Amtrak gives letter grades to freight railroads

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WASHINGTON — Amtrak has been collecting data on the duration and causes of delay to its trains since at least 2009 and has been publishing this data in monthly reports since then, as required by the 2008 passenger rail authorization law. But Tuesday marked the first time the passenger carrier has given each of its Class I host railroads a letter grade based on the number of minutes of host-caused delay per 10,000 train miles.

Amtrak’s “Host Railroad Report Card & FAQ” gives failing grades to Norfolk Southern and Canadian National, a "C" grade to CSX Transportation, a "B-" to Union Pacific, a "B+" to BNSF Railway and the highest marks to Canadian Pacific. The report notes that the host railroads are “highly profitable” and that Amtrak pays them $142 million annually for use of their tracks and other resources needed to operate passenger trains.

“An 'F' host forces Amtrak trains on a particular route to wait one hour and 40 minutes, on average, for freight trains, and forces many Amtrak trains on this route to wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes,” the report reads. “As a comparison, suppose you were on a flight and your plane had to circle the destination airport for one hour and 40 minutes while cargo flights were given priority to use the runway.”

Amtrak’s report also faults the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to enforce the government corporation’s statutory right of preference over freight trains in dispatching, and says the incentives it pays hosts for good performance have little impact.

“Freight railroads suffer no significant consequences for prioritizing their freight over our country’s rail passengers,” Amtrak claims.

Trains News Wire reached out to the three lowest-ranked host railroads for comment.

“We continuously work with Amtrak to provide reliable passenger service, and give Amtrak trains priority on our lines, including over [our] own freight trains,” says CN spokesman Patrick Waldron. “The on-time performance for Amtrak trains operating on CN tracks has been solid for the last two years, in the range of 80 to 95 percent, based on agreed upon measures in the contract between CN and Amtrak.”

“While the issue of on-time performance is more complex than a single letter grade implies, we are committed to working with Amtrak to meet our contractual obligations to them, and to support passenger rail as a safe, efficient transportation alternative in the U.S.,” says a CSX spokesperson, adding that CSX hosts more passenger trains than any other U.S. host railroad and “takes Amtrak’s performance very seriously.”

Norfolk Southern did not respond to Trains News Wire’s request for comment before press time.

“Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National are also the railroads in the news for being unable to keep their freight deliveries on time,” says Trains columnist Fred Frailey. “As I’ve discovered time after time, passenger trains are the canary in the coal mine. When they cannot make their achievable schedules, it usually means the host railroad is also in a world of woe.”
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