Amtrak, the heavily-subsidized enemy of the motorcoach industry, is now outdoing its airline industry colleagues. But as a quasi-government monopoly, the taxpayers will effectively cover the damages if problems develop. That Amtrak may not even belong in most parts of the country is only a footnote.
The latest development was disclosed formidably in the October 14, 2020 issue of Mass Transit, re-characterizing a story from The Times Union, in Albany, New York. Amtrak’s activities were actually presented as great news: Mass Transit titled its article: “NY: With cutbacks, some Amtrak trains now sold out.” The fact that this feat was accomplished by eliminating trains and reducing ticket prices for those which remained is only part of the story. It was also less of the story, and even less of the truth and its implications.
The irony is that Amtrak was actually “on the verge of posting its ﬁrst operating proﬁt” just before the pandemic struck. When COVID-19 struck, boardings sank by 95 percent. So it is hard to understand how “social distancing . . . also reduced the availability of seats.” Regardless, Amtrak made up for only every twentieth seat being occupied by quickly ﬁlling all of them. Equally mysteri- ous is how this nearly break-even, pre-COVID-19 monopoly is also managing to ask the taxpayers “for additional support after exhausting the proceeds of an earlier stimulus package.” This statement was curiously qualiﬁed by the phrase, “so far without success.”
Expect no clues from Amtrak. According to its President, “"By combining our enhanced safety efforts with the guidance of our full-time medical director and public health and safety teams who are working in partnership with experts from the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, we want to ensure our customers feel a renewed sense of conﬁdence when they travel with us this holiday season." Time to excise my Master’s Degree from GWU from my resume. Otherwise, at least Amtrak did not pin its justiﬁcation on medial experts. Another Amtrak spokesper- son clariﬁed the railroad’s success with a simple math-level explanation, stating that, “the reduction in frequencies likely created the sold out situation.” Well, “D’uh.” As if Amtrak was not already increas- ing passenger risk at a time when COVID-19 infections were spiking in nearly 40 states, A spokesper- son offered that, “We are using this ridership data to determine future consist planning for the upcom- ing holiday periods as well as early 2020.” He further explained that the railroad is moving cautiously to conserve cash, noting that, “Adding equipment adds costs and we are conserving funds.” Well, “D’uh redux.”
The Old Airlines Snookeroo
With no evidence to really deprive Amtrak of its creativity, consolidating service is an old airline trick, about which I have written before in NATIONAl BUS TRADER (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2: The Nature of Modern Travel,” October, 2019). Faced with three ﬂights two-thirds full, U.S. airlines have, for decades, taken one of these three planes out of service and re-assigned its passengers to the other two ﬂights – stranding conﬁrmed passengers for hours or days.
When COVID-19 struck, after the airlines received their ﬁrst stimulus bonanza (months before ﬂight attendants even began wearing masks), they doubled-down on COVID-19 by, once again, elim- inating ﬂights and consolidating passengers into those ﬂights they retained. Recently induced onto one ﬂight by an extra charge which promised me the seat of my choice, I found out the day before that I had been assigned to one. Upon boarding, I found the entire rear of the plane packed (seat selection by robot) with the entire front of the plane empty. Threatening to ground the plane with a single phone call, I was instantly granted permission to sit up front. On my return ﬂight, the entire passenger com- partment was packed, with few middle seats vacant.
In its efforts to possibly surpass its near-proﬁt status, Amtrak’s sleight-of-hand was described by noting that, “Amtrak's move this month to cut train frequencies, and costs, in the wake of the pan- demic has left accommodations on some long-distance trains sold out.” “D’uh” yet again. Betting with taxpayers’ money, of course Amtrak achieved this health threat effortlessly.
Of course, Amtrak has not yet exhausted its unchecked bag of tricks:
- Those passengers who toss baby carriages and bicycles in the wheelchair securement areas could pay extra for the space. Then some of it could be used by wheelchair users induced to ride at half price by the ADA – if Amtrak complied with its regulations.
- Parents could be allowed to ride with their children on their laps, at perhaps ¼ the fares per child
- Amtrak could install horizonal stanchions, and increase the loads, the proﬁts and the COVID. Often trains in the northeast corridor are packed for only short segments. (I myself have done this occasionally, without any stanchions, especially during the holiday season Amtrak appears to be cov- eting.)li>
- For its proﬁts to really soar, Amtrak could pull out most of its branch lines in the boondocks and turn them over to motorcoaches, which would require a tiny fraction of the subsidies to operate, and greatly improve coverage. Of course, this is a naive dream in a nation whose political leaders crave a nationwide passenger rail system.
