Passenger delay: Are freight trains the problem for Amtrak?
November 21, 2014 12:00 AM
The minimal passenger train service available from Pittsburgh is being hamstrung by interference from the freight lines that own the tracks.
By the Editorial Board
It’s no way to run a railroad. The minimal passenger train service available from Pittsburgh is being hamstrung by interference from the freight lines that own the tracks. That’s what Amtrak claims in a complaint with the federal government, and the subsidized passenger rail service has numbers to back it up.
The trouble is on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, which runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and is one of just two routes serving Pittsburgh. A year ago, the on-time performance for the line in the third quarter was only 62.5 percent. When it falls below 80 percent in consecutive quarters, Amtrak is allowed to request an investigation because intercity passenger trains are supposed to get priority over freight.
But last year’s figure sounds fantastic in contrast to the on-time rate in the quarter that ended this Sept. 30 — a woeful 2.7 percent. In October, the figure fell further, to zero. The train was never on time, and “on time” in this context means within 30 minutes of the printed schedule.
Why this is happening is just as obvious as how bad it is: Two-thirds of Amtrak’s delays were attributed to freight trains on the rails, with Norfolk Southern responsible 89 percent of the time and CSX the remainder.
On Tuesday, Amtrak filed its request for an investigation with the Surface Transportation Board. If it determines the freight lines were responsible, the board could order them to pay damages to Amtrak.
In most locales, passenger and freight trains must share the tracks, but passenger lines should not get second-class treatment. In the face of stiff competition from highways and airlines, passenger train service in the Northeast was rescued by U.S. taxpayers in 1970, with the formation of Amtrak, a public-private hybrid. Rail traffic has been building over time, and Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains between New York and Washington are extremely popular, but the traveling public in the Pittsburgh region and other parts of the country have few options for riding the rails.
Amtrak was right to call for an investigation, and it should be conducted quickly so passenger trains can get moving again.
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