Why your next trip will induce heartburn

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, June 13, 2014

I’ve said before that any train I’m on can be as late as you like. I believe my exact words were “more train-riding pleasure for the same low price.”

Well, forget that. I’ve changed my mind. Even idiots like me have their limit, and mine has been breached. Any train more than an hour and a half behind its schedule is a bummer to me. Unfortunately, present trends suggest I am going to be bummed out quite often in months to come.

First, for me, there was the eastbound Canadian that got to Toronto 15 hours late in early February. That cost me more than $700 in airline, hotel, and meal expenses I hadn’t expected and left me with a sour aftertaste. That same month, I rode a four-hours-late Cardinal from Chicago to Washington, D.C., had my Pullman Rail Journeys trip from Chicago to New Orleans cancelled two days in a row by Amtrak and headed home on a six-hours-late Lake Shore Limited. I won’t bore you with March and April, but they were more of the same on the long distance trains. Late last month, my Lake Shore Limited was four hours late getting to Chicago, and I was saved from having to fly to St. Louis to catch up with the Texas Eagle only because Amtrak held the Eagle for connecting passengers. This week, again on the Lake Shore, we were two hours late into Chicago, and two hours late again on the Capitol Limited reaching Washington.

The problem I’m having with late trains is both practical and psychological. You can’t plan a life if you don’t know when you’ll get there; that’s pretty self-evident. What I’ve come to realize lately is that it’s just plain depressing to creep along hours after you expected to be doing something else.

Now comes the bad news. This, my friends, is the new normal for Amtrak, at least for the next couple of months. Late trains don’t just happen. They’re caused, sometimes by Amtrak (that Capitol Limited I rode this week waited an hour in Chicago for passengers from a four-hours-late California Zephyr) but more often by the host railroads, whose own freight trains are in great disarray right now.

These numbers for the latest week for the four biggest U.S. railroads, plus Canadian host Canadian National Railway, pretty well tell the story:


Train speed—Down 14.8% vs. same week last year; Terminal dwell time—Up 14.9% vs. same week last year.


Total volume—Up 4.7% vs. same week last year; Train speed—Down 16.7%; Terminal dwell time—Up 17.1%.

Norfolk Southern

Total volume—Up 9.8%; Train speed—Down 8.5%; Terminal dwell time—Up 11.8%.

Union Pacific

Total volume—Up 7.3%; Train speed—Down 5.8%; Terminal dwell time—Up 11.0%.

Canadian National

Total volume—Up 6.8%; Train speed—Down 6.8%; Terminal dwell time—Up 3.5%.

Get the picture? Business has never been better, the result being congestion both in the terminals and over the road. (BNSF Railway does not report weekly traffic numbers, but I am told it is setting records.) While I was in Chicago this week, CSX had at least five freight trains parked, unmanned, on its Garrett Subdivision for lack of room in Barr Yard. Coming home on the Capitol, we met and overtook an unbelievable number — dozens —  of CSX trains between Pittsburgh and the outskirts of Washington. The Lake Shore has been late into Chicago every day this month; taking into account recovery time in its schedule west of Elkhart, Ind., it is delayed more than an hour a day between Elkhart and the Windy City by the crush of Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific freights.

The best dispatching in the world can’t do a lot for Amtrak trains in situations like this. It’s not much comfort to say we’ll just have to grin and bear it. But it’s that, or don’t ride the long distance trains until the freight railroads settle down, and I’m not sure when that will come about.—Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy