Happening Now

Delivering a New Standard of Travel

June 26, 2020

Making Passengers Feel Safer While Also Making Them Actually Safer

By Jim Mathews / President and CEO

During a week in which the U.S. recorded more new COVID cases than we have in any other week since the pandemic began, Amtrak is positioning itself – wisely – as a safer travel alternative as we all wait for better coronavirus treatments and, ultimately, a safe and effective vaccine.

The railroad this week put its medical director Dr. Ann Kuhnen front-and-center in a video to explain in detail what Amtrak is doing to keep its trains and stations clean and its passengers safe.



The video shows passengers tangibly what’s being done to disinfect trains, to promote social distancing protocols in coaches and to keep food-service close to contact-less. It’s not slick advertising, but instead more of a factual review. It’s comforting and effective.

Coupled with new advertisements promoting the ability to isolate in sleeping accommodations aboard long-distance trains, Amtrak is highlighting features of rail travel that makes it uniquely suited to travel during a period of heightened risk.

These characteristics also position passenger rail and Amtrak to be important contributors to stabilizing our pandemic-battered economy by facilitating re-opening and travel that is safe and not reckless.

Congress and the members of the Transportation Research Forum heard from another expert this week that the U.S. air travel system, while doing its best, is behind the curve when it comes to pandemic preparedness. Heather Krause of the U.S. Government Accountability Office told a TRF webinar that airports’ and airlines’ patchwork, piecemeal approach illustrate the need for a national preparedness plan to understand rules, responsibilities and communication among all the entities.

Five years ago, GAO recommended such a plan, urging the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to take it up in the wake of an Ebola outbreak. DOT instead tried to punt to Homeland Security. As of today, there’s still no plan and no group put together to work on one, GAO says.

Krause told lawmakers this week that the U.S. needs the aviation and public-health sectors to come together to develop ways to mitigate risk. She noted that the hearing at which she testified featured discussion about disinfected aircraft, discussion of various air circulation strategies – but still more needs to be done to understand what works best.

We reported in the June 5th Hotline that Rail Passengers has taken a leadership role in trying to make what Krause suggests happen for the entire U.S. transportation network. On June 4, alongside Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory, I co-hosted an initial briefing for some 60 railroad leaders, engineers and regulators from FRA, the Federal Transit Administration, and other agencies, with a goal much like that Krause outlined this week.

Our goal was to open a channel of communication so that industry and regulators, who are trying to navigate compliance and safety, can talk with medical and public-health professionals who now believe that cleaning the air that passengers and crews share is the key to keeping the transportation network safe enough not only to re-open but at a level of safety that gives the traveling public the confidence to return.

We convened an interdisciplinary group of medical and public-health engineering professionals from Texas A&M University, Auburn University, Purdue University and the U.S. Air Force’s Air University.

Our group explained the clean-air strategy to some 60 attendees from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Dept. of Transportation, Amtrak, the American Public Transportation Association and more than a dozen commuter railroads from around the country.

Our group strongly supports traditional steps such as social distancing, contact-tracing, aggressive testing, isolation, surface disinfection and expanded use of PPE – especially individual travelers and crews wearing masks. But they also told the regulators and operators that by themselves this is not enough, especially given that the latest science suggests that COVID-19 transmission is primarily airborne rather than through surface contamination.

We continue to believe strongly in our recommendations to increase air turnover with fresh outdoor air and increase air turnover with fresh air from existing ventilation systems, to install physical barriers between people where they share air, to provide directional air flow as a virtual barrier between passengers and others, and to mitigate air flow hazards in public indoor spaces like bathrooms and elevators by stepping up filtering of shared indoor air with virus/bacteria/mold-killing technologies using ultraviolet light, ceramic filtration, or both.

We also support installing pathogen-scavenging technology that provides a continuous level of protection using ionized compounds (vaporized low-level Hydrogen Peroxide, Hypochlorous Acid, etc.), repurposed to target aerosolized or vaporized COVID-19, as well as other pathogens that may be encountered in the future.

We’ve reached out to GAO’s Krause and hope to include her in our efforts.