Making the Trains Run On-Time

Someone who called the NARP office recently asked me, “The [passenger] trains run on-time in Europe. Why can’t they do the same here?” It’s a simple question whose answer is, unfortunately, quite complex. The causes of Amtrak train delays vary greatly by route, by host railroad, and by the time of the year. There are many unplanned-for exigencies that occur on the rails on a routine basis, such as suicides and grade crossing collisions involving passenger or freight trains (which always force all traffic on a line to halt for several hours), the mechanical failures of Amtrak or freight trains, severe weather, and other damage done to railroad infrastructure. There are also times when trains are stopped at stations for longer than scheduled because it takes a while to load and unload high volumes of passengers and baggage, or to serve passengers with special needs.

But a large chunk of the routine causes for train delays could be addressed at little or no cost to the taxpayer, the fare-paying passenger, or Amtrak. If the federal government would increase oversight and enforcement of the penalties in existing law against host railroads for delaying Amtrak trains, then most trains' performance would improve significantly. There are other pieces of the puzzle that will require greater investment and the concerted effort of all stakeholders to address, but the biggest short-term step forward requires only an investment of will and existing resources on the part of one federal body: the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

It is a common misconception that freight trains have priority over Amtrak trains. The law gives Amtrak dispatching priority. It has just been poorly enforced.  Most of Amtrak's host railroad contracts have incentive/penalty provisions related to on-time performance.  Some hosts seem to find these provisions motivational, while others do not.

A 2007 NARP letter to the STB helped convince it to take a closer look at chronic Amtrak train delays. It also spurred Amtrak to write its own letter to the STB, and some host railroads felt the need to respond. NARP’s letter also helped to spur action in Congress: the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) gave the STB new powers to enforce the provisions of the Amtrak law pertaining to dispatching priority, as well as the terms of Amtrak’s contracts with host railroads. If the STB determines (acting on its own volition or based on a complaint from Amtrak or another party) that delays are attributable to a host railroad’s failure to provide dispatching preference to Amtrak, it can now award damages to be paid by the host railroad to Amtrak or to the state sponsoring the train in question. These damages are to be used for capital or operating expenditures on the given route to help achieve the law’s minimum standards. (Read a full summary of the law here.)

After PRIIA came into effect, the on-time performance of many Amtrak trains became noticeably better. Among the biggest winners were trains hosted by Union Pacific, particularly the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight. But Amtrak’s punctuality is still far from where it needs to be. If STB had been doing its due diligence, Amtrak would not have needed to file a formal complaint with the Board against Canadian National's poor dispatching practices earlier this year.

Several trains are still suffering chronic delays, some of which result from the day-to-day dispatching practices of the host railroad, while others have to do with the lines' capacity and the condition of the infrastructure--issues that will have to be addressed over the long term through ongoing work with Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration, state Departments of Transportation, Amtrak and the host railroads.

Here is a summary of the issues affecting several specific Amtrak routes:

Empire Builder: Trains 7/27 and 8/28 have suffered delays of several hours on most trips through North Dakota. Because each train's consist must be turned around overnight at each endpoint, multi-hour delays compound upon themselves as the Amtrak fleet is not big enough to have spare sets of cars and locomotives to originate the next day’s train on-time, and the train is delayed departing its station of origin.

North Dakota is witnessing a significant increase in freight traffic--namely tanker trains carrying natural gas and hydraulic fracturing fluid--around Williston, ND, as a result of the oil shale boom in the area. This has made North Dakota one of the most prosperous states during the recession, but has also strained BNSF Railway's capacity. The Empire Builder, if it is already running late when it reaches the Williston area, may be held up while freight trains are moved out of the oil shale fields onto the single-track main line.

BNSF crews are already working on infrastructure improvements to enhance the flow of the increased number of trains on the route. Slow orders (restrictions on trains' top speed over a certain track segment) because of this trackwork are compounding the Builder's delays. On top of that, BNSF has been restricting trains' speed when the temperature rises above 85 degrees (a fairly frequent occurrence this summer) to prevent derailments caused by heat kinks in the track. Different railroads have different thresholds of tolerance for high heat before slow orders are issued, as there is no exact temperature above which heat kinks are more likely to form.

