Trains arrive late, costing Amtrak millions

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Wood County is fortunate to host a stop on the Amtrak national passenger train line.

One eastbound and one westbound train stop daily in Mineola.

But those who have tried to ride the train have learned that it can be late – sometimes by hours.

And the problem is not unique to Texas.

An analysis recently conducted by Amtrak’s inspector general uncovered not only system-wide problems with trains running late, but an associated cost of millions of dollars that could be largely remedied by on-time service.

According to a recent Washington Post story on the report, “The analysis identified potential short-term benefits of about $12 million from a slight improvement of 5 percent in on-time performance, as well as a one-time $336 million in equipment savings and annual cost savings and revenue improvements of $41.9 million if there were more substantial and sustained improvements.”

During the recent period Sept. 24 to Oct. 24, the train was on time only twice in Mineola.

The average delay was 70 minutes. It was more than an hour late 23 times. Seven times it was over two hours late and four times over three hours.

Its scheduled arrival times are 9:25 a.m. westbound and 5:15 p.m. eastbound.

During a 13-month period, covering 791 trains, it was on time 56 times, within 10 minutes 41 times, on average 1:36 late, and 208 trains were past due more than two hours.

Nationwide, the trains were late 27 percent of the time.

“There is a financial correlation between trains being on time and a railroad’s financial performance,” Jim Morrison, assistant inspector general for audits, said in the report sent to Congress earlier this week. “More reliable performance helps retain existing customers and attract new riders while reducing labor, fuel, and other operating costs.”

The Post story stated: “Chronically late service has frustrated passengers for years, with no significant relief in sight. Officials at Amtrak have acknowledged the problem, calling the on-time performance rate on its less reliable routes ‘abysmal.’ Officials say they do what they can to minimize effects but that some problems are out of their control.”

In a statement, Dennis Newman, Amtrak executive vice president for strategy and planning, said the problem is primarily driven by delays caused by railroads that own most of the rail lines Amtrak uses. This is particularly true for Amtrak’s 15 long-distance train lines, which take passengers cross-country mostly using tracks owned by other railroads.

Those long-distance trains, like the one that runs through East Texas, were on time less than half the time, with the delay averaging 49 minutes. About 20 percent of the time the delay is two hours or longer.

Ridership on those lines has declined from 4.8 million in 2013 to 4.5 million last year.

The primary issue for delays is that Amtrak shares the rails.

In areas of the Northeast where Amtrak owns its lines, its on-time performance is much better.

But Amtrak owns only three percent of its lines nationally, with the rest owned by six companies: BNSF Railway, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific (owner of the East Texas line).

Though federal law requires those lines to give preference to passenger trains, Amtrak said those railroads routinely ignore the law.

Amtrak spends an average $32.8 million a year in incentive payments to the host railroads, but freight trains were responsible for 59 percent of delays in recent months.

The savings pointed out in the Post story reach into the millions:

“The inspector general found that Amtrak owns and maintains more equipment than it needs and keeps more conductors and engineers on call, primarily because of poor on-time performance,” it said. “By sustaining improvements to on-time performance, Amtrak could reduce the number of on-call conductors and engineers and save the company $11.5 million annually. It could also avoid approximately $336 million in equipment replacement costs, according to the analysis.

“According to the report, a 5 percent improvement in on-time performance rate on routes systemwide could yield the company $12.1 million in financial benefits in the first year, including up to $3.9 million in additional revenue and $8.2 million in operational savings. A shorter train run would reduce fuel and labor costs and eliminate the cost of hotel and food vouchers Amtrak provides to passengers who miss connections because of delays.”

Raising the on-time performance to 75% could yield $41.9 million in more savings.

Considering Amtrak’s operating loss in 2018 was $171 million, getting the trains to run on time could significantly reduce that burden on the federal budget.

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