Amtrak's Coast Starlight during a stop in Salinas in June 2019.  Dan Brekke/KQED
Amtrak's Coast Starlight during a stop in Salinas in June 2019.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Two Iconic California Trains Face Schedule Cuts as Pandemic Slows Long-Distance Travel

Two Iconic California Trains Face Schedule Cuts as Pandemic Slows Long-Distance Travel

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Amtrak's Coast Starlight and California Zephyr, favorites for generations of railfans and others traveling up and down the West Coast and across the country, will be cut to three days a week from its current daily schedule starting Oct. 1.

Those service reductions — among many the national passenger rail service will impose in response to the loss of ridership during the coronavirus pandemic — were announced earlier this week in a memo to Amtrak employees from one of the agency's senior executives. The memo said the cuts are likely to result in layoffs or furloughs for workers on the long-distance trains.

Like other transportation services large and small, from airlines to ride-hailing services to rental car companies to public transit, Amtrak has suffered a devastating loss of ridership and revenue as Americans have curtailed travel during the pandemic.

In a letter to congressional leaders last month, Amtrak CEO William Flynn said overall ridership had fallen 95% across the agency's rail network, resulting in a $1.7 billion decline in revenue compared to fiscal 2019 — the last full budget year without a pandemic. Flynn said the agency forecasts a 50% ridership decline nationwide, from 32 million to 16 million, during the 12 months starting Oct. 1.

Besides the California Zephyr, which runs from Emeryville to Chicago, and Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle and has several Bay Area stops, the cuts will affect the Capitol Limited (Washington, D.C.-Chicago); the City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans); Crescent (New York-Atlanta-New Orleans); Empire Builder (Chicago-Twin Cities-Seattle); Lake Shore Limited (New York-Chicago); Palmetto (New York-Savannah); Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles); and Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio).

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Two other long-distance trains, the Sunset Limited (New Orleans-Los Angeles) and Cardinal (New York-Cincinnati-Chicago) already operate three times a week. Amtrak said its Auto Train, which runs from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to the Orlando, Florida, area, is the only long-distance route that will continue to operate daily.

Amtrak has already suspended or reduced service on many state-supported regional routes, including California's Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains.

Most of the long-distance trains have continued to operate with only minimal changes since shelter-at-home orders began to be imposed across the nation in March. One exception: Service on the California Zephyr west of Denver was suspended for two weeks at the end of March after an Amtrak employee tested positive for the coronavirus and other workers on the line were required to go into self-quarantine.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said Wednesday that the service cuts will remain in place until at least the summer of 2021. Daily service on the long-distance routes could be restored if demand improves.

Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association advocacy group, said he thinks the cuts are shortsighted and will hurt long-term demand for these routes.

“The long-distance services declined the least among Amtrak’s three business lines during the coronavirus-induced slowdown, and its services remain essential to the hundreds of small communities across the United States with fewer options than Philadelphia or Boston or New York City,” Mathews said.

The agency said earlier this year it hoped to avoid layoffs. But this week's memo, from Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer Roger Harris, and reported in Railway Age, signaled that workforce reductions are coming.

“We recognize these changes will impact our employees who support the Long-Distance Service Line,” Harris wrote. “... We still have work to do to determine how that will impact the employees who support this work. We are sensitive to the uncertainty that this announcement brings to our Long-Distance team. We will work quickly to determine what staffing reductions or furloughs will occur, and we will communicate these changes to you as soon as possible.”

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.