Here’s a question suitable for the next SAT: Two northbound trains traveling at the same speed arrive at a single track at the same time. Which gets to go first, the freight train that owns this particular section of rail line or the Amtrak passenger train that does not? The answer is the passenger train. Amtrak has been granted this rail priority since it was established five decades ago. But the real question is this: Are freight companies following that rule?
Amtrak says they aren’t, and a new report on the subject suggests this lack of rail priority is the single greatest cause of passenger train delays. Of the six major railroads that host Amtrak trains, one was recognized for “A” class performance, three for “B” or “B-minus” and two had failing grades. Of the carriers that serve Maryland, CSX earned a B-minus (which is slightly better than the overall “C” grade given the freight companies) and Norfolk Southern finished dead last with an “F” for 2018. That translates to more than 1,500 minutes of delay per 10,000 miles of track. Or, to put it another way, it’s the primary reason why certain Amtrak routes serving Maryland like the Capitol Limited (Washington, D.C.-Chicago and the Crescent (New York-New Orleans) are on-time 36 percent and 29 percent of the time, respectively.
By any standard, that’s a failing grade. Who wants to travel on a long-distance train that is more likely to be late than arrive on schedule? And it’s frustrating to see Amtrak get criticized over and over again for poor performance and have its budget threatened when it’s not the passenger railroad’s fault. What will it take to get freight carriers to follow the rules? And when will the Federal Railroad Administration recognize the harm this causes to those who rely on Amtrak trains? Baltimore is the system’s eighth busiest station, handling more than 1 million passengers per year; Baltimore-Washington International-Thurgood Marshall’s station is 12th busiest with more than 700,000 Amtrak customers, while the state of Maryland accounted for more than 2 million passengers in Fiscal 2017.
The good news is that Amtrak is trying to educate the public about this massive problem. A new video posted on social media sites attempts to explain “freight train interference” and why it’s become such a problem. The hope is that ordinary Americans will contact their members of Congress and complain. It’s a fine idea, and the Rail Passengers Association (www.railpassengers.org) has even set up a link to help people reach out to the appropriate member of Congress.
Some unfamiliar with the history of U.S. passenger rail service may doubt the wisdom of having for-profit freight carriers delay their own trains for the sake of taxpayer-subsidized passenger service. But, as we’ve noted in this space before, there are substantial public benefits to passenger rail, including energy efficiency, reduced air pollution including greenhouse gas emissions, and less highway and air travel congestion that more than justify inconveniencing freight trains. This nation needs a thriving freight and passenger rail service — and the demand for both is clearly there. Amtrak performance may be lagging, but its passenger count continues to increase.
There’s a reason why Amtrak’s most financially successful routes are those in the Northeast corridor. Demand is particularly high from Boston to D.C., and Amtrak owns the rails so freight interference is minimal. Amtrak carried more than three times as many riders between the nation’s capital and New York City as all of the airlines combined in the year ending June 2018. Unfortunately, about 72 percent of Amtrak trips are run on tracks owned by so-called “host” railroads. That makes companies like Norfolk Southern the weakest link in the passenger transportation chain. Those long-distance trains are generally the worst financial performers.
Can freight carriers be embarrassed into better behavior? Maybe or maybe not. Amtrak is likely to face its usual threats from the Trump administration. The Fiscal 2020 budget proposal recently submitted by the Office of Management and Budget decreases Amtrak’s federal appropriation by 23 percent (while raising highway-related spending). That’s not a vision for the future in a world threatened by climate change, it’s a formula for more problems down the road. Americans have a right to expect better, more reliable and on-time passenger rail service than they are getting today.