Analysis: No end in sight for Amtrak delays

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The often-delayed Capitol Limited passes through Goshen, Ind., on Norfolk Southern on July 14, 2017.
Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — Host railroads and Amtrak have settled into an uncomfortable détente during the last year instead of making serious efforts to develop accurate, a Trains News Wire analysis reveals.

“Amtrak slammed by delays,” on page 24 of October Trains, reports on extreme tardiness encountered in July by the New York-New Orleans Crescent on Norfolk Southern, and BNSF Railway’s St. Paul, Minn.-Seattle/Portland segments of the Empire Builder. Despite earlier court rulings, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of the D.C. Circuit recently upheld Amtrak’s participation in developing performance metrics, while lawmakers directed Amtrak’s Inspector General to update a 2008 “Effects of Poor On-time Performance” report. [See “Court ruling opens door for FRA, Amtrak to establish on-time performance metrics,” Trains News Wire, July 20, 2018.]

With the ongoing legal and legislative wrangling, Amtrak and host railroads aren’t making meaningful changes that might better reflect challenging operating conditions.

For instance, the westbound Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are scheduled to arrive in Chicago an hour apart — at 8:45 a.m. and 9:50 a.m., respectively. But facing a steady stream of eastbound Norfolk Southern intermodals and manifests, on most days during the last three months, dispatchers have slotted them together into the Windy City, arriving less than 15 minutes apart regardless of when the two trains left Cleveland.

A few adjustments — even by a half-hour — might create better fluidity that would benefit both tenant and host, but there has been reluctance to tweak schedules which might have been negotiated decades ago.

“Norfolk Southern has been and remains open to working with Amtrak to adapt Amtrak’s schedules, which often have not changed in years, to provide customers with a better experience,” NS spokesman Jonathan Glass tells Trains News Wire. “Norfolk Southern has made several offers to Amtrak on joint problem-solving projects to improve performance, including as recently as February 2018, but Amtrak has not pursued these opportunities. We remain open to working with them.” He declined to discuss specifics.

For Amtrak, the main reason is that it does not want to compromise on pure running time that would make its trains less attractive to travelers. Once a schedule is lengthened, that becomes the new “standard.” Railroads may believe congestion issues affecting both freight and passenger trains can be fixed with infrastructure improvements — as BNSF reasoned by not advocating a change in the Empire Builder’s schedule several years ago — only to see the problems shift from North Dakota then to western Montana and Idaho this year. [See “The Empire Builder dilemma,” Fred Frailey blog, Aug. 23, 2018.]

Another factor: complicated on-time performance incentive agreements would have to be renegotiated if arrival and departure times are changed.

Jay Fox, Amtrak’s senior director, host railroads, tells Trains News Wire, “Responsiveness to performance concerns … and the nature of operational interactions varies, with better-performing hosts regularly, and sometimes proactively, engaging with Amtrak on performance issues.

“Canadian Pacific and BNSF have been our strongest, responsive hosts and view Amtrak performance as an indicator of the fluidity of their own networks. Norfolk Southern is our poorest host.  They generally ignore our performance concerns and Amtrak passengers experience unprecedented delays on Norfolk Southern’s network, largely due to freight train interference.” 

However, NS’s Glass says, “Amtrak’s report card mischaracterizes and offers an overly simplistic picture of the key factors that influence train performance and reliability, while Amtrak fails to pursue operational enhancements that would improve its performance on host railroads.” He adds, “Norfolk Southern is committed to meeting its obligations to support passenger rail operations on our system.”

Whether timekeeping improves may be influenced by resolution of current legal disputes. In the meantime, the traveling public is entitled to more diligent efforts by Amtrak and its hosts to both accommodate Congress’ statutory “preference” for passenger trains mandate and host railroad freight customers.  

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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