COVID-19 reduces Amtrak service here, in another blow to the future of passenger rail

An Amtrak Conductor helps a passenger disembark the Empire Builder at Detroit Lakes Amtrak Station on the morning of August 4, 2020. In October, Amtrak plans to reduce service on all long-distance intercity service, including on the Empire Builder, to three days a week. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Kyle Rusness travels between St. Paul and Detroit Lakes to see family. Rusness is a chef who uses the Amtrak “Empire Builder” line because it works with his schedule. 

“It’s like a commute; I can sleep on the train and be ready for work in the morning,” he said on a train heading to the Twin Cities on a recent Tuesday morning. Rusness works at Afro Deli near Union Depot.   

He’s planning another trip to Detroit Lakes in October. But with Amtrak reducing service nationwide soon, Rusness isn’t sure what to do. Citing collapsing ridership due to COVID-19, Amtrak plans to reduce service on long-distance trains to save $150 million. This will include a sharp reduction for the Empire Builder, which goes between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, with stops in Detroit Lakes, Staples, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Red Wing and Winona. 

Thus begins another chapter in the tumultuous recent history of passenger rail service in the United States. By the 1960s, railroads were losing money and some even went bankrupt. They blamed their losses on declining passenger and freight revenue. To save passenger service, Congress created Amtrak. Even though Amtrak remains a vital service for many travelers and offers the potential to reduce air and highway traffic, it has struggled for decades — and now the pandemic has offered yet another brutal blow to its future viability. 

Among its myriad challenges, Amtrak is susceptible to freight delays. The amount of freight transported on railroads rebounded in the 1960s, and it’s steadily increased ever since. The freight railroads own most of the tracks Amtrak runs on, but a federal law allows Amtrak priority over freight nationwide. But this power, used just once, can only be enforced by the U.S. attorney general. In 2014, Amtrak increased the travel times for Empire Builder trains by up to three hours to account for delays associated with increased freight traffic due to the Bakken oil boom. Imagine if your commute increased by an hour every day so that oil-filled trucks could go ahead of you. That’s what happened to Amtrak customers. 

Amtrak’s rolling stock is also aging. Amtrak uses locomotives that date back to the 1990s, and double-decker cars — known as “Superliners” and used on the Empire Builder — date as far back as the 1970s. While Amtrak plans to take delivery of new locomotives next year, Amtrak hasn’t identified funding to replace the Superliners. 

Ridership on the Empire Builder in June 2020 decreased 33% from the previous year, in part because of the pandemic. Even so, the Empire Builder has shown potential to be a key Amtrak asset; it’s the busiest long-distance rail line and its ridership outpaced Via Rail Canada’s “Canadian” line operating between Vancouver and Toronto, for instance. 

Indeed, rail ridership is popular in countries that invest in it. China, which has a robust high-speed rail system, plans to nearly double its network in the next 15 years and logged 914 billion passenger miles at the end of 2019. Germany, which has an extensive electrified rail network and boasts the highest rail ridership in Europe, logged 62.3 billion passenger miles at the end of 2019. The United States, by contrast, logged just 6.5 billion passenger miles.

While other countries are investing in their rail infrastructure, Congress heavily subsidizes air and car travel, thanks in part to the powerful bipartisan lobbies of both. For decades a gas tax increase has stalled in Congress, even though it is currently insufficient to pay for necessary upkeep that is supposed to come out of the Highway Trust Fund. To date, Congress transferred $144 billion to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent. In other words, you’re paying to maintain our nation’s highways, regardless of how you get around.

And Congress continues to spend on highways, even though cars have proven bad for the climate, public health and race and income disparities. In 2015, the Republican-controlled Congress invested close to $42 billion on highways alone through the FAST Act. There’s also a history of subsidizing car buying, and not just electric cars. 

Same with air travel. In 2018, Congress allocated another $979 million over a six-year period for airlines that serve rural airports, which is on top of the $32 billion in grants — as well as tax-free fuel — that air carriers are receiving through the CARES act. In another air carrier bailout, Congress is allowing them to to suspend service to rural areas while still receiving a partial subsidy

By contrast, Amtrak’s National Network, which includes long-distance trains like the Empire Builder, received a combination of $6.47 billion from the CARES and FAST acts.  While ridership has steadily increased in recent years, the higher subsidy-to-passenger-mile ratio is because of increasing labor, maintenance and operating costs. 

