Amtrak’s long-distance trains as the walking dead

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two issues Amtrak confronts today illustrate the problem nicely. Both relate to freight railroad capacity. Once upon a time, an Amtrak train meant incremental revenue to offset high fixed costs. Plus, incentive payments gave railroads extra money for meeting on-time goals. But now, both frequency and scheduling are proverbial third rails, electrifying Amtrak whenever it steps across the arc.The long-distance passenger train is imperiled, but just doesn’t know it.

 
The Sunset Limited example you probably know well. Union Pacific suggests that it needs roughly $750 million in capacity improvements to justify just the eight more train starts a week needed to turn this triweekly train between Los Angeles and New Orleans into a daily operation under the Texas Eagle banner. This dollar figure arises from dispatching simulations using pre-recession traffic levels, the key assumption being that no delays to either UP freights or Amtrak’s Sunset would be tolerated. (Depending upon who you talk to, the assumption was either no delays to any trains or no additional delays due to the daily operation — take your pick).
 
Put aside the merit of Union Pacific’s position, which is hard to defend; after all, the Sunset Limited has something like seven hours of padding in its schedule to absorb delays, which ought to be factored into the capacity modeling. The point is that railroads now understand that capacity is one of a key intangible asset, is limited in scope, and is expensive to expand. That being so, they seldom concede any of it to Amtrak without a fight. I sympathize with them. Taking away capacity without compensation is akin to government confiscation of private property. So perhaps long after I’m laid to rest beneath this earth, the Sunset Limited will become a daily train. Five will get you 10 that when CSX replies to Amtrak’s request to make the triweekly Chicago-New York Cardinal a daily train via Cincinnati, it will come with a nice menu of capacity improvements CSX wants as the price of acceptance. I’m told that Buckingham Branch Railroad, over which the Cardinal runs through parts of Virginia, also wants capacity enhancements.
 
Now consider another issue: shortening of a train’s schedule. Until three years ago, both UP and CSX delayed Amtrak trains to the point of embarrassment, except that neither railroad seemed the least bit embarrassed. In the case of the Virginia-to-Florida Auto Train, the delays reached the point that Amtrak in 2006 agreed to a temporary one-hour lengthening of its 16½ -hour schedule.
 
Soon thereafter, Congress passed legislation that gave Amtrak significant weapons to use against railroads that habitually delay its trains, including the right to go directly to the Surface Transportation Board for monetary relief. Almost the moment that legislation was signed into law, both UP and CSX turned over a new leaf. Delays due to freight train interference all but vanished.
 
Now Amtrak is at the door of CSX asking that the one-hour padding of the Auto Train schedule be removed. CSX is acting as if it cannot remember that “temporary” is not the same as “permanent.” A railroad earns incentive payments when Amtrak trains are on time. For the past 28 days, the Auto Train’s on-time number was 85 percent. But had the schedule been an hour shorter, as it was until five years ago, the on-time rate would have been a more lackluster 50 percent. What will it take to get that hour back out? I expect Amtrak will have to cut some sort of deal with CSX, perhaps giving it something the freight railroad wants in return.

Capacity. Once the railroads were awash in it, cutting freight rates to fill their underused networks. Now it’s a scarce commodity. That’s why the intercity passenger train has nowhere to go anymore.
— Fred W. Frailey

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