The entire U.S. surface transportation system is once again facing the sobering possibility of ridership shocks as the Covid pandemic returns to levels of infection and death we saw last year before vaccines were widely available.
Health officials on Thursday reported that Wednesday’s daily death toll for Covid stood at 1,418 – making Covid once again the third-leading cause of death for Americans, only behind heart disease and cancer. Since the beginning of August, the number of deaths being reported each day has more than quadrupled.
Given the renewed danger from Covid-19, along with the worrying rise in so-called “breakthrough” infections among some folks who are vaccinated, many of you have written emails to us here at Rail Passengers to ask about the safety of Amtrak travel. I’ll spend some time below walking you through the safety measures Amtrak is taking and I hope it will give you some comfort while also helping you make smart and safe decisions relative to your own personal risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending that the unvaccinated not travel and mandating that rail passengers and crews alike wear face masks to help slow the spread of the deadly virus. The Federal government told us in mid-August that the mask mandate has been extended until at least January 18th of next year. Amtrak is observing this rigorously, sometimes to the extent that Amtrak employees in stations or on-board are getting abused by irate passengers.
But even as agencies extended the mandate, those same officials acknowledged to us that this does NOT mean that rail travel is any less safe than other forms of travel. It’s just that the agencies are exercising their authority in the places where they hold that authority – and making recommendations in places where they lack authority.
Onboard Air Handling – Ventilation systems in Amtrak cars generally replace the entire volume of inside air between 12 and 15 times every hour. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), changing the air 15 times an hour removes 99% of all airborne contaminants within 18 minutes. The best-available science so far suggests that it takes about 50 minutes of completely unprotected exposure to the aerosolized virus to take on enough virus particles to produce illness. Moreover, as a member of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, in June I presented to my RSAC colleagues information about higher efficiency filters that could be used on a “drop-in” basis to make Amtrak’s already safe ventilation systems even safer. Amtrak eagerly followed up with suppliers and with the FRA immediately after that meeting.
Face Masks – Whether you like it or not, face masks work. Not only is wearing a mask while riding in coach a Federal requirement, it also makes medical sense. In an experiment by the CDC early this year, researchers found that surgical masks alone block roughly 56% of COVID-19 particles and cloth masks block about 51%. Doubling up the masks doubles your protection, so a cloth mask over a surgical mask blocked more than 85% of cough particles in a simulation. Masks help to protect you somewhat, but even more important they reduce the likelihood that you will infect others. The point of the mask is not necessarily to keep you isolated from viruses (although they do help in that regard), but instead to prevent any virus you may be harboring from spreading to other people. Amtrak is enforcing masks on-board trains and in stations, so if you’re worried about safe travel that enforcement should be part of your personal calculus.
Sleepers – Sleeping rooms, whether Roomette, Deluxe Bedroom, Family Bedroom or Handicap Room, are the ultimate in socially-distanced travel. Not only do the rooms offer a more sturdy physical barrier between you and your fellow passengers, but they also benefit from high rates of air replacement, circulation and filtering just as the coaches do. A note on masks here is important: Federal law makes no exceptions for being inside a sleeping room compared with more public parts of the train. But CDC recognizes the need for what it calls “flexible enforcement,” and no Amtrak staff will be pulling open your door demanding to see that you’re wearing a mask in the privacy of your own room. Just keep masked in common areas like diners, hallways, the Cafe Car and the like. And if you're in Coach, you must keep that mask on while you travel.
Technology and Apps – You can use the Amtrak smartphone app to book your travel, show your e-Ticket for boarding, check train status or see how crowded a particular train is...all without making physical contact. Push notifications to smartphones send boarding gate and track information to the phone, so passengers don’t need to cluster close together under departure boards in stations. Amtrak is also waiving change fees through January 4th of next year.
The sad and unnecessary reality is that poorly controlled and high-risk Covid is going to be with us for longer than any of us had hoped or expected. All the safety measures that continue to be put in place are driven by a daily procession of sobering statistics around the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and the recognition that even those who have been vaccinated can unwittingly infect others who may not be – children, for example, or those with immune-system conditions that prevent vaccination. This is why masks, maintaining separation from others, and getting vaccinated are such crucial tools in slowing the pandemic.
With very effective ventilation rates, mask policies, a requirement that employees be vaccinated and technology helping to minimize exposures, Amtrak is doing a lot to make rail travel safe. Nothing is 100 percent, but taking all of these steps together can multiply their effectiveness and make your travel as safe as it can be.