Why Amtrak’s not on time

“Over the last 12 months, Amtrak operations and equipment contributed between 11 and 18 percent of the total delay.  Likewise, “third party” causes of delay, such as inclement weather and police activity, contributed only between 6 and 8 percent of the total.  The delay that Amtrak ascribes to the “host” railroad, on the other hand, averaged 79 percent of total monthly delay.”*

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Amtrak operates some commuter trains in California.

Breaking down delays attributable to the host railroads (across the national system):*

  • Freight train interference (25 percent)
  • Passenger train interference (this really means other Amtrak trains)
  • Commuter train interference
  • Slow orders not related to weather (“likely in response to track conditions”)
  • Signal delays

And the reason Amtrak can’t report: Continued underfunding at a time when ridership is increasing. Congress makes yearly allocations to Amtrak and without an expectation for stable long-term funding, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation can’t make long-term investment plans or seek alternate, additional funding (like bonds). Recently received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding gives Amtrak a necessary booster shot to clear out a backlog of maintenance. But this doesn’t solve the year-to-year fight for dollars.

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An Amtrak train emerging from Chicago Union Station (CUS).

State of Illinois-supported routes (from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) show a 20% increase since 2007. The Illinois Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade track, crossings, and signals to improve travel times. You can see the effect on ridership when you improve service. I think this makes Illinois a strong contender for high-speed rail stimulus money not yet awarded.

*Delay information comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2009 Freight Snapshot draft report.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • http://www.cyclelicio.us/ Yokota Fritz

    Caltrain completely owns the track it runs on between San Jose and San Francisco and has something like 94% on time performance running 96 trains daily for 2009, which is actually down from 98% or so in previous years because of more “incidents” (police actions, cars and people on the tracks, etc).

    I left Illinois before the Illinois service runs began so I don’t know what that’s like. There’s a world of difference between California Amtrak service (equipment, stations and on train service) and the regular Amtrak service. It’s too bad national passenger rail is so hobbled by inadequate funding.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I didn’t know the track was owned by the passenger rail. Metra in Chicago owns the tracks for a few of its lines, but the remainder lines fall prey to the same types of delays: Actions from the host railroad.

      I hope that passenger train organizations are able to buy tracks when the opportunity presents itself.

      • http://transit.chicago.il.us/ Adam H. Kerman

        It shouldn’t matter what railroad, passenger or freight, owns the infrastructure, because ownership shouldn’t affect operating and planning decisions. In several critical locations, Metra restricts freight operations during rush hour. It’s not a solution to lack of planning; it’s a kludge.

        Generally, Metra owns the former Milwaukee Road, but dispatching is performed by the freight railroad. It still performs like an integrated railroad. We’re probably better off for it.

        Contrast Metra SouthWest Service. The ex-C&WI between 23rd Street and 74th Street is now publicly owned, but the choice was made by the public agency (RTA at the time) NOT to control the interlockings. 21st Street eventually went to Amtrak and CP 518 to NS. Most of the remainder of the route is leased from NS but not dispatched by Metra. SouthWest Service runs into freight interference at a number control points. NS may prioritize its own freight to Ashland Avenue Yard over commuter trains at CP 518.

        That’s ok, ‘cuz Metra can zap the same NS freight trains at Englewood, which Metra does control.

        Is this the way to run a railroad?

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          Nope, not the way to run a railroad. The fighting doesn’t improve the trip for the passenger.

          I’ve heard that freight railroads will intentionally delay passenger trains (which they’re not supposed to do), and take the financial hit of a fine because the fine is cheaper than delaying their own trains.

  • http://www.cyclelicio.us/ Yokota Fritz

    Caltrain completely owns the track it runs on between San Jose and San Francisco and has something like 94% on time performance running 96 trains daily for 2009, which is actually down from 98% or so in previous years because of more “incidents” (police actions, cars and people on the tracks, etc).

    I left Illinois before the Illinois service runs began so I don’t know what that’s like. There’s a world of difference between California Amtrak service (equipment, stations and on train service) and the regular Amtrak service. It’s too bad national passenger rail is so hobbled by inadequate funding.

    • http://www.stevevance.net Steven Vance

      I didn’t know the track was owned by the passenger rail. Metra in Chicago owns the tracks for a few of its lines, but the remainder lines fall prey to the same types of delays: Actions from the host railroad.

      I hope that passenger train organizations are able to buy tracks when the opportunity presents itself.

      • http://transit.chicago.il.us/ Adam H. Kerman

        It shouldn’t matter what railroad, passenger or freight, owns the infrastructure, because ownership shouldn’t affect operating and planning decisions. In several critical locations, Metra restricts freight operations during rush hour. It’s not a solution to lack of planning; it’s a kludge.

        Generally, Metra owns the former Milwaukee Road, but dispatching is performed by the freight railroad. It still performs like an integrated railroad. We’re probably better off for it.

        Contrast Metra SouthWest Service. The ex-C&WI between 23rd Street and 74th Street is now publicly owned, but the choice was made by the public agency (RTA at the time) NOT to control the interlockings. 21st Street eventually went to Amtrak and CP 518 to NS. Most of the remainder of the route is leased from NS but not dispatched by Metra. SouthWest Service runs into freight interference at a number control points. NS may prioritize its own freight to Ashland Avenue Yard over commuter trains at CP 518.

        That’s ok, ‘cuz Metra can zap the same NS freight trains at Englewood, which Metra does control.

        Is this the way to run a railroad?

        • http://www.stevevance.net Steven Vance

          Nope, not the way to run a railroad. The fighting doesn’t improve the trip for the passenger.

          I’ve heard that freight railroads will intentionally delay passenger trains (which they’re not supposed to do), and take the financial hit of a fine because the fine is cheaper than delaying their own trains.

  • http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/ Tom Garritano

    Steven, glad you found the CMAP freight report useful. Thanks for the mention, and Randy Blankenhorn returned the favor this week in his CMAP email update (http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/blog.aspx ). good luck with your studies.

    Tom

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I found the report while I was searching for data on freight statistics like tons per mode, ton-miles per mode, and value of freight transported per mode.

      I was informed I could find this on the CMAP Freight Committee webpage, but I didn’t. I ended up using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

      Still, CMAP has plenty of other good information (as evidenced by my post here).

  • http://www.cmap.illinois.gov Tom Garritano

    Steven, glad you found the CMAP freight report useful. Thanks for the mention, and Randy Blankenhorn returned the favor this week in his CMAP email update (http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/blog.aspx ). good luck with your studies.

    Tom

    • http://www.stevevance.net Steven Vance

      I found the report while I was searching for data on freight statistics like tons per mode, ton-miles per mode, and value of freight transported per mode.

      I was informed I could find this on the CMAP Freight Committee webpage, but I didn’t. I ended up using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

      Still, CMAP has plenty of other good information (as evidenced by my post here).

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