Amtrak’s Cardinal: Three Times a Week Just Doesn’t Cut It.

From time to time, I’ve complained here about the folly of operating trains on a less-than-daily schedule. Amtrak has two such trains in its long-distance system: the Sunset Limited running between New Orleans and Los Angeles, and the Cardinal, which takes a southerly route between Chicago and New York. Both trains run in each direction, but just three days a week … and ridership for both suffers as a result.

Case in point: The Cardinal.

I’ll start by saying this is one of my favorite trains. It passes through some absolutely beautiful areas – the New River Gorge, the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains – and stops at the Greenbrier Resort, Charlottesville and Washington along the way. 

But the Cardinal’s three-days-a-week schedule makes it difficult to book. Chances are literally four to three that it’s schedule won’t mesh with yours. For example, the annual Fall meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers will be held next October in Indianapolis, which is one of the Cardinal’s station stops. 

The meetings will be held on a weekend, concluding on Sunday afternoon. The eastbound Cardinal doesn’t get to Indianapolis until midnight, but the problem is the three-days-a-week schedule: it doesn’t run on Sunday. Or Monday either. So NARP members, finished with their meetings on Sunday afternoon would have to wait until Tuesday night to take the Cardinal back east.

Instead, they will have to go back to Chicago and take the Capitol Limited or the Lake Shore Limited. A daily Cardinal would make all the difference and get everyone home a day earlier. It would certainly boost the train’s ridership.

Photo above: Highlight of the Cardinal’s route is its run through the New River Gorge.

I went out of my way to book the Cardinal when I travel to NARP’s meeting in Washington, DC, next April. Of course, the three-day-a-week schedule would get me to Washington two days before our meetings begin and, with the sky-high cost of hotel rooms in Washington, that was a real consideration. I came up with a good solution, however: I’ll get off the Cardinal in Charlottesville, Virginia, and take a day to visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, which is located there. The next morning, I’ll hop on one of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains right into Washington.

My visit to Monticello will be an interesting experience and I’m looking forward to it. But a daily Cardinal would be a lot more convenient and, by the way, it would without doubt have a positive impact on ridership and, of course, on revenue.