Late Trains: Who’s REALLY To Blame?

When it comes to Amtrak’s absolutely awful on-time problems, you hear a lot of theories as to what or who is the reason.

1 – It’s the freight railroads deciding to hell with Amtrak the minute a federal court ruled that Amtrak couldn’t team with the FRA to set on-time standards.
2 – It’s the improving economy which has increased production on everything from cars to cell phones and shipping all that stuff has exceeded capacity of the freight railroads.
3 – It’s all that crude oil from North Dakota being fracked up out of the ground and filling up ten times as many tank trains than were being run last year.
4 – It’s the sales and marketing people with the freight railroads selling more shipping capacity than their companies can handle.
5 – It’s all of the above.
Truthfully—and like you, I would guess—I’m inclined to go with Door Number 5. I will note, however, that Option No. 1 was the only one that started rather abruptly, more or less around the time the railroads got that favorable court decision. Take a look at the on-time performance for several of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, comparing August of 2013 with August of this year:
California Zephyr 74.2%     6.5%
Capitol Limited         69.4%     3.2%
Crescent                 67.7% 46.8%
Empire Builder         33.6% 24.2%
Lake Shore Limited 61.3% 16.3%
Southwest Chief 64.5% 46.8%
Sunset Limited         69.2% 39.3%
Texas Eagle 74.2% 48.4%
All L/D Trains 65.7% 41.2%
(I should add here that there’s a fudge factor involved in whether or not a train is on time or late. Depending on how long the route is, a train can arrive as much as 29 minutes behind schedule and still be considered on-time. The airlines do the same thing.)
This on-time issue is really serious and, unless some kind of fix can be found, it’s only a question of time before the effects start showing up in declining ridership, which will impact revenue, which will mean the need for larger subsidies, which will add fuel to the fires that the anti-Amtrak elements in Congress are still stoking.  Looks like we’ve got work to do!