US train travel resurgence offers Amtrak summer boost

Following a tough year, passenger numbers are rising

Luz Lazo
Friday 20 August 2021 16:50

More people have traveled by passenger rail this summer than any point since the start of the pandemic, signaling that trains are following airlines on a path to recovery despite a recent rise in coronavirus cases.

The latest numbers are the best news in nearly 18 months for Amtrak, which was hit hard by the pandemic and forced to rely on federal aid to stay afloat. More than 1.8million people traveled by Amtrak in July - the busiest month since ridership plummeted earlier last year - building on June’s passenger count of 1.5million.

The numbers represent a resurgence for America’s passenger railroad, coming on the heels of road traffic hitting pre-pandemic levels in much of the country and surging demand for air travel. Historically dependent on business travel in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is eyeing a mix of new customers, promotional fares and a message of pandemic-era safety to lure riders back.

While an upward trend in bookings might be evidence of a turnaround, ridership continues to fall short of 2019 levels. Travel aboard Amtrak is about 35 per cent below pre-pandemic numbers.

A busier railroad during the summer months also has presented challenges in Amtrak’s ability to enforce a federal mask mandate aboard trains and in stations. Amtrak in recent months has seen a spike in incidents involving passengers refusing to comply.

Though cases of mask defiance on the rails don’t garner the same attention as disruptions in the skies, railroad officials said the confrontations have similarities.

“If we do have someone who’s difficult, we stop at the next station and we remove them,” said Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer. “And since we stop every 10 or 20 minutes, it’s not like landing a plane and it’s not as disruptive.”

For Amtrak, which saw ridership plummet 97 per cent in the weeks after the pandemic, ensuring smooth operations and maintaining coronavirus safety protocols are key to luring back passengers.

The railroad has been slower than airlines in rebuilding ridership, partly because the busy Northeast Corridor relies on lucrative business travel, which continues to lag.

Amtrak’s strategy coming out of the pandemic has been to lure leisure travelers with ticket sales - a price structure that has proved key to the summer’s rebound. Seats on would-be empty trains, generally outside peak travel hours, are being sold at reduced prices to a new set of passengers.

Passenger counts are also up for Amtrak’s premium Acela service, primarily used for corporate trips before the pandemic. Seats on Acela trains from Washington DC to New York sold for as much as 70 per cent below normal fares earlier this summer.

The promotions have added new life aboard Acela, where ridership last month was at 54 per cent of July 2019 numbers despite the sluggish return to business travel. Mr Harris said the July Fourth holiday, usually a slow weekend on the business class route, was busier than in 2019.

“We’ve been taking a more pragmatic view to this,” he said. “At times and days of the week where we know the trains won’t be full, the better use of that seat is to fill it with someone rather than have it to go empty.”

The company said it has attracted about 300,000 new customers a month while it is beginning to see previous customers return.

“We’re also getting younger customers because they’re the ones who tend to get more price sensitive,” Mr Harris said. “And I think they were more comfortable with travel in the early parts of the pandemic and probably even now to a certain extent.”

A surge in coronavirus caseloads from the more transmissible delta variant in recent weeks has not had a large effect on rail travel, Amtrak officials said. Experts and travelers say that could stem from cities in the Northeast - where Amtrak has its largest presence - having higher vaccination rates than other parts of the country.

Some airlines in recent days have reported weaker bookings and increases in cancellations attributed to the delta variant. Southwest Airlines is among those projecting a downward trend that could extend to the fall, while the Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday recorded its lowest number of daily airport screenings since early June.

Amtrak said it has seen a modest increase in people using fare flexibility options to change travel dates in recent weeks.

Beth Osborne, director of the D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group Transportation for America, said downs and ups are likely as long as spikes in coronavirus cases continue. The good news, she said, is the pandemic is leading companies such as Amtrak to rethink services to attract new types of travelers.

While a large share of the railroad’s services rely on East Coast business travel, the railroad has been marketing to new prospective customers, including running campaigns targeting Spanish-speakers and other minority communities.

“I really do think that Amtrak and the federal government has to do a better job of advertising how much is being done to make it safe,” said Ms Osborne, who recently took the Acela on a family trip to New York.

Transit systems across the nation are being held to a higher standard of cleanliness, ventilation and public health, she said, noting that masks are required across transportation systems via a mandate by the TSA.

Passengers traveling by Amtrak also must submit a health questionnaire, answering questions such as whether they have experienced Covid-19 symptoms within 24 hours of departure. And, the company’s 18,000 employees are required to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, effective 1 November.

William K Bolan, 25, of Arlington, Virginia, took the Northeast Regional train to Baltimore for a day trip earlier this month. He had not traveled by train since the pandemic began.

“I got tired of not being able to do anything and go anywhere,” he said. “I realised, ‘Wait a minute, I got no work, I got some money in my pocket, I’m going to do this.’ “

Mr Bolan said he is vaccinated and felt comfortable getting on the full train car Saturday morning.

“I know that they have safety measures in place, and I felt perfectly fine,” he said. And at $13 (£9.50) each way, he said, “it was very cheap for me.”

The surge in coronavirus caseloads has not given Ben Finzel pause to travel by train, but the McLean resident said he is growing more concerned about Amtrak’s ability to enforce mask mandates.

The frequent Amtrak traveler said he has seen more noncompliant passengers during recent trips, including two who got on his train Sunday back to Washington. He said the two passed by Amtrak staff unmasked while in New York, but there was no mask enforcement effort.

“There are signs everywhere. The announcements on the train are great. It’s just the enforcement piece,” Mr Finzel said. “I feel like if they are going to be great about making the announcements about [the rules], they have to also enforce them.”

Amtrak began to see a rise in issues with passengers refusing to wear masks around April. When states and cities began to lift restrictions this spring, some mask requirement signs in stations not owned by Amtrak were removed.

“People didn’t understand that you still had to wear it for transportation,” Mr Harris said. “So there was a step where we had to go back in and reintroduce the idea.”

The TSA on Tuesday extended through January 2022 its order requiring people to wear masks in transportation settings, including at airports, on commercial aircraft, and on buses and trains, with few exceptions. The mandate has been in place since 2 February.

The TSA said this week that Amtrak provides the agency with information about passengers not abiding by the mask mandate, then TSA officials follow up with an investigation.

“A little more than 500 mask incidents have been reported to TSA from surface transportation providers,” the agency said in a statement. That includes reports from transit agencies across the nation, as well as Amtrak, but the agency did not provide a breakdown of incidents. By comparison, TSA said it has received about 3,900 reported incidents within aviation.

Amtrak did not provide details about mask-related incidents on trains, but said the company saw an increase in passenger removals - generally the penalty for those who refuse to abide by the mask rule - in April, May and June. There was a reduction in such cases in July, the company said.

The railroad is still operating about 25 per cent fewer trains and it is not expected to return to pre-pandemic schedules until next year.

Mr Finzel said he is glad to see service levels on the rebound. A public relations executive who traveled on the Acela this past weekend with his husband, Mr Finzel said they have taken Amtrak a few times this year but haven’t boarded a plane since the pandemic began.

“It’s really convenient. It’s much easier,” he said. “And so far, I feel safer on a train than I do on a plane.”

The Washington Post

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