Fred Frailey Blog

Let's try this again: CSX vs. Auto Train

The one thing we can all agree on is that Fred is not perfect. I have been persuaded by you that I could have cast “CSX fillets the Auto Train for supper” in a less-combative tone that would have engendered a more civilized discussion. So here we go:

Dispatchers and the railroads they work for are sometimes put between a rock and a hard place. You do your best, and it doesn’t work. Or your priorities are in conflict with each other or even with acts of Congress. Or maybe this is the night you get orders from above that must be obeyed without questions. Nothing illustrates all of these possibilities better than events on CSX Transportation’s A Line, from the Washington, D.C., area to Jacksonville, Fla., the night of Thursday, January 31.

That afternoon at 3:39 p.m., two trains head south at Lorton, Va., on double track. One is Amtrak’s Auto Train, entering Track 3 from its northern terminal at Lorton and headed to Sanford, Fla., just north of Orlando. The other, on adjacent Track 2 (there is no Track 1), is CSX intermodal hotshot Q031, going from North Bergen, N.J., opposite Manhattan, to Jacksonville with United Parcel Service trailers.

For the Auto Train, the evening becomes a disaster:

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

Amtrak is a major customer of CSX, and this is a terrible outcome, inconveniencing hundreds of people in a big way.

Now let’s look at this from the perspective of Q031. It leaves North Bergen pretty much on the money, just after 3 a.m. on Thursday. But between Philadelphia and Baltimore, something happens, and it doesn’t depart Baltimore, after picking up more UPS trailers, until 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes late. And this on a critical day of the week for UPS. The train is due into the Jacksonville hub at 8:10 a.m. Friday, and the run is definitely not starting well. UPS is also a big customer of CSX, and the outcome for UPS could be just as terrible.

Unquestionably, dispatchers will want to give Q031 every break they can. On the normal day, Q031 will zip past Lorton between 1 and 2 p.m. It is permitted 60 mph. South of Richmond, Va., the Auto Train can do 70 mph. Normally, the faster Auto Train will catch up with Q031 between Richmond and Florence, S.C., where both trains change crews; Q031 will be shunted into a siding for the overtake, and then both trains resume their journeys.

This day is different, because the Auto Train is immediately on the tail of Q031. But due to northbound traffic, perhaps there’s no chance for a runaround. In any event, the Auto Train loses 54 minutes following Q031 to Richmond (where Q031 gets a fresh crew during a brief stop) and then to Weldon, N.C. That’s more than 180 miles. At Weldon, at 7:30 p.m., Q031 stops on the main track and the Auto Train passes it via the siding.

This should be the end of it, but it isn’t. Some 50 miles further south, at Wilson, N.C., the Auto Train stops for 32 minutes for first responders to treat an injured passenger. During that time, Q031 runs around it on the other main track.

From Wilson to the crew change in Florence, the Auto Train loses 28 minutes following yellow signals left by Q031. And the Approach signals continue all the way to Jacksonville, Q031 only a few miles ahead of the Amtrak train. Highlights south of Florence include delays of 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 waits in a siding 54 minutes for a fresh operating crew to replace the Florence crew, who ran out of working time.

As for Q031, it makes Jacksonville just before 10 a.m. Friday, one hour and 45 minutes late.

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.

But put yourself in the shoes of those dispatchers and their chiefs. You sideline your late hotshot at Weldon to let the Auto Train by. But within an hour the Amtrak train stops for goodness knows how long to await an ambulance. So you put your freight in front again, only for the Auto Train to quickly report it’s ready to resume its trip. This is insane! Each overtake costs Q031 roughly 30 minutes. How many more times do you have to play this costly game of hopscotch? At this point, the CSX supervisors must be going bananas; the angry phone calls from Amtrak are easier to take than those from UPS. The fact that dispatchers in Florence and Jacksonville refuse to let the speedier Auto Train get around Q031 a second time suggests to me the dispatchers were following orders from above.

