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Ed Perkins on Travel: Rail update — What we know now

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Interior of railcar on a ViaRail train on its way to Toronto, with a Via Rail Paper Coffee Cup in foreground.

Passenger railroads are coping with post-COVID re-opening along with the rest of the travel industry, although, as with most things railroad, a bit more slowly than the other players. Here's what I think we know as of mid-June.

Amtrak

Amtrak has made two big readjustments, thanks in part to more money from the government:

— Former long-haul daily trains, previously trimmed to three days a week, have resumed daily operation.

— Long-haul trains in the West will resume providing real cooked-to-order dining car meals starting this week.

Most short-haul trains are inching back close to pre-COVID schedules. Cross-border trains, however, remain totally canceled, pending whatever happens with the re-opening of the Canadian border, generally.

The resumption of real dining car service on the western long-haul trains is likely to be a big winner. All the surveys I've seen indicate that folks who spend the time and money to travel in Amtrak sleepers do so, to a large extent, to enjoy the "land cruise" experience of overnight trains. Flying and buses would both be cheaper, faster, and less expensive, but the overall deluxe train journey experience is unique. And it really needs full, traditional dining car service, not those pre-packaged and microwaved meals Amtrak served for a while. If real meals are as important as I think they are, Amtrak can well afford to increase fares enough to cover whatever extra costs are involved.

Over the last year or so, Amtrak has been cutting the number of train-specific discount programs. Instead, it has been featuring brief flash sales of discounts, BoGos, companion tickets, and such, plus its standard, year-round 10 percent to 15 percent discounts for seniors, disabled, and veterans, along with group deals, half-fares for kids age 2 to 12, and a few special deals on Downeaster and Capitol Corridor. Most sales and discounts apply only to coach travel, not sleeper or Acela.

Regional and local rail systems around the country are also resuming services, although reports indicate that many areas are having trouble keeping up with rapidly expanding demand. Of special note to tourists: San Francisco gets its cable cars back this September.

Canada

Canada is still closed to travelers from the U.S., at least until July 21, and it's anybody's guess when the border will reopen to easy travel. VIARail's iconic transcontinental train, the Canadian, remains limited to one Toronto-Vancouver round-trip per week. Rocky Mountain Express private sightseeing trains are currently scheduled to resume in July and August, but that's obviously iffy.

Europe

The outlook for summer travel to Europe is a toss up. One week we hear about widespread reopening, the next week another lockdown. The industry is talking about unfettered travel for vaccinated visitors, but with no specifics.

If you're in a mood to roll the dice, Eurail is selling its family of Eurail Passes at a 10 percent discount through the end of the month. If you buy, you have 11 months to travel, and if you can't, the pass is 85 percent refundable. But keep in mind that stiff mandatory seat reservation fees mean that trips on many of the top high-speed trains are far from "free" to passholders. The French-Swiss Lyria trains are the worst offenders, with reservation fees only a few euros less than the cheapest individual tickets on some trains, including fees.

Big Project Delays

Sadly, outside China, big-deal rail projects are nearly always plagued by big delays. That's the case for five large-scale efforts, all of great interest to U.S. travelers, that were supposed to be delivered this year or before:

— East Side Access by Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Station, now slated for 2022.

— Amtrak's new second-generation high-speed Avelia trainsets, now targeted at "spring 2022," at best.

— New people-mover at O'Hare airport, now maybe late this year.

— Caltrain electrification, currently expected in maybe 2024.

— London's Crossrail, or "Elizabeth Line," not opening until at least spring, 2021.

Don't even ask about Hudson River tunnels or California's true high-speed rail.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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