Fred Frailey Blog

CSX fillets the Auto Train for supper

  • Comments 51

CSX Transportation dispatchers may not realize that less than five years ago they played a role in changing national transportation policy, but not the kind of change their employer likes to talk about. They and dispatchers of Union Pacific handled Amtrak trains so poorly that in the Passenger Rail Improvement & Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA), Congress gave Amtrak the right to ask the Surface Transportation Board for damages for such behavior by Amtrak’s host railroads.

Amtrak a year ago sought such damages from Canadian National, a dispute still before the STB. Judging by events this past week on the CSX line from the Northeast to Florida, CSX appears to be daring Amtrak to go to the STB a second time.

Exhibit A is the southbound Auto Train, going from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., last Thursday evening. Here’s the box score:

Leave Lorton 3:39 p.m., 21 minutes early

Pass Rocky Mount, N.C., 8:26 p.m., on time

Leave Florence, S.C., 12:40 a.m., 35 minutes late

Pass Charleston, S.C., 2:45 a.m., 1 hour, 5 minutes late

Pass Savannah, Ga., 5:45 a.m., 1 hour, 45 minutes late

Pass Jesup, Ga., 8:22 a.m., 3 hours, 17 minutes late

Pass Jacksonville, Fla., 10:00 a.m., 3 hours, 10 minutes late

Arrive Sanford, 2:01 p.m., 4 hours, 31 minutes late

So the question is what happened? I’ve asked CSX for an explanation, and so far gotten none. But from evidence at hand, the problem seems to be that because an important CSX southbound freight train carrying United Parcel Service trailers on a critical day was late, the Auto Train followed the CSX freight almost all the way from Lorton to Jacksonville, where the freight terminated.

Both trains, I should add, are allowed the same maximum speed, 70 mph. But the Auto Train always makes faster time than the freight, which is symboled Q031, usually by three or four hours. But it didn't get a chance on this day.

Here is the story. Intermodal freight Q031, which originated at North Bergen, N.J., at 3:11 a.m. that day, passed downtown Washington D.C., at 3 p.m. and the Lorton Auto Train terminal about 40 minutes later, as the Auto Train was departing. The Amtrak train lost 54 minutes between Lorton, Richmond, Va., and Weldon, N.C., following this freight train. At Weldon, the Auto Train ran around Q031 through the siding and got ahead.

But not for long. At Wilson, N.C., 54 miles south of Weldon, Amtrak’s train halted for 32 minutes for a passenger to get medical attention from emergency responders, and Q031 ran around it and never was allowed to surrender the lead.

From Wilson to the crew change point of Florence, S.C., the Auto Train lost 28 minutes following yellow signals left by Q031. And the Approach signals continued all the way south, Q031 only a few miles ahead of the Amtrak train. Highlights south of Florence include 34 minutes waiting for a northbound CSX boxcar freight and 64 minutes between Savannah and Jesup, Ga., when Q031 was delayed ahead of it. Finally, south of Jacksonville, near Palatka, Fla., the Auto Train waited in a siding 54 minutes for a new operating crew to replace the Florence crew, who ran out of working time.

The Auto Train schedule provides for losing time because of freight train interference; last November, for instance, such delays averaged 60 minutes per trip. Moreover, for all the delays north of Florence, the train still left there only 35 minutes behind its unofficial schedule. But what happened Thursday night represented a whole new level of pain administered on Amtrak’s most popular train by CSX.

