The STB to Consider Amtrak’s OTP.

I just finished sending some testimony into the Surface Transportation Board. That agency is undertaking a review of regulations regarding Amtrak’s on-time performance … or “OTP” as the insiders say. Most people just shrug when it comes to Amtrak trains running late, as though there’s nothing that can be done about it. Besides, so the train is late … what’s the big deal?
train-is-running-lateWell, I’ll tell you what—and it’s what I told the STB—a late train, even the possibility of a specific train running late, has cost me personally a lot of money over the years. Here’s why:
Obviously, I have to fly whenever I leave Hawaii, but I try to minimize my actual time in the air. So I usually fly to the west coast and take Amtrak from there. Twice a year I attend meetings of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. I’m on the board of directors and it’s my responsibility to attend.
The next NARP board meeting is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 10th, in Washington, DC. In a perfect world—a world in which Amtrak trains run on time in the same way the trains in Europe do—this would be my itinerary for getting to that meeting:
Wed., April 6 — fly from Maui to Los Angeles
Thurs., April 7 — depart Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief at 6:15 p.m.
Fri., April 8 — on board the Chief
Sat., April 9 — arrive Chicago at 3:15 p.m.; depart Chicago on the Capitol Limited at 6:40 p.m.
Sun., April 10 — arrive Washington at 1:50 p.m.; attend board meeting at 4:00 p.m.
But can I take a chance on a 3-hour-25-minute connection in Chicago, from the Chief to the Capitol Limited? It’s certainly possible, but as I’m posting this at not quite 5:00 p.m., Hawaii time, the eastbound Chief just left Raton, New Mexico, and it was two hours and 5 minutes late.
Even if I do make that connection in Chicago, what if the Capitol Limited is late getting into Washington? It’s running on time at the moment, but it has arrived on schedule just 40% of the time over the past 12 months.
The solution to my dilemma is clear: I have to leave here on April 4th, two days earlier that what should be a valid itinerary. That will get me to Chicago on the 6th and I will spend that night in a hotel, taking the Capitol Limited the next evening, getting to Washington on Saturday instead of Sunday.
Unfortunately, there’s a very real possibility that either the Southwest Chief or the Capitol Limited—or both trains— will be late, and that means adding two days to my itinerary which will cost me an additional $700-$800 for two additional nights in hotels, one in Chicago and one in Washington. And there will also be some additional restaurant meals.
That’s the reality. And that’s why the Surface Transportation Board needs to take the issue of Amtrak’s OTP seriously. Yes, of course it’s an over-simplification … but they need to decide what has priority: people or all those toaster ovens from China.