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U.S. Rail Travel News, Bargains and Best Buys – July 20

A Wolverine train at Ann Arbor in 2019 by Michael Barera via Wikimedia Commons A Wolverine train at Ann Arbor in 2019 by Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Headline News

  • Canada announced that fully vaccinated travelers from the U.S. will be able to cross the border without any additional testing or quarantine, starting Aug. 9. Travel to Canada remains iffy, however, because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still requires a special test for returning travelers even if they are vaccinated. I am guessing this will change soon, but you cannot count of a hassle-free cross-border trip until Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially changes its requirements.
  • The Coast Starlight route in northern California is now expected to remain closed until at least September1—the time required to repair a key bridge damaged by a wildfire. Amtrak plans to operate the Starlight in two sections, one between Los Angeles and Sacramento and the second between Klamath Falls and Seattle, with a bus “bridge” filling in the gap. Although the bus bridge fills a base transportation need, it obviously kills the idea of the Starlight as a pleasant extended train trip. The Union Pacific plans an alternate routing for freight—almost surely Sacramento to Klamath Falls via the Inland Gateway route—but not for the Starlight.
  • Amtrak has resumed the full schedules of the Ethan Allen Express, from New York to Rutland, and the Vermonter, from Washington to St. Albans as of yesterday (July 19). The Ethan Allen will be extended to central Burlington sometime next year, and—possibly—either it or the Vermonter will someday research Montreal. Meanwhile, the Adirondack remains curtailed at Albany, and the Maple Leaf at Niagara Falls, pending reopening of the Canadian border.
  • Top speeds on much of Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service corridor are rising from 79 to 90 mph. Amtrak plans no immediate schedule changes, but the new 90-mph limit is a steppingstone on the way to 110 mph. That 110-mph figure is Amtrak’s target for a general level of “not true high speed but high enough” performance using conventional equipment on conventional roadbeds. European experience suggests that formula can work at speeds up to 125 mph without incurring the astronomical costs of dedicated 200-mph roadbeds and equipment.
  • Yet, 110 mph, or even 90, will be hard to achieve, in part because so many of the railroads operating heavy-traffic lines radiating from Chicago have long since reduced from former double track to single track with sidings. This includes lines Amtrak uses including the former Alton line to St. Louis, the former Milwaukee line from Milwaukee to St. Paul, the former Illinois Central to New Orleans, and several others. I do not see any game-changer options anywhere on these routes.
  • President Biden’s sweeping Executive Order promoting competition last week contains little of interest to passenger rail travel. The one specific recommendation calls for “vigorous” enforcement of existing rules requiring freight railroads to give priority track access to Amtrak trains. Stronger enforcement would be welcome, given that interference from freight trains is a major source of delays for Amtrak’s intercity services.
  • Share Fares are back: That’s the Amtrak promotion offering discounts for group purchase, ranging from 15% for a second traveler to 60% for a third traveler and 70% for the fourth through sixth. On average that gives 45% off for the whole party, including the first traveler paying full fare. It is not of much use to couples, since comparable discounts are available through several other sources, but it is a great deal for three or more. The deal applies on all service except Acela, Hartford Line, Capitol Corridor, Hiawatha, Keystone Service, Canadian section of the Maple Leaf, Pacific Surfliner, Pennsylvanian, Valley Flyer and Vermonter, and applies to coach seats only, with no upgrades. Buy two days before travel; no closing date specified.
  • Otherwise, Amtrak is close to normal except for transborder Canadian links. Regional and local systems are restoring service, although most remain at a lower level than pre-Covid.
  • Amtrak requires advance reservations on Pacific Surfliner trips on heavy-travel weekends of July 16-19 and Sept. 3-7.
  • In the Santa Clara Valley (Silicon Valley), the local transit agency has delayed plans to resume canceled light rail service, now sometime in August or September, still with no date certain. The entire rail system has been down since May following a mass shooting at the line’s rail yard.
  • In the Chicago area, Metra has extended its supposedly “temporary” $10 all-day pass program through Sept. 30. Apparently, it has become an unexpected bestseller, so do not be surprised if it ultimately becomes permanent.

