The summer of service disasters at Amtrak

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, August 8, 2011

I’m seeing a lot of sold-out long-distance trains this summer. The train I’m on today, the Texas Eagle, sure looks like one of them. Amtrak is all but assured to have record ridership in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30. But this good news cannot hide the service disasters taking place out on the road. I don’t remember a summer this bad.
Let’s look at the performance of four long-distance trains the last two weeks of July, starting with the westbound California Zephyr. It runs chronically late into Denver before the usual delays occur threading through the Rocky Mountains. Here’s the minutes late for train 5 arriving Denver, starting July 18: 109, 367, 1,108, 194, 321, 414, 251, 114, 263, 151, 290, 319, and 723 minutes (there was no train July 21).
Now to train 8, the eastbound Empire Builder, and its minutes-late box score arriving at Minneapolis from Seattle and Portland on those same days: 109, 183, 226, 228, 427, 718 (it arrived Chicago at 4:44 a.m. the next day), 389, 439, 413, 206, 548, and 232 minutes (there were no trains on July 18 and 25).

This isn’t just a western problem, either, although matters are worse in the west. Take the Lake Shore Limited arriving Albany, N.Y., from Chicago those 14 days: 120, 95, 121, 194, 128, 243, 135, 26, 91, 43, 117, 162, 535, and 35 minutes late. And the eastbound Capitol Limited arriving Cumberland, Md., from Chicago July 18-31: 53, 8, 74, 140, 81, 10, 45, 20, 123, 82, 28, 23, 122, and 27 minutes late.
The thing is, you cannot blame Amtrak for most of the mess. Nor, really, can you blame the host railroads, at least in the West. Flooding along the Missouri River and in North Dakota caused BNSF Railway to detour as many as 40 percent of its freight trains each day. This created stress throughout the BNSF network that will last easily through the end of August and perhaps into October. The Zephyr is affected primarily in Iowa, where the train count has soared due to detours, and the Builder in North Dakota, where the railroad is still trying to catch up with a backlog of business.

I don’t know what the story is in the East. Amtrak’s trains start out okay and seem to lose steam, if you’ll pardon the pun. Myself, I had hoped to avoid these service problems in my travels this month. The westbound Capitol Limited, Texas Eagle, and Sunset Limited, and northbound Coast Starlight have been relatively good performers through all this. And indeed, the Capitol got me to Chicago within 35 minutes of the scheduled time, which was good enough for me.

But as I write this, the Texas Eagle is sitting in Longview, Texas. Has been for the past two hours. “It’s pretty ugly west of there,” Union Pacific’s dispatcher told our engineer as the train arrived. A freight had derailed 45 miles west of Longview three days ago, and the railroad still hasn’t worked its way through the resulting gridlock (some 40 trains a day pass through Longview). It appears we’ll be on our way in about 15 minutes, after a final eastbound freight gets by, making us almost three hours late and all but guaranteed to become later.

I’m stoical. As I explained to my sister on the phone (she lives close to Longview), I’m getting more train-riding pleasure for the same low price. Besides, we’ll have to become an additional four or five hours late to affect my arrival two mornings hence in Los Angeles, thanks to an all-night layover of my sleeping car in San Antonio, Texas, waiting for the arrival of our Sunset Limited connection. Amtrak’s problem is that not many passengers are so good-natured. A lot of them are going to harbor unhappy memories of the summer of 2011, and bad reputations are hard to shake. — Fred W. Frailey

3:50 p.m. update: When I wrote we were "guaranteed to become later," I guess I was clairvoyant. Approaching Dallas, we get sucked into another train cluster. "I've run out of holes to stick trains," confesses the dispatcher, who says we'd follow a westbound freight to suburban Mesquite. He doesn't tell us that this freight train would stop on single track ahead of us for 45 minutes. Then we inch along, on yellow signals. After reaching Dallas, we back out of the station exactly four hours late. That's right, back out. I don't know when we'll begin moving forward. Am I still stoical? I'm not so sure anymore. - FF

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