More on Amtrak’s Continuing Problem with Late Trains.

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA — It seems as though everyone is talking about Amtrak’s on-time performance (OTP), and most of them have an opinion as to the reason it’s gotten so bad over the past year or so.

The Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland) has been Tail-End-Charlie when it comes to consistent and lengthy delays and everyone pretty much agrees that the main reason is the huge increase in the number of oil trains carrying crude oil from the new fields in North Dakota to refineries around the country.

But there has also been a long-standing bottle-neck problem at Chicago and it’s been getting worse. Since most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains terminate in that city, the impact of this choke-point has clearly had an impact on all those trains.

I’ve recently traveled on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City and, after a four day meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers there, continued on that same train to this nice college town (it’s dominated by the University of California’s Davis branch). 

The Zephyr has also had on-time problems, although for the past several days it has run spot on-time or close to it. In fact, we arrived here at Davis this afternoon a full 54 minutes early. 

One of our NARP members opined it could hardly be a coincidence that the Zephyr suddenly became punctual at the same time Joe Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, was in Salt Lake City to speak to our NARP gathering. 

That seems like a stretch to me, especially since the OTP problem started getting worse right around the time a lower court decision said Amtrak should not be working with the FRA to set on-time standards for Amtrak trains. That decision has been seen by some as a green light for the freight railroads to stop giving priority to Amtrak trains. (That decision has been appealed and that appeal will be considered by the United States Supreme Court, probably early next year. NARP has filed an amicus brief with the court pertaining to this case.)

Regardless, people are really starting to pay attention to this issue. In fact, our car attendant on the Zephyr had some very firm opinions as to the cause of the worsening OTP problem. What about the increase in freight traffic, I asked.

“Bullshit”, he said. “The freight railroads don’t want us running on their track and they’re trying to get rid of us.”

After having recently sat for hours on the Lake Shore Limited as freight after freight rumbled past, it’s hard not to see at least a little truth in that.