It’s being called the summer from hell, as the wave of travel demand following two-plus years of COVID-induced confinement has overwhelmed operators across multiple modes of transportation.
The reasons for today’s tumultuous travel landscape have reportedly ranged from staffing shortages and equipment deficits to unforeseen traveler volumes and too-frequent incidents of extreme weather.
Not only did carriers reduce their workforces to bare minimums during the pandemic, they also sold off or decommissioned portions of their fleets (aircraft, ships, cars, etc.), and reduced or discontinued service to smaller markets.
Now, airlines and airports, in particular, are having a hard time ramping operations back up, and hiring and training enough staff to handle the influx of flyers returning to the skies. It’s led to widespread and ongoing flight disruptions, with crowding, confusion and long lines at airports.
But, although air passengers are bearing the brunt of the chaos, flyers aren’t alone in their anguish—rail travelers are also encountering their share of miseries this busy summer season.
The Washington Post reported that Amtrak is contending with a similar spate of delays and cancellations, long lines and extended customer service wait times. Intercity train operations are suffering this summer, as staffing shortages and other challenges conflict with an increased demand for rail service that’s already rebounded nearly to pre-pandemic levels. Railroad officials said that about 80 percent of Amtrak’s service has been restored to 2019 levels, although the company can’t currently increase capacity without more staff to run the trains.
“It’s travel hell for everybody,” said Jim Mathews, President and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “The airlines are terrible right now. Gas prices are crushing budgets. Hotels are a mess. Everything is crowded. And, yeah, Amtrak is not immune.”
According to Amtrak’s own on-time performance reports, over one-quarter of its customers encountered delays during the month of June. Its data also shows that the portion of passengers experiencing delays is on the rise and that those delays are getting longer.
The service disruptions are also more onerous for those traveling in areas of the U.S. outside the Northeast Corridor and on long-distance routes, which are shown to be late more than half of the time.
“We’re facing the same challenges as other travel segments,” Amtrak president Roger Harris said in an interview. “We know it’s a tough summer…We certainly expected delays and cancellations, but we tried to get ahead of it as much as possible.”
Amtrak’s cancellation numbers have also risen, although they remain relatively rare. Between Memorial Day weekend and mid-July, slightly more than one percent of trains across the passenger rail network wound up getting canceled.
Amtrak’s problems have been less severe than the air travel sector’s, in part because it avoids overbooking—a common practice among airlines. The company has maintained enough flexibility to be able to add trains as demand increases, with its passengers purchasing tickets closer to their trip dates.
Climate conditions have also impacted train travel, as frequent heat waves across the country have necessitated slower speeds for both passenger trains and the freight trains with which they share the track. High temperatures can cause the metal rails themselves to expand, requiring railroads to follow special safety protocols and run trains at slower speeds.