U.S., Amtrak: Stephen Gardner’s 2022 summer of discontent; intentionally not operating trains in the busiest travel season

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 18, 2022

More word has come that Amtrak chief Stephen Gardner is choosing not to run some trains in the summer of 2022. Since summer is the busiest travel season for all modes of intercity/inter-regional common carriers, one has to wonder what the end game is for this new scheme.

Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s Pullman Sun Lounge, an exclusive feature of the postwar streamliner Silver Meteor. This publicity shot was made into a free postcard the railroad made available to passengers and others. Only one of these cars remains extant today, the Hollywood Beach, which is in private hands. The Sun Lounges, with oversized side windows and roof windows are considered the grandparents of the Superliner Sightseer Lounge cars. The Sun Lounges were developed as a single-level alternative to Pullman dome cars which operated on other trains which did not have to fit in the tunnels to and from New York Pennsylvania station and the tunnels to the south under Washington Union station.

The Silver Meteor, until 2022 in continual operation since February 1939 and historically one of the premier New York-Florida passenger trains is not currently in service due to alleged employee and equipment availability. It appears that in a coming announcement about Amtrak operating changes as of May 23rd, the Silver Meteor will again be sidelined, most likely until September 11th, at the end of the busy summer travel season. Some are openly speculating whether the Silver Meteor will ever be restored under the Stephen Gardner Amtrak regime.

In place of the Meteor, companion train the Silver Star has been carrying a longer consist and passenger load. But, the Star does not have as convenient of a schedule as the Meteor, making connections on the north end at New York Pennsylvania station difficult or impossible.

“But,” some wail, “the Silver Star and the Palmetto are still providing service to every station also provided by the Silver Meteor, so, therefore, service is adequate.”

The Silver Meteor 1961 timetable. Seaboard operated a full fleet of limited stop and local/mail/express trains. Today’s Amtrak Silver Meteor makes more stops (and, also operates mostly over the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad route of the Champion) than today’s Silver Meteor.

Well, no. Both the Meteor and Star have always been high performers both in terms of load factors and ridership. From the days Henry Flagler and Henry B. Plant invented modern Florida at the end of the 19th century business to Florida has remained brisk. The advent of Central Florida’s Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World and all of the supporting attractions starting in the early 1970s turned Florida into consistently the one of the world’s top vacation destinations, and despite Amtrak’s best efforts to shorten consists and overall reduce train service, Florida continues to flourish.

Keeping the Silver Meteor out of service makes little sense unless Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is rife in poor management incapable of retaining existing employees or attracting new employees.

On the issue of employee staffing, particularly for train and engine crews, before the pandemic Amtrak had plentiful employees for every job category, be it T&E or onboard services or station staffing, even with little or no extra board support.

But, in an unnecessary pandemic panic (Amtrak received every penny of federal financial assistance it begged for from Congress), Amtrak laid off operating employees and many of them as a result fled the company. Even though there has been adequate time to refill the employee ranks, apparently decisions are being made not by the dictates of employee availability, but the dictates of senior management cutting down on the number of long distance trains in service.

Real railroads, such as Norfolk Southern have taken positive steps to bring their T&E crew ranks back up to full availability. Norfolk Southern is offering a $5,000 signing bonus for new conductors, plus all of the normal benefits. If it works for one, most likely it will work for others, such as Amtrak.

Remember, simply eliminating the Silver Meteor does not mean any particular route is being eliminated because all station stops are covered by other trains – the Silver Star and Palmetto – but duplicate train service is being eliminated. Even though there is a belief on the Northeast Corridor that multiple departures are necessary, for the country cousins in the hinterlands outside of the NEC apparently multiple departures are unnecessary and unwanted.

It appears Stephen Gardner and his management team also don’t have much regard for the South overall. When the other Western long distance trains return to daily service in May, the City of New Orleans and the Crescent will inexplicably both remain five day a week services.

In all of this it is notable the Transportation Security Agency reports that passenger levels at airports are reaching and in some cases equaling pre-pandemic boarding levels at airports all over the country.

One has to ponder why the skies are crowded again with air travelers, the cruise lines are reawakening, hotels and resorts are reporting upticks, but, alas, Stephen Gardner and Amtrak seem to be dragging their feet joining the cavalcade of returning travel prosperity.

On this day when a Florida federal judge has mercifully struck down the federal mask mandate for common carrier passengers, when it comes to Amtrak’s slow reawakening, is it intentional, a result of poor management, a result of bad guessing, or simply incompetence?

Here is the full rundown – as of now – of the known changes coming May 23rd:

Service Plan changes, effective May 23, 2022 except where otherwise noted:

Long Distance/Inter-Regional Trains

Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, and Lake Shore Limited are restored to daily service.

• Current 5X weekly schedules on the Crescent and City of New Orleans are extended through September 11th.

Silver Meteor suspension is extended through September 11th.

– The above changes mean that all inter-regional routes will be back to full service on May 23rd except the Crescent, City of New Orleans, and Silver Meteor.

Capitol Limited-Texas Eagle equipment run through is discontinued May 2nd.

• Consists are adjusted on several routes, reflecting lower expected car availability and OBS workforce limitations.

• On the Cardinal, excess Combination Sleeper Roomettes not occupied by OBS crew will be made available for revenue sale.

Northeast Corridor Trains and Thruway Bus Service

• Expanded weekday Acela service, adding one start at each of Boston, New York Penn, and Washington. This schedule is 27% increase in weekday Acela train miles relative to the current schedule.

Northeast Regional weekend (Thursday-Sunday) consist expansions, including opening the existing 6th coach on several trains and targeted additions of a 7th coach.

• Sunday Train 123 (departing New York Penn at 9 PM) is suspended. Sunday Train 139 is extended to Washington, departing New York Penn at 10 PM. This change saves a New York turn and makes the last train of the evening a through train.

• New Amtrak-branded Thruway bus service begins between Philadelphia and Reading, Pennsylvania effective May 9th.

State Supported/Regional Trains

• Trains 391 and 392 (Illinois’s Saluki and Illini) suspension is extended through September 11th.

Lincoln-River Runner through service established. Existing Trains 303/313 and 314/304 will become Trains 318 and 319 operating Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City, with minor schedule adjustments between St. Louis and Kansas City.

• The following additional service changes also are on the radar for later in the Summer period. Subsequent updates will be issued as these plans are finalized.

– Restoration of the Maple Leaf to Toronto (tentative June 27th).
– Additional Surfliner frequencies (May or June).
– Virginia: Second frequencies to Roanoke, Norfolk, and Newport News (July).
Ethan Allen to Burlington (July 22nd).
Berkshire Flyer (July 8th).
Adirondack (date to be determined).
– Second River Runner frequency (date to be determined).

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