The passenger train as you know it is dying

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, July 11, 2014

About a decade ago the Editor of Trains Magazine asked if I would like to write a monthly column. Before answering no, not yet, I tried to think of provocative ideas. Two came immediately to mind. One I called “Why Doesn’t Dick Davidson Know It’s Time to Go?” The chief executive of Union Pacific had presided over two meltdowns, and my thesis was that someone else should have a chance to mess things up. The other idea I called “The Long Distance Train Is Dead (But Doesn’t Know It).” That would have said that the railroad network would soon so overflow that freight trains would drown the passenger train. As it turned out, UP’s board soon retired Davidson a year before he planned to go. And now it seems that my other prediction is coming to pass.

I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, namely that freight railroads have it in for Amtrak. So what other conclusion can one draw from the disarray I recently wrote about than that the ability of Amtrak’s long-distance trains to function is now seriously in doubt? Here are the arrival times in Chicago of long-distance trains on July 10 (the most recent day available as I write this):

Southwest Chief: 2 hours, 39 minutes late

California Zephyr: 4 hours 51 minutes late

Empire Builder: 5 hours, 40 minutes late

Texas Eagle: 52 minutes late

Capitol Limited: 1 hour, 54 minutes late

Lake Shore Limited: 2 hours late

Cardinal: 1 hour, 45 minutes late

City of New Orleans: 10 minutes late

These are actually some pretty good arrivals, compared to what I’ve observed in recent months. Since the onset of last winter, Amtrak hasn’t caught a break from the freight railroads in the nation’s midsection, because the railroads themselves haven’t caught a break. First it was that winter to remember, then a flood of pent-up shipper demand (non-intermodal freight the most recent week ran almost 10 percent ahead of the same week a year ago).

I invite all of you to ride the morning Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited from Elkhart, Ind., into Chicago and observe what happens. From Goshen, Ind., east of Elkhart to South Bend,. Ind., on the west is a tangle of freight trains belonging to Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific waiting to get into the Elkhart’s classification yard, trying to get out, seeking track space to change crews on the main lines, or being refueled on the mains. From South Bend to Porter, Ind. (Chesterton), Amtrak trains quickly catch up with slower westbound freights and catch yellow Approach signals. At Porter, Amtrak’s Michigan Line joins the fray, as do trains in and out of steel mills. Soon you will encounter freights waiting on a main track to get into Norfolk Southern’s several Chicago terminals or permission to enter tracks of other railroads, such as the Belt Railway of Chicago. The trip will be entertaining, yes, but also sadly illustrate the problem: Amtrak long-distance trains have nowhere to go in today’s railroad world but away.

If the problem were unique to Chicago-Elkhart and NS, it would be one thing. But this is happening everywhere, with the possible exception of along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, where freight train volumes on Amtrak routes are less intense.

Freight railroads have an obligation to give Amtrak trains priority, up to a reasonable point. What’s happening now is the freight railroads’ own trains can’t negotiate their way anymore, either, and to keep their territories from gumming up entirely, dispatchers must make Amtrak’s trains feel the pain, too. I will give you one example: BNSF Railway has done a poor job of getting the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder over the road west of the Twin Cities (CP is in charge east of there). But so unreliable has BNSF’s own freight service become on that crowded corridor that in recent months it added more than 30 hours to the schedules of its hottest intermodal hotshots, the Z trains.

So it seems to me that the supreme challenge facing the managers of Amtrak’s long-distance fleet—and most of all D.J. Stadtler, the vice president of operations—is not buying more new passenger cars or beefing up dining car menus or bringing back wine tastings and complimentary newspapers or any of that other stuff but simply finding a way to get the trains to the other ends of their runs within a semblance of their schedules. The challenge is made hard, if not impossible, because Amtrak doesn’t control the destinies of these trains once they leave their origins (or exit the Northeast Corridor). But unless something can be done to improve the performance of long-distance Amtrak trains, I don’t see their clientele sticking around. Today's mess is not irreversible (despite what my title says) but on the other hand, the performance stats do not seem to be getting better now that the weather is better and in fact may be getting worse.

To those who say be patient and things will get better, I reply: Read the newspapers. The bountiful rain in the Midwest this year signals a grain harvest of Biblical proportion, coming on top of a huge 2013 harvest that still largely waits to be moved from storage in the upper Midwest. Another bitter winter ahead is certainly not out of the question, and the racks of firewood outside my house in Virginia tell you where my bets are placed.

I am glad I decided not to become a Trains columnist back then. Had I written in 2004 what I am writing now, you would have laughed at me. But the grim future I imagined is unfolding today in front of our eyes. The fate of the long-distance train in America is as likely to be decided out on the road as it is in the houses of Congress. And out on the road, Amtrak trains cannot find room to run.—Fred W. Frailey

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