across the United States with fewer options than Philadelphia or Boston or New York City.”
Mathews estimates that as many as 461 stations outside the Northeast Corridor will lose daily service. He said Amtrak could be “setting itself up for failure by losing operating slots on host railroads, losing employees it will need to restore service and possibly losing the rolling stock as well.”
The following routes will go from daily operations to three times a week: California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), Capitol Limited (Washington to Chicago), City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans), Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles), Crescent (New York City to New Orleans), Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle), Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago), Palmetto (New York to Savannah, Ga.), Silver Star (New York to Miami), Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles) and Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio).