UPDATED APRIL 8—Rail Group Staff Report: Global railway industry response and impacts to COVID-19 pandemic

Written by RT&S Staff
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Rail traffic: the pattern continues.
Norfolk Southern

Following is a staff report from the editors at Railway Age, Railway Track & Structures and International Railway Journal that will be continuously updated with the latest developments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the global railway industry, the most significant posted up top.


Kansas City Southern

KANSAS CITY SOUTHERN: Listen to this edition of our Rail Group On Air Special Podcast Series – The Coronavirus and the Rail Industry with Kansas City Southern President and CEO Pat Ottensmeyer and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Songer. They describe how KCS’s dedicated work force is responding to the crisis, and the steps the railroad is taking to protect them as they endeavor to keep rail freight traffic moving. Sponsored by The Greenbrier Companies.

AMERICAN PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION ASSOCIATION: Distribution of CARES Act funds for transit is rather complex. APTA, which took the lead in working with Congress on the bill’s transit provisions, provided an explanation to its members. The CARES Act includes $24.9 billion for public transit formula operating and capital grants to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. It provides that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) distribute the transit funds proportionally based on the ratio of funding of four specific programs: Urbanized Area Formula Grants (49 U.S.C. § 5307); Rural Area Formula Grants (49 U.S.C. § 5311); State-Of-Good-Repair (SOGR) formula grants (49 U.S.C. § 5337); and Growing/High-Density States Formula Grants (49 U.S.C. § 5340). It provides almost three times (280%) of the FY 2020 appropriations for each of these programs, and distributes the funds proportionally based on the ratio of funding for these formula programs in the FY 2020 apportionments. For further insight, as well as a perspective on how transit agencies are dealing with COVID-19 at ground level, listen to our Rail Group On Air podcast.

FEDERAL TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION: The FTA will host three webinars to provide information about FTA’s implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020. FTA leadership and program staff will discuss funding amounts, eligible expenses and other funding features. The FTA, via the CARES Act, recently allocated a total of $24.9 billion in Federal funding to help the nation’s public transportation systems respond to COVID-19. FTA is allocating the funds to recipients of urbanized area and rural area formula funds, with $22.7 billion allocated to large and small urban areas and $2.2 billion allocated to rural areas. Funding will be provided at a 100% Federal share, with no local match required, and will be available to support capital, operating and other expenses generally eligible under those programs to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19. Further, operating expenses incurred beginning on Jan. 20, 2020 for all rural and urban recipients, even those in large urban areas, are also eligible, including operating expenses to maintain transit services as well as paying for administrative leave for transit personnel due to reduced operations during an emergency. More information on eligibility can be found here. In addition to the $25 billion, FTA has taken a number of steps to support the transit industry during this public health emergency, including expanding the eligibility of Federal assistance available under FTA’s Emergency Relief Program to help transit agencies respond to COVID-19 in states where the Governor has declared an emergency. FTA also established an Emergency Relief docket that allows transit providers in States where the Governor has declared a COVID-19-related emergency to request temporary relief from Federal requirements under 49 U.S.C. Chapter 53 as well as any non-statutory FTA requirements. Additionally, FTA recently announced that it would provide a 30-day extension of the deadline for current competitive grant program funding opportunities, including: FTA’s Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program; Passenger Ferry Grant Program; Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) Challenge Grants; and Helping Obtain Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) Program.

FEDERAL RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION: In response to a Petition from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the FRA has issued a 60-day emergency waiver for certain requirements of FRA’s rail safety regulations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The petitioners, on behalf of their member railroads, requested relief from certain requirements of 49 CFR Parts 213, 214, 217, 218, 219, 220, 228, 229, 232, 234, 236, 239, 240, and 242.

AMERICAN SHORT LINE AND REGIONAL RAILROAD ASSOCIATION: “After numerous conversations with our members, Board, and host hotel, and following coronavirus pandemic guidance from state and federal authorities, we have decided to postpone our Connections Convention until this fall,” ASLRRA said in a message to members. “The health and safety of our members, staff and the broader community has been and will continue to be our top concern as we move forward in these uncertain times. We recognize how much you value the networking, education and training opportunities provided by the convention, and we are looking forward to delivering a great event for you in the fall.”

FEDERAL TRAVEL RESTRICTION EXEMPTION: Railroad employees who must remain on duty (and are doing so willingly) in the national interest are being provided with exemption letters from their railroads:

AAR: The Association of American Railroads (AAR), in its most recent rail freight traffic report, reported that U.S. rail traffic for the week ended March 21, 2020 contained some much-needed good news: The worst of the coronavirus’ effects on Asian trade may be over.

“The good news is that the intermodal volumes of the railroads serving the West Coast ports that receive the bulk of imports from China appear to have plateaued over the past four weeks, indicating that we may have seen the worst of the COVID-19 impacts on the Asia trade,” said AAR Senior Vice President Policy and Economics John T. Gray.

“It wouldn’t be surprising to see rail volumes of other categories soften in the weeks ahead as steps taken to limit the spread of COVID-19 continue to impact producers, both here and abroad, particularly those of consumer goods or intermediate products from which those goods are produced,” Gray said.

AAR COVID-19 Response: “Recognizing responsibility to the nation and their [employees], railroads maintain and routinely review their pandemic response plans that have addressed other events, including the [2009] H1N1 outbreak,” AAR said. “Since news of COVID-19’s spread in early January 2020, railroads and their Chief Medical Officers have been working together to update and adapt their plans to specifically address the need to contain, mitigate and respond to the coronavirus outbreak in line with most recent recommendations coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“The industry holds daily calls among cross-functional teams to share information and best practices to keep their railroad employees and their families — as well as the larger community — safe. Railroads are also in constant communication with federal partners at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House as well as state and local officials on evolving public health developments and efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

“Freight railroads are taking significant precautions to protect the health and well-being of their employees. These efforts include providing employees with timely and accurate information on protecting themselves and their families through effective hygiene practices; directing employees to stay home if they are sick; communicating with employees and facility partners about workplace spatial distancing and mitigation strategies recommended by the CDC; expanding the frequency of cleaning and sanitation in railroad headquarters, maintenance facilities, dispatch and operations centers as well as on locomotives and rail equipment; and restricting domestic and international employee air travel.

“To increase [social] distance among employees, railroads are doing the following to limit potential exposure to the virus: Transitioning employees not directly involved in train operations to teleworking arrangements in order to reduce density at work locations, especially at highly populated headquarters; restricting access to mission-critical locations such as operations and dispatching centers to only essential staff who must be present to perform their duties; and activating secondary dispatch and operation locations to expand social distancing efforts and maintain vital functions.”

FITCH RATINGS, NEW YORK METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY: Fitch Ratings downgraded approximately $800 million of outstanding TRB Series 2020C (transportation revenue bonds, climate bond certified) to be issued by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from AA- to A+ and outstanding TRB anticipation notes to F1 from F1+, but removed the agency’s long-term rating from Rating Watch Negative status. The Rating Outlook is Negative. FULL DETAILS HERE.

NRC (National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association): On March 19, the Department of Homeland Security CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) issued a memorandum, “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce,” on the identification of such workers during COVID-19 response. “The list in this link identifies workers who conduct a range of operations and services that are essential to continued critical infrastructure viability, including staffing operations centers, maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure, operating call centers, working construction, and performing management functions, among others,” noted NRC President Ashley Wieland. “As it pertains to NRC members, the list includes workers responsible for operating dispatching passenger, commuter and freight trains and maintaining rail infrastructure and equipment; and employees who repair and maintain vehicles, aircraft, rail equipment, marine vessels, and the equipment and infrastructure that enables operations that encompass movement of cargo and passengers.”

RAILWAY SUPPLY INSTITUTE: RSI President Mike O’Malley issued the following statement regarding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) guidance on the critical infrastructure workforce as part of the national COVID-19 response:

“As federal, state, and local governments continue to develop and implement their emergency response plans for COVID-19, it is essential that clear federal guidelines are in place to ensure critical transportation infrastructure can continue to operate. Our nation’s transportation networks maintain consistent, reliable shipments of supplies and resources vital to the COVID-19 response. CISA’s recent guidance makes clear that all rail supply operations, including critical manufacturing, repair and maintenance of rail equipment and infrastructure, is essential to this response.

“We thank the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation for their efforts and encourage all state and local officials to follow the CISA guidance in defining essential workers and operations as they develop their COVID-19 containment strategies. The railway supply industry will do its part to ensure that our railroad partners can serve the needs of communities effectively, and without disruption.”


BRIGHTLINE (VIRGIN RAIL USA): Service has been suspended until further notice in response to the coronavirus pandemic, company officials announced March 25. The final northbound train departed from Miami at 5:50 p.m. “Like all businesses, we are operating in a period of uncertainty that may last several months,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said in a prepared statement. “Although a difficult decision, we have decided to temporarily suspend Brightline service in the best interests of the entire South Florida community as we all seek to flatten the curve.”

MBTA: Rail transit continues to run on Saturday schedules, with some extra service on the Blue Line and the “E” branch of the Green Line. Trains are still running on weekend schedules, with additional service on some lines. Starting Wednesday, March 25, the “T” has added an extra early-morning departure from Newburyport, Watchusett (on the Fitchburg Line), Reading (an intermediate stop on the Haverhill Line), Lowell, and Needham Heights, for early arrivals in Boston. Fairmont Line (Dorchester Branch trains are running hourly on that line.

NEW JERSEY TRANSIT: Effective Monday, April 6, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line will operate on a weekend schedule. That change brings it in line with other NJT services. In the meantime, a number of privately operated bus lines that had been operating in New Jersey have shut down completely. One of those is the Lakeland Bus Company, which has been operating weekend service on NJT’s Gladstone Branch between Summit and Gladstone, in lieu of trains. While Lakeland has shut down its entire scheduled operation, it will continue to operate the Gladstone weekend service. The agency has been struggling to meet the year-end deadline for completing PTC installation, but the recent service cuts may help NJT meet the deadline. One media report quoted NJT Rail chief Ray Kenny as saying: “We’re running a couple of test trains during the day, which we normally wouldn’t be able to do … It’s freed up some of our supervision and some of our equipment so we’re going to take advantage of that because obviously the situation we’re in, our ability to get testing done is the most critical activity for helping us meet the deadline that is within our control.”

Crowds continue to gather in trains and on subway platforms in New York City despite COVID-19.

NEW YORK METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY: The MTA is advising New Yorkers to “Stay home if you can.” In the meantime, the C Line on the subway system in Manhattan and Brooklyn is no longer operating, although there is still service to the same stations on other lines. According to a report by Paul Berger in the March 31 edition of the Wall Street Journal: “Transit officials in New York City are struggling to run a reduced subway service as the number of workers infected with the new coronavirus rises rapidly and as thousands more workers are quarantined or call out sick.” Service on the Staten Island Ferry has been reduced to hourly throughout the day, so service on the Staten Island Railway has also been reduced. The new hourly schedule is timed to connect with the ferry to and from Manhattan. The Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North are running weekend schedules on weekdays, with a few extra peak-hour trains.

PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson): Weekday trains run every 5 minutes during the 7:00-9:00 a.m. peak on the NWK-WTC and JSQ-33rd lines, and every 10 minutes during the remainder of daytime and evening hours on these two lines.  Weekday service on the Hoboken-33rd and Hoboken-WTC lines will run every 10 minutes during the morning, afternoon and evening hours.  On weekends, trains will run on 20-minute schedules on all lines.  There is no change to overnight service. 

SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority): Service on regional rail lines has been slashed again. The new schedule, effective Sunday, March 29, will run seven days a week. The Airport Line will still run hourly, but most other lines will run only every two hours. The Fox Chase and Media/Elwyn lines will only run every three hours for part of the day. On the Paoli-Thorndale Line, service west of Malvern will run only every four hours. There are no trains to Newark, Del.

PATCO: The Ashland, Westmont, City Hall (Camden) and 12th/13th Street Station in Philadelphia have been closed. PATCO is already running on a reduced schedule.

PORT AUTHORITY TRANSIT (PAT, Pittsburgh) has reduced schedules by 25% on its light rail lines and bus system. Some LRT service has been reduced to 30-minute headways, particularly during the evening, and some parts of the midday on the Blue Line (South Hills) and the Silver Line (Library) via Overbrook. Weekend schedules remain the same.

CONNECTICUT: Service on the Hartford Line was reduced again. Service has been reduced on Amtrak, which now runs five daily trains between New Haven and Springfield (the Vermonter has been suspended). CTRail is running two daily trains between New Haven and Springfield, one that turns at Windsor Locks, and three that turn at Hartford.

BALTIMORE/WASHINGTON AREA: Maryland MTA light rail and subway lines in Baltimore continue to operate on a Saturday schedule, while MARC trains operate on a reduced-service “R” schedule. WMATA has not changed MetroRail schedules since our last report, but WUSA-9 reported that, effective March 26, 19 stations will close, and there will be no shuttle buses to serve them. Bus service has also been cut to Sunday schedules. The report said that the closures were implemented to conserve supplies of disinfectant, which have dwindled to a two-week supply. WMATA had closed Smithsonian and Arlington Cemetery stations to prevent riders from going to see the city’s iconic cherry trees in the Tidal Basin. VRE commuter trains into Virginia continue to operate on a reduced “S” schedule, with service on the Fredericksburg and Manassas Lines reduced by 50%. The normal schedule calls for eight trains during the peak commuting period; the current operation calls for only four. 

MIDWEST: The Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar has reduced its hours of operation. It now runs from 8 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. weekdays and 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. on weekends. The Detroit Free Press reports that the city M-1 Rail (QLine) streetcar on Woodward Avenue will cut service by 50%, effective March 26. The new hours will be 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:00 to 8:00 on weekends. The report added that there will only be two cars operating along the line, but did not specify how often service will operate. There are no fares being collected. WWJ Radio reports that the Detroit People Mover will also be free to ride, but hours will also be reduced. Since Friday, March 20, the new hours are: Monday-Thursday: 6:30 a.m. – 8:00 p.m., Friday: 6:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m., Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. and Sunday: 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

We previously reported that Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul has eliminated overnight service. Effective March 25, Blue and Green Line light rail service has been reduced further, to every 20 minutes all day. Northstar Line commuter rail service has been reduced to two morning trips from Big Lake, returning from downtown Minneapolis in the p.m. commuter peak. Weekend trains have been suspended. The KC Streetcar in Kansas City has reduced its hours, effective March 25. The new hours are 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 P.M. on weekdays, and from 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. on weekends. As in Detroit, there will only be two cars operating on the line.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has stressed efforts to keep its system clean, but there were no announcements that service has been reduced.  The QLINE streetcar in Detroit has become a casualty. The official announcement says: “The QLINE will temporarily suspend operations following the close of service on 3/29 at 8 pm due to Covid-19 and its impact on transit demand along the Woodward Corridor.” The Detroit People Mover closed on Friday, March 20. NICTD’s South Shore Line in Northern Indiana has discontinued the 5:05 departure from Chicago; a peak-hour train. Effective Thursday, March 26, the Hop Streetcar in Milwaukee operates only every 20 minutes, from 7:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.

Metra will begin operating an alternate weekday schedule on Monday, March 23, to adjust for the reduced number of riders due to school closures, work-from-home mandates and other consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The alternate schedules represent about half of Metra’s normal weekday service but “provide adequate service for those who still need to travel,” the agency said. Metra is encouraging customers to use the Ventra app for tickets because it requires less interaction with conductors. The reduction in service will also give Metra “a greater opportunity to clean its cars, concentrating on disinfecting high-touch areas such as handrails, door handles and seats, because we will need fewer trainsets for service.” The last trains on every line leave Chicago between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m.

SOUTH: Hampton Roads Transit’s TIDE light rail in Norfolk, Va. is running every 30 minutes, with the last departure at 8:30 p.m. from both ends of the line. In Charlotte, N.C., the Lynx Blue Line light rail is operating on a Sunday schedule. The City Lynx Gold Line streetcar was discontinued last June for construction, and has been replaced by buses. In Atlanta, MARTA rail service is running on a Sunday schedule, about every 20 minutes, while the Atlanta Streetcar to the Martin Luther King Center is also running on a Sunday schedule. In Florida, SunRail in the Orlando area is only operating during peak commuting hours. Mid-day service and early-evening runs after peak hours have been suspended. WeGo Transit is operating normal service in Nashville, including Music City Starcommuter trains. The southern half of the Main Street Trolley line in Memphis is shut down, but due to construction unrelated to the present health emergency. All service on the Metro Streetcar in Little Rock was suspended, effective March 17. Rock Region Metro had described it as “a non-essential transit service.” In New Orleans, the RTA slashed streetcar service. The Riverfront Line no longer operates; nor do the cars to City Park on the Canal Street line. Canal Street cars going to the Cemeteries run every 32 minutes all day, while the St. Charles Avenue line runs every 36 minutes all day. Tri-Rail in South Florida has reduced service substantially. On weekdays, trains run only every two hours. On weekends, they run only every three hours. Fares are not being collected.

TEXAS: Houston Metro Transit reduced service, effective Monday, March 30. Metro Rail’s Red and Purple Lines are running on Sunday schedules; the former every 12 minutes and the latter every 18 minutes. The Green Line has been replaced by bus shuttles running every 20 minutes. DART in Dallas is reducing rail service, effective Monday, April 6. All light rail lines will run every 20 minutes, all day. The EP Streetcar operated by Sun Metro in El Paso has been suspended. TEXRail in Fort Worth eliminated about one-third of its runs, reducing service essentially to hourly, throughout the service day. Trinity Railway Express (TRE, running between Dallas and Fort Worth) reduced service to hourly on weekdays. Saturday service is not affected, and TRE does not normally run on Sundays. Also, the Denton County A Train is running hourly, leaving both Downtown Denton and Trinity Mills (connecting with DART’s Green Line) from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. On Saturdays, trains run either 110 minutes or two hours apart. There is no Sunday service.

MOUNTAIN WEST and SOUTHWEST: At a meeting held remotely on Monday, March 23, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) Board voted to reduce service, effective April 19 and lasting until September. Commuter rail lines from Union Station will continue on current schedules for now, but light rail trains will run on Sunday schedules, and most buses will run on Saturday schedules. There will be no service on the C or F LRT, and the R line will run every 30 minutes. These changes were planned for May, but the RTD Board voted to implement them sooner, though the COVID-19 virus may not have been the primary motivation for the changes. RTD’s press release about the cuts said: “Several Board members asked why the service reduction couldn’t happen sooner, since RTD is losing money both at the farebox and in regional sales taxes. RTD staff said the changes are already on an accelerated schedule, with union representatives agreeing to change rules pertaining to route planning and bidding in order to speed up the process.” The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) reduced service, effective Sunday, April 5. TRAX light rail service will be reduced to 30-minute headways, seven days a week. Front Runner rail service will be reduced to running every 60-minutes on weekdays. New Mexico Rail Runner was suspended, effective Monday, March 16. The suspension was scheduled to last through Friday, April 3. At this writing, there was no announcement regarding whether or not the suspension will be extended. Light rail service in the Phoenix area remains on regular schedule, although bus service will be reduced effective Monday, April 6. Service on the SunLink streetcar in Tuscon, Arizona has been reduced. It now operates on weekdays every 15 minutes from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 to 10:00 p.m., and every ten minutes from 9:00 until 6:00 pm. After 10:00, it only runs on Thursday and Friday nights until 2:00 a.m. Saturday service runs from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m., every 15 minutes for most of the day. Sunday service runs from 8:00 until 8:00, every 20 minutes for most of the day.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST: In Seattle, Sound Transit reduced service again. The Link light rail now runs every 20 minutes. Sounder has eliminated another round trip on its Sounder South regional service, which operates primarily for peak-hour commuters. The 7:55 a.m. departure from Seattle to Lakewood has been discontinued, along with its 10:16 a.m. return, scheduled to arrive in Seattle at 11:32 a.m. The Tacoma Link line is not affected, but Seattle’s city-run streetcars also reduced service on Monday. The First Hill Streetcar now operates every 15 minutes, but only from 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. The South Lake Union Streetcar has been suspended entirely. As of Sunday, April 5, Tri-Metreduced service on MAX light rail to 15-minute headways for most of the day on weekdays. Sunday schedules will be in effect on Saturdays, as well. Westside Express Service (WES) trains will still operate only during peak-commuting hours on weekdays, and service will be cut to every 45 minutes, from every 30. The Portland Streetcar began running on 20-minute headways from 5:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24.

CALIFORNIA: Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT) has instituted a “Sunday Plus” schedule on all of its light rail lines. The first runs on each line begin between 4:48 and 6:13 a.m. The last runs on each line leave between 8:48 and 9:56 p.m. In between, most service runs every 15 minutes, with 30-minute headways on the Green Line and the portion of the Gold Line in Folsom.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) eliminated three round trips from its 19-train weekday schedule. One southbound train was rescheduled. There is no longer any weekend service.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) reports ridership decreases of up to 90% and has reduced service. Frequencies remain the same, but hours have been cut. Service ends at 9:00 every night (reduced from 12:00). It starts at 5:00 on weekends, and 8:00 on weekends. Previously it started at 6:00 on Saturdays. BART is has not cut service since March 23, but SFGate reports that the BART Board considered a proposal that would eliminate the Red and Green Lines (Richmond and Warm Springs, respectively, to Daly City) and all service on Sundays, but did not implement the proposal.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (MUNI) has already discontinued its cable cars. Now, the agency will not operate light rail or streetcar service. All MUNI Metro and light rail routes have been replaced by buses, but even that service has been drastically reduced. Metro subway stations will be closed, except for downtown stations, which will remain open for BART service during their operating hours.

On the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE), the last train in the morning and the afternoon were suspended. There are now only three trains in each direction on weekdays. Saturday service was suspended previously.

Service on Metrolink in the Los Angeles area was slashed on March 26. The changes are different for each line, but most weekday service outside peak-commuting hours was eliminated. Most of the peak-hour trains have survived, as has most of the weekend service, which is limited on the lines that have it. The two weekend trains in each direction on the Riverside Line are gone. The railroad blamed an 80% drop in ridership since last week, balanced against the need to provide service for essential workers.

Metro Rail in Los Angeles has not announced any further reductions; it continues to operate on weekdays every 12 minutes between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.; every 20 minutes at other times.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System will reduce bus and Trolley service by approximately 25% beginning Monday, April 13 to address the reality of record-low ridership while still providing critical service for essential workers and trips. “Transit is an essential service and must remain accessible for essential workers and services. And especially for our transit dependent communities,” said MTS Board Chair Nathan Fletcher. “MTS has lost about 65% of ridership on buses and Trolleys since the Governor’s stay-at-home order. It seems counterintuitive, but this is actually a good thing. It means our community is working together to limit the spread of COVID-19 by staying at home.” “We’ve been analyzing ridership for the past three weeks and it looks like it has stabilized at about 100,000 trips per day,” said MTS CEO Paul Jablonski. “Our service analysis looked at a lot of factors including proximities to grocery stores, hospitals, government locations and we tried to focus on maintaining service these areas. We think this is a good service plan that will meet the needs of residents for essential trips, and also offer us flexibility to restore to regular service levels when travel restrictions ease.” Highlights of the new service changes include:

  • No routes will be discontinued. Every route that exists today will continue to operate weekday service.
  • Approximately a 25% reduction in weekday service overall.
  • Approximately 70% of bus routes will have reduced span and/or frequency.
  • More than three dozen bus routes will continue normal service levels.
  • Trolley service will continue on a normal weekday schedule on the Orange and Sycuan Green Lines (every 15 minutes most of the day).
  • UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley service will revert to pre-Jan. 27 service levels (7.5 minute frequency in the peaks, 15-minutes in the non-peaks).
  • Normal weekend service will continue.
  • On Trolleys, all fare inspections will be conducted on station platforms, rather than on the vehicles to limit interactions. 

Meanwhile, NCTD Coaster commuter rail service between Oceanside and San Diego was slashed. Five of the eleven round trips from the prior schedule are gone; only six remain, and mid-day service has been essentially eliminated. Weekend trains were eliminated completely.

All Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail service in the San Jose area was suspended after the close of service on Wednesday, March 25.

 CalTrain further reduced service in the San Francisco Bay area on Monday, March 30, from 92 daily trains to 42 on weekdays. Service runs essentially hourly through the day, with two morning commuter trains from Gilroy and one evening train to Gilroy. Weekend service is not affected by the latest weekday cuts.

THE ALASKA RAILROAD (ARRC) has suspended regularly scheduled Aurora Winter Train passenger service between Anchorage and Fairbanks starting March 19 and continuing through April 30. ARRC will provide passenger service to the roadless area between Talkeetna and Hurricane via the Hurricane Turn Train on Thursday, April 2. This suspension affects nine Aurora Winter Train round-trips but does not affect freight service. Passenger service personnel are reaching out to notify and refund all passengers and tour operators with bookings on the suspended trains.

“We recognize that this could be a significant inconvenience for many people, particularly those who have no other way to access their homes and properties along the Railbelt, so we will still operate a limited service Hurricane Turn Train as scheduled for April 2 to make sure they are not stranded,” ARRC President and CEO Bill O’Leary said. “To support customers during this period of uncertainty, we are extending a flexible 24-hour cancellation policy through the summer 2020 season, in hopes that this policy offers some peace of mind for travelers with summer travel plans.”

AMTRAK implemented more cuts, effective Monday, April 6. Some corridors whose service levels have already been cut to two round trips per day have been slashed to a single round trip. There are other cuts, too. Downeaster service is down to a single daily round trip: from Brunswick, Maine to North Station, Boston at 4:30 a.m. and returning at 5:00 p.m. on weekdays. The weekend train is scheduled to leave Brunswick at 7:30 a.m. and return at 1:00 p.m. On the Piedmont route in North Carolina, the sole surviving train is scheduled to leave Raleigh at 10:00 a.m. and return from Charlotte at 3:15 p.m. The Carolinan, which supplements Piedmont service in North Carolina under the regular schedule, has been discontinued. Service on the Cascades route between Seattle, Portland and Eugene, has been reduced to a single daily round trip, in addition to the Coast Starlight. That train leaves Eugene at 5:30 a.m. and returns from Seattle at 2:20 pm.

There are also additional service reductions on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), with only four trains between New York and Boston; leaving New York at 6:55 a.m. and 2:00, 3:30 and 5:38 p.m. and leaving Boston at 6:05, 8:15 and 11:15 a.m. and 6:45 pm. There are eight trains in each direction between New York and Washington, D.C., although the Florida and New Orleans trains accept local passengers southbound. The schedule includes the portion of the Palmetto (Trains 89 and 90) north of Washington, D.C. The train is canceled south of there. The schedule still includes the trains to Norfolk, Newport News and Roanoke, Va., and one through train between Springfield, Mass., and Washington, D.C. There are still four other round trips between Springfield and New Haven, supplemented by the remaining Hartford Line service operated by CT Rail.

Empire Service has been reduced, as well. There are only six trains between New York City and Albany, including the Lake Shore, and no departures before 10:20 a.m. The 10:20 a.m. and 1:20 p.m. departures still go to Niagara Falls, NY, but the Maple Leaf, which left for Toronto at 7:15 a.m., has been discontinued entirely. Trains leave from Niagara Falls at 6:47 a.m. and 12:17 p.m. (the Maple Leaf eastbound schedule) for New York, and there are the Lake Shore (Train 48) and three additional trains originating at Albany.

Amtrak’s California corridors continue to operate at reduced service levels. On the Pacific Surfliner, there are four daily round trips south of Los Angeles to San Diego, and two north to Santa Barbara/Goleta. The Capitol Corridor runs four daily round trips Sacramento and San Jose, and a fifth that runs only as far as Oakland.

At this writing, the rest of the long-distance network is still operating, except for the portion of the California Zephyr (Trains 5 and 6) west of Denver. We received a report that some employees at the Salt Lake City crew base had contracted the COVID-19 virus, and that the crew base is under isolation. According to the “booking” function on the Amtrak website, service on the full route is slated to resume from Chicago on Sunday, April 12 and from Emeryville on Monday, April 13. Those dates would comport with a two-week isolation period from the time service west of Denver was suspended at the end of March.

VIA RAIL: The Canadian, which ran between Toronto and Vancouver twice each week, will remain suspended until June 1.  o will the train between Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert, historically known as the Skeena.  The suspensions will continue into the traditionally busy summer season, which begins in late May. VIA has slashed service on its corridors again. The railroad had operated two trains daily on its Montreal-Quebec City, Montreal-Toronto, Toronto-Ottawa and Toronto-Windsor corridors through  March 30. Effective March 31, there will only be one train in each direction on each corridor.  The remaining departures leave from Quebec City at 6:21 a.m. and Montreal at 8:56 a.m. for Ottawa, returning at 3:00 p.m. and from Montreal at 6:50 p.m. The train from Montreal to Toronto leaves at 8:55 a.m. and returns at 3:00 p.m., while the train from Ottawa to Toronto leaves at 11:40 a.m. and returns at 2:20 p.m. This leaves two daily trains between Toronto and Kingston, Ontario, but they run within an hour or two of each other. The train from Toronto to Windsor leaves at 9:05 a.m., returning from Toronto at 5:30 p.m. The train between Toronto and Sarnia, Ontario is still operating, which leaves a choice of two morning trains from London and intermediate stops to Toronto. From Toronto, the two trains leave ten minutes apart. Business-class amenities including station lounges are no longer offered; nor is on-board food and beverage service available.  As previously reported, trains between Montreal and Jonquiere and Senneterre, Quebec and between Sudbury and White River, Ontario now only run once a week. They had previously run on tri-weekly schedules. The train between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba is still operating, but without sleeping cars or meal service (a 45-hour trip). In addition, VIA Rail has implemented new health-screening procedures. A statement on the VIA Rail website says: “Passengers will be denied boarding our trains if: They are experiencing symptoms similar to a cold or flu (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) [or] They have been denied boarding for travel in the past 14 days due to medical reasons related to COVID-19. In the event the passenger meets one of those criteria, VIA Rail will refuse boarding and travel for a period of 14 days, or until a medical certificate is presented that confirms that the traveller’s [sic] symptoms are not related to COVID-19.” VIA Rail is not permitting Amtrak’s Maple Leaf and Adirondack or Cascades trains to cross the border.

CANADA RAIL TRANSIT: On GO Transit in the Toronto area, trains continue to go to Mount Pleasant hourly until mid-evening on weekdays. Two peak-hour trains continue to Georgetown, and three more continue to Kitchener. The previous schedule called for a longer span of service to Mount Pleasant, six trains form Kitchener, and seven to Kitchner and one to Guelph. On the Stouffville line, the current schedule calls for only three peak-hour trains from and to Lincolnville on the Stouffville line. The previous schedule called for nine. In Vancouver, service on TransLink’s Expo and Millenium Lines has been reduced, and the first departure of West Coast Express commuter trains in each direction was eliminated. Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) is running on an “enhanced Saturday schedule” with basic service every 15 minutes through the day. There is also no fare collection. Calgary Transit is reducing service on its CTrain light rail lines on weekdays. The Red Line will run every 7-8 minutes during peak hours, 15 minutes at mid-day and 16 minutes during the evening. The Blue Line will run every eight minutes at peak-hours and every 16 minutes at other times. Weekend service will not change. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is operating most of its streetcars, but not the 508 Lake Shore or part of the 503 Kingston Road lines. Alternate service is available by using other lines. OC Transpo in Ottawa is reducing service, effective March 30. The Confederation LRT will end service at 1:00 A.M. on Friday nights. During the service day, trains will arrive every 6 to 8 minutes at peak periods and every 10 to 16 minutes at other times of the day and on weekends. The Trillium Line will run every 15 minutes at all times.


MTR is deploying 20 Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide (VHP) robots.

Numerous railway industry events overseas have been postponed or cancelled as organizers respond to the restrictions being placed on large gatherings of people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As well, the UIC (International Union of Railways) has formed a task force to assist operators in dealing with the rapidly escalating situation, and several overseas train operators have instituted aggressive measures, including more stringent train cleaning, steps to protect staff, ticket refunds without penalty and cancellation of services. Numerous cross-border services have been shut down.

  • Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is deploying 20 Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide (VHP) robots to deep-clean trains at depots as well as stations to improve protection against the spread of coronavirus. The VHP Robot was developed jointly by MTR and Avalon Biomedical, a Hong Kong biotechnology company. The robots are designed to automatically spray hydrogen peroxide solution, which is atomized to a specific concentration to ensure that disinfectants penetrate small gaps which are difficult to reach during normal cleaning. The objective is to eliminate viruses and bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. MTR says the VHP Robot has passed tests and achieved the desired results. VHP Robots operate automatically by pre-setting the floor plan of the designated area. It is also possible to remotely control the robot manually within a distance of 20 meters using a mobile device. MTR says it normally takes about four hours to clean an eight-car train in automatic mode. MTR staff can also deploy the VHP Robot to deep clean a special situation, such as a passenger vomiting on a train, using diluted bleach. The robot recently disinfected staff facilities and passenger lifts at Mong Kok East station after a member of staff was diagnosed with Covid-19.
  • India suspended passenger train services across the country until March 31 as the government tries to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The railway ministry said passenger rail will stop immediately, though freight services will continue, according to a statement on Sunday.
  • Intermodal freight operators in Europe have called for a number of measures to be put in place to allow freight to continue to move, especially during the lock-down in Italy. An open letter addressed to Italian and European institutions outlines why intermodal freight via rail is well-placed to move goods while limiting the risk of spreading Covid-19. The letter was signed by the National Association of Automotive Transport Companies (ANITA); Railway and Intermodal Operators Association (ASSOFERR); Assologistica; Fercargo; Fercargo Manovra; Fercargo Rotabili; Fercargo Terminal; SOS Logistics – Association for Sustainable Logistics; Association of Freight Villages (UIR); European Shippers’ Council (ESC); European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), Brussels; European Railways Network (NEE); and the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR).
  • Russian Railways (RZD) has set up an operations headquarters to provide support and coordination for freight operators to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The new organization will be headed by RZD Deputy Director Aleksey Shilo. The headquarters will be responsible for providing operational support for freight operators, as well as coordinating activities to prevent and stop the spread of new coronavirus infections; considering, approving and executing applications for freight transport, as well as ensuring the organization and control of payments with Russian Railways customers; and minimizing the risks from reductions in shipping volumes and other negative effects for shippers. RZD says its digital services also allows shippers to arrange transport online, through the Freight Transportation Electronic Trading Platform (ETP FT). This allows customers to place orders for shipping freight, with the option to request a railcar if needed, as well as other transport and related services, through the online portal. All the necessary documents and reports are available in the client’s personal account. “RZD is calling on everyone in the freight transport market to show maximum solidarity and ensure constructive cooperation to solve transport problems,” the company says. “RZD will take all possible measures to support and assist small and medium-sized enterprises in their transport and logistics activities. Each problem that comes up will be promptly addressed individually with feedback, including solutions to resolve the current situation. Based on the results of processing all requests in real time, the company will compile a list of quick-response, regulatory, and financial measures for consideration by the relevant authorities.” RZD says 5,000 users have signed up for the service as of March 23.
  • Danish State Railways (DSB) introduced a range of measures on March 11. These include running longer trains during off-peak periods to allow passengers to sit further apart from one another, making all tickets refundable at no charge, no longer accepting cash payments onboard trains, deploying more staff at critical locations, and improving communication with passengers.
  • Passenger journeys on the London Underground have fallen by around 70% and are “likely to fall further,” as Transport for London advises avoiding public transport for anything other than essential journeys due to the spread of the coronavirus. TfL’s current forecast suggests a reduction of up to US$590 million in income. TfL announced that it would reduce service with the closure of up to 40 London Underground stations as well as the Waterloo and City lines.
  • Britain’s Department for Transport (DfT) has switched all English passenger rail franchises into management contracts for six months to prevent operators from becoming insolvent. At the same time, services are being cut drastically to bring them more in line with demand, which has fallen steeply. Passenger numbers are down by 70% due to the coronavirus, and revenue has dropped by two-thirds, but the government wants to maintain a minimum level of service for essential workers and travel. All revenue and cost risk is being transferred to the government for six months initially. Franchisees will continue to operate services in return for a fee, which will be set at a maximum of 2% of the cost base of each franchise before the coronavirus pandemic began. “The maximum fee attainable will be far less than recent profits earned by train operators,” says the DfT. “In the event that an operator does not wish to accept an emergency measures agreement, the government’s operator of last resort stands ready to step in. “Allowing operators to enter insolvency would cause significantly more disruption to passengers and higher costs to the taxpayer. The management fee will allow operators to act in the national interest in tackling Covid-19,” the DfT says. Passengers with advance low-fare tickets will be able to obtain a refund without penalty ,while season ticket holders can get a refund for the period when the ticket is not being used. The ScotRail and Transport for Wales franchises are managed by the Scottish and Welsh governments.
  • Australian private operator Journey Beyond, which runs The GhanThe Overland and The Indian Pacific luxury long-distance rail services, has announced an immediate temporary suspension of all trains. This follows implementation of extensive travel restrictions by various Australian state governments, including national and state border closures, along with restrictions on all non-essential travel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Ghan (Adelaide – Darwin), Indian Pacific (Sydney – Perth), and Overland (Adelaide – Melbourne) will be suspended until May 31, with Journey Beyond monitoring the situation as it evolves. The future of The Overland service has been under a cloud for a years, and the train has only remained operational with subsidies from the Victorian and South Australian governments. The current funding arrangement expires on March 31, and with no new announcement forthcoming the premature cessation of services means The Overland has probably made its last run. The company says all guests with travel booked on their trains through to May 31 will be provided with a credit to the value of 110% of their original booking, which will be valid for travel at a later date up to December 31 2022.
  • The Czech Republic government has prohibited all cross-border passenger train, bus and boat services. The restrictions, which will remain in place for 30 days, will also affect international air passenger transport. Only road vehicles with nine or fewer people on board will be allowed to cross the border unless they are conveying Czech citizens returning to the country or foreigners leaving the Czech Republic. However, empty passenger trains will be allowed to cross the border.
  • Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has made changes to services to and from Italy that will remain in effect until April 5. On the Gotthard route, six Zürich to EuroCity trains will only operate between Chiasso and Zürich, within Switzerland. On the Simplon route, Geneva to Milan and Basle to Milan trains from Milan will only run within Switzerland.
  • Croatia is stopping people from infected areas entering the country and Slovenia has suspended cross-border services to Italy.
  • The Spanish rail industry is scaling back train services and manufacturing in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with a 95% drop in passenger demand, national operator Renfe has cut off-peak commuter services by 50% and peak services by 20%. The frequency of AVE high-speed and long-distance passenger trains has been cut still further from 50% to 30%. To maintain social distancing, only one-third of seats in trains still operating will be sold. Madrid Metro cut its operating hours on March 24, with the last trains now departing at midnight instead of 1.30 a.m. Train frequency has also been reduced as the metro is only carrying around 10% of its normal traffic. According to press reports, train builder CAF has temporarily suspended manufacturing at its factories in Spain.
  • In Saudi Arabia, all public transport services have shut down in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The government-ordered shutdown affects all passenger trains, buses, taxis and domestic air services. As far as rail is concerned, all trains services will stop running between Riyadh and Damman, on the North-South Railway linking Riyadh with Qassim, Hail and Al-Jauf near the Jordanian border, and the Haramain high-speed line linking Medina, Jeddah and Mecca. However, freight trains will continue to operate.
  • The International Railway Congress in Vienna, organized by Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and Russian Railways (RZD), originally scheduled for March 26–27, has been postponed until Autumn 2020. The organizers say registration to the event will remain open and all fees for the event will remain in place for the new congress date. 
  • The 7th Biennial International Railway Forum & Conference (IRFC) in Prague has been postponed from March 26–27 to November 30-December 2.
  • The Rail Industry Meetings event in Valenciennes, France, has also been rescheduled from March 25-26 to June 3-4.
  • The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has published a detailed set of guidelines for public transport operators in its Management of Covid-19 fact sheet, which is available to view on the UITP website.
  • The UITP/Mena transport congress and exhibition, due to take place in Dubai from April 13-15, has been rescheduled to October 5-7.
  • The EU Agency for Railways Rail Safety Days event, planned for May 26-28 in Valenciennes, has been cancelled, although the Agency intends to hold the event at a later date.
  • Terrapinn and Spain’s railway industry association Mafex have postponed the Rail Live conference and exhibition in Madrid on March 31-April 2. Postponement of Rail Live followed postponement of IT Trans in Germany on March 3-5, the Rail Forum Europe conference on the EU’s Green Deal on March 18, and the International Union of Railways’ (UIC) World Congress on High-Speed Rail in Beijing, which was due to take place June 30 to July 3.
  • InnoTrans 2020 (Sept. 22-25, Berlin) organizers have not announced postponement plans, instead choosing to ramp-up marketing efforts related to exhibitors from the cleaning industry: “Cleanliness and hygiene on buses, at stations, bus stops and on trains are becoming an increasingly important aspect for users of public transport and rail networks. This is also reflected in the growing size of the cleaning industry segment at InnoTrans 2020. In Hall 6.2 a variety of leading international companies will be exhibiting their innovative products for optimum cleanliness at InnoTrans. The focus this year is on efficient cleaning systems and those manufactured to customers’ specifications. The displays also include toilet waste disposal systems, washing units as well as cleaning agents, care products and disinfectants.”


By William C. Vantuono. These opinions are his, solely.

KUDOS TO UNION PACIFIC: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its onslaught, it has been discussed on various credible, reliable news media outlets (CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.) whether climate change—global warming, which is real—had a role in the outbreak. Given the effects of climate change—an increase in severe weather globally, flooding, population shifts, natural habitats destroyed and the effect on wildlife—it is likely a contributing factor. Disease does not exist in a vacuum.

We in this industry know that railways, freight and passenger, are the most environmentally friendly and safest transportation mode—bar none. There are numerous examples of what the industry is doing to be “greener” and, in effect, address climate change. Here’s one whose timing and intent is particularly encouraging:

Union Pacific on March 10 declared its intention “to set science-based targets to determine how much and how quickly the company will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to support global climate change goals. A commitment letter was submitted to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), which independently assesses corporate emissions reduction targets in line with what climate scientists say is needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals—limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The company’s target will use the SBTi’s Sectoral Decarbonization Approach Transport tool, which models targets for direct and indirect transportation emissions. Union Pacific anticipates finalizing its target and submitting it for approval to the SBTi within a year.”

It is encouraging that Union Pacific is in step with the Paris Agreement, an initiative the Trump Administration rejected and withdrew from soon after Trump took office in January 2016.

In the U.S., railroad freight cars bear reporting marks assigned by the Association of American Railroads that consist of two to four letters followed by a number of up to six digits and indicate ownership of the car. COVID-19 is not a designation that conforms to any legitimate reporting mark, nor to any other standard form of marking or identification one would find on a railroad tank car. If some entity were actually engaged in a conspiratorial, furtive spreading of a disease-causing virus, they’d be storing it in special containers packed in unmarked crates and loaded onto ordinary boxcars or containers, not transporting it via plainly labeled tank cars. A tank car labeled COVID-19 makes no sense, as COVID-19 is not a term that identifies a virus or any other physical material that can be transported by rail or other means. COVID-19 is the name of the coronavirus disease caused by a particular virus, so a tank car marked to display that it is carrying COVID-19 would be akin to a package bearing a label indicating that it contained DIABETES. In furtherance of an alleged conspiracy to spread the COVID-19 illness, the tank car would be carrying not COVID-19 but the virus known as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” or SARS-CoV-2 for short. This image is nothing more than a mildly amusing digital manipulation.

Reporting and analysis by David Briginshaw (IRJ), David Burroughs (IRJ), Andrew Corselli (Railway Age), Kevin Smith (IRJ), David Lester (RT&S), William C. Vantuono (Railway Age) and Bill Wilson (RT&S); plus Railway Age Contributing Editors Frank N. Wilner, Jim Blaze, Bruce Kelly and David Peter Alan.

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