December 1, 2022

Are North America’s railroads travelling in reverse?

Mike Weinman of PTSI Transportation and IRCG’€™s U.S. rail expert’“ tells Roger Williams about changing times in North America

Currently, Amtrak is operating much of its national network, but with a reduced service in the key Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, where overall ridership is about 80% down on usual levels.

Passengers on long-distance cross-country trains are down about 50% – less than the NEC route but still a significant fall.

Changing perceptions

Our long-distance trains have undergone significant change during the last year and COVID-19 has coincided with, and some may say accelerated, a move away from the more traditional style onboard hospitality such as restaurant cars.

Instead, the replacement pre-prepared offer is perceived as much lower quality. It has led to a lot of public debate, with passengers and politicians alike bemoaning the changes. Providing great onboard hospitality is about more than catering’“ it’€™s about adding value to the overall travel experience. The economic and environmental benefits of successful long-distance passenger rail compared to other forms of travel are otherwise lost.

Looking forward

Going forward, Amtrak is proposing to make all long-distance trains (except the Auto-Train between Washington and Florida) three days per week. First Class (sleeping car) passengers have already seen the elimination of the highly popular dining cars’“ a major part of the journey’€™s attraction. Now food is pre-prepared, re-heated onboard, and distributed in packages, increasing packaging waste and reducing quality in one fell swoop.

In Canada, VIA Rail has eliminated both of its long distance trains (Toronto – Vancouver and Montreal – Halifax) until at least November 2020. However, Corridor trains are slowly coming back into service.

Sadly, the Rocky Mountaineer has shut down completely and will be hard-pressed to return. Most of their employees have been laid off and previously expected expansion plans are inevitably now off the table.

However, the fact remains that you can’€™t expect to have well-frequented trains with the length of journey time and distances involved in the USA and Canada, without having decent onboard catering.

While in the short term we seem to have gone backwards, in the longer term I am confident that the benefits of great onboard service will win through and improvements and investment will follow to get us back on track.