Happening Now

Late Trains Aren’t ‘Just Part of The Experience’

June 17, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

You never know what’s going to hit a nerve with people. Given the disappointing past performance of our late-trains social-media posts, I didn’t expect that my missive this week would do any better. Boy, was I wrong! I posted on Amtrak Fans, and later cross-posted to the Empire Builder Facebook page and our own FB page, and it took off. I guess that one made a bullseye on many thousands of nerves. I’ve been told by some more social-media savvy people that across the three channels that message has reached about 100,000 people in the past three days, with thousands of people sharing the reasons behind the shameful state of late trains today.

That’s good, and very welcome, because right now trains are running later than ever and it’s getting worse. I’ve been trying for a very long time to get advocates interested in keeping score on late trains and a whole host of other customer-centric issues using the new passenger-rail metrics and standards introduced by the Federal Railroad Administration. It seems that maybe this long, hot summer of delayed trains may have reached a tipping point. Now is a great time for us all to pay closer attention.

As any good railfan will no doubt point out again in post comments or emails to us, there are lots of reasons why trains are late, and sometimes those reasons are Amtrak’s fault. Yes, that’s true. And maybe one way to get trains running on time would be to pay Host railroads more money per mile to run the trains. Yes, maybe that would work, but we don’t really know. And sometimes it’s just physics getting in the way of what you want – passing sidings that are too short for today’s monster three-mile-long freight trains. Yep, got it.

All of those things are true, but none of them are reasons NOT to pay attention to the single worst cause – freight-train interference – or our newest and potentially fastest remedy, namely, enforcement of the new Federal metrics and standards which have been in effect for only a couple of months now.

Amtrak’s internal issues cause a little more than 20 percent of delays. Locomotive failures account for around three percent. So that’s not the whole picture.

Host railroads might well be induced to, you know, meet their contractual obligations if they got a bit more money. On the other hand, there’s plenty of contractual incentive/bonus money that goes uncollected because Hosts can’t perform well enough to collect it.

And don’t let anyone tell you that Amtrak and Congress are asking the impossible of the Class Is without explaining how Canadian Pacific manages to do so well, so consistently, year in and year out. Even in the teeth of the pandemic, CP managed to grow revenues and improve operating ratios, all while somehow running Amtrak trains more on time than anyone else.

I laid out the history of preferential dispatching and a run-down on the metrics and standards in that Facebook post this week, the one which drew so many eyeballs...including a few newcomers to rail advocacy. If you’re one of them, welcome aboard, we’re glad you’re here! Below, I’ve reproduced the post in full with a principal goal of debunking the common misperception that when Amtrak is operating outside the Northeast Corridor they can’t expect priority treatment.

It's not the only argument we have, but it’s one of the best.

[Post to Amtrak Fans-Facebook, June 14th, 6:35 pm Eastern As President & CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, I'd like to set the record straight on a misimpression I see in various posts in this Group from time to time: Amtrak's right to go first on host railroad networks, and by extension your right -- as a fare-paying passenger -- to arrive on time.

Amtrak has the right, by law, to preference in dispatching for its trains. It has had that right since 1973. There are always extenuating circumstances having do with the simple geometry of a single track, for example, when physical reality forces an adjustment. But one-time adjustments don’t give the private railroads the right to delay passengers most of the time. But that is precisely what they are doing, and it is against the law.

Amtrak was created in 1971 as a taxpayer-funded bailout of the private railroads, who were losing money on passenger routes they were obligated to run as a “common carrier.” (Side note: there is no such thing as a 100-percent unsubsidized profitable transportation operation of any kind. It does not exist.) The Nixon Administration struck a “Grand Bargain” with the private railroads, agreeing to take over all the responsibility, and all of the debts and pension obligations, associated with those passenger routes, in exchange for the railroads allowing Amtrak to use their tracks and facilities to run the trains. That was in 1970, the Rail Passenger Service Act (See Pub. L. No. 91-518, § 101, 84 Stat. 1327, 1328 (1970).

The “host” railroads immediately began putting Amtrak trains at the back of the line, and on-time performance plummeted to as low as 35 percent systemwide in 1973, from 70 percent just a year earlier in 1972. Congress responded with something called The Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973 (See Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-146, § 10(2), 87 Stat. 548, 552) That now appears in the statute books as 49 U.S. Code § 24308(c). And it’s still in force.

Because Amtrak is a government entity and not a private, for-profit corporation (another myth I’ll tackle in another post), the only way for Amtrak to “get its day in court” is for the Attorney General of the United States to agree to sue a private railroad. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of political baggage to unload before that happens. And, as a result, the Attorney General has done that exactly once in Amtrak’s entire 50-year history: in 1979.

This is why it feels as if the private railroads have the right to send Amtrak to the back of the line. As a practical matter, they’ve been getting away with it for decades.

I know a lot of people who are members of this Facebook Group take trains because the ride is fun and relaxing. I, too, find a long-distance train ride to be fun and relaxing. But it’s a mistake to just accept profoundly late trains as just a normal thing. It shouldn’t be. Not everyone is on vacation. Some people are military service members home on a precious couple of weeks’ leave. Some are college students trying to move themselves and 200 pounds of dorm “stuff” to school by move-in day. Some are people in wheelchairs, with medical oxygen, trying to get to a major medical center from their rural hometown – a hometown without air or bus service and, in any case, airlines generally can’t handle powered wheelchairs.

The U.S. taxpayer contributes roughly $2 billion every single year (excluding the historic money in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) so that our country has an Amtrak, serving hundreds of communities and millions of Americans who private industry cannot serve profitably or at all. That is why we have it, and that is why we all pay for it. It’s a public good, and it returns anywhere from four dollars to seven dollars to the communities served for every dollar spent on it.

But that value goes down when trains are late. For the first quarter of fiscal 2022 (October through December) not one single Amtrak long-distance train met the new regulatory standard for Customer On-Time Performance, while freight-train interference grew 12 percent over the previous quarter and remained the biggest single contributor to late trains. Last month, freight train interference accounted for more than 70% of all delays. The average long-distance Amtrak passenger was delayed 108 minutes in May.

How do we know all this? Well, in part, thanks to new rules about late trains and customer service that the freight railroads went all the way to the Supreme Court – twice – to block. In 2017, the Supreme Court had finally had enough, and refused to hear their case again. That cleared the way for the Federal Railroad Administration to draft and to publish the long-awaited new rules designed to help the Surface Transportation Board ENFORCE passengers’ rights to be on time.

The new standard is called “Customer On-Time Performance,” or Customer OTP for short. Customer OTP measures the percentage of all customers on an intercity passenger train who arrive at their destination no more than 15 minutes after the Amtrak-published arrival time. If that figure dips below 80% for two consecutive quarters, Amtrak, passengers, or anyone else can file a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board. And the STB can launch its own proceeding independently if that standard isn’t met.

Those new rules took effect in full this year (finally!) and performance metrics are getting reported on the FRA’s website. And so all of us who work on these issues every day are hoping we’ll see some enforcement action soon.

Nobody is saying that late trains will never happen, or that delays other than freight-train interference will never occur, or even that dispatching can ever be perfect.

Nobody is saying that.

Not us, and not Amtrak.

What we ARE saying, though, is that dispatching trains so that they are late 86 percent of the time, month after month after month, cannot be explained by strange timing or unfortunate meetups when two trains need to get through the same piece of territory. Especially when the train’s schedules have been certified by both the host railroad and by Amtrak.

So, next time we all read about someone being late in this Group, understand that it’s very common, but it’s also very wrong, and actually against the law. – END POST]