Going by train vs. plane: Is taking Amtrak safer than flying during COVID-19?

DETROIT – As segments of society reopen and the world rushes to get vaccinated, more Americans may lose their fear of flying and once again crowd airports and airplanes.

Those still wary of catching COVID-19 may wonder: Is taking a train safer?

Amtrak doesn’t directly make that claim on its website, but the rail system’s officials posted videos that agree with experts on viral transmission: Amtrak trains are probably safer than planes for avoiding the virus.

Amtrak rider Erin Silverman of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, got off the train on the night of Feb. 5 in Troy, after riding the rails all the way to and from Denver. Silverman, a travel agent who operates a Cruise Planners franchise from her home, said she was impressed with Amtrak’s COVID-19 precautions.

“They were very serious about having people wear masks. They announced several times, you must wear the mask over your nose and mouth, or we can kick you off,” she said.

Another safety factor? Airline seating is much more confined than the seating on Amtrak cars, Silverman said.

“Delta is the only airline that is still blocking the middle seat. All the others have people right next to you,” she said. In contrast, Amtrak conductors “were very strict about keeping everyone socially distanced.” Silverman called her trip “a relaxing way to travel.”

In late January, airline executives and employees told reporters they welcomed an executive order by President Joe Biden, who ordered mask-wearing on all airplane flights as well as on other public transit that crosses state lines. Biden’s order came after months of sporadic voluntary enforcement of mask-wearing by airlines and after a petition from Consumer Reports magazine, signed by more than 60,000 people, demanding a government rule for masking during flights.

Amtrak mandated masks for all passengers and employees beginning last spring. The rail service announced that it would begin strictly monitoring where passengers sit and how many board each car.

“In 2019, we were selling every seat – now we’re filling only half of each train’s capacity, and we’re strongly encouraging people to sit apart,” said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak.

Passengers get off the Amtrak train at the Troy Transit Center in Michigan on Feb. 5. Amtrak mandated masks for all passengers and employees last spring and monitors where passengers sit and how many board each car.

Magliari said, “We have significantly more spacing (than airlines and buses) between our seats. We have no middle seats, so each passenger either is seated beside a companion or you have an empty seat next to you.”

Trains are safer than planes, in part, because many stations have open-air platforms where travelers board, Aaron Rossi told USA TODAY in October. That’s far less risky than the indoor settings of airport security lines and waiting areas where passengers gather and sit before boarding. Rossi is a medical doctor in Pekin, Illinois, and CEO of Reditus Laboratories, a company that conducts coronavirus testing.

Amtrak’s ridership hit an all-time record nationwide in 2019, then skidded by about 90% in April when cases of COVID-19 began soaring. Since then, ridership crept partway back to its prepandemic level while Amtrak operated fewer trains and strictly enforced social distancing in coaches that could carry twice as many passengers.

Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 when the nation’s railroads said they’d no longer carry passengers. For decades since, the system struggled to get funding and to upgrade service on routes such as the Wolverine, Amtrak’s line that links Chicago to Detroit, then runs north through Oakland County to Royal Oak, Troy and Pontiac.

Amtrak ridership is slowly approaching prepandemic levls.

For decades, improvements crept at the pace of a freight train inching through a switchyard. Then in 2009, Amtrak installed a high-tech safety system on 97 miles of track it owns in western Michigan reaching into Indiana. Those improvements allowed all Amtrak trains in that stretch to bump up their speeds. Since 2012, they’ve rolled as fast as 110 mph there.

About five years ago, while ridership was rising after the Great Recession, Amtrak launched a long-awaited modernization effort. Finally, the signals of change are growing obvious. Despite the setback of the pandemic, riders can climb aboard not only what Amtrak touts as a safe mode of travel but also one that’s improving.

In Michigan, a clear example is a batch of upgraded locomotives, and new passenger cars are soon to arrive. On Jan. 25, a test train with no passengers pulled new coaches from Chicago to Pontiac, then back to Chicago on Jan. 26. The coaches, built in the USA by the German multinational company Siemens, will be pulled by almost-new Siemens Charger locomotives, which Amtrak introduced in the Midwest in 2018 and 2019, according to Amtrak officials.

An Amtrak train approaches the Troy Transit Center in Michigan on Feb. 5. Amtrak mandated masks for all passengers and employees last spring.

Siemens said these SC-44 Charger locomotives have a top speed of 125 mph, although they can’t roll nearly that fast just yet between the Motor City and the Windy City. Each boasts a 4,400-horsepower diesel engine made by manufacturer Cummins in Indiana, which generates electricity that powers four electric motors to turn the drive wheels. The locomotives burn about 10% less diesel fuel per mile than the old engines they are replacing and spew far less pollution, reducing by about 90% the two banes of diesel exhaust – oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter, the diesel “soot” that’s noxious to human lungs.

The new cars could be put into service as soon as this spring, said Michael Frezell, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which purchased the cars and owns much of the track Amtrak uses between Detroit and Chicago.

What’s holding back higher speeds across Michigan? The need to extend safety systems and upgrade more track, officials said.

East of Kalamazoo, where the track needs improving, Amtrak’s maximum speed is 79 mph. Amtrak hopes this slower stretch of track, owned by MDOT since 2012, can be upgraded by the end of 2022. When that happens, Amtrak could reach its potential to consistently outshine the experience of driving a car from Detroit to Chicago, offering lower costs, less time and more convenience – not to mention no fear of getting a dreaded three-figure parking ticket in Chicagoland.

Signs remind passengers to keep social distance at the Troy Transit Center.

Once Americans are vaccinated and people return to flying, can Amtrak maintain its momentum and rebuild its ridership to prepandemic levels, then keep it growing? All of that may, literally, require an act of Congress.

Last year, the rail system’s executives – along with their boosters in the nonprofit Rail Passengers Association – hoped to cap their record-breaking ridership numbers in 2019 with a crucial win in Congress that would give Amtrak the legal clout for its trains to take precedence over the freight trains that it says so often cause delays. After COVID-19’s onrush, that hope was shunted to a political siding.

Federal law says freight trains must yield to passenger trains when both want to use the same track. Too often, freight operators ignore the rule, according to Amtrak.

The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported last year that Amtrak’s trains had become routinely late across much of the nation, and Michigan trains were the very latest. Nationwide, Amtrak was on time 60% to 70% of the time in many states in 2019. In Michigan, the on-time rate was 43%. On the popular route from Chicago to Detroit to Pontiac, on-time performance occurred just 33% of the time. Amtrak officials documented the late arrivals with detailed records of “freight train interference,” showing a chronic problem of passenger trains forced to wait while freight trains crawled ahead.

In a letter dated Jan. 22, Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn, who took the top job last spring, sent a letter to each member of Congress, citing Amtrak’s 50th anniversary this year. Flynn asked for “a predictable and long-term source of federal funding” to continue modernizing the system.

An Amtrak train arrives at the Troy Transit Center in Troy on Feb. 5, 2021.

More money, to buy faster locomotives and sleek new cars on upgraded track, can’t do much for train travelers if a poky freight train blocks their way. Flynn asked Congress to give Amtrak the right to sue freight rail operations in federal court, “so we can ensure our customers are not unnecessarily delayed by freight trains and arrive on time.”

If the lawmakers see it Amtrak’s way, many more travelers may ride the rails for reasons other than COVID-19 concerns.

Contact Bill Laitner: blaitner@freepress.com

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