Late Trains? Who’s to Blame?

Regulars here know that I rarely recommend making connections from one Amtrak train to another, especially if the connecting is from one long distance train to another. That’s not welcome advice for most travelers because Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate only once a day. And so the reality is that following that advice usually means adding a full day to your itinerary and the cost of another day on the road to your budget.

What we all need to remember is the simple fact that the freight railroads do not give a damn if you miss your connection.

How bad is it? Here are some on-time numbers for the month of May of this year.

  Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland)   On time: 53%

  Capitol Limited (Washington-Chicago)          On time:  34%

  Crescent (New York City-New Orleans) On time: 33%

  Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles) On time: 27%

  Sunset Limited (Los Angeles-New Orleans) On time: 21%

  Silver Star (New York-Miami) On time: 18%

As bad as those numbers are, the reality is even worse because a grace period of 30 minutes is built into all of the long-distance schedules. In other words, a train arriving at its destination two hours after its scheduled arrival time is recorded as being 90-minutes late.

Of course, not every delay is because an Amtrak train was stuck behind a slow moving freight. There can be any number of reasons for a late arrival, including mechanical problems. That information exists, of course, but those incidents don’t occur very often. By far, the plain and simple truth is that the dispatcher—an employee of the freight railroad—made the decision to give preference to the freight instead of the passenger train. In so doing, he broke the law!

It’s quite clear: the law that created our national passenger railroad specifically says that Amtrak will pay for the use of track owned by the freight railroads. But that same law also states very clearly that the freight railroads must give “preference” to Amtrak passenger trains.

The simple truth is that the freight railroads are persistently and arrogantly flouting the law by giving preference to their trains, thus causing American taxpayer/passengers inconvenience and millions of dollars in unnecessary expense.

It’s been fifty years. It’s time to make the freight railroads play by the rules.