And to round out this picture, here is what I was told by CSX spokesman Gary Sease: "First and foremost, we regret that Auto Train passengers were delayed, and understand the inconvenience that caused. CSX takes very seriously its obligation to provide Amtrak access to our tracks and dispatch preference as required by federal law. Each weekday, CSX dispatches approximately 1,000 freight and 200 passenger trains while providing dispatching preference to Amtrak within the physical limitations of a predominately single-track railroad. However, as you and your readers are aware, the operation and dispatching of a railroad network is a dynamic and fluid environment in which unforeseen circumstances can occur.  We know the Auto Train encountered at least two unusual events – a passenger medical emergency at Wilson, N.C., and a CSX mechanical issue just south of Savannah, Ga., on freight train Q031, which both resulted in unavoidable cascading delays. It should be noted that prior to the medical emergency on board the Auto Train, CSX dispatchers showed preference to Auto Train by successfully advancing it around Q031.  It’s speculation on our part, but it’s entirely possible that had the medical emergency not occurred, Auto Train may have arrived in Sanford on time. As information, the Auto Train has averaged 88.5% on time performance (as reported by the FRA) between July 2010 and Fourth Quarter 2012.  When adjusted for delays beyond CSX’s control, such as weather or medical emergencies, this figure rises to 93.4% during the same period.  Auto Train is one of Amtrak’s best performing trains, as good if not better than Amtrak’s own Northeast Corridor service."

People at the highest level of Amtrak are upset over the treatment of this train that night, and people at the highest level of CSX ought to be, too, because Amtrak has weapons of the law on its side. 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 the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 gives Amtrak power to enforce that right. Amtrak’s weapon is that it can ask the STB to levy damages against a host railroad for violations of this law. In fact, Amtrak has a case before the STB now against Canadian National. The “emergency” on January 31 appears to be that a UPS train was in danger of getting to Jacksonville late for a connection with Miami-bound Florida East Coast Railway train 101 and perhaps a UPS sort. Is that an emergency under the law?

This is a classic case of conflicting priorities. Did CSX handle it well? In my first telling of this tale, I thought not. But the consensus of opinion from you, my readers, is that CSX is largely blameless. Do you still think so? — 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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  • Here we are a week later and #52,at least, has been on time or very early every day now.  What shall we make of the recent performance?

  • No, CSX did not handle this well.  Considering that Q031 was passing Lorton as the Auto Train was ready to depart, and knowing that Auto Train is allowed a higher maximum speed, the dispatcher should have held Q031 short of Lorton.  With its higher speed and fewer stops, Auto Train would have steadily increased its lead over Q031, and even the medical delay at Wilson would not have caused a problem.  The subsequent delays and leap frogging would have been avoided if the two trains had simply started out in the proper sequence.

    The larger question, of course, is when will CSX get serious about real capacity improvements on lines such as this?

  • With all due respect, Fred, I don 't see a pattern of abuse on CSX's part here.  If this kind of tale is a frequent occurrence, then Amtrak should have been screaming to the heavens about its mistreatment and demanding that STB "do something."  Instead, it appears that Amtrak (and I don't know at what level of the railroad's management) chose instead to complain to a journalist it believed would trigger a "discussion."  This you certainly did.  But knowledgeable readers did not seem inclined to make CSX into the "bad guy" in this saga, hence the revised version.

    Also, readers may want to take another look at the comments about PTC.  Had PTC been in use, the yellow signals would not have slowed Amtrak for several hours and more than 100 miles.  Once a dispatcher knows that his trains will not collide, he can shrink the spacing between those trains and probably find a fine location to allow Amtrak to run-around the intermodal train.  That's what I meant by referring to the "business benefit" of PTC in addition to the safety benefit.

    By the way, did CSX ever get back to you and offer its version of an explanation?

