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Dismal Delays Spoil Amtrak Ridership Surge
July 22, 2021 by Jim Mathews

The good news: Amtrak ridership is way up from where it was a year ago, nearly double. The bad news: the odds are that, depending on the route, half or more of those new and returning passengers have suffered terrible delays at the hands of the freight railroads hosting Amtrak service.

Compare the period of March 2020 through May 2020 -- truly the worst ridership period during one of the peaks in the coronavirus crisis -- to the same period this year. That three-month span in 2020 saw Amtrak carry 1.5 million riders across all three business units. The same three months in 2021? Ridership is up 86%, to 2.7 million, and revenues are up by the same percentage -- 86% -- to $200 million.

Amtrak ridership and revenues have a long way to go before they recover to 2019 levels. But the trajectory so far is impressive and encouraging, even though it seems lines more reliant on daily business travel are seeing weaker recoveries.

Based on Amtrak’s reported May 2021 data, the Northeast Corridor had recovered only 37% of its pre-pandemic ridership levels and the state-supported routes had recovered only 38%. The long-distance National Network, by contrast, in May recovered 48% of its 2019 ridership level -- an extraordinary achievement made even more so when you consider that in May 2021 National Network trains were still running only three times per week!

Too bad so many of those newly returning passengers had to come back to delayed trains. Amtrak’s figures for June on-time performance – the latest we have – are filled with bad news. The Southwest Chief’s customer on-time-performance (Customer OTP) was a sick 14.9% in June. The Zephyr managed to beat the Chief, but only by one percentage point. The Capitol Limited came in with Customer OTP of 19.6%, and the Sunset struggled to 35.8%. In fact, the entire National Network of long-distance trains only mustered 44% Customer OTP during the month of June, and only one Network route – the City of New Orleans – actually beat the 80% Customer OTP benchmark that became the law of the land on July 1st of this year.

And because I’ve already received many emails on this subject after my last post on delays and interference, let me point out: no, it’s not because of bad Amtrak locomotives, problems getting passenger trains crewed and out the door or even weather or trespassers. Those are all real problems, but if you add up all of Amtrak’s delay-minutes per 10,000 train miles across all categories, you only get to 298 – compared with some 450 just from freight-train-interference alone and more than 1,000 total delay minutes per 10,000 train miles that can be blamed on host railroads.

I’m sure you’re mad about it. Me too. But none of us are completely powerless here. The vehicle for voicing our discontent already exists and has been up and running for a couple of weeks. We launched an electronic outreach campaign to encourage our members to call, email and write their members of Congress in support of the Durbin/Payne bill, which is called theRail Passenger Fairness Act. Our electronic tools make it painless for you to contact your legislators and make a big noise about late trains. Last summer, we got Congress’ attention on bringing back daily service using the same tool – all of you made more than 17,000 contacts with Congress to make it clear that you wanted daily service at a minimum. Thanks to you, we won. We need our members, their families, their friends and their neighbors to do the same thing for OTP that we did for daily service last summer.

Your Association has been working hard on the OTP issue for a very long time. In addition to the campaign I just talked about, we have:

1 - Fought hard for, and helped to write, the new on-time rules that took effect on July 1st.

2 - Began tracking delays taking place after the July 1st implementation date.

3 - Worked (and are working) to secure co-sponsors for Sen. Durbin’s Rail Passenger Fairness Act (being shepherded through the House by Rep. Payne).

4 - Two years ago we launched the #latebyfreight hashtag, so that people who are sitting on late trains can post their location and lateness on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Do you post Tweets or Facebook posts when you’re on a late train, and do you use the #latebyfreight hashtag? Why not?

5 - Made formal filings with the Surface Transportation Board highlighting OTP concerns. These kinds of filings will carry MUCH more force now that the new rules took effect three weeks ago.

6 - We’ve tried to raise awareness through blog posts and Hotline items, most recently on July 2nd. On both the blog and in the Hotline, I reported on terrible May on-time performance. I also consistently raise the OTP issue in interviews with the NYTimes, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post; sometimes they bite, sometimes they don't.

7 - We consistently include legislative language on the “Right to Be On Time” in our reauthorization proposals to the House and Senate.

8 - We’re also working to organize an installment of our monthly online webinar series on devoted to “dispatching and OTP” with expert panelists to address the whole spectrum of OTP and dispatching issues, warts and all.

Don’t just get mad, get busy! Click through our congressional outreach campaign HERE to make your voice heard!

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