A radical idea: Take the lead out of Amtrak!

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, February 26, 2010

I awoke the other day aboard the northbound Coast Starlight and raised the bedroom shade. We were stopped in Klamath Falls, Ore. I got dressed, brushed my teeth, went to the diner, and ordered breakfast. We were still in Klamath Falls. I ate bacon and eggs and leisurely drank a second cup of coffee. Still there. So I got off the train and walked around 10 minutes, until the engineer whistled the five-minute warning.
You’ve probably figured out what was going on: We were waiting out our scheduled departure, for 70 minutes.
When the Coast Starlight got to Portland that afternoon, we dawdled another 80 minutes. Same thing. This could be Amtrak’s premier train?
If you’ve ridden Amtrak’s long-distance trains in the West lately, you’ve probably experienced the same maddening hurry-up-and-wait drill. It’s particularly noticeable on the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, and Sunset Limited, all operated in whole or in part over tracks of Union Pacific. On the East Coast, this happens on CSX, which is host railroad to the Auto Train and Silver Star.
Don’t you think it’s time to get Amtrak’s scheduling up to date? I sure do.
Here’s what I did: I went back to Amtrak’s 1991 schedules and compared them to those today, 19 years later. By and large, the results were most embarrassing in the West.
Sunset Limited: 3 hours, 30 minutes slower.
Silver Star: 3 hours, 30 minutes slower.
Southwest Chief
: 2 hours, 50 minutes slower.
Coast Starlight: 1 hour, 30 minutes slower.
Cardinal: 2 hours, 5 minutes slower (Washington-Chicago)
California Zephyr: 1 hour, 45 minutes slower (Denver-Oakland)

Auto Train: 1 hour slower.

The schedules got lengthened either because the railroads involved convinced Amtrak they could no longer operate the trains successfully on the agreed-upon times, or because Amtrak got sick of taking guff from its customers over chronically late trains. In any case, two things happened. In 2008, Congress gave the Surface Transportation Board authority to levy substantial fines on railroads for habitual late performance by Amtrak trains. And last year, the recession caused a 15-20 percent drop in freight train starts. However, the trend toward better performance was well underway before the recession began in earnest 13 months ago. During the last three months of 2009, I should add, on-time results were 88 percent for Auto Train, 65 percent for the California Zephyr, 70 percent for the Cardinal, 86 percent for the Coast Starlight, 80 percent for the Silver Star, 90 percent for the Southwest Chief, and (gasp) 92 percent for the Sunset Limited.

Those are terrific numbers, and reason enough to begin holding host railroads once again to higher standards. I realize that railroad networks are more crowded in 2010 than they were in 1991. But the infrastructures that support freight and passenger train services are immeasurably stronger today than in 1991.
Let me put it this way: If you’re a senior manager at Union Pacific or CSX (or BNSF Railway, for that matter), how do you justify to yourself schedules that are more stop than go? Where is your pride?
I asked a friend, who occupies a senior position at one of the worst offending railroads, whether Amtrak is seeking to take the unneeded slack out of its schedules on his railroad. He replied no.
I am not surprised. The freight railroads will swallow their pride and fight tighter schedules. When traffic rebounds, we’ll be overwhelmed again, they say. To that, I reply, fat chance it will rebound anytime soon. Their fallback position is, buy us more sidings and double track, please. To which I would reply, buy your own sidings and double track, unless you want to share your profits with me.
Amtrak’s not going to help. The operating chief for one of its best services told me a year ago he doesn’t want to shrink the bloated schedule of his train because passengers are happy to arrive an hour early. Since they sometimes arrive two and a half hours early now, wouldn’t they rather have better standards? I would think so. But the attitude within Amtrak is that better on-time stats trump tighter standards.
If the railroads won’t agree to better schedules, and Amtrak won’t insist on them, what are we to do? Our own individual voices won’t be heard. Myself, I think this is why I keep writing a check to the National Association of Railroad Passengers every year.
Putting the arm on Amtrak to put the arm on the host railroads for better schedules would be a superb project for NARP. This is what that advocacy group is there for. Let's make our voices heard.

My thanks to Alex Mayes for his telling photos of (top to bottom) the Cal Zephyr on Donner Pass, the Auto Train in Northern Virginia and the Sunset Limited in West Texas. -- Fred W. Frailey

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