You Can Tell A Lot About A Railroad By How Well It Runs On Time

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — As in any business, time is money when running a railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad is learning this the hard way. In the face of growing traffic Union Pacific’s earning are declining. They are declining because traffic congestion on their lines is causing their trains to run late. The result is less freight being carried, many angry customers and lost business. As RailPAC’s Russ Jackson observed after a recent auto trip to Texas, siding after siding on the UP was clogged with idle freight trains. Because of delays many train crews hit their maximum 12 hour workdays miles away from their intended destination. The UP is already short on train crews so replacement crews often are not available. Many of these trains were left stranded without replacement crews to run them. The trains that are running are hindered by the lack of available sidings on busy mainlines further adding to the slowdown and congestion.

I can’t think of a successful commuter railroad that doesn’t run better than 90% on time. On the other hand I can’t think of a commuter rail line that doesn’t see ridership drop sharply when their on time performance drops. The Swiss are among the most rail riding people in the world. Is it any wonder that their trains have some of the best on-time performance rail service in the world, with 95% within 4 minutes, 81% within 60 seconds!?

This brings me to Amtrak. Amtrak can’t do much about the on time performance of its trains on the UP for the moment. It is interesting that on the BNSF being on time is less of an issue. Amtrak offers host railroads incentive pay if they deliver their trains on time. The UP has generally ignored this program. The BNSF hasn’t. In at least one case on the SAN JOAQUINS when it failed to earn Amtrak’s incentive pay, the BNSF replaced the responsible executives! But what about those things Amtrak can control. At the October 2003 schedule change Amtrak revamped the schedule of their ACELA trains which largely run on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s aim was to raise the on time record of the ACELA from 70% to 94%. They added more padding to the schedule and took out some intermediate stops to improve on time performance. Well, it has been about 9 months now and the ACELA on time performance doesn’t seem to be much better: in January of this year the on time performance of the ACELA was 65.8%. Granted this was during the winter when there were weather-related problems, but in May of this year the ACELA was running at 74.1% onetime. Hardly better than the system average of 70.4% and behind the METROLINER’S 74.2 % on time record for May.

A big choke point for ACELA is when it runs on Metro-North trackage. Amtrak has time slots reserved on Metro-North for its trains. The problem is when Amtrak doesn’t show up on time for its reserved slot when entering Metro-North territory it screws up the scheduling for Metro-North trains. Metro-North doesn’t feel obligated to bail out Amtrak when they show up late. The same problem happens when Amtrak trains are not on time at other host railroads. This is the basis of the old saying late trains only get later.

Trains are late for many reasons, some of them outside the control of the railroad. Too often on Amtrak the equipment or personal are not ready on time. Equipment is sent out needing repairs that then breakdown on the road. Trains have been delayed because the switching locomotive has run out of fuel while bringing equipment to the station. A train was delayed because a valve to a water tank wasn’t checked and closed before being set out of the yard. This winter many railcars were damaged and unavailable the next day for service in the East and Midwest because the head end power wasn’t connected at the yard between runs to keep the cars warm, which resulted in frost damage. Many stations are poorly designed to handle passengers quickly; platforms are too short so the train must be double-stopped to load the train. Some stations are poorly organized to expedite the loading of passengers. Many of these problems boil down to a lack of operational discipline from the top down.

So the bright spot on Amtrak would seem to be California’s corridor trains, particularly the PACIFIC SURFLINERS, with on time performance sometimes reaching above 90%. But considering the improved equipment and upgraded right of ways paid largely by the state of California, this shouldn’t seem unexpected. In the case of the SURFLINERS when these capital improvements were approved in the 1990’s the goal was that the running time between Los Angeles and San Diego would be 2 hours and 10 minutes by the year 2005. At this rate I don’t think the SURFLINERS are going to achieve this goal. Currently the train has a slower schedule than in the 1970’s when the run between Los Angeles and San Diego was 2 hours and 35 minutes. We have the equipment and the railroad to easily slash 10 to 15 minutes off the current schedule between Los Angeles and San Diego. Where is the will?