People at the highest level of Amtrak are upset over the treatment of this train Thursday night, and people at the highest level of CSX ought to be, too, because they violated the law. Title 49 of the United States Code provides that except in emergency or by direct order of the Surface Transportation Board, Amtrak trains have preference over freight trains in using a rail line, junction or crossing. And Section 207 of PRIIA gave Amtrak a weapon to enforce that right before the STB, as is already happening with Canadian National. The “emergency” in this case appears to be that a UPS train was in danger of getting to Jacksonville late for a connection with Florida East Coast Railway train 101. The fact that dispatchers on three divisions refused to let the speedier Auto Train get around the plodding Q031 suggests the dispatchers were following orders from above. There should be better ways for CSX to deal with problems of this sort, don’t you think?—Fred W. Frailey

Photo: The return trip of the Auto Train that was delayed 4 1/2 hours is itself more than four hours late heading north through Dunn, N.C., after dawn on February 2, 2013. (Fred W. Frailey photo)

  • Fred: The law gives Amtrak the right to rake through all the details and see if there is anything culpable there.  Before they resort to the lawyers, though, perhaps they should live up to their claim that they are a railroad and act like one, i.e., investigate, as operating managers are taught to do, and get the facts.

    Based on what you have told us, much appears to hinge on "what did they (the dispatchers) know and when did they know it," and we don't know much about that.  A medical emergency is about the most open-ended thing there is, so it's hard to take issue with running the intermodal around a stopped Auto-Train.  As for the rest of it, do you or your sources at Amtrak know enough about the circumstances to conclude that there was a reasonable opportunity to run AT around Q031 south of Wilson, NC, taking into account sidings that were (or would be) occupied by other traffic?  You state outright that CSX violated the law here (!) and thus imply that CSX wrongfully gave preference to UPS over Amtrak.  That's just not evident from what we know.  I read what you've written and think "undesired emergency application" and "no place to put the friggin' northbound."  

    A lot of these stories end with the conclusion that tough decisions have to be made, and a good manager stands by his or her people while (internally ) demanding details such as I have mentioned.

  • Old Head, good points. Thank you. i have asked for input from CSX twice and when I get it will revise this story as necessary. But I know this territory intimately, I know the operating characteristics of the two trains quite well and I called it as I saw it.

    Fred Frailey

  • Therte's law, and then there's law.  The Amtrak cmplaint against CN has been pending for more than a year and has involved some voluntary mediation that recently was terminated with no conclusion.  So, if STB chooses not to enforce the law, what is Amtrak supposed to do?  Whine to journalists?  Back when the railroads operated passenger service the dispatchers knew more about mixing and moving traffic than many do today.  Thery also took some pride in making it work.  Culturally, CSX and UP probably are equals when it comes to treating Amtrak as an unwanted interloper.

  • Thinking over Rail Pundit's comment suggesting that dispatchers in the past might have known how to handle things better, the thought comes to mind that in the "good old days" they were more likely to have the time to devise the most workable plan.  I don't know about CSX, but often a dispatcher is now responsible for much larger territories.  It does save wages, and most of the time is tolerably successful.  But when things get hectic the dispatcher can end up in reactive mode, barely dealing with the latest crisis or demand.

    And of course a corridor manager (or CSX equivalent) who has his annual performance bonus tied to on-time delivery of UPS may be looking over the shoulder of the same dispatcher.  And if that manager got the position because his academic qualifications trumped detailed understanding of rail operations.........

    It happens, unfortunately.


  • Amtrak could yell loudly and have the STB slap CSX's wrist - eventually.  UPS can yell much more loudly and take their traffic away - right now.

    The later the UPS train, the more "hurt" it puts on UPS's sorting schedule (and the louder the volume gets)

    Amtrak is "nice".  UPS is "not nice".

    To sum up, UPS has a bigger, gnarlier stick.

  • Sadly, Oltmannd is correct.  But why does it have to be an either-or situation?  A good dispatcher, whether he/she has a bonus-dependent supervisor looking over his/her shoulder, ought to be able to plan passes and meets to send the Amtrak train on its merry way and at the same time not further upset UPS.  You have to want to do it.

