“Why Is Amtrak Always Late?”

It’s amazing how often I’m asked that question. I guess that’s the perception, but the truth is, most of the time Amtrak trains run on time—or very close to it. (You can go to this website to check on any individual train’s on time performance.)
When trains do run behind schedule—and by that I mean several hours late—it’s almost always one of the long-distance trains, and there is literally no end to the variety of reasons why it happens.
Amtrak’s long-distance trains run on track owned by one of the freight railroads. While supposedly required to give Amtrak trains preference, that is often not the case. But freight trains break down, too, and those events will affect an Amtrak train if it’s stuck behind a crippled freight.
Minor problems can get worse very quickly. The freight railroads build “slots” into their schedules for Amtrak. When something happens causing an Amtrak train to slip out of its slot, the dispatchers have to deal with Amtrak traveling at 75 mph in among freights running at perhaps half that speed. Delays become inevitable.

 But it’s not just the freights. A lot of weird things can happen to Amtrak trains over a two thousand mile route. Years ago, I was on the Coast Starlight and we were delayed in Oakland for more than a half hour because someone had parked and locked their car on the railroad tracks that run through Jack London Square . . . and gone shopping.
Last year I was four-plus hours late into Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited and missed a connection to the Empire Builder because we had hit a car on departing Erie, Pennsylvania, the night before.
And here’s one I’d never heard of before: two days ago, the eastbound Zephyr’s horn suddenly stopped working sometime after they left Denver. Since all trains are required to sound their horn at every grade crossing—no exceptions!—the train was unable to proceed until it had been repaired. The Zephyr arrived in Chicago four hours late.
Stuff happens. And that, friends, is why I almost always play it safe and schedule an overnight instead of trying to make connections.