Late Trains are a Big Problem.

Amtrak hasn’t always been around. It was created by Congress a half century ago because the private railroads were losing money and wanted desperately to get out of the passenger business and focus on freight.

Recognizing that the country needed passenger trains, Congress finally said to the freight railroads, OK, we’ll let you stop carrying passengers, but to help us get Amtrak off to a good start, you’ll have to buy your way out, either with cash or equipment.

Furthermore, said Congress, Amtrak will run their trains over your track and pay you to do so. In return, you will run their trains on  time.”

How bad is it? Trains running in the Northeast Corridor over track owned by Amtrak are on time almost 80% of the time. But the long-distance trains, the trains running on track owned by the freight railroads? In 2018, those trains were late 54 percent of the time.

The thing is, trains running late cost Amtrak a lot of money. Passengers get vouchers for food and are put up in hotels while being rebooked. On board crews get overtime pay when the trains are late and additional crews—conductors and engineers—are being paid to be on-call.

So what’s the bottom line? A year-old report by Amtrak’s Inspector General’s office said that if Amtrak could improve on-time performance (OTP) by a measly five percent, the estimated cost savings and increased revenue would be more than 12 million dollars a year.

But if OTP could be increased to 75 percent, savings would jump to $42 million, plus an estimated $335 million Amtrak would save on equipment that won’t need to be replaced. 

That’s the way it worked in Amtrak’s first couple of decades. But then, little by little, it grew more and more common for freight railroad dispatchers to move Amtrak trains onto sidings in order to give preference to one or more of their freights.

Bottom Line: Millions of Amtrak passengers are inconvenienced and America’s national passenger railroad requires a subsidy with tax dollars because a half-dozen private corporations refuse to abide by a legal agreement they made with the government fifty years ago.

Whatever happened to being a good corporate citizen?