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Amtrak gets back on track as commuters return

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Ridership for Amtrak has slowly been ramping back up since the pandemic as eased. Meanwhile, a major federal investment will upgrade the rail system. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – After pulling the emergency cord and slamming on the brakes in March 2020 when COVID-19 closed down most public travel by air and by rail, Amtrak nationally and in Delaware is quickly getting back up to speed.

The Joseph R. Biden Train Station in Wilmington still looks deserted most mornings during what, for decades, had been the busy commuter rush hour, a time when Delaware businesspeople and governmental employees headed for offices in New York or Washington, D.C. This spring, as March turned into April, the earliest train headed north was a 7:05 a.m. Acela, and the first regional, economy-priced train didn’t run until 8:02 a.m. The same story going south – a 7:30 a.m. Acela was first out, and an 8:01 a.m. the first regional. The in-station Faber newsstand and coffee shop did not have a waiting line, and nearby parking garages were half-empty.

Commuters are slowly returning to Amtrak’s Wilmington station as the rail service adds trains after the pandemic. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

But that is changing. A 7:01 a.m. departure to New York is being added in late April, and other trains are either now returning or have been scheduled to do so. Meanwhile, Amtrak is desperately advertising for a variety of well-paying jobs, and new or upgraded cars are on the way. Even railway unions and the national Rail Passengers Association are giving Amtrak good marks for the progress it is making.

That comes after a booster shot for the nation’s rail system was recently injected by Washington – $60 billion of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is targeted for the nation’s passenger and freight rail systems, with $6.5 billion of that earmarked over the next five years to upgrading Amtrak’s well-traveled northeast corridor (NEC).

In addition to the publicity that Amtrak has provided the state as the preferred mode of travel for its Congressional members and ex-commuter president, Amtrak’s major impact on Delaware is two-fold – not only is it a primary mode of transportation for traveling to out-of-state destinations and for visitors coming to the state, Amtrak is also a large state employer.

According to Beth Toll, an Amtrak spokesperson, the company employed 1,004 Delaware residents in Fiscal Year 2020, paying them almost $91.7 million in wages. That includes not only workers at Amtrak offices in the former Renaissance Center at 4th and North King streets, which it purchased in 2020, and in nearby Philadelphia, but also at two of its maintenance facilities – the Wilmington Shops and the Bear Heavy Maintenance Facility.

Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) off Poplar Street is one of its major investments in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Wilmington is also home to Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC), the high-tech, 50,000-square-foot facility from which Amtrak’s national operations are controlled. It opened in 1998, and in 2012 the Centralized Electrification and Traffic Control (CETC) center moved from Philadelphia to CNOC in Wilmington. Amtrak’s High-Speed Rail Training Facility in Wilmington is where engineers, conductors, and onboard staff are trained for service.

The 2020 figures are not much lower than where they were in 2019, the last pre-pandemic fiscal year, when there were 1,043 Delaware residents employed by Amtrak with a total payroll of $92.6 million dollars. Additionally, local procurement of goods and services during 2019 was $2.24 million in Wilmington city and another $2.45 million for New Castle County. During that last “normal” year before the pandemic, there were 717,359 boardings and alightings in Delaware, 705,259 of them in Wilmington and 12,100 in Newark, the only other Amtrak stop in the state.

Usually, there are only one or two stops daily each way in Newark, not counting SEPTA regional trains which also use the same two stations as Amtrak. In 2019, there were between 80 and 85 Amtrak trains daily passing through the state, and more than 50,000 Delawareans were signed up for Amtrak’s guest rewards program

A next-generation Amtrak Acela train crosses over the Susquehanna River in Maryland in the northeast corridor. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AMTRAK

Long-distance commuting slow to resume
Even though most COVID-19 restrictions have recently been lifted nationally, commuting is still not up to pre-pandemic levels because some companies, even in national financial services firms such as banks and brokerages with employees in Delaware, have not yet totally reopened offices in New York or in the Washington suburbs.

“I can say that on a personal level, the decrease in service has made my travel to New York more difficult,” one lawyer, whose firm has offices in New York and who asked not to be identified to speak freely, recently told me. “Together with the significant price increases, Amtrak is a lot less automatic for me. I’m even in the process of buying a car, because the savings and convenience I used to see by train versus car have mostly gone away.

“But, the new lounge in New York is amazing,” he said of Moynihan Train Hall facility. “So that’s some comfort, but there’s still no lounge in Delaware, though.”

When Amtrak would restore most trains to the NEC has been a moving target these past few months, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs and policy for the Rail Passengers Association, which advocates for passenger rail service. “Certainly, there has been an improvement in service since 2020, and they have worked hard to maintain the Acela brand. The plan had been for them to return to full-service on March 28. But on March 3, Amtrak said that limited service would last through Memorial Day. This summer still looks in flux, although they are provisionally accepting reservations.”

John Feltz, railway division director and international vice president for the Transport Workers Union of America, said Amtrak had returned to about 70% of pre-pandemic ridership.

“Both the Bear and Wilmington shops are running full speed and looking to hire more employees,” he said, noting that while there were some pandemic layoffs, many employees took early retirement packages offered by Amtrak when the system was limping along with fewer trains and passengers. “You can retire when you’re 60 years old with 30 years of service, but now they are offering bonuses not to retire.”

Indeed, a sampling of advertised positions in Delaware include power director, senior program manager, CADD engineer, senior technical trainer, senior customer communications specialist, program managers and B&B mechanic. A new three-year apprentice program for the crafts trades will reportedly be offered this fall.

“During COVID, Amtrak should be credited for keeping furloughs at a minimum,” Feltz said. “People should realize the very good employment package that Amtrak has to offer.”

Thousands board Amtrak trains in Wilmington every day. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

 

Infrastructure plans & the lingering pandemic
Although the new federal infrastructure program will not have much of a direct effect on the Delaware economy, it will have a considerable indirect effect due to the fact that the total Washington-to-Boston corridor functions as a unit, and an improvement to one section will affect all traffic in between.

As Jeans-Gail points out, many of the projects have already been researched and planned and are just waiting for funding, including a long-awaited second tunnel to New York under the Hudson River. Currently, projected NEC funding over the five years includes $1.57 billion during the current year, $1.1 billion in 2023, $1.2 billion in 2024, $1.3 billion in 2025 and $1.4 billion in 2026.

Major projects include:

  • New passenger rolling stock and expansion of storage and maintenance facilities,
  • Bringing stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act,
  • Eliminating backlog of deferred capital work, and
  • Carrying out NEC capital renewal backlog program

“Rail service like Amtrak helps take cars off the road, cutting down emissions and relieving gridlock on our highways,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, an almost daily commuter on the rail service between Wilmington and Washington. “When we were crafting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it was important that we include funding for Amtrak so it can improve safety, customer service, reach more destinations, and ultimately help cut emissions. With a maintenance presence here in Delaware, investments in Amtrak are investments in our local economy.”

Of course, the effects of the pandemic will continue to cast a shadow on Amtrak operations for months, if not years, to come. Spikes in new infections continue, and, as visible evidence of the pandemic’s two-year cloud, all passengers and Amtrak employees are still required to wear masks on trains and while in stations.

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