Analysis: Travelers find no roadmap for Amtrak switch to triweekly trains

Website, pricing policies form obstacles to booking trips under reduced schedules
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A screenshot of Amtrak's website shows the error message users receive when trying to book a trip with a segment including a day a train doesn't operate.

CHICAGO — Two weeks before Amtrak begins its first cuts changing daily long-distance service to triweekly, the passenger carrier’s website still offers little help to prospective travelers who attempt to book a trip on a day when service will no longer be available, other than an error message: “At least one portion of your trip is unavailable. Please try a different day and time.”

The challenge to those receiving that message is learning which day and time will work.

Finding a schedule

On Monday, Sept. 20, anyone looking into taking a trip by visiting the home page found clickable buttons touting enhanced cleaning protocols; “Special fares on Acela (Service is back. No change fees through August 31, 2020);” a $100 statement credit for an Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card (for a limited time only); “Road trip with your car on Auto Train;” Amtrak Guest Rewards updates; and a Kid’s Activity center.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, some of those links were swapped out in favor of “State Quarantine Status;” “Travel in a private room,” a visual explanation of Amtrak’s various sleeping car accommodations; and a button labeled, “Save up to 20%. No change fees” that ends with, “See where the train can take you,” with a list of routes.

Yet there is no easy way to find information where Amtrak trains go and when they leave.

Passengers line up to board the northbound Silver Meteor at Orlando in January 2017.
Bob Johnston

With some navigation, printable schedules can be accessed through the “Destinations” tab at the top of the home page or in the “Frequently Asked Questions” list. There are links to long-distance train schedules if you know how to look for them by train name. But the schedules shown have not been updated to reflect upcoming triweekly departures, as in the Texas Eagle example available here.

There is a “schedules” tab at the top of the home page that asks the prospective traveler to input their originating station, destination, and the date they plan on leaving. If a same-day connection isn’t available on the selected day, it will seek the next available day that a continuous trip can be made.

An example: Orlando-El Paso

If someone wants to go from Orlando, Fla., to El Paso, Tex.., on Thursday, Sept. 24, the date that comes up is Sunday Sept. 27, because that’s the first day the Silver Meteor leaves Florida instead of the Silver Star, which arrives too late to allow passengers to connect with the Capitol Limited at Washington.

Note that this information is only obtainable on the “schedules” tab. Anyone trying to actually book a ticket on Thursday won’t be given the next departure day, only the “Please try another date and time” advisory.

Of course, if a traveler knew that the Meteor leaves Florida Sunday through Wednesday, they could request a trip beginning a day earlier, and the reservation system would provide a four-train itinerary involving a connection at Chicago with the Texas Eagle and then the Sunset Limited at San Antonio, Texas.

So let’s look at that trip for Sept. 23: The coach fare quoted on Sept. 22 is $663, with only two seats available at that price. Doing the four-night journey in roomettes comes in at $1,102; only one room is shown to be available at that cost.

What drives those high fares? Limited capacity and a passenger-unfriendly yield management system that prices the whole trip based on the degree of sell-out for the busiest segment.

Coach capacity is listed at 45% for the entire trip, but this figure assumes half of each coach is not for sale. When Amtrak started advising passengers of how full each train is in August, it would have shown a 90% capacity, but that was recently changed — perhaps in anticipation that the company might soon raise the current 50% limit.    

A Trains News Wire examination of each segment as of Sept. 22 showed the following levels of capacity and pricing:

The Sunset Limited pauses at El Paso, Texas, in 2016
Bob Johnston

Buying each coach portion individually would cost $359 to $521, not $663, depending on whether a traveler was willing to spend 5 hours sitting in the San Antonio station waiting for the Sunset to arrive from New Orleans. Passengers were not shown the cheaper alternative on the Orlando-El Paso itinerary, but their fare appears to have been unfairly pushed even higher over the whole journey because the through Chicago-Los Angeles coach happened to be at 45% capacity from Chicago to Cleburne, Tex., on this trip.

Though the through roomette fare saves $89 over the cheapest combination, it is unclear where the “only one left” segment is. The sleeper fare comparison shows that one night on the Meteor is more expensive than two on the Eagle and Sunset. It illustrates the fact that Amtrak strategists have shown little willingness to test whether lower price points on the eastern Viewliner-single level trains can increase revenue, now that the company has at least 15 Viewliner II sleeping cars on the property but none in revenue service.

You can’t get there

This example shows how the sellout level on one segment of a multi-train journey can alter pricing; if a segment is sold out, then travelers must find another way to get there. Ramifications for upcoming holiday are clear: reservations need to be booked early.

Unfortunately for anyone making a trip from any city on the Meteor and Capitol Limited route to any Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited destination, the last day that can happen without an overnight stay in Chicago will be Wednesday, Sept. 30, because the Capitol Limited begins its westbound Sunday-Wednesday-Friday departures on Monday, Oct. 5. This means it will never arrive in Chicago on Tuesdays, Fridays, or Sundays, the days that the Eagle departs the Windy City.

Riding Amtrak across America’s vibrant Sunbelt from Orlando to El Paso without changing trains was possible between April 1993 and August 2005, but the Sunset Limited is still “suspended” east of New Orleans, as it has been since Amtrak’s management and overseers declined to restart the service after Hurricane Katrina. Now many more options will disappear — at least temporarily.

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