'City of New Orleans' schedule whipsawed by CN

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Amtrak_maintenance_Johnston
Maintenance equipment waits for the City of New Orleans to pass in 2007.
Bob Johnston

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Changing Canadian National maintenance priorities, coupled with conflicting information Amtrak provides to its customers, is causing confusion and inconvenience for passengers traveling on the City of New Orleans.

On March 26, just nine days ahead of the change, Amtrak posted an advisory at stations and on its website that the schedule of its Chicago-New Orleans service would be shifted 3 hours earlier for both northbound and southbound trains, beginning April 4.

The abruptly announced revision, devised to create a daytime trackwork window on CN’s Yazoo Subdivision south of Greenwood, Miss., between April 4 and May 8, severely disrupted three segments — Chicago-Carbondale, Ill; Chicago-Memphis; and Memphis-New Orleans — which generate substantial business:

— There would no longer be a “last train of the day” out of Chicago after 8 p.m. for downstate Illinois passengers; the 5:20 p.m. City of New Orleans departure would be only one hour, 15 minutes after the 4 p.m. Illini to Carbondale.

— The “first train” arrival into Chicago was shifted to 6 a.m., requiring Champaign, Ill., passengers to board at 3:30 a.m. instead of the usual 6:10 a.m.

— Southbound Memphis passengers would arrive at 3:42 a.m. or board at 4:05 a.m.

The “Yazoo Sub,” built over shifting Mississippi Delta soil, has been perhaps the roughest stretch of track travelers experience on Amtrak’s network since 1995. That year, CN predecessor Illinois Central, under Hunter Harrison, told Amtrak it would stop maintaining the Memphis-Jackson, Miss., Granada Subdivision further east. That forced the City of New Orleans over to the Yazoo Sub.

It is a heavily trafficked freight artery that needs constant attention, so it is not surprising that extensive work requiring long track closures must be done periodically outside of the mid-morning to late-afternoon periods during which the City trains pass. It is also more cost-effective for CN to do this work in daylight hours, rather than incur extra overtime and lighting costs overnight when the passenger trains aren’t scheduled.

Amtrak is contractually bound to make adjustments for maintenance windows as the host railroad deems necessary, but the process is generally collaborative.

Not in this case. On Monday, CN told Amtrak that it would now delay the schedule change by 10 days, until April 13. The reason, CN spokesman Patrick Waldron explains, is because “the work block duration for the track work on that subdivision across Northern Mississippi has been shortened, thus delaying the change in the schedule.”

With the change already announced for April 4, why couldn't the shortening take place at the end of the period, Trains News Wire asked? "That's all the information I have," Waldron says.

As of 2 p.m. CDT on April 4, Amtrak’s website again shows “normal” schedules for anyone trying to book through April 12, but the “service alert” advisory invites passenger confusion, as it still says the change begins on April 4 and runs through May 8.

An Amtrak problem with CN is hardly unique. The railroad was one of two to receive an “F” in Amtrak’s “host railroad report card” covering 2017 train delays, and was the target of a complaint Amtrak brought before the Surface Transportation Board in 2014. That case was sidelined by court rulings regarding Amtrak’s involvement in setting on-time metrics for host railroads.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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