Guess who treats Amtrak best?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, March 21, 2018

From Day One, the bane of Amtrak’s existence has been the freight train. (Ha! You thought I was going to say the U.S. Congress. That, too.) I’ve written about freight train delays to passenger trains until I’m sick of it. Congress mandates that Amtrak trains have priority, to a point. Amtrak has sued host railroads, to little effect And still, the problem persists, as of course it will—freight train-passenger train conflict is inherent in the private-public arrangement under which Amtrak exists. What can Amtrak do about it, we’ve probably all asked? The obvious answer is to shine a light on the problem. Finally, at age 47, Amtrak has figured out how, and I like it.

This week Amtrak’s unveiled a quarterly Host Railroad Report Card for the six Class I railroads over which its trains operate. The yardstick is simple: whichever railroad had attributed to it the fewest minutes of delay during the prior 12 months per 10,000 trains miles got an A. And the host railroad with the worst score, of course, got an F. So are you ready?

The winner is BNSF Railway! Hold it. . . the producers in their tuxes just walked onstage. We were given the wrong envelope. I humbly apologize. Stand down, BNSF. The real winner, with an A, is Canadian Pacific Railway—yes, Hunter’s old hangout. This ranking is not new, either. I was told a year ago that CP had the best on time record of the lot for the previous couple of years. Delays attributed to CP were less than 600 minutes per 10,000 train miles. As most of you know, the stats are skewed by the seven trains each way run the 85 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee. Statistically, the Empire Builder, operating the approximately 418 miles between Chicago and the Twin Cities, doesn’t count for as much as the Hiawatha trains do. But let’s give CP and Keith Creel’s people a bow.

Second, with a B+ (900-1,000 minutes per 10,000 miles) is BNSF, which runs a bevy of long-distance trains for Amtrak, including the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Empire Builder and even a piece of the Coast Starlight, plus a gaggle of shorter-distance runs.

You’ve obviously figured out we’re now on a race to the bottom. Let’s cut to the chase and march downward.

Union Pacific. B-, meaning 1,100-1,200 minutes of delay per etc). To quote Amtrak: “On an average trip of this route, [Coast Starlight] passengers experienced four separate instances of delay caused by UP freight trains accounting for 48 minutes of delay on average.

CSX. C (1,250-1,300 minutes). In 2017, as an example, half of the Cardinal’s passengers got to their destinations late, averaging 87 minutes to the bad.

Norfolk Southern. F (more than 1,500 minutes per). Nasty! Here is Amtrak’s summation: “In 2017, over 173,000 passengers (67%) arrived late . . . while traveling on the Crescent. The typical Amtrak train, carrying approximately 350 passengers, is delayed over 1 hour and 40 minutes due to Norfolk Southern’s freight trains, and many Amtrak trains on this route are forced to wait as long as three hours and 12 minutes.” It is unclear to me whether Amtrak is referring to the typical Amtrak train running on NS or the typical run of the New York-New Orleans Crescent.

Canadian National. F as well. Last year, according to Amtrak, 84 percent of passengers on the two Chicago-Centralia trains arrived late.

I’m sure the host railroads can tell stories of their own. Half a dozen years ago BNSF challenged Amtrak over the definition of freight train delays. Amtrak said it’s when one of its trains is delayed until a freight train appears. Replied BNSF: But what if the root cause is a flood or a freight or (god forbid!) Amtrak derailment down the line that is the real cause of the delay? After all, Amtrak relies 100 percent on the meticulous reports of delays filed by its conductors, who know only what they see and not what they cannot see. The two sides, I am told, worked out a way to adjudicate this issue, case by case.

I have a parting thought. Look at the last four of these railroads. Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National are also the railroads in the news for being unable to keep their freight deliveries on time. As I’ve discovered time after time, passenger trains are the canary in the coal mine. When they cannot make their achievable schedules, it usually means the host railroad is also in a world of woe.—Fred W. Frailey

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