For nearly 50 years, most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains have operated daily.
But the coronavirus pandemic is about to change that: Starting on Oct. 1, almost all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains will go from daily to three days a week, with the exception of the Auto Train from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida.
Amtrak’s chief marketing and commercial officer, Roger Harris, told USA TODAY that the changes are not intended to be permanent: “It’s fully our intention to go back to daily.”
But the temporary cuts will affect numerous majority-Black communities in southern states. More than half of the African Americans in the U.S. live in the South, census data show, and they use Amtrak more than the general population.
African Americans are 13% of the U.S. population, but 19% of Amtrak’s ridership, according to a recent passenger survey. Though Amtrak did not provide ridership data on race by route, its trains serve numerous majority-Black communities throughout the South.
One example is Greenwood, Mississippi, population 13,561. According to the U.S. Census, 71% of its residents are African American. According to Amtrak, Greenwood is the second-busiest stop on the City of New Orleans between Memphis and New Orleans.
The busiest stop on the route is Jackson, Mississippi, where 82% of its 160,628 residents are Black. Memphis, population 651,073, is 64% Black.
New Orleans, the southern anchor of both the Crescent and the City of New Orleans, has 390,144 residents, nearly 60% of whom are Black.
Birmingham, Alabama, on the Crescent route, with 209,435 residents, is 70% Black.
Amtrak received $1 billion in relief funds in legislation Congress approved in April to blunt the pandemic’s impact. The railroad later requested more funding to keep its trains operating at regular service levels, but lawmakers have shown little inclination they will provide it.
“We have asked Congress for enough money to sustain us,” Harris said, adding, “We’ve been careful with our funds.”
Connection was established in Great Migration
Though Amtrak was created in 1970, and it inherited trains that for decades played a role in transporting the wave of African Americans from the South to their new lives in northern and western cities, known as the Great Migration.
The trains include the City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans; the Crescent from New York to New Orleans; the Palmetto from New York to Savannah, Georgia; and the Silver Star and Silver Meteor from New York to Miami.
The railroads that originally operated these trains — the Illinois Central, the Southern, the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line and the Pennsylvania Railroad — have since merged into other companies.
In-depth: Trains made the Great Migration possible. They remain a connection for Black Americans.
Amtrak now operates their trains, largely on the same rails, with sleeping compartments and dining cars just as those railroads did in the earlier era when 6 million African Americans left the south for cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, many of them by train.
By the time Amtrak took over the few trains that remained, travelers had largely abandoned passenger trains for automobiles, buses and planes.
Still, the coming schedule changes will interrupt a connection between North and South that’s existed for generations of descendants of the Great Migration, some of whom still ride the train back and forth.
Harris said Amtrak recognizes the role the predecessor railroads played in the Great Migration.
“You see a really strong reflection of that history,” Harris said, in the passengers who ride the trains today.
One of them is Carolyn Stagger Cokley, director of customer programs for the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group in Washington.
She has a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, in October, to celebrate the college graduation of her twin nephews.
Amtrak’s schedule changes will affect Cokley’s trip. She’s planning to go a day or two early and stay a day or two later.
“We’ll be boarding Amtrak and heading to Charleston,” she said. “We’ll plan our time around the schedule.”
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