Analysis: Amtrak triweeklies, with smaller consists, see sellouts, high fares

'California Zephyr' shows how capacity reductions can impact revenue
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The westbound California Zephyr leaves Chicago on Oct. 5, 2020, the first day of triweekly operation. The consist, working back from the two P42 locomotives: Two full sleeping cars, dining car, Sightseer Lounge, baggage coach, fully accessible coach. Dropping the train’s transition dorm and baggage car has reduced its revenue-producing ability.
Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — Amtrak is experiencing near-capacity or sellout ridership on long-distance trains as it begins its shift to triweekly operation, but says it has no plans to adjust train size to increase available inventory until just before the Thanksgiving holidays.

This cost-focused strategy of reducing consists and furloughing the personnel to man them limits possible revenue growth and the ability of prospective passengers to book travel on what has been the company’s strongest business segment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Trains News Wire analysis of October and November departures on the four routes that began triweekly operation this week shows little or no coach and sleeping-car availability on many dates. In an emailed statement to Trains News Wire, an Amtrak spokesman attributes “near-term sellouts to re-accommodation of existing reservations. We are using this ridership data to determine future consist planning for the upcoming holiday periods as well as early 2021.”

The Zephyr example
The California Zephyr provides an example. Anyone trying to book a westbound trip beyond Denver currently can’t buy a coach seat on the four trains leaving Chicago between Oct.10 and Oct. 17. Two of those dates have sold out since last weekend.

While cancellations do occur, as of Wednesday no sleeping accommodations were available on Oct. 12, 14, 17, 19, and 24. For the six remaining October dates, as of earlier this week, Chicago-Emeryville, Calif., roomette prices range from $563 to $688 to $1052. Each price was available on two of the six days. The same fare levels prevailed on all November dates, with one sell-out so far.

Asked about adding cars, since equipment is available, the company statement says, “Operational logistics and cost management prevent us from making one-off consist changes based on niche cases of sellout situations. … As you know, adding equipment adds costs and we are conserving funds. Our existing long-distance consists represent our fall plan that is in effect now through the eve of Thanksgiving.”

Shortly after Amtrak announced its intention to reduce most long-distance trains to triweekly operation, CEO William Flynn told the Washington Post, “These reductions will go into effect in October, which is right at the time that the long-distance network other than Auto Train, and one or two other trains perhaps, goes into its lowest level of ridership."

Amtrak's app provides the news about Zephyr availability for Oct. 14.
Bob Johnston

But in 2019, the Zephyr generated $4 million in revenue in October, just 18% less than the $4.9 million the previous month. Reflecting the pandemic, its July 2020 revenues were $2.2 million, a 62% reduction. That was about the same rate of decrease as long-distance trains as a whole, while state-supported corridor service dropped 82% and Northeast Corridor revenue fell almost 92%.

While Amtrak added frequencies for Northeast Regional (off 88.6% in July) and Acela (down 95.8%), it made no plans to protect revenue on the decreased number of long-distance trains by increasing capacity to accommodate passengers displaced from trains that had been cancelled, or others seeking to book reservations. Instead, revenue loss was exacerbated by reducing train consists, even as coach capacity was limited to 50% of available seats.

A smaller consist
The Zephyr is now running without the baggage car and the transition sleeping car it had previously. Without the baggage car, package express service and its revenue was eliminated as of Oct. 1; removing the transition sleeper means the loss of up to eight roomettes for sale.

Not running these cars does save incremental fuel costs as well as the corporate overhead allocated costs assigned under the Amtrak Performance Tracking accounting system. But those projected expense reductions become illusory once potential revenue losses are factored in. The “savings” fail to account for the cost of turning away business — either through high prices or outright sellout conditions.

At least three onboard service crew members who normally have accommodations in the transition sleeper now occupy sleeping-car space no longer available for sale — at a time when, because of pandemic considerations, more passengers are opting for private rooms, even for daytime trips.

Without a baggage car, one of the Zephyr’s two Superliner coaches is a coach-baggage, with fewer seats.This reduced capacity is significant because virtually every Amtrak route has a “choke point” where patronage usually peaks; limited capacity on that segment affects availability for trips on either side of it. For most long-distance trains, this occurs near originating or terminating stations, but the Zephyr’s busiest section is mid-route between Denver and Grand Junction, Colo. Passengers might pay $55 in coach to ride between the two cities, but in doing so, their seats become unavailable for sales that could be worth three times as much.

The eastbound Capitol Limited, right, pauses at Pittsburgh in October 2014. Passengers can make connections there with the Pennsylvanian, at left, for Philadelphia or New York. The Capitol is another long-distance train showing limited ticket availability as it switches to triweekly operation.

Bob Johnston

Capacity issues elsewhere
The Zephyr is not alone in experiencing sellouts. The Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited is sold out in coach eastbound from the Windy City until Oct. 26, has no bedrooms between Oct. 12 and Nov. 5, and only has roomettes available on three departures during the same period. Its busiest section is between Chicago and Cleveland, a de facto Amtrak corridor that Indiana and Ohio have shown no interest in supporting with additional service.

The New York-New Orleans Crescent, operating with single-level Amfleet II coaches and Viewliner sleeping cars, has often sold out in coach from New York and Atlanta close to departure over the summer. All southbound sleeping car space is currently unavailable on at least six October dates, but the first bedroom doesn’t open up until Oct. 25.      

The fourth route beginning triweekly operation this week, the City of New Orleans, has been cancelled until next Sunday (northbound) and Monday (southbound) as a result of Hurricane Delta. However, this summer, the coach segment sold out on many occasions between Chicago and Carbondale, Ill., where the train provided an early morning Chicago arrival and post-dinner departure to augment Illinois-sponsored Illini-Saluki corridor trains. Because the state decided to drop one of those two round-trips during the pandemic, passengers can now only use the City alternative on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

Amtrak says ridership this fall, and advance booking trends beginning in January, will dictate when, or if, these trains resume daily service some time in 2021. But with triweekly service coupled with constricted capacity’s effect on availability and pricing short-circuiting demand, such data can’t accurately predict such an outcome.

Although Amtrak has said its pandemic plans appear to be locked in for the next two months, spokesman Marc Magliari tells Trains News Wire that an “ongoing team” reviews decisions to adjust the consist and pricing of individual trains, to assess the tradeoff between foregone revenue and increased costs.

“If there is a need to make changes, we will make them,” he says.

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