Outrages on the rails: The real story

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, August 17, 2014

Be on notice: Any rational observer would predict that American railroads are in for a terrible winter a few months hence — that is, if it is a normal, mild winter of the sort we had before last winter. How can I say that in the middle of August? Follow the trail of evidence, please.

My correspondent Marcus Ruef lives not so far from me, in Charles Town, W.Va., and two or three times a month needs to go to Chicago on business. He formerly rode Amtrak’s Capitol Limited to Chicago. The train “used to be a gem hiding in plain sight,” he writes. But the westbound Capitol’s average arrival time in Chicago fell to 141 minutes late in June, 144 minutes in July and 156 minutes thus far in August. “It is all very sad,” concludes Marcus, who now commutes to Wisconsin by auto, accompanied by a pile of audio books.

Oh, but it gets worse! The Capitol’s sister train on Norfolk Southern between Cleveland and Chicago is the Lake Shore Limited from New York City. East of Cleveland, both trains are on different routes of CSX Transportation. The Lake Shore’s track record into Chicago is even more horrendous. Inspired by Marcus, I compiled my own spreadsheet for the first 15 days of August. The best arrival time in that period was 96 minutes late (August 10), the next-best 125 minutes (August 13) and the worst 476 minutes (August 5). The average arrival into the Hog Butcher For The World this month was 260 minutes late, meaning four hours, 20 minutes. Delays to both trains were fairly evenly spread between NS and CSX. At the same time, the experiences of travelers aboard the Chicago-Oakland California Zephyr and Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder are as bad or worse. Yes, there have been summer storms, but what is really going on?

We are not seeing malicious dispatching by the railroads, in my opinion. What we are seeing is the passenger train version of the hell that railroad freight customers are experiencing this year. Railroads over key routes are trying to move more trains than they have the capacity to operate reliably. Business is booming, and the railroad industry is not prepared. They are all offering train service jobs to anyone with a beating pulse who passes a drug-screening test. And they are desperate for every locomotive that can be squeezed out of the factories of General Electric and Caterpillar by December 31, at which time new environmental rules will make such power scarce for a year or two.

Railroads are not sharing with me the on-time stats for their freight trains, but I would wager that freight customers are experiencing service failures of a sort affecting the Lake Shore, Capitol, Zephyr, and Builder. In fact, no other conclusion is even remotely possible.

And this is summer! As I write this, nature is starting to finish baking across the Great Plains record-breaking grain crops, but by the onset of autumn and winter it is unlikely that railroads will have moved all of last year’s bountiful harvests. So elevators will be bulging and the politicians in Washington and the state capitals will be screaming.

From my admittedly humble vantage point, I see little possibility that the railroad industry will be reasonably fluid by winter, so what you witness today is only a preview of the travails and miseries of railroad customers, passenger and freight, that lie ahead. In the best of winters, it will be worse than today. In a winter like the last one, I don’t even want to think of the paralysis.

So that is what I foretell by seeing the outrages committed on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited on these pleasant summer days. This is the future, and it sucks. Unless the economy goes into recession and solves their problem the cheap and easy way, how railroads do or do not handle their current success with their present, inadequate resources and planning tools will be the recurring theme of the rest of this decade. — Fred W. Frailey

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