CONNELLSVILLE, Pennsylvania — It is 6:59 a.m., and Amtrak’s Capitol Limited is slowly pulling up to the station here that sits along the Youghiogheny River. For many people, this little station in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania is their only lifeline to travel to family and friends during the travel restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said she understood that critical need in rural America. That’s why when she announced the Federal Railroad Administration’s $1 billion funding for Amtrak, it wasn’t just for the highly used Acela corridor routes connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. It also included help for small routes just like this.
The $1 billion package gives $492 million to the Northeast Corridor, Chao explained. The rest will support Amtrak’s national network.
“The CARES Act … provides $1 billion to Amtrak to offset the loss of ticket revenue, to pay for Amtrak’s employee salaries and payroll, to buy fuel for its operations and construction materials for its ongoing necessary projects, and basically just otherwise maintain Amtrak’s strong network of intracity passenger routes,” she said, “including rural areas that have seen total cancellation in service.” Chao also said the relief money first and foremost will preserve Amtrak jobs, something she is very concerned about. Chao served as secretary of labor for the entirety of the George W. Bush administration.
The Capitol Limited begins in Chicago with stops in South Bend, Elkhart, and Waterloo, Indiana; Toledo, Sandusky, Elyria, Cleveland, and Alliance, Ohio; and eases through Pittsburgh’s Union Station at 5:20 a.m.
From there, it stops here in Connellsville. This morning, the sky is still dark, and the passengers are few, as a conductor directs a passenger looking for which train car to board.
The train then heads off to Cumberland, Maryland; Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; back to Maryland for a stop in Rockville, then ends at Union Station in Washington, D.C. There is only one trip in and one trip back out on the schedule every day.
Over 90% of Amtrak’s ridership had declined since the coronavirus restrictions and warnings began. Future ticket prices have also collapsed. While this route is still doing its daily in and out, the Pennsylvanian, which also leaves Pittsburgh and connects with all points east in the state (including Philadelphia) with a terminus in New York City, has been suspended since mid-March.
The severe loss of ticket revenue, which funds infrastructure maintenance programs on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor, was a major concern for Chao. These intercity routes move millions of people to their jobs every day. The CARES Act funding will be used to help Amtrak cope with the loss of ticket revenue.
“This funding by the federal government is a lifeline for the transportation network and its workers, who millions of Americans in rural and urban areas rely upon. Among other things, this funding will allow continuation of safety, critical track, and infrastructure maintenance to help keep Amtrak operational and ready to roll when America’s economic recovery ramps up,” Chao said in a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Examiner.
Chao calls Amtrak’s Acela Corridor in the Northeast an important and very viable alternative to air travel. “That region is a very busy air corridor,” she said. “The shuttle from Washington, New York, to Boston is one of the most lucrative airline routes in our country. And yet, sometimes when the weather is bad or when there is a certain disruption caused by a string of, let’s say, air traffic control delays from one of the other air traffic control areas, Amtrak becomes a very viable and efficient alternative in addition to being just an efficient alternative on its own.”
In mid-March, Amtrak canceled its Acela Express trains in the Northeast as demand disintegrated when intercity travel ceased and successive states issued stay-at-home orders. So far, the Northeast Regional trains are still running, albeit at a steeply reduced level.
“With Acela’s traffic basically being reduced to zero, maybe 1%, Amtrak took the unprecedented action of just canceling Acela,” said Chao, adding that “it will not be operational through May. But people still have to travel through that corridor. So, the regionals are being maintained. Many of our long-distance routes have been canceled, again due to reductions in consumer demand.”
Chao herself is a frequent Acela user: “I’ve actually been on Amtrak a lot from just the Northeast Corridor because I have family up in New York, and so I go up and down quite a bit, and obviously, it’s just heartbreaking to see the reduction in revenue.”
She finds the setback even more troubling because Amtrak was finally on track to inch toward a goal it promised on May 1, 1971. That day, the newly formed, federally subsidized semipublic corporation boasted of turning a profit within three years. “This was the first year in which they were going to break even,” Chao said. “Everything was going along so well.”
The carrier hit record new numbers in ridership in both Northeast Corridor lines and state-supported lines last year, with an increase of over 800,000 riders over the previous year.