Amtrak cuts back service to Okeechobee

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OKEECHOBEE —– Amtrak has announced it will be cutting back daily train service on their Silver Star service to only three to four days a week on July 6.

The move leaves Okeechobee, Tampa and Lakeland without daily train service.

In a memo to employees obtained by CNN, Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer Roger Harris described the reasoning for the cutbacks.

“This is an appropriate response, given the current and near-term market conditions,” read the memo by Harris. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, our ridership has been down by as much as 95% year-over-year. It’s climbing back slowly and it is going to take a long time to return to normal. The demand for our long-distance service is down by 70%, even as some U.S. states begin to reopen. We expect our system-wide ridership in Fiscal Year 2021 to be only 50% of what it was in 2019.”

Steve Sayles, president of the Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers, worries that although Amtrak says these cutbacks are temporary, they will eventually become permanent.

“Amtrak’s management has stated that these cuts are temporary,” said Sayles. “However, all of us remember that Amtrak service between New Orleans and Florida was ‘temporarily suspended’ for Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 and has yet to return. It’s been proven time and time again that scaling back daily trains to tri-weekly train service costs Amtrak more than it saves by driving away revenue needed to cover fixed costs. That will definitely happen with the intrastate Florida market.”

The number of passengers riding Amtrak in Okeechobee has climbed for the past three years, according to data collected by the Rail Passengers Association, from 3,935 in 2017 to 3,988 in 2018 and 4,109 in 2019.

Before the cutback, Amtrak’s Silver Star route traveled daily between New York City and Miami, with one of the stops along the route being Okeechobee.

“All of these stations are places where train service is vital, needed and well-patronized,” said Sayles of the Silver Star route. “Why are they being treated as flyover territory by Amtrak’s management? We strongly encourage you to contact your elected officials now to protest these moves. In addition to Florida’s two U.S. senators and your member of Congress, please consider alerting your local mayor, city council, county commission, visitors and convention bureau, and chamber of commerce and encourage all of them to speak up for daily Amtrak service across the national network.”

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