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

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, February 07, 2013

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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