The other ongoing source of delay is the construction of the new bridge over Devils Lake at Churchs Ferry, ND. The lake's rising water level often topped the old bridge, forcing the Builder to detour over a more congested southerly route. Thanks to investment from the State of North Dakota, BNSF and Amtrak, a new, higher bridge is being built, but crews only have a limited window of time each day to do the work. If the eastbound Builder is already late reaching the area, it waits for a couple of hours before it can proceed through the work zone. Fortunately, this work should be done by the end of the year.

Cardinal: The chronic poor performance of trains 50 and 51 results from freight train interference and track condition issues on many parts of its route. Between Orange, VA (west of Culpeper) and Clifton Forge, the Cardinal uses the tracks of the short-line Buckingham Branch Railroad. This railroad is struggling to keep up with the wear and tear imposed by the increasing volume of empty CSX coal trains it carries westward from the Virginia tidewater back to the West Virginia coalfields.

Poor track conditions, forcing speed restrictions, a limited number of passing sidings (most of which are too small to fit an average-length freight train), and poor dispatching all conspire to put a dent in the Cardinal's schedule, particularly eastbound, where train 50 runs against the westward flow of coal empties. The Buckingham Branch says it is working to upgrade its infrastructure, allowing for the more fluid movement of trains, but Amtrak says there still may be more it can do to improve dispatching even under current track conditions and with the current volume of freight traffic.

Another trouble spot on the route is in Indiana. Since there is not a high volume of freight traffic over direct routes between Cincinnati and Chicago, the Cardinal has struggled since the advent of Amtrak to maintain a reliable route through the state. It now uses a combination of CSX-owned track from a variety of predecessor railroads, much of which is single track with slow jointed rail. Nevertheless, there is much CSX can do in the short term to keep the Cardinal on-time without any change in track conditions.

In the long term, investments in track improvements, including to allow speedier passage through the cities of Cincinnati and Indianapolis, as well as a re-route over Canadian National tracks to speed the approach to Chicago (the Cardinal currently uses 4 different railroads between Dyer, IN and Chicago) would be a big help, but sadly the state of Indiana has yet to develop a passenger rail program in its DOT or put any state money towards railroad improvements.

Silver Service, Palmetto, Carolinian and Lake Shore Limited: These trains are all impacted during the summer, when CSX's policy is to restrict Amtrak trains' top speeds to no more than 59 mph (the normal top speed is 79) when the temperature rises above 85 degrees. This is a safety precaution, as heat causes rails to expand. As sections of welded rail expand, they push against adjacent sections, which can form a kink in the rail that can cause trains running at high speeds to derail.  Most other Class I railroads also use welded rail, yet few of them impose the kind of warm-weather speed restrictions that CSX does, part of which has to do with the quality of construction of CSX's welded rail, and part has to do with CSX management practices in administering heat orders.

CSX has made improvements in heat order delays over the past several years by more carefully managing heat orders so they are less likely to be imposed in situations where track conditions do not warrant them, and by improving track conditions to reduce the need for heat orders in certain areas. Continued improvement will have to be made to address this issue, along with Norfolk Southern’s unusually severe flash-flood restrictions during the rare downpours much of the East Coast has seen this summer.

Southwest Chief: BNSF is no longer operating freight trains over the length of the Chief's route between Albuquerque, NM and Newton, KS, so it has stopped investing in the line's upkeep. The states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas have about three years to come up with an investment plan with BNSF and Amtrak, or else draconian BNSF speed restrictions will force the Chief to be rerouted over a southerly route. There is a strong grassroots movement working with the states to make this happen and preserve the current route, but in the meantime, the Chief is suffering delays on this segment, despite the near absence of freight traffic, due to deteriorating track conditions.

NARP will continue to pressure host railroads to adhere to the law and do right by the public who rely on dependable Amtrak service, and we will petition the STB to enforce the law where necessary. NARP is also committed to the tough long-haul work of developing a program of rail infrastructure investment, on the federal level and in every state, on a par with highway and aviation programs. With consistent effort on the part of train advocates, Amtrak management and federal authorities, the kind of on-time service that passengers desire, and that will make train travel a truly viable choice for more Americans, will become the rule on freight railroads rather than the exception.


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