Train Travel’s #1 Problem: Missed Connections.
Trains running behind schedule are the single biggest headache Amtrak has to deal with, at least in terms of day-to-day operations. Trains can be late for any number of reasons—bad weather or equipment problems, for example—but the most common cause is freight traffic. Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate over track owned by the freight railroads and the dispatchers for those railroads often give priority to their freight trains at Amtrak’s expense.
Quite often Amtrak trains are made to wait when it would neither be difficult nor inconvenient to give them the priority they should have. I was on the Coast Starlight a number of years ago when we waited almost half-an-hour on a siding for a Union Pacific freight. When it had passed, the UP dispatcher gave us permission to continue … one mile into a station. There is no possible excuse for something like that!
When trains run late, passengers miss connections and then it becomes Amtrak’s responsibility to make things right. Unfortunately, it’s almost a certain lose-lose situation for Amtrak. Missed connections, or “misconnects” as they’re called, cost the railroad a lot of money for meals, for hotel rooms and for chartered buses. The most recent figure I heard was $140 million a year, but that was almost two years ago and before the dramatic increase in freight traffic caused Amtrak’s on-time performance to plummet. Of course, the reason why a train is late really doesn’t matter; the affected passengers will not be happy.
Regular riders and people who understand the unique complexities of a long-distance railroad operation are usually much more tolerant of delays than the infrequent or first-time traveler. Veteran rail travelers also take the likelihood of delays into consideration when they make their travel plans, allowing plenty of time between connecting trains.
When working out a rail itinerary, my rule-of-thumb for years was to figure that the train could be as much as three hours late for each night I’m aboard and I would schedule my connections accordingly. Not any more! These days, I almost always opt to spend the night in a hotel and continue my train trip the following day. Most of the time it’s not Amtrak’s fault. But if we travel by train, we’d better allow for it.