AMTK: On Time Performance: Critical – And Possible

Most of Amtrak's network operates as a tenant on freight railroad tracks.

How was your Amtrak trip?

Ask that question and you’ll get an answer that goes “Nice . . . ” followed by a report of an on-time train or a “but . . . ” and the details of what happened instead.

On-Time performance is the #1 expectation from rail passengers.

This is intuitively obvious, but there is also survey data to back this up too.

In the past when Amtrak’s Vermonter had time-keeping problems ridership suffered — by as much as 50%. With better timekeeping, ridership grew — by 50% (in round numbers).

Late trains weaken Amtrak’s pricing power and good on-time performance increases not just ridership but the revenue Amtrak can get from an individual rider.

The financial benefits from running on-time aren’t just extra income.  Late trains means overtime for the crews and the cost of taking care of passengers who miss connections.  More significant is the expense of not using the fleet to full advantage, needing spare equipment when the trains don’t arrive when they should.

It is possible that if trains ran on time, the entire Amtrak deficit would vanish.

So what needs to happen to make the trains run on time?

Here is where the chorus of blame for America’s freight railroads kicks in.  Most of Amtrak’s network operates as a tenant on freight railroad tracks.

Theoretically (and contractually) Amtrak trains get priority over freights.  In New England they generally do.  Not in the rest of the country where passengers often wait as freights pass.

Blaming freight railroads is understandable, especially if you’ve spent time in some siding in the woods while your engineer stares at a red signal.  However in my view, blame doesn’t offer a solution.

(Isn’t that true of so much of life: blame is easy, but not what leads to a solution)

Freight railroads say their profit from Amtrak is a pittance, covering avoidable maintenance and incentives for on-time performance and not compensating for use of capacity. Amtrak says it must protect the taxpayers interest when negotiating with freight railroads and has turned to federal regulators to enforce its legal right to priority established with its creation in 1971.

Legal sanctions do help.  When courts ruled in favor of freight railroads, trains got later.  When teeth appeared in the on-time rules, things got better.

Picking up the phone and holding individuals to account helps. When Iowa Pacific improved  time-keeping of the Hoosier State train, it was by making calls, identifying recurring issues and giving timekeeping attention.

VTrans and NNEPRA have given attention to timekeeping issues, and it has in the past brought results.

When management of California’s Capital Corridor abandoned the standard freight railroad contract and paid three times more, late trains went away.  Good train handling became worth it for the freight railroad.

Vermont and the Downeaster also pay host railroads more, with contracts negotiated separately and initiated later than the standard freight railroad agreement.  Perhaps this is why our freight railroads generally deliver.


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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.