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CSX fillets the Auto Train for supper

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, February 03, 2013

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)

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