If You Want to be Ontime Aboard Amtrak, Then You Need to Get on or Off at an Endpoint City

Only once have I lived in an Amtrak endpoint city. Otherwise, I’ve lived in places at or near an intermediate station.

I mention that because in my experience your best chance for an on-time arrival or departure is at an endpoint city.

For 20 years I rode Amtrak twice a year to visit my dad when he lived in downstate Illinois.

The westbound Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited typically arrived late into Cleveland, but on several occasions No. 29 or Nol 49 were on-time or even early arriving into Chicago Union Station, where both terminate.

My connecting train, the Illini, almost always departed Chicago on time, but more often than not arrived late at my destination of Mattoon, Illinois.

I’ve observed this phenomenon on other routes, too. In May 2014, I rode the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle.

On TransportationWe left Chicago 1 hour, 12 minutes late due to being held for a more than four-hour late arriving Lake Shore Limited.

During the 2,200-mile journey we were upwards of two hours late at times, but arrived into Seattle 15 minutes early.

How was that possible?

The short answer is what Amtrak euphemistically calls “recovery time.”

It is built into the schedule to enable a late Amtrak train to make up time before arriving at an endpoint city.

You often find recovery time by examining the running time between an endpoint city and the next station.

The running time of the Capitol Limited from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago is 1 hour, 54 minutes. The running time from Chicago to South Bend is 1 hour, 29 minutes.

For the Lake Shore Limited, the running time from South Bend to Chicago is two minutes longer, but exactly the same from Chicago as the Capitol Limited.

The City of New Orleans has a running time of 49 minutes from Chicago to Homewood, Illinois, a distance of 24 miles. Yet its inbound counterpart “needs” 1 hour, 16 minutes to travel the same distance.

As this is written, Amtrak and its host railroads are sparring in a rule-making proceeding by the Surface Transportation Board over on-time standards.

A 1973 federal law gives preference to passenger trains over freight trains and Amtrak is arguing for an absolute interpretation of that standard. The Association of American Railroads sees it differently.

The STB is not going to get involved in every instance in which an Amtrak train is late.

Rather, the issue is a repeated pattern of a host railroad favoring freight trains over passenger trains and/or the host railroad’s repeated failure to dispatch Amtrak trains in a manner that results in on-time performance.

Amtrak argues that when a train arrives or departs at intermediate stations should be taken into account when considering if a host railroad has engaged in a pattern of preferring its freight trains over passenger trains.

The ARR counters that Amtrak schedules are unrealistic given the operating and physical characteristics of today’s railroads.

Both parties want to have it both ways. It’s a bit cheeky for Amtrak to talk about on-time performance at intermediate stations when its own schedules are skewed in favor of endpoint cities.

When Amtrak and the State of Illinois were negotiating a contract a few years ago for the state to fund certain corridor trains, Amtrak refused to agree to an on-time standard for intermediate cities, insisting that only arrival and departure times from originating cities and terminus cities be included in the standard.

In short, if the Illini is late arriving in Mattoon, tough luck. Illinois only can reduce its payments to Amtrak if the Illini is late arriving in Carbondale or Chicago.

The AAR brief might have you believe that Amtrak imposes its schedules upon its host railroads.

The same brief mentions that individual railroads have negotiated agreements with Amtrak pertaining to on-time performance.

I find it hard to believe that any host railroad that has an “incentive” contract for Amtrak on-time performance would not have a major say in Amtrak schedules over its line.

Recovery time exists in part to benefit the host railroad so that it has a better chance of earning incentive payments.

The STB proceeding is about rules that may or may not have mean much in the daily performance of any given train on any given day.

Like any legal rules, the on-time standards the STB is considering would only come into play if Amtrak initiates a proceeding against a host railroad as it has done with Canadian National over its handling of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale.

Obviously, each party wants the rules slanted in favor of its own interests and positions of strength.

Amtrak hopes that if the rules favor it that will encourage host railroads to give Amtrak the benefit of the doubt more often than not when passenger trains and freight trains are in conflict.

From a passenger perspective, Amtrak’s position has appeal. The eastbound Capitol Limited is scheduled to arrive in Cleveland at 1:45 a.m. If it arrives at 2:15 a.m., it is a half-hour late as far as passengers getting off are concerned. It doesn’t matter that it arrived in Washington on time.

The interests of passengers might seem to be central to the STB proceedings but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Amtrak has already decided that although all passengers have an interest in arriving and departing on time, the interests of some passengers outweigh those of others.

That is why it is advantageous to get on at an originating city and get off at the end of the line. You’re more likely to leave and arrive when the schedules says that you will.

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2 Responses to “If You Want to be Ontime Aboard Amtrak, Then You Need to Get on or Off at an Endpoint City”

  1. Jim King Says:

    I have been taking the Illini/Saluki Illinois corridor trains nearly every weekend since 2011. Southbound from Chicago to Champaign on Fridays it is typically on time if I give a 15 minute buffer, which I think is reasonable given the distance & time. I’ve been taking the Monday evening train north with a final destination of Homewood, and over the past few years it has been on time, or close to on time, probably 3 times. It frequently departs 30 minutes late, and arrives at Homewood over an hour late…. Every Monday. And every time, the conductor gets on the speaker to announce that we are being held up by a freight. And another. In fact, I’m on the southbound train right now, and we are almost an hour late because we’ve been stopped by THREE freights. I googled to see if I could find the CN/Amtrak contract that is supposed to give the passenger trains priority, and what I could do about it, and found this blog post. If you know anyone that a commuter passenger can talk to about this matter, it would be appreciated!

    • csanders429 Says:

      You could write to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. Amtrak has a case pending with the STB pertaining to how CN handled passenger trains on the Chicago-Carbondale corridor. I do not know the case docket number off hand. You could also write to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which underwrites the Illini and Saluki. Your letters might not result in much, if anything, but will add more evidence about how CN handles Amtrak. Coming from a regular rider might count for something.

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