U.S., Texas; Post-pandemic, Amtrak and the A Train ask you: Where are you?

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; March 5, 2022

Here we are with the world in turmoil. Amtrak, we haven’t forgotten you or the other rail passenger providers. While we can’t expound about the world with any real authority, we can talk trains and that’s what we do here. Passengers are still showing up at Amtrak stations to ride its trains, but commuters are too slowly returning to riding the “local” trains in their neighborhoods.

Screenshot from Virtual RailFan Flagstaff, Arizona; February 17, 2022

In 1972 Amtrak was just a year old, and the Eagles released a new song, “Take It Easy.” One of the lines from that classic is, “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” We changed those lyrics to “Standing on a Platform in Flagstaff, Arizona.” What you see is our friend Andrew Selden waiting on a cold February night for Amtrak train No. 3, the Southwest Chief to take him overnight to Los Angeles Union Station as he started his journey through the west. Mr. Selden was not alone there that night. He is seen walking toward where his Sleeping car would be. On the other end of the platform the two Coach cars would be busy. Over 50 people, some with skis, would either get off, or get on for their overnight ride.

“My sleeper, car 331, was completely full out of Flagstaff,” Selden writes, “I’m in room A, next to the engines. This car is (Superliner II) number 33082, once named the Indiana.” That car was built in the mid-1990s and is still running! Let me speak loudly to Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner here: WHEN WILL YOU GET NEW CARS FOR THE LONG DISTANCE TRAINS IN THE WEST?

“Post-Pandemic” ridership and revenue passenger miles on Amtrak’s long distance trains have grown faster, much faster, than on the Northeast Corridor and the State supported trains. An FRA report in February said Amtrak total ridership was up 48% in the 4th Quarter. Congress is pouring 66 BILLIONS of dollars into Amtrak to help it sustain its service, and we are sure some of it goes into supporting existing trains even though Amtrak chose to (first) cut back to tri-weekly on all long distance trains, and more recently to five times a week.

As this is being written there’s a near breakdown of available cars, crews and locomotives, due to the shortsightedness of Amtrak management. While new workers are being hired, and they are doing good work out there on the rails, not enough of them are there. On just one day in February, four trains alone were “delayed departing” Chicago “because of mechanical issues.” On February 26 the Southwest Chief had a 17 hour “service disruption” at Las Animas, Colorado.  Let me speak loudly to Stephen Gardner again here: FIX THEM AND GET THEM RUNNING!

According to Evan Stair of the great “Friends of the Southwest Chief” Facebook page and other related pages, passengers are flocking to make reservations for train travel in the coming months. Will there be space to handle future demand? At the end of March will the long distance trains return to daily? No, just five of them will return to daily service. Will capacity be expanded so trains like No. 3/4 have more than two Sleeping cars and two Coaches to sell space in?

Andrew Selden wrote how the diminished capacity available through the past few months couldn’t possibly allow the Southwest Chief to ever break even. Was that “Sabotage” as Selden wrote? Let me speak loudly to Stephen Gardner again here: IF YOU DON’T INTEND TO DOWNGRADE AND/OR ELIMINATE THE 15 LONG DISTANCE TRAINS, SAY SO AND ACT LIKE IT!

Two A Trains meet a the Highland Village/Lake Lewisville, Texas station. Photo by Russ Jackson.

Across the country there are big worries about whether riders will return to commuter or local light rail trains. Above is the Denton County Transportation Agency’s “A Train,” which runs 21 miles between downtown Denton and its connection to the Dallas DART’s Green Line in Carollton. The photo shows two Stadler vehicles meeting at the mid point. Twice hourly and on memory schedules, these trains have been giving good service. As the late California advocate Dana Gabbard, wrote: “There are three rules of transit advocacy applicable to passenger rail: 1) There are no magic bullets, 2) Its main purpose is to move people, not solve pollution, social equity, congestion, etc., and 3) Transit is a means (mobility) to an end (the DESTINATION), not an end in itself.”

In the case of the A Train, its only destinations are two major universities in the city of Denton, and its connection to DART at the south end. My son-in-law and his friends ride to Dallas Mavericks basketball games but cannot use the A Train because of the few northbound connections after games, so they drive to the DART Green Line station. Pre-Pandemic the parking lot shown to the right in the photo was nearly full on weekdays. On the day this is written there were ten (10!) autos there. Why? The riders who chose the A Train before the Pandemic were mostly transferring to DART to reach their jobs, but now they stay home. Students must use a bus transfer to reach the universities. Let me speak loudly to the DCTA: THE A TRAIN DOESN’T “GO ANYWHERE,” SO EXPAND ITS DESTINATIONS SOMEHOW!

Across the country other train/transit provider agencies are showing painful progress in returning to a semblance of normal. As RailPAC’s Paul Dyson writes, “There are a lot of commuter trains running with few seats occupied and we are shoveling large amounts of money to agencies like Metrolink simply to keep operations going.” Minnesota’s Northstar is in trouble, New Mexico’s Railrunner has returned on a limited schedule but as a friend from Santa Fe explained, it runs too slow and does not stop close enough to where he needs to go.

In California, the Capitol Corridor reported ridership in January 2022, was up 126% vs 2021, but was still short of its Pre-Pandemic level. San Francisco’s Central Subway is near opening, and the California High Speed Rail construction is well under way. BART’s extension to San Jose may be further delayed. The San Diego Trolley’s extension to University Center is open.

Florida’s Tri-Rail is having the second best ridership recovery among commuter railroads, and Brightline is expanding. In Texas, DART’s Silver Line from Plano to DFW Airport is under construction. The Texas Central High Speed Dallas-Houston project is years away from construction. All this is to show that rail advocates have much to look forward to. Let me finish by speaking loudly to all of us: BE PATIENT, BUT WHEN YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO RIDE DO SO. KEEP UP THE ADVOCACY WHEREVER YOU ARE!  

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