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Station break

Editor James Bennett's column: Amtrak service reduction takes effect in Anniston

Amtrak greeting

Passengers wave goodbye at the Anniston station of Amtrak following a recent journey. (Staff photo by James Bennett)

Amtrak has cut passenger service in Anniston along its famed Crescent line from daily to three days a week, a representative of the railroad line told The Anniston Star.

The reduction, which was announced in June, comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and withered CARES Act funding, which ran out Sept. 30. The CARES Act, which provided $150 billion in relief to state and local governments and allowed Amtrak to maintain its seven-day schedule since March, was not extended by Congress.

Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said he was hopeful the schedule would return to seven days a week in 2021.

“It’s incredibly significant for us,” Draper said. “There’s only three Amtrak stations on this line in Alabama: Anniston, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. I cannot overstate the importance of Amtrak.”

Amtrak was forced to furlough 2,000 of 18,500 employees when CARES Act funding ran out. Another layoff seems inevitable, officials say. 

“We are hoping to restore daily service by next summer,” Amtrak public relations manager Marc Magliari said. “Not a lot of people are hopping on board during the pandemic.”

Amtrak’s ridership has plummeted by about 75 percent during the coronavirus outbreak.

 “While we have implemented initiatives to minimize the number of furloughs, significant reductions remain necessary due to the slow recovery of ridership and revenue,” Qiana Spain, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief human resource officer, said in a memo to employees last month.

That means Anniston will see a total of six trains coming through weekly, compared to the usual 14, or twice a day.

“Generally speaking, our riders are going from smaller towns, such as Anniston, to bigger towns, such as Atlanta or New Orleans,” Magliari said. “The mixture of people on a train is like the mix you see on highways. They travel for a lot of reasons.”

Trains going to Atlanta and points east and north will depart from Anniston at 3:59 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays until further notice.

Trains leaving Anniston for Birmingham and points west and south will leave town at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Scene from the train station

This week, the westbound train on Wednesday picked up only three passengers in Anniston. Charles and Beverly Nowell had ridden to Anniston on Tuesday night from Meridian, Miss., with Beverly’s mother, Kitty Baugus. Charles and Beverly celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary for one night at the Hotel Finial. The trio ordered dinner from Mata’s Greek Pizza on Quintard Avenue.

When they woke up Wednesday morning, the travelers returned to Anniston’s intermodal transportation center, arriving around 9:30 a.m. for the scheduled 10 a.m. train. The No. 19 Crescent was 30 minutes late.

“It was the first train trip for all three of us,” said Charles, who lives in Lauderdale, Miss., with his wife. “We just wanted to take a train trip.”

The ride from Meridian to Anniston took about five hours. They could have driven it in three hours.

“I liked it,” Beverly said of the trip. “It was a smooth ride; no hustle and bustle. I was just looking at the scenery and seeing things I’ve never seen before.”

Attracting riders from Atlanta

Anniston’s station at 126 W. Fourth St. serves as a regionwide transportation hub for Amtrak riders. Passengers come from as far away as west Georgia and Talladega and St. Clair counties in Alabama to ride. 

“Transportation is very important to jobs and tourism,” said Toby Bennington, Anniston’s director of economic development. “We understand why Amtrak has cut back service, but we also know it plans to bring it back to seven days a week.”

The city has been working with Amtrak on an ecotourism project that would allow cyclists on the Chief Ladiga Trail to load their bikes on the train, Bennington said. 

The trail eventually will have its southern end just outside the intermodal center. On the northern end, the trail connects to Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail at the state line, a route that extends nearly 100 miles to Alpharetta, Ga., in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

“Amtrak has been open to letting riders load their bikes onto the train, whether it’s going back to Atlanta or another destination,” Bennington said. “That might not mean hundreds of extra tourists at first, but as the Chief Ladiga Trail grows in popularity with riders, it will be a benefit for the city and our partner cities in the region.”

The Southern Rail Commission recently received a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration for Anniston station improvements. Anniston wants to extend its platform, Bennington said. Amtrak cannot effectively load bicycles without pulling up the train, delaying the train’s departure under its current configuration.

City Manager Steven Folks said the transit center was a good idea, providing a one-stop place to catch city buses, Greyhound and Amtrak.

“It’s always great to have alternatives,” Folks said. 

Upgrades to trains delayed

Amtrak, meanwhile, has been working overtime to reassure passengers of safety, including socially distancing passengers. 

Spacing has not been an issue on the Crescent, conductor Eugene Turner said as he boarded and offloaded passengers this week. The train was much shorter than usual, with only four coach cars, one sleeper car and an engine.

“We’ve done a lot during the pandemic to ensure passenger safety,” Magliari said. “We are not selling more than half of our coach seats on any train, for example. If you travel with someone, you can travel together.”

Amtrak has required contactless ticketing in the pandemic. No one at the Anniston station sells tickets.

“Our customers can buy tickets 52 weeks in advance if they want,” Magliari said.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak was upgrading the Crescent fleet. New dining cars were making their debut. Sleeping cars from the 1990s were being replaced. Diesel engines were going to be replaced next year.

“Most of our passengers ride in coach, so we’re replacing them with modern rail cars,” Magliari said. “The complete remake of the fleet might be delayed by the pandemic, but it’s on the drawing board, just like our return to full service.”

Under many Anniston city limits signs, another reads, “Proudly served by Amtrak.”

“We’re thankful for what Amtrak does for us,” Draper said.

James Bennett is executive editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at jbennett@annistonstar.com.

 

James Bennett is Executive Editor. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or jbennett@annistonstar.com.

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