Amtrak offers discounts, but short consists limit ridership

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The Princeton, Ill., station as seen from the rear of the Southwest Chief in 2016. The stop is in the train’s sell-out zone between Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Beginning today and available through Thursday, March 29, Amtrak is increasing the discount on its most restrictive “saver” advance purchase fares from 20 percent to 33 percent in a “National Spring Sale Campaign.”

The deeper discount, available exclusively on, is good for coach travel beginning Sunday, April 15, through Thursday, June 21. Although there are no blackout dates, the fares are capacity-controlled; they will not be available on every day or train, cannot be upgraded later to business class or sleeping-car travel, and are “non-refundable.” In Amtrak parlance, this means a trip can be switched or cancelled, but the original funds are subject to a 25 percent cancellation fee.

The deeper discounts are a good deal for passengers who know they are going to travel on a certain date. However, on many national routes Amtrak is turning away short-term business by failing to provide enough coach capacity. This stems from a cost-saving measure dubiously called “right-sizing,” reducing consists in off-peak periods without adequately monitoring the adverse affect on revenue.

On many routes in March, the lack of equipment has meant travelers can’t use Amtrak on the day they want to go. A case in point is the Southwest Chief. On March 8, for example, the eastbound Chief was sold out into Chicago for 7 of the next 10 days. A Trains News Wire examination of the sell-out point —the city beyond which passengers could not book space —  revealed that the sell-outs kicked in on the train from Los Angeles at stations between La Plata, Mo., and Naperville, Ill., depending upon the trip. An extra coach would have mitigated the situation for travelers who wanted to go to Chicago or beyond on those dates.

While high demand in the week leading up to Easter is understandable, eastbound train No. 4 is sold out in coach into Chicago as of today for five consecutive days: Thursday, March 29 through Monday, April 2. The sell-out points on those dates range from Kansas City, Mo., to Mendota, Ill., depending upon the day.

Under Amtrak’s spring sale, a passenger riding from Dodge City, Kan., beginning April 15 would pay $77, rather than $92 the day before, or beginning June 22. This compares with a fare this week of $147 on Tuesday and Wednesday; then no coach seats are available until Tuesday, April 3, when the price is pegged at $115.

Amtrak has no way of knowing how much business it is turning away, so if seats aren’t available, the company doesn’t know how much money it is leaving on the table or driving to other modes. Maybe it’s time to come up with revenue-generating strategy that involves more than making a big deal about simply dropping fares.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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