Feds ask Norfolk Southern for Amtrak reliability improvements

Booming levels of freight and passenger rail traffic are clogging Norfolk Southern's (NS) Chicago Line across Northern Ohio. This is causing serious delays to Amtrak passenger trains and prompted the federal Surface Transportation Board to demand answers from NS. All Aboard Ohio believes a global solution engaging NS, Amtrak, federal, state and regional officials can provide short-term relief and long-term development of the rail corridor to support economic growth.

Booming levels of freight and passenger rail traffic are clogging Norfolk Southern’s (NS) Chicago Line across Northern Ohio. This is causing serious delays to Amtrak passenger trains and prompted the federal Surface Transportation Board to demand answers from NS. All Aboard Ohio believes a global solution engaging NS, Amtrak, federal, state and regional officials can provide short-term relief and long-term development of the rail corridor to support economic growth (All Aboard Ohio photo).

In a recent letter to Norfolk Southern Corp. (NS), the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) has asked NS how it will address serious on-time performance problems of Amtrak passenger trains using NS tracks. The STB, which regulates railroads, noted serious on-time performance problems in recent months experienced by Amtrak passenger trains that use NS tracks from Chicago east into Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and to the East Coast.

OCTOBER 17 UPDATE: See NS’s response to the STB’s letter HERE.

Specifically mentioned in the STB’s letter were Amtrak’s daily Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington DC) and Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York City/Boston) services which make daily stops in the Ohio cities of Bryan, Toledo, Sandusky, Elyria, Cleveland and Alliance. Also affected were several Michigan routes — the Wolverine service to Metro Detroit, the Blue Water to Port Huron and the Pere Marquette to Grand Rapids. Combined, these five routes carried 1.5 million passengers in 2013 on 14 trains a day — a daily average of 294 riders per train. Ridership was growing in most years since 2000 on these routes until these rail traffic delays occurred.

Under federal law, if a host freight railroad fails to meet an 80 percent on-time performance standard for Amtrak passenger trains in two consecutive quarters, then the STB may impose large fines payable to Amtrak and prescribe remedies such as funding plans and physical improvements that address traffic choke points. The metrics for determining Amtrak on-time performance are the subject of a freight-railroad court challenge to be argued before the Supreme Court in December. All Aboard Ohio supports Amtrak in this matter.

In its Oct. 6, 2014 letter, the STB requested the following information from NS:

  • The primary causes of delays experienced by Amtrak trains on NS lines.
  • Locations where delays occur most frequently.
  • Measures that NS is taking to improve Amtrak performance, including but not limited to expansion of network capacity and resources, changes to train dispatching protocols and procedures, and modifications of network operating plans.
  • NS’s expectation of when Amtrak service will improve.

In August 2014, on-time performance fell on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited routes to 4 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Average delay per arrival was four hours. For most of the summer, All Aboard Ohio has noted the delays were occurring west of Toledo and especially in zones where new track construction is occurring along the rail corridor which has two parallel tracks. This includes new third main tracks added between Goshen-Elkhart, IN and Porter, IN-Illinois state line. Meanwhile the Englewood Flyover is being built southeast of Chicago to separate a busy at-grade rail-rail crossing of the Metra Rock Island District and NS’s Chicago Line. However, these were designed in 2010 to address rail traffic levels of four years ago — not the boom in rail traffic which has occurred since.

Since the summer, the area of worst rail traffic congestion expanded east to between Toledo-Cleveland where high-priority Amtrak trains and NS intermodal freight trains snake their way through lower priority freight trains awaiting fresh crews. These delays were made worse by errors caused by NS’s new Auto-Router computer-aided dispatching software.

The design of passenger stations is also a factor in causing delays by constraining the throughput capacity of the NS rail corridor. All Northern Ohio stations are limited in their ability to process passengers from more than one track, requiring passenger trains to run against the flow of rail traffic half of the time to reach a station platform. This “slalom” causes up to 80 minutes of delay per day to Amtrak trains and at least as much delay to NS freight traffic. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) awarded funding to the Elyria station project but similar stations projects are needed corridor-wide.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur and others in the Northern Ohio Congressional delegation are seeking to transfer to the Northern Ohio Rail Alliance (NORA) a federal appropriation of nearly $1 million unused by ODOT since 2010 to carry out the objectives in its State Rail Plan to facilitate the movement of goods and people by rail. The funding would allow NORA to identify current and future rail traffic choke points from the growth of freight and passenger traffic and to propose solutions to those constraints.

“The STB’s letter should be a rallying point for all stakeholders to join forces to tackle these worsening rail traffic delays and implement long-term solutions that ensure economic growth,” said Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio.

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2 Comments to "Feds ask Norfolk Southern for Amtrak reliability improvements"

  1. Howard Harding's Gravatar Howard Harding
    October 15, 2014 - 12:09 AM | Permalink

    California’s way of dealing with Union Pacific provides a “best practice” model of how to fix passengers service delay/expansion problems — come to the negotiating table with cash in hand. For details, contact the state-sponsored regional agency responsible for the expansion of California’s Capitol Corridor to 24 daily round trips between San Jose/Oakland and Sacramento.

    U.S. rail infrastructure — thanks in large part to the absence of any coherent, multimodal national policy framework for addressing national transportation needs — is woefully inadequate in capacity and quality. Fixing that will consume billions of dollars, year after year for decades.
    Expecting private industry alone to provide 100% of the needed funding, especially to improve rail passenger services, is unrealistic. Appropriate changes to existing federal and state laws and regulations, particularly those that affect infrastructure investment and dividend/bonus expenditures, could easily persuade railroads to significantly increase their rail infrastructure investments.

    More of the same policies that helped create the current rail capacity mess will not reverse the problem.

  2. Marvin's Gravatar Marvin
    October 22, 2014 - 7:19 AM | Permalink

    this is an interesting idea, the problem is they (Tier Is) have agreed to move more trains than their infrastructure allows. It is akin to overbooking a flight, oil trains are very lucritive for the Railroads, and they are taking the money, and as a result losing customers like UPS, Fedex, and other inter-modal shippers.

    The real problem with Oil trains and coal trains is that they are really Slow, with maximum speed of 40mph. this compares with inter-modal, and passenger trains which come closer to 79mph. This differential Create a headache for the entire system, making it difficult for fast trains to move because of the slower traffic, which has a cascade effect of reducing capacity of the system. as a result massive delays and unhappy customers.

    I cannot see the solution to be simply giving more money to the fTier1s so they stop over booking their system. I’d rather see that money used to build more passenger only/ passenger rail first ROW to grow ridership and preclude the frequent delays our trains are experiencing.

    a good example of this is the South of the Lake bypass study
    which looks to create a passenger rail only/passenger rail First ROW from porter Indiana to Chicago’s Union Station. this ROW will be used by all Amtrak trains to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana.

    http://greatlakesrail.org/~grtlakes/index.php/site/public-hearings

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