BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – As Iowa Bridge and Culvert literally makes its way to Fort Madison to start construction on the new Amtrak platform at the city depot, Amtrak officials are releasing cuts to it’s Southwest Chief stops in Fort Madison.
The cuts are being labeled as temporary cuts due to decreased ridership on the heels of the COVID outbreak and Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said Thursday morning he believes they will be temporary.
“I have all confidence that ridership is going to come back up,” Mohrfeld said.
“The depot – BNSF still wants it out of their rail yard and they are fully committed. Does it mean less trains for a while, yeah.”
Amtrak currently runs the Southwest Chief daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, including stops in Fort Madison to and from. It also runs the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco with stops in Burlington. Both of those routes will be reduced to three stops per week beginning Oct. 1. Nine more other long-distance routes are also being cut to three days per week.
In addition, according to a report in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Amtrak may be looking for an extra infusion of $1.5 billion in federal funding to stay afloat.
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said ridership was on trajectory in the fall and winter to beat record numbers seen during the last fiscal year. But the COVID outbreak sent ridership plummeting in March and April to about 10% of normal.
“This is just a temporary change,” Magliari told Pen City Current Thursday. “Certainly a lot of people have scaled back their travel. We have Congressional funding through Sept. 30, but after that we thought it was prudent to reduce capacity until demand is back up.”
In a statement emailed Thursday morning Magliari wrote that the passenger rail system’s goal is to restore service as soon as demand warrant, hopefully by next summer.
“Due to the long-term impact of Covid-19 on ridership, Amtrak has made the decision to operate with reduced capacity through FY21. As we have already made adjustments to our Northeast Corridor (NEC) and state-supported services, the next adjustment is with our long-distance trains, which we plan to reduce to three days per week, beginning October 1, 2020. Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021,” he wrote.
The statement also said Amtrak expects a 20% reduction in staff and is offering a voluntary incentive package as a first step in adjusting its workforce.
The city is in the final stages of relocating the Amtrak Depot to Riverview Park. Mohrfeld said crews should be in town yet this week or the beginning of next week to start that project.
City Manager David Varley said the announcement was unwelcome news.
“It’s not news we take lightly and nothing we were hoping for,” he said. They would not guarantee would always be a stop, but they gave us verbal guarantees that the Southwest Chief would continue to run. But they couldn’t give us anything in writing.”
Varley said about $2.8 million has been spent in preparing the historical museum and depot property for the eventual relocation of the depot. The city’s contribution to the project, including the new platform construction is right around $900,000.
“You know this whole thing from day 1 has been a gamble and Amtrak has been in trouble. They’ve been going to Congress about cutting service on long distance trains,” Varley said.
“But there’s a strong group of rural representatives and groups advocating to not cut back on those as in some places it’s one of the few methods of transportation that people in sparsely populated states have.”
He said data indicated the number of people getting off trains in Fort Madison and was averaging about 17 people per day and has dwindled more in since the pandemic.