Updated August 28, 2020 - TRA Newswire -
Ridership on intercity long-distance services is edging back up despite the pandemic while at the same time Amtrak said it will cut back cross-country trains by some 60% in October
Ridership numbers on Amtrak's high-valued Northeast Corridor trains lag far behind long-distance lines, while Amtrak continues to run frequent service between Washington and Boston
State-supported trains have had a slow recovery in ridership since April, still better than the NEC
DC-based Rail Passengers President and CEO Jim Mathews put it in perspective when he said "one thing that the Coronavirus pandemic has revealed is just how essential America’s long-distance intercity passenger routes really are." Mathews said "powered by essential journeys, the so-called 'money-losing long-distance routes' have contributed the largest single share of Amtrak’s revenues in every month this year since the pandemic began in March."
During the pandemic period since March, the National Network’s routes have contributed 45% of Amtrak's revenues, compared with 21% a year ago during those same five months.
The latest Amtrak ridership statistics show that its national network trains (long distance) carried 175,278 passengers in July while the Northeast Corridor, between Washington-New York-Boston showed considerably fewer riders at 138,326. Long distance lines recovered from being 88% off in ridership in April to 62% off in July. Northeast Corridor ridership, down 98% in April was still down a whopping 87% in July. State-supported trains did not fare much better than the Northeast Corridor and were down 83% in ridership in July.
When the pandemic hit in March ridership took a massive hit, slowly recovering over the past 5 months. However, with the statistics showing an upward trend in ridership on national network trains like the Texas Eagle, some are questioning Amtrak's methodology in its October plan to cut back long-distance trains from daily to tri-weekly. For instance, Friday, August 28 through Monday, August 31 Amtrak.com is showing that the Texas Eagle service is showing 60 to 90% of seats booked between Dallas, Chicago and intermediate stops, depending on the travel day.
Rail Passengers Association (RPA) notes that throughout the pandemic the intercity routes have demonstrated the degree to which they remain "essential" transportation. Ridership has been holding up more strongly on these routes than in the rest of the system, underscoring how vital these trains are for “Flyover Country” where the options are fewer and less appealing. A look at Amtrak’s revenues and ridership since the pandemic first clobbered the U.S. transportation system tells an interesting tale.
RPA's Mathews indicated since March, NEC revenues are down 90% compared with a 64% decline for the National Network. As for ridership, it plummeted in the NEC and hasn't really recovered. In all of calendar 2020, NEC ridership is down 66%, and during the pandemic period ridership is down 88%. By contrast, the National Network's ridership is only down 53% in 2020, and 68% during the pandemic period.
For calendar 2020 through the close of July, Amtrak's overall revenues are down 62%, a figure that would be much worse except that all three business lines showed strong gains in January and February which helped to cushion the pandemic’s blow. Since the pandemic began, Amtrak’s revenues are down 83% compared with the like period of 2019. Between March and July of 2019, Amtrak had pulled in about a billion dollars in ticket revenues; this year, between March and July total revenues came in at only $177 million.
Mathews notes that that there have been frequency reductions on state-supported and NEC routes that so far have not been duplicated on the long-distance routes, telegraphing that we can expect intercity routes’ performance to slump along with the rest of the system after the three-times weekly service model rolls out on October 1. "It’s hard not to wonder whether that’s the point? A new twist on “flattening the curve”?, asks Mathews.