Mike Weinman of PTSI – our US rail industry expert based in New York– tells IRCG Espresso editor Roger Williams about the current situation …
RW: So Mike, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the USA particularly hard – what’s been the effect on the railways?
MW: “Currently, Amtrak is operating much of its network, but with a reduced service in the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington. Overall, passenger numbers (or ‘Ridership’ as we call it State-side) are down about 80%.
While long-distance train ridership is only down about 50% – less than the NEC trains – it is still a significant fall. The drop is lower because these iconic trains, especially those with private-room sleeping cars, are still really popular.
They are safer than being conveyed in crowded airplanes too – something that is clearly not lost on your European rail industry as it conversely moves to increase night trains.
Worryingly though, based on past experience of downturns, it is expected that the move in the USA to three days a week on all long distance trains (except Auto-Train) from 1 October, will reduce ridership and revenue far more than cost.”
RW: We all know that quality on-board service plays a key role in attracting new customers to the railway and keeping the regular travellers happy – is it still seen like that in the States?
MW: “Food service on the North East Corridor trains is unchanged in terms of menus, but passengers cannot eat in the cafe car – food must be taken back to their seat. Most customers understand this is due to Covid restrictions but some of course don’t agree.
Our long-distance railways have undergone significant change during the last year or so and Covid has coincided with, and some may say accelerated, a move away from the more traditional style on-board hospitality such as restaurant cars, so enjoyed by many generations of travellers.
Instead, a lower quality pre-prepared catering offer and removal of some iconic long-distance trains in the USA and Canada, has led to a lot of public debate. Passenger advocates and politicians alike have bemoaned the changes, but it is not just about catering alone.
As you say, providing great hospitality is also about promoting the overall rail travel experience, especially to leisure customers. The environmental and economic benefits of successful long-distance passenger rail compared to other forms of travel, such as going by car, are otherwise lost.”
RW: What’s the future hold?
MW: “Going forward, Amtrak is running all long-distance trains (except the Auto-Train between Washington and Florida) three days per week. First Class (sleeping car) passengers have already seen the elimination of dining cars, with their all food being pre-packaged, re-heated on board, and distributed in packages. This has increased packaging waste and reduced quality in one fell swoop – so much for the environment I hear you say!
In Canada, VIA Rail has eliminated both of its long distance trains (The Canadian, Toronto – Vancouver, and The Ocean, Montreal – Halifax) until at least early 2021. However, Corridor trains are slowly coming back into service, which is positive.
Sadly, the Rocky Mountaineer, the private premium tour train service in Western Canada, has shut down completely and will be hard-pressed to return. Most of their employees have been laid off and previously expected expansion plans are inevitably now off the table.
Two commuter rail services (Metrolink in Los Angeles and CT Rail in Connecticut), which were considering introducing on-train bar and snack services, have placed these plans into the long term future, as ridership is still quite low.
Special train services, such as Boston to Cape Cod which offered on train catering, did not run this past summer, due to the restrictions of coronavirus but hopefully will return in 2021.
The fact remains that you can’t expect to have well-frequented trains with the length of journey time and distances involved in the USA and Canada, without having decent on-board catering. Customers will just not be attracted to travel.
On the upside, a new train fleet is due on the NEC Acela service with the first two Alstom trains now on test – one in the national test centre in Colorado and one on the Northeast Corridor. Elsewhere, new high-speed lines are being planned for Texas, California, and Florida. So, while in the short term we seem to have gone backwards, in the longer term I am confident that the benefits of great on-board service will win through and improvements and investment will follow to get the rail catering industry and its customers back on track.”