Randal O’Toole, a transportation scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, said if Amtrak dies, no one would notice: “They’re not useful for people going from point A to point B,” he said. “They’re useful for people who want something comfortable and that offers great scenery.” O’Toole said that even though he enjoys passenger trains and traveled 11,000 miles on them in a recent calendar year, he can find no good reason to subsidize them. 

He pointed out that Amtrak received an operating subsidy from the states and federal government of 34 cents per passenger mile in 2017, whereas highways and air travel received about a penny per passenger mile.

“I think we should get rid of all transportation subsidies,” he said. “The benefits are users of transportation. The users of transportation should pay for their own transportation.”

A Democratic Congress after November might extend a lifeline to Amtrak, however. Influential Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would allow Amtrak to sue freight railroads that continue to delay Amtrak. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, introduced a bill that would establish a trust fund to subsidize Amtrak service

Last month, the House also passed bills for improving intercity freight and passenger rail service, but they’re unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate. 

Passengers wait to board the Empire Builder at Union Depot Station on the morning of August 4, 2020. Cuts to the Empire Builder are another blow to the future viability of passenger rail service. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Until Amtrak gets the funding it needs, it has no choice but to make cuts. Most recently, citing disinterest by millennials in sharing a meal with strangers in the dining car, Amtrak phased out onboard dining service on trains east of Chicago in favor of prepackaged meals. They’ve also retired a historic sightseeing car used exclusively for fall foliage excursions in upstate New York because it was too expensive to maintain. 

On August 11, Amtrak released guidelines on restoring long-distance service, including several high hurdles. The operation needs a cash infusion of at least $3.5 billion — $1.9 billion for long-distance service — in 2021. Advance bookings must be 90% of 2020 levels and ridership in Fall 2020 at 90% of 2021 projected ridership. And they want COVID-related hospitalizations to stabilize or decline. If these guidelines aren’t met, Amtrak will operate reduced service until at least mid-2022, unless they see “dramatic” improvement. 

Amtrak hasn’t released projected ridership levels for 2021. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said they haven’t decided what it means exactly for hospitalizations to stabilize or decline. “We haven’t reached that level of granularity yet. Do you have a suggestion?” 

Even when Amtrak is ready to restore service, they may face an uphill battle. They will need to re-negotiate access with “host railroads.” The process varies by host, Magliari said. “It varies by volume the host has passing over the tracks, and we are in regular contact with the host on a host of issues.” 

It’s possible that daily service — at least from St. Paul to Chicago — may be restored regardless of Amtrak’s guidelines. For the past several years, elected officials in southeastern Minnesota, as well as advocates with All Aboard Minnesota, have been working with Amtrak to schedule a second daily train to operate between the Twin Cities and Chicago. A 2015 Amtrak feasibility study, along with surveys conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Midwest Intercity Passenger Rail Commission, show that more people would ride given the extra option.

Service of a second train could begin in 2022. But before that happens, the state must secure $40 million in federal funds to improve track and signals along the corridor and provide $10 million in matching funds. It’s unclear in increasingly difficult budget times where lawmakers will get the state matching money. 

But if Congress doesn’t step in and save Amtrak like it saved Detroit in 2008-2009 and the airlines in 2001 and again this year, it’s possible that intercity passenger train service could come to a screeching halt, stranding Minnesotans who rely on it.

In a leaked memo to employees, Amtrak announced that come mid-October, Empire Builder trains heading west will only depart Chicago three days a week, with return trains coming east also cut to three days a week. 

On his way back from Detroit Lakes aboard the Empire Builder recently, Rusness said that his job allows him leeway, so he’ll plan around the reduced service. 

But others don’t have the same flexibility. Leone Mauszycki, a retired administrative specialist from Winona and an activist with All Aboard Minnesota, said trains can often be an alternative for people who can’t fly due to a health problem. She said a friend recently died of an upper respiratory condition after having an episode while traveling on an airplane. The friend flew despite being advised by a doctor not to. 

In light of the pandemic, airlines have also stopped flying to certain cities. Delta suspended service to Williston in June, leaving people trying to get there with Amtrak and driving as their only options. 

The Empire Builder serves Minnesota twice a day but at inconvenient times, departing Detroit Lakes, for instance, at 3:15 in the morning.

Still, it has its fans. Katie Jones, a Minneapolis sustainability consultant who takes the train to visit family in Indianapolis, said traveling by rail is a great way to watch the world go by. “A car or bus can’t beat sitting in an Amtrak observation car going through rural areas for eight hours.”  

Henry Pan
Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides. Follow on Twitter: @jhpan3.