Monday, April 20, 2020

Amtrak: a model for essential transit during COVID-19

The Capitol Limited's sightseer lounge. Visible outside: Harper's Ferry, WV. (Photo by me)

As I biked up DC’s deserted 4th St SW on a recent evening, the silence of a pandemic-plagued city gave way to a familiar diesel-electric roar. I looked up to witness a shred of normalcy: two Amtrak locomotives hauling the Silver Meteor train down to Miami, as they’ve done daily since Richard Nixon nationalized U.S. intercity passenger rail service almost 50 years ago.
       
For sustainable transportation friends and foes alike, it’s easy to be tough on Amtrak. Be it the chronic delays, aging train equipment, or out-of-stock café cars, evidence of underfunding and neglect – or, depending on how one looks at it, an inability to make money – can be seen on pretty much any given trip. Though I’m an adamant supporter of intercity passenger rail, I’ve emphatically given in to negativity’s temptation and ragged on the railroad from time to time.

But the national railroad has done some things right recently. Northeasterners are getting brand-new Acela trains, while Southerners are set for a restart of service on the temporarily-suspended-for-15-years New Orleans-Mobile line. And freight rail companies have gotten some doses of sharper teeth when their dispatchers delay Amtrak trains. 
  
The railroad’s projected Fiscal Year 2020 operating profit – the first such outlook in its history – seemed a fitting reward for this progress.

That coronating projection didn’t account for novel coronavirus. But while the operating profit won’t arrive this year, amidst virus-inflicted adversity Amtrak has accomplished something no formula could have predicted: emerging as a model for essential mobility that the world can learn from.

Here’s what Amtrak has done to provide safe, equitable, national train service during COVID-19.

Amtrak has sustained nationwide connectivity

Amtrak trains at Pittsburgh, PA's station. (Photo by me)
With ridership at 8 percent of pre-pandemic figures, Amtrak has doubled down on its core mission: the lifeline mobility that keeps hundreds of communities, including many our air and highway systems have left out, connected. The railroad continues to operate its full national network of long-distance lines.

Amtrak has not had the luxury of chopping areas with severe COVID-19 outbreaks from its network, as the lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei Province allowed China Railway to do. Instead, it’s had to navigate a hodge-podge of state orders and federal guidance to keep its passengers and trains moving.

Amtrak’s ability to preserve its national network – in the midst of a leadership change, nonetheless – demonstrates the importance of publicly funded mobility to the country during crisis. For example, airlines – despite receiving 50 times as much stimulus funding as Amtrak did – have cut domestic capacity by as much as 80 percent.

The national railroad has also set itself apart from other North American intercity rail providers. In the U.S., privately-funded Virgin Trains USA has shut down Florida’s Brightline for the foreseeable future, while the state-owned Alaska Railroad suspended almost all of its passenger service through early July. Canada's Via Rail has also suspended service on its three long-distance lines that extend to the country's west and east coasts. 

When forced to make service changes, Amtrak has done so equitably 

A Northeast Regional train at Washington, DC's Union Station, as seen across the platform from the departing Palmetto. The Regional continues operating, albeit at reduced frequencies, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by me) 
Amtrak has reduced service on many of its regional corridors, which normally constitute the system’s greatest ridership generator. It’s had to fully suspend service on certain corridor lines in cash-strapped states such as Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Michigan, while international mobility restrictions have forced it to temporarily truncate three lines that cross the Canadian border.

But for the most part, the railroad has maintained a level of essential service on its corridors, just as it has nationally. Amtrak has structured its regional cuts in a way that sustains affordable, equitable access for those who need it. For example:
  • On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has suspended its Acela service – the white-collar demand for it transferred to Zoom and Skype for the time being – while continuing to operate all-day service (albeit at limited frequency) on its more affordable Northeast Regional.
  • In Northern California, the dedicated, comfortable buses connecting Emeryville’s station to San Francisco are not running, but essential riders can still transfer to BART and use the region’s regular transit system to cross the bay.

Amtrak’s focus on essential corridor service differs from France SNCF’s strategy. SNCF has suspended its low-cost Ouigo trains, limiting high-speed service to only its pricier TGV InOui option.

(SNCF, however, deserves commendation for using its TGV trains to shuttle coronavirus patients from hard-hit areas like Strasbourg to other French regions with more hospital capacity.)