  • Fred,  Thanks for the rewrite.  I actually do think CSX is in the right on this one.  If Amtrak wants stellar performance perhaps the Feds should pay a bit to upgrade the CSX line on the East Coast.  There are a reasonable number of passenger trains on what is a lot of single track railroad.  This overtake problem would probably be easier to resolve on CTC double main track.  Always keep in mind freight pays the bills here.  The dispatchers did give Amtrak a pass around the UPS train the first time and it was lost, to no fault of Amtrak, but sometimes those are just the bad breaks you get.  I don't think it is right to expect CSX to give unlimited passes to passenger trains that don't contribute much revenue.  And yes, I realize that this was the price in perpetuity to be paid for getting out of passenger losses.  Although I think by now the passenger trains would have died out completely except on the NE Corridor, if Amtrak had not been created.  We can in the U.S. choose to have a thriving freight business and a marginal passenger network, or be like Europe with a thriving passenger business and a weak freight rail business.  Passengers don't make money - anywhere, and the European model would cost a lot of money.  If we want passengers on private freight railroads, you really need double track CTC to have a reliable service unless you are on a secondary route like Raton, but then that comes with a whole other set of issues as we have seen!

  • jdkuehn:  Very thoughtful and accurate comment you have posted on this blog.  The original people who invented Amtrak were not really concerned with retaining passenger rail service.  They were concerned with getting the freight railroads out of a losing business and assumed that it would gradually disappear as American taxpayers rebelled at the cost of maintaining it.  Well, they haven't yet, and Congress continues to pander and posture -- John Mica being an example -- rather than apply rational thought to the issue.

  • In days past BA (before amtrak) if ,say the B&O, had a Time Saver running behind the Capitol Limited, it very likely would have stayed there barring a major delay of the Capitol, and/or authority from further up than a dispatcher to go around it.  And, God help any body that violated the unspoken rule that no passenger train whatever, be delayed unless it was a life or death issue.   That was then, however, and I find it hard to fault CSX here.  They were trying their best to please to valuable customers, but sometimes things are simply overcome by events.   Departures could have been better perhaps, train interval could have been better, but its only conjecture on our part.    

  • Once the trains get to Folkston, GA,  the A line becomes double track all the way through Jacksonville. I have seen Amtrak and CSX on track 1 and track 2, both going in the same direction with Amtrak passing the freight train somewhere between the two points. Certainly Auto Train could have made up some addtional time right there.

  • Murphy rules!  If anything can go wrong, it will.  A the worst possible time.  In a way that conspires to cause the worst possible damage.

    Joking aside, the AutoTrain delay isn't substantive enough on its own to warrant a complaint to the STB.  I'd bet it isn't the first time it has happened, either.  This time, though, it found its way into print.  I hope the passenger is OK.

  • Fred, I'm curious about a couple of things. 1) Why does a scheduled Amtrak train depart its initial terminal early? And, 2) how is it that Amtrak has to wait  54 minutes for a relief crew? Clearly, that isn't CSX's fault; my experience on another Amtrak contractor road is that Amtrak horribly mis-manages their crew bases and is poor on calling relief crews in a timely manner. You can't hang that one on CSX. And as a result of that passenger train eating up capacity by sitting in a siding that could otherwise be used to meet freight trains and keep things fluid, the dispatcher's hands are tied a bit more. What meet/pass scenario is in place already when Amtrak's relief shows up and suddenly announces they're ready to go?  

    Without knowing what was going on in all these other sidings at the time of these delays, Fred, we can only guess as to who is to blame. Certainly some trains were moved against these that shouldn't have, but how many? And where?

  • Yes, CSX is blameless.

  • Was the Q031 in the way of the Auto Train? Was the Auto Train in the way of the Q031? Are we reaping what we have sown? Sixty years ago the Atlantic Coast Line (today's A-line) between Richmond and Jesup, Georgia, was double track. The half-centruy epoch of railroad rationalization, which removed that  double track as well as the north end of the former Seaboard Air Line, ended less than a decade ago. The onslaught of new business, especially the growing domestic intermodal market, has eaten away what little margin was left. Railroads are investing billions of dollars annually (yes, that's "billions" with a "b") to upgrade what was left over from the great rationalization; better signalling, double track as well as the unfunded PTC mandate. Railroads were able to catch their breath with the latest economic correction but whether they can keep pace with growth not seen in generations remains to be seen.

