Late Trains Cost Amtrak Big Bucks.
Back in 1970, when the private railroads were all desperate to get out of the money-losing passenger business, the federal government put together a deal: Amtrak was created to operate the passenger trains in the country and the freight railroads would be paid to accommodate Amtrak trains on their systems. In addition, the freight railroads would get bonus payments for running the passenger trains on time. The arrangement was more than just an agreement; it was—and still is—the law. OK . . . so how’s it all working out?
Well, that depends on which of the freight railroads you’re talking about and even then the answer will range from fair to poor. Here’s a chart that covers January through November of last year. The numbers are somewhat better than the two prior years, but that’s mostly because those years were just awful.
It is hardly a coincidence that the Surface Transportation Board has just finished taking testimony about proposed regulations which would establish clear on-time performance criteria the freight railroads would be required to meet when handling Amtrak trains. Ninety-five comments were submitted and many of those were from members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). Five railroads submitted testimony, as did seven associations, NARP being one of those.
There is much at stake. In addition to inconveniencing millions of passengers, late trains cost Amtrak a lot of money. Three years ago, their own internal estimate was $140 million a year, but that was before the on time performance of most Amtrak long-distance train went into the dumper because of track congestion. But even $140 million is a serious problem for a company that has to go before Congress annually and beg for enough money to sustain a bare bones operation for another 12 months.
So on one hand we have Amtrak desperately cutting costs in an effort to satisfy the members of Congress who are demanding that they break even … while, on the other hand, lousy On-Time Performance, caused for the most part by the freight railroads, could well be costing Amtrak a couple of hundred million bucks a year. And we don’t hear a peep from those same congressmen.
Six months from now, Amtrak will have a new president/CEO. How would you like that job?