CPR Gives Amtrak Best On-Time Performance in Country

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Canadian Pacific Railway dispatcher Jimmy Norris insists it’s a simple matter to keep the Hiawatha trains on time better than any other Amtrak route in the country.

Don’t be fooled.

Preparation and knowing the train crews and the territory are key, Norris acknowledges.

“It takes a lot of planning when there are a lot of heavy freights to see when it will be clear for Amtrak,” said Norris, who will mark his 25th year as a dispatcher this May.

Thanks to Norris and the other CPR dispatchers in Minneapolis, the Hiawatha service trains were on time 95.5 percent of the time from October 2002 through last September. From last October through this February, the Hiawathas were running 92.5 percent on time, including 94.9 percent in February.

As tokens of their appreciation, Amtrak road foreman Larry Allen of Milwaukee and Amtrak locomotive engineer Craig Willett delivered several pizzas in January to the dispatching center at CPR’s U.S. administrative offices in Minneapolis. 

“There was no other route in our system that had as good an on-time performance as the Hiawathas,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari from the passenger railroad’s Chicago office. “No. 2 was the Downeaster. It was the only other Amtrak route in the 90s for the fiscal year.”

The Downeaster, which operates from Portland, Maine, to Boston, was on time 90.7 percent of the time.

Norris began his railroad career in 1971 as an agent-operator and became a train dispatcher in May 1979, working in Ottumwa, Iowa, on the former Kansas City line of CPR’s predecessor. 

Since November 1988, Norris has been jockeying the Hiawatha passenger trains around CPR freight trains on the C&M Subdivision, an 83-mile stretch from just west of Chicago’s Union Station to the Milwaukee Amtrak depot. He also dispatches the 15-mile Fox Lake Subdivision, which runs from Rondout to Fox Lake, Ill.

His daily workload involves dispatching some of CPR’s 20 to 25 freight trains, 14 Hiawathas, two Empire Builders and 68 Metra commuter trains in Chicago. CPR operates about 10 additional freight trains a day than when he started dispatching the C&M Sub.

After 16 years dispatching the subdivision, Norris has it down to a science.

“As soon as I sit down at 7:15 a.m., I forecast. I put the westbounds and the eastbounds in the proper position,” Norris said. “Then I start jigging them together like big jigsaw puzzle pieces. You can have it all figured out and within seconds, it can change.”

Amtrak’s Larry Allen and Craig Willett say Norris and other CPR dispatchers get a lot of management support to keep the Hiawathas on time.

“It’s the corporate attitude toward passenger train service,” Allen said. “They want you to be on time because it’s a good business decision.”

Randy Balthazar, assistant director of the Minneapolis Operations Center, gives all the credit to his dispatchers.

“We’ve given them very little supervision over these Amtrak trains. They take a lot of pride in operating Amtrak on time,” he said. “It’s quite the balancing act to keep everyone moving with a minimal amount of delay.”