Amtrak’s summer long distance (bad) on time performance, and the Toledo Night Express

Commentary by Russ Jackson
…comments in this report are those of the author, not necessarily those of the RailPAC Board of Directors

What a summer it has been for Amtrak’s long distance trains. The new fiscal year began on October 1 so the counting starts over. Usually we comment only on the western trains here, but this summer there was an implosion for two of the long distance trains that enter Chicago from the east, #29-30 the Capitol Limited, and #48-49 the Lake Shore Limited. The problems continued on the western trains, but the two eastern trains affected the western departures from Chicago that had to wait for connecting passengers. Construction projects in the midwest are common in the summer and always affect the Amtrak on time performance.

In summary, for the Fiscal Year up to the end of August here is the end point on time performance from Amtrak’s reports (with September’s report in parenthesis):
# 1-2 the Sunset Limited 61.8% (64%), #3-4 the Southwest Chief 62.2% (55%), #5-6 the California Zephyr 35.8% (11.5), #7-8 the Empire Builder 24.5% (50%), #11-14 the Coast Starlight 77% (66.7%), #29-30 the Capitol Limited 34.7% (3.3%), and #48-49 the Lake Shore Limited 29.7% (21.4s%). In October so far they are both 0%. Looking back to 2010 the Capitol Limited was 68.3% on time and the Lake Shore was 75.7% on time for the fiscal year and the whole long distance system was near 75%. So, what has happened and what can be expected?

The explanation for the drop on the eastern trains was first track work in New York State, but the real bottleneck was between Cleveland and Chicago on the Norfolk Southern line the two trains use to reach Chicago, and mostly west of Toledo, OH. The situation was described by Fred Frailey in his Trains Magazine blog back on September 30. Fred followed both passenger trains and the freight trains on the same route station by station saying that as of 1 o’clock that day “none of those trains are moving! The railroad is basically in gridlock, shut down.” Why? Fred reported that the problems seem to be twofold: “trains needing to be recrewed and construction jobs associated with the Indiana Gateway project, which ironically is intended to speed up train movements.” There were two empty oil trains, a manifest freight, an intermodal and finally the two Amtraks waiting to get west of the control point at LaPorte, IN. Fred Frailey’s article must have struck some nerves, as the Surface Transportation Board has asked the NS to explain what is going on.

That’s now a typical day up there, and so are the late arrivals of #29 and #49 into Chicago. John Webb reports daily for on the status of the Long Distance trains arriving at Chicago Union Station, and on October 12, 2014 it was: #4 – 20 mins early. #6 – 1 hr, 48 mins late. #8 – 2 hrs, 7 mins late. #29 – 4 hrs, 28 mins late. #49 – 3 hrs, 37 mins late. On some days #29 and 49 have been up to 12 hours late into Chicago. Amtrak will hold the western departures for passengers connecting from the east, but not every time, depending on how late the eastern train is. It got so bad that the first week of October Amtrak ran #29 and 49 only as far as Toledo each day, with passengers taking “deluxe motor coaches” (aka buses) to and from Chicago, hence the “Toledo Night Express” was coined by writer Gene Poon.

Retired railroader C.J. Brown, whose career was in Toledo says, “Let us hope the NS can clean up their act and keep it that way. During Conrail times, pre 1999, we were running 100 to 110 trains per day through Toledo on the Cleveland to Chicago line, which includes those going to-from Detroit, at the control point Vickers. Probably 80 to 90 went to Chicago. In the years following the takeover of Conrail by the NS the count dropped to 49 to 50 trains per day. In 1999 the former CR main line from Chicago to NYC was split in two pieces. West of Cleveland went to the Norfolk Southern, and east of Cleveland to the CSX. This latter section was probably the best kept up and fastest two and three track main line in the USA. Breaking it in half was very stupid. Many former Conrail people since 1999 have always thought the NS did not know how to dispatch properly on the mainline from Cleveland to Chicago.”

Yes, the western long distance trains from Chicago to the West Coast also had major problems. As seen in the list above, on the Union Pacific the Coast Starlight and the Sunset Limited had good summers for the most part. The more double tracking the Union Pacific does on the Sunset Route the better the on time performance is for #1 and 2. The Empire Builder on the BNSF is still at the mercy of the oil traffic across the BNSF “High Line,” but the disastrous situation the trains faced in the early summer is improving. The BNSF is working hard to relieve the delays encountered not only by Amtrak but by its oil trains in anticipation of the Fall grain harvest. On October 9 Amtrak changed the direction of a detour route for #8 in North Dakota by using an alternate eastbound (only) route missing stations in Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks, with those passengers being provided chartered bus service. That may already be helping, as on October 14 #8 was running on time into Chicago and the lateness of #49 had been shortened. We trust that this is a forerunner of success.

Now we must ask if Amtrak and the BNSF are “ready” for the coming winter and its problems. And, to not leave the UP out of it, is that railroad going to be approached forcefully this winter about running the Sunset Limited daily when the double tracking is finished? This writer would much rather have progress worked out without litigation and Congressional interference. The railroads know everyone is watching and they cannot overlook the situations where their customers, including Amtrak, are being inconvenienced. There are many long memories of the debacle when the UP and SP merged in the 1990s, which tied up the railroads for far too long but was eventually settled.

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