As COVID-19 led to stay-at-home orders in multiple states, including Kansas, federally supported Amtrak passenger train routes like the Southwest Chief kept rolling. Day after day, night after night, the trains kept running.
And to individuals like Evan Stair, it remained the best way to travel — whether that travel be business or pleasure.
“I hate to fly, and it is not a fear of crashing,” Stair said. “I am a big guy. If you put me into a space that is 2˝ feet wide by 4 feet tall for an hour, I am finished for the day when I get to my destination with all the changes in altitude and cabin pressure.”
He needs room to spread out, and walk, which is what he finds on long distance routes operated by Amtrak. One long distance route — the Southwest Chief — serves Kansas with daily stops in Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
And, he said, there is a difference in air quality between airlines and passenger trains.
Despite travelers like Stair, this has been a difficult time for Amtrak. The federally supported railroad was primed to set records this year, but COVID-19 took that away.
“Ridership almost everywhere is down 90% from normal,” said Marc Magliari, Public Relations Manager of Amtrak. “It is only slightly better on trains like the Chief than it is on trains elsewhere. But whether it is 87 or 93, it’s still right around 90.”
Magliari said this came at a time when Amtrak was expecting to set ridership records and reduce its reliance on federal funds.
The railroad has scaled down the trains, reducing the number of coaches and changing food service.
“We are only offering essential service,” Magliari said.
Stair is also a rail advocate, working for more than a decade to stump for the Heartland Flyer project which would connect Newton and the Southwest Chief to Texas via Oklahoma.
He has noticed changes in service deliveries on the trains — everything from precautions for staff and passengers to how meals are delivered and eaten.
“You have to wear a mask to board the train. If you ride coach, you have to wear it to your seat. At your seat you can take your mask off,” Stair said. “If you ride sleeper, you have to wear your mask when you are out of your room.”
The dining cars have been closed — those meals, which are now microwave meals, are now delivered to sleeper car passengers. Coach passengers are served, as they always have been, by a café car. However, those meals cannot be eaten in the café, instead eaten in the passenger’s seat.
“They have capped the number of people who can be on the train at any one time,” Stair said. “... That is for social distancing.”
Those change, Magliari said, are not meant to be permanent.
“The change in food service is not meant to be a permanent change. The change in being cashless is not meant to be a permanent change. We had to find a way to distance our crews ... from customers,” Magliari said.
There has also been staff reductions — what the railroad calls “self help” steps. Management has taken voluntary pay cuts, and the company has begun offering incentives for voluntary retirements for other staff.
“Even then, depending on how many people opt for that, we believe as a railroad we have 20% fewer employees this fall and will need 20% fewer employees by this fall,” Magliari said. “... We need to be fiscally responsible. We need to acknowledge that fewer people need want to travel right now.”
It is unclear if travelers will come back or if the nation has fundamentally changed how it travels and for what. Without that knowledge, it is unclear what changes are permanent.
“We have looked at what we think will happen in 2021 and into 2022,” Magliari said. “Everything we have seen says that even getting half the ridership we had prior to COVID-19 would be a huge jump.”
That could mean that the smaller trains could be permanent — or that the number of times a train rolls through a given town could drop.
“It is quite likely that we are not going to have as many trains going as many places as many times anytime soon that we had at the beginning of this year,” Magliari said.
This year several state supported routes were suspended, and in Florida combination of track maintenance work and COVID-19 led to the consolidation of several state supported routes.
However, Stair believes that could mean service reductions to the federally supported long-distance trains like the Southwest Chief, changing the frequency of how often those trains run.
He points to a letter written by Amtrak CEO William Flynn to Congress as a part of the 2020 supplemental appropriation request that states the railroad intends to reduce service of long-distance trains through the pandemic regardless of federal appropriation.
“I interpret Amtrak’s claim of ‘reduced service’ as running the Southwest Chief on a less-than-daily basis,” Stair said. “This would be a long-term financial disaster for the Southwest Chief and the other 13 long-distance trains Amtrak operates across the nation that would be subject to the COVID-19 change.”
He said that means rather that stopping seven times a week, the Southwest Chief might stop three times a week. He does not expect Amtrak to make those kinds of changes until the beginning of the railroad’s next fiscal year, which is Oct. 1.
The future is unclear — and in the hands of future travelers.
“We want, very much, to welcome people back. ... But the customer will decide when they want to travel,” Magliari said. “It is our job to make it safe as possible. ... It is our job to tell them what to expect.”