Cause and Effect Could Hurt Amtrak.
Most people don’t realize that Amtrak trains run on track owned by the freight railroads everywhere in the country outside of the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston). Amtrak pays a fee to those railroads for handling their trains, plus a little something extra for running the Amtrak trains on time.
The on-time part of that arrangement has been a real problem for a number of long-distance trains over the past several years where freight traffic has drastically increased. The most egregious example has been across the northern tier of the country along the route of the Empire Builder. The oil boom in North Dakota caused something like a ten-fold increase in the number of trains hauling crude oil to refineries around the country and the unfortunate result was the Empire Builder’s on time performance going right into the dumper.
More recently, however, as the price of oil has dropped precipitously, the Builder’s OTP has gone up and a little more than 80 percent of the trains running on time. The point here is that Amtrak trains are affected by how the freight railroads are doing.
That leads me to an interesting—not to mention worrisome—column by Fred Frailey appearing recently in TRAINS magazine. Fred points out that a great deal of coal is transported over several of the routes used by three very popular Amtrak long-distance trains. What will happen, he asks, when this country moves away from fossil fuels and some of the coal mines are closed? If, for example, the long stretches of track—miles of loops and switchbacks needed so both coal trains and Amtrak’s California Zephyr can negotiate the climb from Denver up through the Flatirons to the Moffat Tunnel and on to Glenwood Springs. If a couple of the coal mines west of Denver shut down, why would Union Pacific spend the necessary money to maintain that long stretch of track. For the Zephyr? Not hardly likely.
Fred offers two other examples—the Cardinal and the Silver Star—both trains that run on track that is heavily used by the freight railroads for transporting coal.
Just what we need, Fred. One more thing to worry about!