Can passenger and freight rail coexist?

By Chris Spahr

Amtrak is dealing with a steadily increasing problem of service delays. Systemwide on-time performance for fiscal year 2014 is currently at 73.2 percent.  In June, on-time performance was a dismal 69.7 percent, down 6.2 percent from June 2013. A law passed by Congress in 2008 sets Amtrak on-time performance standards and considers any number below 80 percent as substandard.  This same law requires that freight railroads give Amtrak priority on their tracks and allows Amtrak to penalize freight rail providers for giving dispatch priority to freight trains on Amtrak routes. However, a July 2013 U.S. Court of Appeals decision ended Amtrak’s power over freight lines, which has greatly contributed to the decline in on-time performance.

These delays are felt painfully in Chicago, the only place in North America where six Class-One freight railroads converge. Due to increased oil shipments from North Dakota and a harsh winter, rail lines between Chicago and points west have been strained.  To add to this, the 2013 ruling allows dispatchers, who do not work for Amtrak, to give priority to the host railroad, causing Amtrak to yield to freight trains.

rail map

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Christopher Ingraham of Wonkblog recently mapped Amtrak’s on-time performance over the past 12 months, which showed that 10 out of 33 Amtrak routes have an origin or destination in Chicago. Of these 10 routes, six have an on-time performance of less than 50 percent and only one, the Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago, meets Amtrak’s 80 percent standard. While many factors can contribute to delays, Amtrak is clear in its monthly performance reports that the main reason for delays is “freight train interference.” Amtrak’s own website warns passengers of significant delays on its Empire Builder route from Chicago to Portland/Seattle “due to very high volumes of freight train traffic along the route”. The Empire Builder had an on-time performance rate of just 47.1 percent in June down from 56.7 percent in June 2013.

Despite the 2013 ruling, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois recently called on the Surface Transportation Board  to exercise its existing authority under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 to enforce on-time performance standards and address roadway blockages caused by increased freight traffic. Durbin blamed the Canadian National (CN) rail line for much of congestion around Chicago. “CN has failed communities across Illinois, from the suburbs of Chicago that have experienced a record number of blocked rail crossings to towns in Central and Southern Illinois that must face repeated delays in Amtrak service.”

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.