Parley Held to Discuss Lateness on Carbondale Route

Poor timekeeping in the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, corridor appears to correlate with falling ridership at Champaign-Urbana, Amtrak officials recently said at a conference to discuss the route.

“There is a correlation between poor on-time performance and reduced patronage at Champaign, and that affects Illinois taxpayers who help support the service,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The conference was held Nov. 22 and involved representatives of Canadian National, Amtrak and officials from communities along the route.

Amtrak officials gave a PowerPoint presentation showing how delays to trains at Champaign seem to be correlated with ridership peaks and valleys over the past decade.

The chart shows that on the whole ridership from Champaign-Urbana, home to the University of Illinois and the largest metropolitan region on the route south of Chicago, has been growing since 2008.

However, the chart also shows that delays have been declining since 2013 when about 60 percent of the trains serving Champaign were late.

Delays fell to about 30 percent in 2015. Since then the percentage of trains arriving late at Champaign has varied between 30 to 40 percent.

In the period 2008 to 2013 delays were in the 50 to 60 percent range.

The corridor is home to the State of Illinois funded Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.

Between 2008 and 2019 ridership crested at 190,000 in 2013 before starting a steady descent that bottomed out at 160,000 in 2018.

However, in the past year, ridership has sharply rebounded to near its 2013 peak. The ridership low point was 2009 and 2010 when the lingering effects of the Great Recession might have had an influence. Ridership in those years was around 140,000.

The on-time performance has not affected all of the six trains in the corridor the same. The Saluki has borne the brunt of the delays, arriving at its endpoints on time just 26 percent of the time in fiscal year 2019, which ended on Sept. 30.

The City of New Orleans has performed better in part because it has more scheduled padding than the state-funded trains.

“Because the distance from Champaign to Chicago is relatively short [129 miles], we are much more vulnerable to leak ridership from there when taking the train becomes unreliable,” Magliari said.

The conference was not open to the news media or the public, but officials held a news conference afterward. The CN representatives did not participate in the news conference.

Amtrak and CN are currently involved in a case before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board regarding the passenger carrier’s contention that CN gives Amtrak trains poor handling.

The host railroad has required Amtrak trains since 2014 to have a minimum of 32 axles to ensure a proper shunt of signals and crossing gates.

CN has said this is necessary because Amtrak’s Amfleet and Horizon equipment might not otherwise activate grade crossing protection devices in a corridor where the top speed is 79 mph.

Amtrak contends that CN track maintenance procedures and not its equipment is to blame for instances in which safety devices failed to activate.

Another source of delay has been CN’s edict that the Saluki and Illini slow to 60 mph over any highway crossings protected by electronic warning devices between University Park and Centralia.

Those trains carry Amfleet and/or Horizon equipment whereas the City of New Orleans is assigned Superliner equipment.

“The schedule for each train has more than a half-hour of buffer – time added in addition to running time – but the delays still occur,” Magliari said.

He disputed CN’s contention that schedules need to be lengthened, saying the trains arrived early 11 percent of the time.

A Trains magazine report about the conference noted that former CN CEO E. Hunter Harrison, sought to prevent Amtrak from instituting the Saluki in 2006 but backed down after U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) intervened.

Harrison was once CEO of the Illinois Central, which owned the tracks before they were acquired by CN in 1998.

Trains observed that delays to the Saluki have been prevalent in each direction since the train began service.

Durbin recently said he is ready to introduce legislation to give Amtrak a right to sue a host railroad for failure to give passenger trains preference.

But one member of Congress from Illinois, Rodney Davis, believes it is too soon for that.

Davis, who sits on the House committee that oversees Amtrak said giving the passenger carrier a right to sue a host railroad would prolong a solution to on-time performance issues.

He attended the news conference that followed the Nov. 22 conference.

“At this point, I want to try and solve (the on-time performance) problem without going to litigation,” Davis said. “When litigation is involved, it will prolong the final solution.”

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