  • It's called "planning ahead." And, across multiple dispatching districts, it's called "communicating with your adjacent desk." I don't know the characteristics of this piece of railroad--number of sidings, opposing traffic, etc., but surely, at some point, an astute dispatcher will know to hold an opposing train back a siding or two to create a place for the run around without delaying the UPS train too much. You just don't cram every train as far as you can against the opposing traffic. Another factor may be in play here as well: automated  dispatching, computer "assisted" dispatching, or a computer that plans your railroad for you and suggests meets/passes. Combine the increasing automation of planning a district with more and more inexperienced train dispatchers who look at this as merely a stepping stone to management instead of a craft as in years past, and this sort of thing is becoming more and more common. Sadly.

  • From CSX's point of view, the Amtrak train already pooped out once in front of the UPS train, and the UPS train is already in hot water.  They are both 70 mph trains, so how much time could the Amtrak possibly loose following?  (a lot, but I suspect the Amtrak schedules are not integrated into CSX's train supervisory software - and are a relative mystery to CSX managment)

  • Oltmannd, the dispatchers know quite well the performance ability of the Auto Train versus their Q034. That is why they let the AT around the slower train, except for this past Thursday night. You wondered how much time the Auto Train could possibly lose by following the freight train all the way to Florida. I believe the piece I wrote answered this question. 136 minutes, if you add up the pieces. I think one of you nailed it: UPS carries a big stick but Amtrak does not.

    Fred Frailey

  • If this is a consistent pattern of Auto Train delays, Amtrak may have a case. If it is one bad day, then they don't.  There are many circumstances in this story, and there does not appear to be evidence to support an allegation of consistent CSX culpability.

    Also: "Intermodal freight Q031, which originated at North Bergen, N.J., at 3:11 a.m. that day, passed downtown Washington D.C., at 3 p.m.".  An average speed of about 19 mph.  Perhaps there were problems between N. Bergen and Washington, but on the face of it, not very stellar performance for UPS.  But was Q031 "plodding" south of Washington?

    FEC 101 departs JAX at 1000, to make a 3rd shift UPS sort in Miami, so there appears to have been very little pad for Q031's performance that day.

  • JWFuller, FEC 101 leaves Bowden Yard at 230 pm on Fridays, 1 pm earlier in the week.

  • Fred-

    I don't wonder those things.  I suspect the dispatchers have a good idea....but up a couple of management layers up does not.  From the sounds of it, the decision was made a notch or two up from the dispatcher's desk....

    I also know that dispatching systems rarely "know" anything about train schedules, too.

  • Fred, it's very easy to see what might have happened with the Auto Train.  The dispatchers (and Chiefs) let the computer do the dispatching.  And once it has made one "great" decision, it will take several trains and hours and miles to play itself out.  Untouched or un-corrected by human hands - let me clarify that - untouched or un-corrected by human hands with common sense and the ability to look further than two hours down the road and how one decision will impact the railroad / corridor, well you get what you pay / hire for.  Usually if a railroad won't comment on the delay reason, it was something along the lines of "dumb dispatching."

    More common anymore is the DS not telling the Chief or Corridor People of a situation that has the potential to bung up the works until after the die has been cast, and then the people in charge haven't the slightest idea of how to fix it since it's "not in the playbook."  If the solution is not apparent by looking at a "decision chart," well, you're screwed.

    And this is not a railroad-only problem anymore.  "Common Sense?"  Hah.

  • Since Va and NC plan to eventually rebuild the old SAL line from Petersburg to Raleigh, how practical would it be to simply re-route via Hamlet and Columbia, especially if this line is part of the higher speed rail corridor? That might make CSX happy.

  • CSX let the Auto Train run around the UPS freight one time showing that "they tried" to keep it on time.  Then when the passenger  health issue came up it put the road in a hole regarding the UPS train.

    What's the ole saying?  Fool me once, shame on you-----------.   The real issue is how many times does CSX have to "cowtow" to one train not of their own which has failures not of CSX's making?  

    The only  other thing I can think of is why didn't the Auto train get to pass the UPS train during the UPS  crew changes?  There had to be a few of them.

CSX fillets the Auto Train for supper