Help Keep the Long Distance Trains Running Daily!
I'm asking those of you that follow me to take a few moments to contact your Congressional representatives about Amtrak reducing the Southwest Chief and other long distance trains to tri-weekly service beginning on October 12, 2020. This will have a serious impact on communities along the route that rely on the train as transportation. Even though you may not use this service yourself, in some communities it is the only mode of public transportation available.
Please feel free to use my letter as a guide or template for your own communication. Thank you!
It has come to my attention today that Amtrak management has sent a notice to employees stating that long distance train service, including the Southwest Chief, will be curtailed on October 12, 2020. Instead of providing daily service to the communities of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, there will only be service three days per week in each direction.
The reasoning according to Amtrak is to save money due to decreased demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any savings Amtrak management may achieve by reducing most long-distance trains to tri-weekly service will be overshadowed by a precipitous drop in revenue, additional unforeseen expenses, and a crippled ability to restart service.
The time frame Amtrak says it is addressing is a 9-12 month period (FY21) where overall travel demand remains substantially lower than normal and discretionary travel is dramatically less than it has been historically. Ridership on the trains will average about 50% of historic norms. Assuming the roll-out of a vaccine or more consistent social protections and the slow continuation of an economic rebound in late winter/spring of 2021, there should be a steady growth in ridership by Summer of 2021, assuming that daily service remains intact.
Reducing service to tri-weekly affects many things including connectivity with other trains. It varies by route, but looking at arrivals at the major hubs around 30% of the riders are connecting to other trains. Many are connecting to corridor trains but many are also connecting to other long-distance trains. It is impossible to have all the long-distance trains operate tri-weekly and still have connectivity in Washington, Chicago, LA and Seattle. That is a big loss in revenue from breaking those schedules. Only daily service can maintain the utility of the National Network.
Longer distance vacation/leisure travelers are those where the greatest percentage of riders will shift their travel days to accommodate tri-weekly service. For those traveling strictly for transportation, a lower percentage will shift. Sleeping car riders are more likely to shift, 300 to 500 mile coach travelers are the riders least likely to shift but will choose another mode of transportation. Leisure travelers are making longer duration trips with more options for layover days. Shorter distance travelers are making shorter duration trips where adding a day to match a train schedule can add 30% or more to the trip duration.
Because of the pandemic, the question that must be asked is who will be riding in FY 21? Will it be seniors taking long circle trips in sleeping cars around America or will it be coach passengers traveling between 300-500 miles on the long-distance trains, strictly for essential transportation, to handle personal business, a medical treatment, to help elderly parents, etc. The level of service required for this type of market in FY 21 is daily service. A tri-weekly train is exactly the wrong kind of service for the market in FY21.
History provides several examples of trains that were reduced to tri-weekly and were eventually discontinued because the service didn’t provide what was needed to the communities. The Texas Eagle, which had been relegated to tri-weekly status south of St. Louis in 1993, was slated for discontinuance along with the Salt Lake City-Las Vegas-Los Angeles Wind and the Denver-Portland, Ore., -Seattle Pioneer on May 10, 1997. The Eagle was a financially poor performer because — like all less-than-daily trains — it generated seven days of expenses, but only offset them with three days of revenue.
Reducing expenses implies staff reductions of crews along the route. The last thing our economy needs is more layoffs of hard working New Mexicans.
What I fear, and what should concern you as a representative of the people of New Mexico, is that a reduction of service now will mean a discontinuance of service in the future with no possibility of ever coming back. Amtrak has previously stated that they want to discontinue long distance trains in favor of regional trains. This is but a step closer to making that happen. A lot of money has been spent through grants and federal funds to upgrade the track in northern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and Kansas, to keep the Southwest Chief serving local communities. According to my sources, ridership is slowly increasing as people are becoming educated about protecting themselves and others. The fall and holiday season is not the time to reduce service on the long distance Amtrak trains.