If Coal Can Move in the Cold Why Can’t Passengers?

Amtrak has caught flak in recent years for canceling trains during winter weather.

Whatever happened to passenger trains being able to barrel through snow or other winter weather?

As Jim Matthews sees it, Amtrak’s winter cancellations are being prompted by changes in how railroads operate.

Writing on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Mathews said it comes down to the reluctance of railroads to spend money.

“Railroads today are hyper-focused on operating ratios and holding lots of resources and manpower in reserve to keep the trains running in unusual conditions breaks that formula,” the president of RPA wrote.

That means fewer maintenance crews available to send out for such things as frozen switches and rails breaks.

“When something breaks in the cold, those gangs have to travel longer just to reach the problem area and they’re spread more thinly than ever before,” Mathews wrote.

He noted that back in the day railroads sometimes hired “casual labor” to help shovel snow.

But in today’s more highly regulated environment that might expose a railroad to liability issues not to mention bad press and social media that didn’t exist in the past.

“And in this age of social media, that’s all Amtrak needs: Someone live-tweeting a rare cold-related tragedy,” Mathews wrote.

When temperatures plunge well below zero there are legitimate safety concerns for workers who have to assemble and maintain trains at terminals.

Cold weather also can play havoc with operating conditions.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilari was quoted in a news story about the spate of recent cancellations of trains serving Chicago as saying Amtrak feared its trains would get stuck in heavy freight traffic and be unable to get around slow moving trains ahead. He attributed that to the tendency of the host railroads to fleet their freight trains.

Although Magliari didn’t say it in so many words, I wonder if pressure from host railroads prods Amtrak to scale back operations when the weather turns bad.

Yet that doesn’t explain why in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak has curtailed service during winter storms that in the past railroads would have just operated right through.

Amtrak management has increasingly become risk averse. The best way to avoid a worst case scenario is to stay out of a position in which a number of factors could combine to cause one to happen.

It might be unlikely that a train will get stuck for hours with no heat or food, but it could happen. You can avoid such a catastrophe by keeping trains in their terminals until the storm blows over.

Better to have people sitting at home because they couldn’t travel than having to deal with a station full of people with nowhere to go because they missed their connection due to their train running hours late.

Better to rebook passengers or, maybe, refund their money than to have to answer to a horde of social media reports about passengers stranded in subzero weather.

There also are logistical headaches that Amtrak has to take into account, such as getting new crews to a train halted because the previous crew ran afoul of the federal hours of service law. These are not always easy problems to resolve so why risk them in the first place.

The interests of Amtrak management do not always align with the interests of those who pay money to Amtrak to provide them transportation. That is not unique to Amtrak. It’s true of every organization that does business with the public.

I live in an apartment building with a view of the two busiest railroads mainlines in Cleveland.

During the most recent bout of sub-zero weather I stayed inside as much as I could.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that freight traffic on those CSX and Norfolk Southern lines next to my building seemed to be business as usual.

It does make you wonder why if railroads can move coal, manifest freight, tank cars and double-stacked containers despite the realities of severe winter weather why can’t Amtrak move passengers.

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