Other Amtrak Doings

  • Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and local Coaster rail service will be canceled on a few weekends through late 2021 to allow work on the coastal bluff at Del Mar. Southern terminals for some trains will be Los Angeles and Irvine for others, with bus replacement. Dates vary, so check before you plan a trip.

Conventional Amtrak Deals: General Conditions

Except where noted, all Amtrak promotions apply to coach travel only; discounts apply to full-fare tickets and cannot be combined with other discounts; most deals entail blackout dates; seats are limited; some promotions do not apply to all trains; most promotions make provisions for one or two children accompanying each adult traveler. Companion and most children’s deals require all travelers to travel together. Amtrak also offers other minor deals and promotions. In most cases, the Amtrak website automatically computes and displays eligible discounts for any trip you enter. Check for details and booking.

Standard Ongoing Discounts

Amtrak routinely offers modest discounts to certain travelers. For the most part, these discounts apply only to coach travel and are generally not combinable. Most routine discounts do not apply to weekday Acela Express trains, and many do not apply to some Thruway bus travel. When you enter itineraries and personal details, the Amtrak website automatically computes discounted fares. Discounts are subject to capacity control.

  • Senior: 10% discount for travelers aged 65 or over except on cross-border travel with VIA Rail, where the minimum age is 60. Senior discount is not valid on business class (except limited Acela options), Auto Train, Saver fares or sleeper accommodations. 50% senior discount on Downeaster trains. 15% discount for seniors aged 62 or over on Capitol Corridor, Pacific Sunliner and San Joaquins; any-age advance purchase fares may be lower.
  • Disability: 10% discount for travelers with disabilities and traveling companions, with appropriate ID. 50% discount on Downeaster trains.
  • Children: One child aged 2-12 travels for 50% off with an adult age 18 or over.
  • Military: 10% discount for travelers on active duty and their spouses/dependents, including travel on Auto Train, excluding Canadian portion of transborder trains.
  • NARP: 10% discount for members of National Association of Railroad Passengers with three-day advance purchase.
  • “Share Fares:” Average 35% discount for groups of up to six traveling together with three-day advance purchase. Works best for groups of 3 or more; ends soon.
  • Veterans: 10% discounts for veterans; applies to all coach seats and business class on Acela. Check “Military Veteran” in the booking window. Proof of veteran status can be required. Also, 15% discounts in California on Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquins for veterans and family members, ending Dec. 31, 2021.

Advance-Purchase Discounts

  • Amtrak routinely offers Saver Fares discounts of 15% to 25% on most trains with 14-day advance purchase. These discounts are limited to coach class and to Saturday and select off-peak Acela business class trips.

Time-Limited Promotions

  • Capitol Corridor: Up to 5 companions: 50% discounts on most dates, now through Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Short-Term “low fare” promotions: Amtrak regularly selects individual routes to cut normal fares by as much as 50%. Discounts require 7- 14-day advance purchase.
  • Northeast Corridor: BOGO free companion ticket on Acela and Northeast Regional trains for Saturday travel. Buy through at least three days in advance, through Aug. 21, 2021, with no travel dates specified.

Other U.S. Rail

  • Everywhere: communities around the country are using the low pandemic traffic levels as opportunities to maintain and upgrade their light rail, metro and heavy suburban rail systems. This means temporary shutdowns of various lines at various times, typically with substitute bus service. I will try to highlight major changes, but I cannot keep up with every local transit system. Check any city you plan to visit. Ditto major tourist lines, many of which are reopening this summer.
  • Brightline, the private rail system that links Miami with West Palm Beach in South Florida, announced resumption of hourly service in the fourth quarter of this year. Tri-Rail and SunRail continue to operate with modified schedules.
  • Rocky Mountaineer’s first trip to Banff this summer seems to have slipped to July, and the first trip to Moab, Utah, will be mid-August, but all schedules are contingent on the border status.

See our report on rail news outside the U.S..

Ed Perkins, editor

For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel

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