Why your next Amtrak train will be on time (or else)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 26, 2009
Amtrak Auto TrainImagine that you’re the VP-operations for a big U.S. railroad. One day your office door opens and standing there is the person you least like to see, the VP-law. He or she sits down uninvited, right in front of your face, and says, shape up, Bunky, or we’ll be paying Amtrak instead of the other way around.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the sensational improvement in on-time performance by Amtrak trains over the past two years. My sources at Amtrak cannot recall the time its trains did better on host railroads. And the threat of government retaliation for late Amtrak trains is the most likely reason for the improvement.

In fiscal 2007, 69 percent of Amtrak’s trains arrived on time. In 2008, on-time performance rose to 71 percent. In the fiscal 2009 year that just ended, it was 80 percent.

Amtrak Coast StarlightThe improvement was more dramatic on long-distance routes and most notable of all on routes that had been chronic underperformers. Here are four examples:

Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio)  improved from 18 to 75 percent on time.

Sunset Limited
(Los Angeles-New Orleans) zoomed from 27 percent OT to 79 percent.

California Zephyr (Chicago-Oakland) went from 30 percent to 60 percent on time.

Coast Starlight (Los Angeles-Seattle, and shown here on San Pablo Bay near Oakland) improved, too, from 61 to 82 percent on time.

If you think I’m focusing on Union Pacific-dispatched trains, you are very perceptive. UP does many things right, but until the past year, running Amtrak trains over its rails in a timely manner was not one of them. But look at how it got religion.

CSX, another recalcitrant host railroad, began its dramatic turnaround a year earlier. For fiscal 2009, its OT numbers are Auto Train 89 percent (versus 82 percent in fiscal 2008; that’s it crossing Powells Creek in Virginia in the top photo), Silver Meteor 72 percent (versus 67 percent), Silver Star 68 percent (versus 45 percent), Capitol Limited 71 percent (versus 33 percent) and Cardinal 45 percent (versus 31 percent). The Capitol Limited is operated jointly with Norfolk Southern.

On short-distance trains, the Kansas City-St. Louis River Runners over Union Pacific improved their arrivals dramatically, from 19 percent on time in fiscal 2008 to 74 percent this past year. Big disappointments are the trains to and from Michigan points. Their on-time percentages went from 26 to 44 percent — better, but a long way from good.

Why is this happening, you probably wonder. Three reasons, and I’ll name them in what I feel is their ascending order of importance. The freight railroads are under seige in Congress, fighting off threats of increased regulation. They need late Amtrak trains on the minds of members of Congress like they need an epidemic of swine flu among their employees.

Second, there are fewer freight trains out there getting in the way of Amtrak trains. I would guess about 20 percent fewer freight trains than a year ago. That’s a big difference.

Third and most important, legislation signed into law last October permits the Surface Transportation Board, if it chooses, to fine freight railroads that cannot maintain an 80 percent on-time record for Amtrak trains over two consecutive three-month periods. The fine can equal the economic damage to Amtrak caused by the late arrivals, and it would be payable to Amtrak.

Appreciate the irony of freight railroads rather than U.S. taxpayers subsiding Amtrak. This is a possibility now, and the real reason your next train has four in five chances of arriving on time.

Kudos to Alex Mayes for these two spectacular photos.--Fred W. Frailey 
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