Test your Amtrak smarts

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, October 10, 2009

Almost buried in a tiny corner of is a treasure trove of financial and operations information about our passenger train railroad. Do this: Go to the bottom of Amtrak’s home page and click on Inside Amtrak, then Other Reports, and finally Monthly Performance Reports. I chose the most recent month, July 2009.

Maybe you don’t want to slog through those 85 pages. In that case, let me entertain you with a 10-question quiz. Answers follow.

1. Which long-distance train carried the most people in July?

2. Which long-distance train that month brought in the most revenue?

3. Which long-distance train ran up the biggest operating loss for the 10 months ending this July, after all direct costs were subtracted from revenue?

4. Which long-distance train ran up the smallest operating loss during the 10 months ending this July?

5. Do the Northeast Corridor trains as a group recover their costs?

6. Which long-distance trains had the most minutes of delay in July, and which train the fewest?

7. Which three long-distance trains have the most recovery time built into their schedules per 100 route miles?

8. Which host railroad in July caused for the most minutes of delay per 10,000 Amtrak train miles? Which host railroad recorded the least?

9. Which long-distance train had the best on-time record in July? Which one had the worst?

10. Which long-distance train showed the most improvement in on-time performance in July, versus a year ago?

I don’t expect anyone to answer all of these questions correctly without consulting the online crib sheet, which I hope you do — there is a wealth of knowledge in these monthly documents. Or just take a guess and see how good your instincts are.

Okay, on to the answers.

1. By a long shot, the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder carried the most folks: 56,167. Second was the Coast Starlight (46,884) and a distant third the Silver Star (36,095). I guessed that the Auto Train (22,419) would lead the way, but forgot it’s hotter ’n blazes in Florida that time of year. Also, most trains going great distances turn over their seats several times, whereas Auto Train runs nonstop. That's the Builder pictured at the upper left; credit Alex Mayes for this scene just west of Essex, Mont.

2. The Empire Builder was the big money-generator, at $6.9 million. The Auto Train was second ($4.4 million) with the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief close behind. All this stands to reason, inasmuch as the Builder, Zephyr and Chief are Amtrak's longest routes operated daily and Auto Train has a high proportion of sleeping car passengers.

3. The California Zephyr was the biggest loser (-$37 million for 10 months). The Southwest Chief (-$34 million) was a short way behind. Direct costs are defined as all above-the-rail costs, including (or plus) station, marketing, terminal, and so forth. The adjacent photo, also by Alex Mayes, is the Southwest Chief west of Albuquerque, N.M.

4. The smallest loser was Auto Train, at -$4.5 million for the 10-month period. Next would be the New York-Charlotte Palmetto (-$8.4 million) and the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans (-$9.8 million).

5. This is always a tricky question to answer. Yes, the Northeast Corridor fleet covered all direct and indirect costs. By Amtrak’s accounting, during the 10 months ending in July the NEC trains earned $206 million more than all direct costs and $1 million after all direct and unrelated overhead costs were subtracted. The cost of the capital that keeps those wheels rolling is not included.

6. The delay champion in July was the California Zephyr. But the supporting data is skimpy, and you get no clue to what was going on; perhaps it had to do with reroutings around track work in Colorado. The Texas Eagle was a distant second, followed by the Lake Shore Limited and Southwest Chief. But by and large these are very long-haul trains, so you would expect more delays. The least-delayed long-distance run? Auto Train. But read on.

7. For every 100 miles it runs, the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle has the most rubber built into its schedule, 21 minutes. The Auto Train (19 minutes) and Coast Starlight (18 minutes) are next. The way I see it, anything more than 10 minutes per 100 miles is setting the bar too low. Amtrak needs to grow a backbone and tighten its schedules.

8. Canadian National caused the most delays per Amtrak train mile in July. Canadian Pacific was second, CSX third, and BNSF Railway last. Here’s the shocker: Union Pacific had the next-to-lowest delay rate. Canadian National was four times more likely than BNSF to delay Amtrak trains due to freight train interference.

9. Auto Train had the best on-time performance (96.8%) and the Cardinal the worst (40.7%).

10. A round of applause, please, for the Texas Eagle. It didn't arrive on time once in July of 2008, but 87.1% of the time in July 2009.

I got maybe two of these 10 questions right. My purpose in putting you on the spot is to encourage you to pay more attention to the trends that buffet Amtrak. We should all be its biggest boosters and harshest critics. — Fred W. Frailey

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