The railroad is warning passengers that delays of four or more hours are likely.
By Jon Schmitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With the on-time performance of its Capitol Limited passenger trains at abysmal levels, Amtrak is accusing two major freight operators of causing “unacceptable delays” on the route, which runs through Pittsburgh.
In a complaint (explore below) filed Monday with the federal Surface Transportation Board, Amtrak said freight carriers Norfolk Southern and CSX, which own the tracks on which the trains travel, should be investigated for failing to comply with federal law requiring that intercity passenger trains be given preference over freight trains.
The result has been a dramatic decline in on-time performance for the government-sponsored passenger rail service. Capitol Limited trains reached their ending destination on time (meaning within 30 minutes of scheduled arrival) just 2.7 percent of the time in the quarter ending Sept. 30. During the same quarter a year ago, 62.5 percent of trains arrived on time.
In October, Amtrak’s on-time performance on the Capitol Limited was zero. The railroad said it had to provide bus transportation between Toledo and Chicago for six days after trains ran as much as eight to 10 hours late. For the month, Amtrak blamed two-thirds of its delays on “train interference,” and said Norfolk Southern was responsible 89.1 percent of the time.
The Capitol Limited runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and is one of two Amtrak routes serving Pittsburgh. Other Capitol Limited stops are in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Cumberland, Md., Connellsville, Pa., Cleveland and South Bend, Ind.
Daily departures from Pittsburgh are scheduled at 11:59 p.m. to Chicago and 5:20 a.m. to Washington. The trains’ movements are controlled by Norfolk Southern dispatchers to the west of Pittsburgh and CSX dispatchers east of here. A message on Amtrak’s website warns passengers that “heavy freight congestion” is typically causing delays of four hours or more.
As the statistics indicate, most of the delays are occurring to the west of Pittsburgh, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said.
A delay warning also is posted for the Lake Shore Limited route that travels between Chicago, New York City and Boston via Erie, Pa.
Amtrak is empowered under federal law to request an investigation by the Surface Transportation Board if on-time performance slips below 80 percent in consecutive quarters.
Last year, the quarterly on-time percentages for Capitol Limited trains at their ending destinations ranged from 62.5 percent to 84.4 percent. This year, the percentages fell to 42.7 percent in January through March; 33.6 percent in April through June; and 2.7 percent in the third quarter.
Norfolk Southern spokesman David G. Pidgeon issued this statement on Tuesday in response to the Amtrak filing:
“Norfolk Southern will answer this case in the appropriate venue at the appropriate time, but the simple fact is the effects of congestion on the nation’s rails are not specific to one commodity or to just freight or passenger trains.
”It is important to Norfolk Southern that we ease congestion for the benefit of freight customers and passenger trains, which is why Norfolk Southern is investing millions to expand its network capacity, to hire hundreds of new conductors, and to take other proactive measures.“
A CSX spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Amtrak asked the federal agency to investigate ”the substandard performance on the Capitol Limited service“ and if it finds that the delays resulted from the freight operators’ failure to give preference to passenger trains, award damages and provide other ”reasonable and appropriate“ relief.
Poor on-time performance ”impacts the business through decreased ridership, lost revenues and higher operating costs,” Ms. Leeds said. “Meeting future growth in passenger demand requires investing in the infrastructure that supports intercity passenger rail and resolving unacceptable interference delays caused by freight railroads that own the tracks.”
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