Furthermore, Amtrak has caught up on some deferred maintenance during the service reductions. For example, workers have replaced door motors, suspensions, and other key components of Capitol Corridor railcars in aforementioned Northern California, putting the line in position to provide more reliable service to riders once they return.

Amtrak has done its part to prevent COVID-19 from spreading

A segment of the California Zephyr line, seen here making its Davis, CA stop during non-pandemic times, was suspended for two weeks when an employee tested positive for COVID-19.  
The friendly social scene onboard a train normally is one of Amtrak’s main selling points, especially for its long-distance lines.

But the idea of being onboard a vehicle for days at a time, dining together and using the same restrooms, has parallels with a much less essential and sustainable transportation mode that catalyzed much of coronavirus’s early spread: cruise ships. Prior personal experience had me concerned about how people riding the rails might fare during COVID-19; a couple years ago, I experienced some nasty norovirus symptoms starting about 36 hours – the normal incubation period for that disease – after a trip on Amtrak’s San Joaquins line.

The railroad, however, has responded to the pandemic with neither the laissez-faire approach of cruise operators nor the heavy-handed enforcement of some local transit providers.

Instead, Amtrak has employed diligence and professionalism akin to Seoul’s subway, keeping its riders and employees safe while sustaining the essential mobility it’s tasked with providing. The company has enhanced its sanitation practices, messaged the importance of mask-wearing and other hygienic steps riders can take, limited bookings so coach-class riders can spread out, and provided contactless room service to sleeping car passengers. It has also respected the risk and sacrifice of transit employees and other essential workers, organizing the national April 16 #SoundTheHorn campaign in their honor. 

Amtrak is by no means sheltered from COVID-19, as people have ridden its trains when unknowingly infected. But when an employee came down with the coronavirus, the railroad quarantined all members of the employee’s Salt Lake City crew base, resulting in temporary suspension of the California Zephyr’s Reno-Denver segment that those Salt Lake personnel operate. After the employees completed their 14-day quarantine, service on the segment resumed.

Thanks to these steps and strategies, no cluster of COVID cases to date has been linked to an Amtrak train.

What’s Amtrak’s role in this crisis going forward?

The Silver Meteor's tracks, as seen near Jacksonville. (Photo by me)
Amtrak, just like all of us, faces an uncertain future. But it’s positioned itself to fulfill three clear-cut societal needs in the coming weeks, months, and years:
  • Firstly, the railroad will provide essential mobility, as it’s doing now and always has.
  • Amtrak will also be essential to our economic recovery from COVID-19. It’s unclear how quickly airlines will be able to restore capacity as society recovers, meaning people’s ability to resume intercity travel – be it for business or pleasure – might depend on rail connectivity. The railroad has prior experience with this, having surged capacity when the skies were closed after 9/11.
  • And finally, Amtrak’s resiliency during this pandemic will make the railroad an essential resource for other transportation providers. For example, it could collaborate with currently-moribund cruise ship companies to bolster and expand intercity ferry services like the Alaska Marine Highway that connect to rail lines and provide important connectivity.  

In order for this to happen, our leaders must understand that the national railroad is essential. Without such understanding, the U.S. would risk the fate that befell Mexico’s intercity passenger train system shortly after a 1990s economic downturnnear-complete disappearance
  
Fortunately, Amtrak has bipartisan support, rendering such a fate unlikely.

But COVID-19 has not meant a moratorium for Amtrak’s ongoing infrastructural and operational challenges. The Amtrak Alerts Twitter feed, for example, features its regular cocktail of freight train interference (also essential during the crisis), mechanical issues, and signal problems. In late March, the railroad’s Auto Train derailed in DeLand, FL, forcing it to suspend or reroute all of its Northeast-to-Florida lines; fortunately there were no serious injuries and Amtrak worked to restore service on those lines within several days.

Can elected officials synthesize their support for rail and address these challenges?

Earlier on that bike ride the Silver Meteor rolled above, I traversed the Anacostia River Trail’s bridge over those same CSX tracks a couple miles up the line. My bridge crossing coincided with the passing of a long freight train hauling lumber, tanks carrying unknown liquids, and a litany of other items. Mesmerized, I stopped to watch it, reflecting on how our freight rail system – the world’s best – is keeping shelves stocked, food on the table, and lives from falling apart.

Treating our national passenger railroad with similar dignity will bring America’s people together.

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