U.S. DOT Report Identifies Freight Railroads’ Role in Amtrak Train Delays

WASHINGTON — Improper dispatching practices and poor operating discipline by freight railroads are among the key reasons why Amtrak trains suffer poor on-time performance on tracks operated by those host freight railroads.

That’s the upshot of “Root Causes of Amtrak Train Delays,” a new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. The DOT IG issued the report in response to a request from the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

More than 70 percent of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are operated over tracks owned by other railroads.

Federal law requires that, except in emergencies or as otherwise ordered by the Secretary of Transportation, passenger trains must be given “preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction or crossing.”

In testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in April, Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant said, “Poor on-time performance translates directly into greater operating costs and lost revenues for Amtrak.” He added, “Freight train interference delays and slow orders are the two biggest components of all delay minutes to Amtrak trains in FY 2007.”

With respect to the host railroads, the report concludes, “We found several root causes of Amtrak train delays that, if addressed, would improve Amtrak’s OTP [on-time performance] and financial viability.” The report further noted that major performance improvements to passenger rail could be achieved almost immediately through improved host-railroad dispatching management and operating discipline, recommendations that would benefit passenger rail as well as freight shippers.

Kummant said in April, “Good on-time performance is possible when host railroads use targeted operating and maintenance practices and give appropriate attention to the timely delivery of Amtrak trains.” Kummant also said, “The operating discipline of all trains on a route improves, because a well run railroad naturally expedites its own trains, as well as ours.”

A DOT IG report released earlier this year confirmed the importance of on-time performance to Amtrak, finding that poor performance on host railroads costs Amtrak in excess of $100 million annually. Amtrak applauds both the congressional interest in this serious problem and the DOT IG’s attention to these issues and hopes that this report and its recommendations will lead host railroads to work collaboratively with Amtrak to improve the on-time performance of passenger trains.

In a related development, members of the Illinois Congressional delegation sent a letter to the CEO’s of three major freight railroads, BNSF, Canadian National and Union Pacific, requesting that they prepare and deliver a plan to achieve on-time performance of passenger trains on their tracks of at least 85 percent. Citing poor on-time performance on Illinois-supported Amtrak trains, the letter also asks that the railroads identify what actions can be taken to create an immediate improvement in on-time performance.