Late Trains: Who’s to Blame?

Three years ago, I was on Amtrak’s Train 19, the Crescent, traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. We were due to arrive there at 9:00 p.m., but that train habitually runs late due to “freight traffic”.  We were very late that night. It was after 1:00 a.m. when we finally arrived at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. By the time I got to my hotel, I had been considered a “No Show” and my room had gone to someone else.

I eventually found a room in another hotel, but I had to be back at the train station less than five hours later for the Sunset Limited’s 9:00 a.m. departure for Los Angeles.

Late trains are a big problem for Amtrak. They’re a major inconvenience for the affected passengers and a major expense for the railroad because many of those passengers have to be compensated for the inconvenience with hotel rooms and meal vouchers. 

The question is: How big is the problem and what can be done about it?

It’s at least a 40-million-dollar problem for Amtrak. The company’s Inspector General investigated the issue a couple of years ago and determined that’s what it costs every year for Amtrak to compensate passengers inconvenienced by late arrivals. Forty million bucks a year! Then there’s the issue of the loss of public confidence in Amtrak  and people who opt for some other mode of transportation  because of Amtrak’s  spotty on-time performance.

The fact is, most of the time those late arrivals occur because the host railroad—the freight railroad that owns the tracks—has directed Amtrak onto sidings, giving preference to their own freight trains and making Amtrak wait. 

That word preference is key, because fifty years ago, Congress put that very word into the law when it created America’s passenger railroad:  Amtrak would pay the freight railroads for using their track and, in return, the freight railroads would give preference to Amtrak trains. It’s the law.

Oh, they give Amtrak trains preference, all right . . . but only when it suits them. And, in the meantime, the freight railroads keep going to the administrators and the courts and elected officials in a relentless effort to pick away at that pesky word “preference”.

Finally, as I write this, Amtrak’s Train 19, the southbound Crescent, is in Culpeper, Virginia. It’s running 3 hours and 2 minutes late.