The new normal is highly abnormal

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited (train 29) left South Bend, Ind., yesterday at 11:08 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, the Lake Shore Limited (train 49) followed. Next stop for both trains: Chicago, 84 miles west. The Lake Shore reached Chicago at 4:26 p.m., the Capitol at 5:20 p.m. This fiasco illustrates how precarious our railroad infrastructure is today, at a time of record shipper demand and probably record shipper unhappiness. The tale of what happened to these trains is worth retelling.

West of Cleveland, both run on Norfolk Southern’s Chicago Line, once the New York Central’s Water Level Route. This year, they have been plagued by progressively later arrivals in Chicago, due in part to delays east of Cleveland. But the devil lays in wait west of that city. Both trains lately can expect 60-90 minutes of delay between Cleveland and Elkhart, Ind. And after Elkhart, those last 101 miles to Chicago lately have been trips through hell.

At 1 p.m. yesterday I check in on these trains, whose fortunes I’ve been following. I use ATCS Monitor (which gives a dispatcher’s view of track occupancy and signal indications), Amtrak’s Track A Train (which says where trains are and their speeds) and the web camera near Porter, Ind. (to be certain of what I’m seeing).

In a bit less than two hours, the trains have gotten almost nowhere. They’re both standing west of LaPorte, Ind., east of Control Point (CP) 462, about 25 miles west of South Bend. Ahead of them on Main 1 are (by my count) freight trains, but that depends on how far ahead you look. A passenger on the Capitol, Jay Eaton, reports on the Forum that the conductor said nine freights were in front. But never mind the number; at 1 o’clock, none of those trains are moving! The railroad is basically in gridlock, shut down.

The problems seem to be twofold: trains needing to be recrewed and construction jobs associated with the Indiana Gateway project, which ironically is intended to speed up train movements.

The first two trains in the long line are empty oil trains and have been there all morning, probably waiting to be recrewed. Behind them is a manifest freight and then an intermodal train and finally the two Amtraks. On Main 2 sits a merchandise train, crewless, ruling out any overtakes.

By and by this conga line begins to wiggle its way west. But all must apparently stop and be flagged through a construction job (crossovers, signals) east of Porter (CP 482) and so not until 2:45 p.m. does the first oil can train rumble by Porter at 25 mph. Fifteen minutes later the second oil job goes by, followed after a bit by the manifest train and later by the intermodal train.

Finally, at 3:36 p.m. train 29, the much-delayed Capitol Limited approaches Porter, but stops at the junction with Amtrak’s Michigan line because the intermodal train is stopped for its crew to be relieved. At 3:45 train 29 gets its signal and begins to more on an Approach indication. The intermodal train and both Amtrak trains switch at Porter to Track 2 to finally get around the empty oil trains, which are stopped at Burns Harbor on Track 1 at a second track-construction job. The Lake Shore passes Porter seven minutes behind the Capitol.

In almost five hours, the Amtrak trains have moved 45 miles.

But the agony is not over. At Porter, the Capitol’s engineer tells the dispatcher he has one hour left to work. One hour later finds train 29 standing beside the Amtrak station at Hammond-Whiting, Ind., awaiting a new crew while train 49 runs around it. On the Capitol, passenger Jay emails that the train has long been completely out of food, the only nourishment being booze.

For the record, the Capitol Limited got to Chicago Union Station 8 hours 35 minutes late. It lost more than five of those hours in the last 80 miles of its trip. The Lake Shore beat it to CUS by almost an hour, itself 6 hours 41 minutes late. Amtrak held the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr more than two hours for connecting passengers on the Lake Shore. Capitol Limited passengers wanting to connect were SOL.

Today looks like a rerun of yesterday. Both westbound Amtrak trains are out of Elkhart by 11 a.m., again hours late. Ahead of them, five westbound freights are stacked up at Porter, waiting for a signal. Two more are around LaPorte, and track 2 is occupied by a parade of eastbounds.

This is not a picture of a railroad in meltdown, but rather dysfunction. Everything gets done, but slowly and at great cost to the railroad and inconvenience to its freight customers and those of tenant Amtrak. I tell you this little tale because ones just like it are happening on a lot of railroads right now. And it is happening because railroads are not prepared on key routes with the crews, locomotives, or track capacity they need to handle a surge of new business. Call it the new normal, but don’t smile when you say it.—Fred W. Frailey

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