Analysis: Host railroads at odds with FRA proposal to measure Amtrak on-time performance

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Adirondack_PortKent_Johnston
The southbound Adirondack arrives at Port Kent, N.Y., in 2016. In testimony on proposed new timekeeping measures for Amtrak trains, Canadian Pacific cited concernes it could be penalized for Adirondack delays resulting from late handoffs from another railroad.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Railroads hosting Amtrak trains have challenged the Federal Railroad Administration’s attempt to simplify and quantify on-time performance measurement.

The railroads’ main beef with the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” published on March 31 [see “FRA floats new on-time rules,” “Passenger,” June 2020 Trains]: the rules didn’t go far enough because the FRA suggested — but won’t require — passenger train schedules to be renegotiated.

The Association of American Railroads, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, and Norfolk Southern supplied written statements and testified in a telephone-only public hearing on April 30 as part of the required comment period that ends June 1. Other organizations weighing in included the Rail Passengers Association, Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, and the Midwest Rail Commission.

Background: Pros and cons, as railroads see them

Most carriers applaud adoption of a single measure rather than multiple definitions of when a train is late, depending on the length of the route traveled. That complicated attribute of the previous metric was voided by host railroads’ court challenges. The FRA’s proposed “Customer OTP” rule establishes a 15-minute threshold at all stations along a route, weighted by the number of passengers using each station.

Concerns include:

— The FRA’s “Train Schedule Principles” imply that existing schedules are mostly accurate; the agency expects Amtrak and hosts to redistribute recovery time, or padding, throughout a train’s route to allow it to “recover” its published schedule. Michael Metteucci, CN’s regional director of contracts and administration, points out that station times on most of its routes have not been adjusted for years, so they may not be “reasonably achievable.”

— Formulating new schedules will be contentious. Norfolk Southern’s Senior Director of Interline Services, Randall Hunt, contends Amtrak schedule-making must account for “operating and market conditions affecting the railroad, including infrastructure capacity, traffic volumes, traffic mix, and maintenance needs,” then insists, “Amtrak is unwilling to adjust schedules in response to these factors.”

— The FRA did not establish a dispute-resolution process if Amtrak and host railroads can’t agree. Chuck Hubbard, CP’s director of interline and passenger operations, articulates this weakness even though his company consistently gets the highest marks in Amtrak’s quarterly on-time performance “report card” for host carriers. Hubbard also believes the agency should mandate periodic schedule adjustments, not just suggest  them.  

— One host railroad will be blamed if another host delivers a train “out of slot.” Hubbard uses the example of the New York-Montreal Adirondack, which must arrive at passing sidings 30 miles apart on a single-track railroad to keep it schedule when meeting other trains, including its opposite direction counterpart. If CN or Amtrak inflict delays that cause a 40-minute wait, why should CP be penalized? Andy Daly, CSX’s Senior Director of Passenger Operations testifies, “A key shortcoming of the proposed rule is its failure to adopt individual performance on multi-carrier routes in the definition of OTP.”

— Amtrak is not compelled to publicly share the ridership data that shows which stations handle the most passengers, and there is no guidance on how often those numbers will be reviewed to trigger a schedule change. Daly notes railroads have not been shown examples of Amtrak’s data to see how the application might work.  

If these issues aren’t addressed, all railroad respondents warn, adequately-performing carriers would be wrongly penalized and the STB burdened with a flood of investigations. Canadian Pacific’s Hubbard is also concerned that such proceedings would cause “unnecessary friction” between his company and Amtrak.   

CityNO_Chicago_Lassen
The City of New Orleans backs toward Chicago Union Station after arriving on the St. Charles Air Line in August 2017. The amount of time allotted for the train to cover the 25 miles from Homewood, Ill., to Chicago illustrates the practice of putting most of the make-up time in a train's schedule at the end of the trip.
TRAINS: David Lassen

Analysis: good-faith effort needed to avoid slower schedules

The carriers are right. Most schedules were established years ago, if not decades. But they haven’t been revised because renegotiating schedules has become a tortured process. It affects financial incentives Amtrak pays to its hosts if trains are on time at certain mid-route checkpoints and endpoints — and penalties if punctuality isn’t achieved.

Historically, the agreements have given railroad dispatchers enough wiggle room to garner a bonus — even with moderate delays — by putting virtually all recovery time just prior to the final stop or checkpoint. For instance, CN is given twice as much time,  45 more minutes, to get the northbound City of New Orleans from Homewood, Ill., to Chicago than its southbound counterpart receives for those 25 miles.

Now all of these contracts, not just schedules, must be renegotiated to reflect how much passenger activity takes place at every station along the route.

As for what is “reasonably achievable,” if Amtrak had been willing to adjust its schedules during the fall of 2016 congestion meltdown on the Chicago-Toledo, Ohio, portion of NS’ east-west main line, or during the last two years on the all-NS New Orleans-Washington, D.C. Crescent route, the price of being “on time” would be appreciably slower schedules that could chase riders away.

The primary reason Amtrak has chosen to stick with what it has is because the railroads insist on lengthening schedules. Furthermore, establishing a “market conditions” or “traffic volumes” metric is a slippery slope compared to “pure running time,” defined by the FRA as “the minimum amount of time required for a train to operate between two locations via its normal routing.” This, plus recovery time and station dwell time, are the building blocks of passenger train schedules.        

Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews bemoaned “endless litigation delays” by the Class Is in their attempt to counteract past efforts to hold host railroads accountable for on-time performance and Amtrak’s statuory right of operating preference. Without the threat of regulation, some railroads consistently make Amtrak trains wait, while other dispatchers, such as those at CP, BNSF Railway (which did not testify), and most recently CSX, continue to keep passenger train routes fluid.

Another common thread in the testimony is Amtrak’s lack of transparency in sharing data. This was reflected in the Rail Passengers Association presentation, by Ray Chambers, President of the Association of Independent Railway Operators, and in post-hearing commenter Justin Larsen, who called into question the opacity and usefulness of Amtrak’s Customer Satisfaction Index. Contending data it collects is proprietary, as the company has claimed for the last five years in shielding operating details from the press and the public, does nothing to promote transparency.

Running trains on time shouldn’t be that difficult as long as all the parties negotiate in good faith. With the right regulatory framework, maybe some progress can finally be made.    

To get a complete picture of this complicated issue, more information is available at several websites:

— The FRA’s “Notice of proposed rulemaking” is available here.

— Copies of written transcripts from host railroads and other participants at the April 30 hearing are available here.

— Additional comments submitted so far are available here.

— And those wishing to comment can do so here until June 1.

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