Otherwise, overstuﬃng the trains is already a reality, and the direction in which the railroad is clearly headed. There is no reason such a practice cannot continue or expand if and when COVID-19 ever disappears from the U.S. landscape. In the meantime, that is clearly not Amtrak’s problem or responsibility. As an interstate provider operating across the country, Amtrak is our most effective super-spreader. There should at least be some kind of prize for accelerating our much-heralded herd immunity – perhaps more stimulus money. Otherwise, as Amtrak is an intercity creature, supported and governed by national politics and regulations, no enlightened governor can stop it.
Social Distancing and Social Concern
It is worth mentioning that, over the past several decades, the motorcoach industry has increased its ﬂeet’s seating capacity by lengthening its vehicles. In fact, since November of 2016, all new motorcoaches have been required to have three-point seat belts installed, providing protection within closely-spaced seats to those not wearing their lap-and-shoulder belts. No commercial aircraft contains such a seating system.
For decades, Amtrak services were heavily subsidized – mostly to cover the cost of sparsely used service where it did not belong. Now that Amtrak was almost breaking even before COVID-19 broke out, it is not only not making a proﬁt because the railroad has lowered its fares substantially. So one can only wonder how giving Amtrak another $2.4B under the Heroes Act (passed by the House on October 1, 2020) could possibly be justiﬁed. What would the railroad do with all this money? Add more trains at reduced fares to widen its spread of the Pandemic? Reduce fares even further? After two decades of trying to break through robot “Julie,” I doubt Amtrak is planning to spend this money actu- ally helping would-be customers: Trains are sold out even despite Julie. Eschewing Julie’s charm, most travelers book seats online.
Safety and Liability
With the notion of “herd immunity” recently bandied about before the election – eliminating the virus without any planning is not exactly panning out – it is not hard to perceive of Amtrak’s service as a component of such a strategy (if there had actually been a strategy). If there had been a strategy, its only conceivable goal could have been to eliminate subsidies. Of course, as noted, Amtrak was “on the verge of” completely eliminating subsidies before the pandemic struck, even while lacing the most desolate parts of the country with service that cost upwards of hundreds of dollars per passenger trip.
In a July 2013 study of the comparison of motorcoach trips versus Amtrak trips (Supporting Passenger Mobility and Choice by Breaking Modal Stovepipes, M.J. Bradley & Associates), eighteen of 20 Amtrak lines examined revealed subsidies per passenger trip between $21.93 and $289.56. This same study found that the savings by providing the full range of trips examined by bus or coach com- pared to Amtrak ranged from $17.03 to $422.39 per passenger trip.
In stating such realities, I am providing plaintiffs’ attorneys representing COVID-19 deaths that can be traced to the victims’ Amtrak rides with one of the greatest closing arguments of all time: It is one thing to sacriﬁce countless lives to create excess proﬁts for an otherwise subsidized quasi-public agency. It is another to do so where those lives could have been preserved for a fraction of the costs, albeit with somewhat longer ride times.
Say what one might about attorneys, the sharpest and hardest working are highly motivated when they smell blood. A COVID-19 victim of Amtrak’s operations will help shape a lawsuit to resem- ble a small tank full of sharks not fed for weeks when suddenly one tosses in a pail of blood.
The history of public transportation in the United States has witnessed a spectrum from hero- ism to betrayal. Residing about 1500 feet from the North Trade Tower on September 11, 2001, I watched NYCTA drivers drop off rescue workers hundreds of feet away from the huge dust ball that lower Manhattan had quickly become – when the notion of wearing an N-95 mask was two decades away, and many working “on the pile” could barely breathe. In the past several months, as COVID-19 quick- ly killed 33,000 New York City residents and workers, scores or hundreds of these same essential work- ers died after ferrying fellow essential workers to and from their jobs throughout the NYC metropolitan area. For a perceptive glimpse, a recent study by NYU’s School of Global Health found that 24 per- cent of the NYCTA’s workers had contacted COVID-19, noting that 40 percent had pre-existing condi- tions (think: Obstructive Sleep Apnea). Understandably – perhaps to retain its work force – the NYCTA claimed that this “study” was merely a “poll,” and that only seven percent of its 50,219 employees had actually contracted COVID-19.
We are now experiencing the opposite end of the spectrum. In last month’s installment in NATIONAl BUS TRADER (“COVID-19 Shenanigans and liability, Part 1: Wheelchair and Passenger Securement” (November, 2020) and this installment, we are witnessing the worst that public trans- portation can be.
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NATIONAL BUS TRADER, Inc. or its staff and management.