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Amtrak to restore daily long-distance train service with federal relief funds

Conductor John Green points commuters toward the Acela for their morning trip northbound in Washington in 2019.
Conductor John Green points commuters toward the Acela for their morning trip northbound in Washington in 2019. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Daily service will be restored to long-distance Amtrak trains starting in May, and hundreds of furloughed employees will be called to report back to work as soon as next month, the passenger railroad announced Wednesday after Congress passed a pandemic relief package that includes $1.7 billion for the carrier.

Amtrak ended daily service last year to hundreds of stations outside the Northeast as part of cost-saving measures that followed a precipitous drop in ridership and revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic. Most Amtrak long-distance trains have been operating three times a week since October.

The company said it will begin to notify more than 1,200 furloughed employees this month to report to work as soon as April.

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The relief funds will help Amtrak restore some service that could be critical in luring back passengers amid increased vaccinations. President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion stimulus into law Thursday.

The railroad said it also is planning to increase service in the Northeast Corridor, the busiest in its network. Two additional Acela round trips will be added next month.

The additional money is a boost for the railroad, which has not experienced any significant rebound in ridership a year into the pandemic. As of this week, travel on Amtrak is down about 70 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels, Amtrak officials said.

Demand for train service dropped to historic lows as states implemented strict coronavirus-related shutdowns. Ridership plummeted 95 percent during the height of the pandemic, and the Northeast Corridor was hit especially hard.

Amtrak service was significantly reduced at the onset of the pandemic, with more severe cuts in place at the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The cuts to long-distance daily service were criticized by rail advocates and members of Congress, who said it was wrong to reduce service to communities across the country that rely on trains. Rail passenger advocates pressured Amtrak and congressional leaders to make restoring long-distance trips a priority.

“This is a real win for America’s passengers and for the hundreds of communities served by Amtrak’s long-distance trains — communities which suffered economic pain when they lost their service,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association.

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The restored routes serve a dedicated base of train enthusiasts and passengers in parts of the country where airports are not easily accessible. Amtrak said it will restore daily service to 12 long-distance routes that faced pandemic-related reductions.

The Auto Train, which travels from the Washington suburbs to the Orlando area, is the only long-distance route that continued to operate daily during the pandemic. Amtrak said that daily service will continue.

Two other routes — the Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles) and the Cardinal (New York-Washington-Chicago) — already were operating triweekly, and their schedules will not change.

Among the routes that will resume daily operations is the popular California Zephyr, a scenic route from Chicago to San Francisco, and the Capitol Limited, which connects Washington to Chicago. The Palmetto (New York to Savannah, Ga.) and Silver Star (New York to Miami) will add more options for passengers traveling on the East Coast.

The service reductions affected as many as 461 stations outside the Northeast Corridor, according to the Rail Passengers Association.

Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn, who had promised to bring back the service as funding became available and demand rose, said in a statement Wednesday that restoring the service is “a vital step in our road to recovery.”

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