Amtrak sees only scattered Thanksgiving sellouts

Historically busy period has different look in pandemic; some long-distance trains are full, although many did not run on key travel days
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The westbound Southwest Chief overtakes a Metra BNSF train at Hinsdale, Ill., on Nov. 28, 2020. With travel discouraged because of the pandemic, Amtrak experienced only scattered sellouts during the holiday travel period, normally its busiest of the year.
TRAINS: David Lassen

CHICAGO — It’s no surprise that what has become the busiest and most lucrative travel day for Amtrak, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, looks completely different in 2020.

In past years, Amtrak has leased commuter authority trainsets and added trips on its Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor, while Midwest and Pacific Northwest state partners figured out how to schedule additional round trips with existing equipment and operating crews. Coaches were also added to some long-distance trains over the holiday weekend. Even with more departures, trains consistently sold out.

This year, with travelers urged to limit Thanksgiving visits as COVID-19 cases surge, Amtrak added only one Boston-Washington and one Washington-New York Acela round trip Sunday to its existing 23 southbound and 20 northbound departures (some New York-bound long-distance trains don’t accept local passengers).

A Trains News Wire spot check on Saturday of all Sunday Northeast Corridor trains showed no sellouts. With a 50% capacity cap on reservations, the heaviest patronage was to New York from both endpoints; with fewer departures, Boston to New York trains averaged a 40-45% sellout. Between New York and Washington in both directions, trains operating beyond the corridor averaged 45%, Northeast Regionals mostly came in at 35-40%, and higher-priced Acela at 20% southbound and a 30-40% average to New York and Boston.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, space was available most of the day for Empire Corridor trains out of New York to Albany-Rensselaer, N.Y., and beyond, but all inbound trains were sold out, as was the eastbound Lake Shore Limited into Boston.

Most trains in the West had available inventory. An exception: the afternoon Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland, the only train operating in that direction since Sunday is an “off” day for that segment of the Coast Starlight in both directions.  Washington Department of Transportation’s Rail Division is only running one daily round trip between Seattle and Eugene, Ore.

A four-car, 2-hour-late Capitol Limited (center) threads past Metra and Amtrak Midwest Corridor trains toward Chicago Union Station on Nov. 7, 2020. The Capitol has been consistently sold out since the summer, operating with one Superliner coach, a baggage-coach, a Cross Country Café, and one sleeping car. 
Bob Johnston

A similar situation occurred at Chicago, where the Illinois-sponsored Illini to Carbondale, Ill., was sold out on a day the triweekly City of New Orleans doesn’t operate. The only long-distance train leaving Chicago Sunday is the Texas Eagle, and it had no available coach seating between Chicago and St. Louis in either direction on Friday and Sunday.

While airports reported their busiest travel days since the beginning of the pandemic, Amtrak’s triweekly national-network trains were mostly unable to snare additional business. Many didn’t operate on preferred travel days, space sold out well in advance on many routes, and the company made few adjustments to capture additional revenue, other than raising fares.

For instance, the eastbound Capitol Limited had no seats departing Chicago on Saturday, Nov 28 and Monday, Nov. 30, which had been the case for weeks in advance. Its two Superliner coaches have been sold out on at least 17 of 21 departures Trains News Wire spot-checked since triweekly service began in October.

It is true reservations are cancelled more frequently, as was the case Sunday on the southbound Crescent from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta. The three seats that became available on the day of departure were priced at $203 early in the afternoon. The cost of one seat dropped to $168 an hour before departure. (An advance-purchase fare of $137 was available most dates in October and November.) Meanwhile, Sunday’s northbound Crescent from Atlanta was sold out in coach.

All trains, regardless of how far they travel, are seeing bookings closer to the day of departure than ever, so it is not clear how much business Amtrak has turned away by not strategically adding capacity.   

However, for travelers who choose to book a nonrefundable fare in advance and can skirt holiday blackouts, Amtrak is holding its fifth annual “Track Friday Sale,” concluding Monday, Nov. 30, for travel Dec. 8, 2020, through April 30, 2021. As with other flash sales, the lower fares will display on the Amtrak website if the price is available on the train and date requested. The promotion is not valid on any of the California and Pennsylvania corridors, or Auto Train.
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