NS gets that old time Amtrak religion

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, October 16, 2014

I’m sorry, I cannot pass off as complete coincidence that Norfolk Southern chief executive Wick Moorman would respond on Monday to a public chastisement by the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board over handling of Amtrak passenger trains, and by Thursday Amtrak trains are zipping into Chicago better than at any time in memory. As I write this, the westbound Capitol Limited (Washington-Chicago) is just over an hour late on one of its best runs in ages. West of South Bend, Ind., it is lined to cross between main tracks twice to get around at least three NS freights. As I study its progress on ATCS Monitor, it stands to have a great ride into Chicago Union Station. This kind of handling wasn’t the norm two weeks or even one week ago. I should know. I rode the locomotive of the Lake Shore Limited across the NS Chicago Line earlier in October, as both it and the Capitol simply got in line behind the freights and took their lumps.

But since then, Amtrak caught a break. Daniel Elliott, chairman of the STB, on October 6 wrote to Moorman, asking that the NS jefe explain the chronic late operation of Amtrak trains between Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago. Besides the Capitol and Lake Shore, NS hosts five pairs of trains between Chicago and Porter (Chesterton), Ind., 39 miles, with destinations in Michigan.

That Elliott would even inquire about delays to Amtrak trains is extraordinary, because I am unaware of any such letters from the STB to Moorman or any other railroad chief executives on this subject, ever. The Surface Transportation Board is the economic regulator of railroads, with jurisdiction over rates and service standards — Big Foot, in other words.

Moorman’s response to Elliott this Monday is detailed and remarkably candid and nondefensive, considering the circumstances. He mentions the freight train density (110 trains a day west of Elkhart, Ind., 100 trains east), this year’s surge in volume (7 percent in and out of Chicago), and the shortage of crews to handle the volume. He says construction projects, some of them to increase capacity, were a factor. Moorman also lists steps Norfolk Southern is taking to mitigate all these problems.

Oh, but the one time Moorman vagues out is when he says the railroad has suggested to Amtrak both temporary and permanent reroutes of the Capitol and Lake Shore. I wish he had been more specific.

But back to the coincidence. No sooner does Moorman write his response to Elliott than the heavens part and handling of Amtrak trains improves. From losing two to three hours over NS, they’ve gone to losing one to two hours, or even less.

Methinks concurrent with his response to the STB chairman, Moorman communicated with his transportation officers. Maybe he said, we can do better than this. More likely: Don’t make me have to write another such letter to the STB. We’ll never know, will we? — Fred W. Frailey

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