  • Rail Pundit, you assume Amtrak came running to me. In fact, I was driving south toward Florida Friday and noticed the Auto Train had not left Sanford heading north 2 hours after departure time. I looked up the arrival of the previous night's train in Sanford, saw that it was 4 1/2 hours late (thus creating a late departure for that day's northbound train) and inquired of a friend at Amtrak what had happened. That's how I began to learn of what occurred January 31. Then began two days of telephone calls and emails, trying to untangle the events of that night and put them into a narrative, which I completed Sunday afternoon. I was not spoon-fed a *** thing; quite the opposite. The lesson here: Never assume, Rail Pundit! To answer your question, I did hear from CSX this morning half an hour after I made "Let's Try Again . . ." live online. I've edited the piece to include virtually the entire statement from Gary Sease.

    Crankyoldrail: The cutoff time for autos to check in at each Auto Train terminal is 3 pm, altho hostlers wait an extra 15 minutes if there are no-shows. After that, when the train is put together and the air tested, the train is free to go, regardless of the official 4 pm departure time. Nineteen minutes early is about as good as it gets. As for the wait near Palatka for a relief crew out of Sanford, figure that it will take two hours to get the crew on duty and another 90-120 minutes to reach north of Palatka by highway. I cannot speculate why Amtrak operations control didn't figure out by 8 or 9 a.m. that the Florence crew wasn't going to make it before their clock ran out, which was probably noon or 12:30 p.m.

    D.Carleton, you are right that the Atlantic Coast Line was double track from Richmond to Jacksonville back when. BUT each track was signaled in only one direction. Therefore, overtakes were even more difficult and cumbersome then than today.

    And to several of you who wonder why CSX doesn't invest more in capacity on this line, the answer is that it has, particularly north of Rocky Mount, where train volumes are greatest. Three universal crossovers have been put in place between Washington and Richmond in the past decade, not to mention 11 miles of third main track immediately south of the Potomac River. Much of this was government-financed. State assistance will soon result in (I believe) two universal crossovers between Richmond and Rocky Mount. Please, the entire right of way is in much better condition that it was in the pre-Michael Ward days. I have my issues with CSX, but not over investment in its own physical plant.

    Fred Frailey

  • I think they should all agree that everybody just had a bad night. They all should just come back tomorrow and try again.

  • As I read all this with more than passing interest I think back to my father's employer, the late impoverished Erie Railroad.  Say what you will about the Erie, it could and did move priority freight.  The Erie typically, not occasionally, averaged over 50 mph with it's symbol traffic.  And not just over the tangent and flat Marion Division across western Ohio and Indiana.  They did it over the hills of western Pa. and New York between Meadville, Pa. and Port Jervis, N.Y.  And the eastern portion of this was in the infamous Delaware Div. with it's famous 243 curves in 104 miles along the serpentine Delaware River.

    Now 50+ years later, we have CSX struggling to cover 225 or so miles and taking an incredible 12 or so hours to do it.  I just say to myself, "where in creation is the execution"?  This performance is beyond pathetic.  The only word that comes to my mind is "travesty".   I do not understand how these people keep their jobs unless this was a "force majure"  situation and quite an exception.  I just shake my head and wonder.

     While I was running in engine service for Penn Central and Conrail on the B&A out of Selkirk, N.Y. with only a max permissible speed of 40 mph we routinely ran the 200 miles to Boston in six or fewer hours virtually without exception, and this with two drops at Springfield and Worcester, Mass.   It can be done.  I don't see CSX doing it.

  • The medical emergency is an unfortunate event that started a chain reaction.

    The 54 minutes lost because the new Amtrak crew was not available was not mentioned at all in your discussion.  If Amtrak was monitoring the slow progress I would think they would have had the relief crew ready so as not to delay the train any further.   There is fault on both sides on this issue..........Stu Kuyat

Let's try this again: CSX vs. Auto Train