Why are Amtrak trains delayed by freight trains?
Many of us have been there before. The train slows, and we hear the Conductor announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are being delayed by freight train traffic ahead.”
Freight trains delayed Amtrak passengers 1.2 million minutes last year. That’s 139 trips to the moon and back. Why does this happen, and what can you do about it?
Delays occur for a variety of reasons, but the leading cause outside the Northeast Corridor (DC to Boston) is “freight train interference.” This is when our trains, traveling on freight railroad tracks, are delayed by their slower freight trains. While Federal law says that passenger trains have preference over freight, this is often ignored by the freight railroads, and that’s not right. Imagine driving your car and arriving hours late because trucking companies made you pull over for their 18-wheelers!
This report card is not going on the fridge
We created the Host Railroad Report Card to grade each of the largest freight railroads based on delays caused to Amtrak trains. There’s only one equation you need to know: average or poor grades = late passengers.
Only one host railroad on the 2018 Host Railroad Report Card received an A, and the average grade was a C. This is surprising because our schedules are “open book” and we’re grading on a curve! Shouldn’t we expect straight A’s?
By the way, Amtrak pays these freight railroads millions of dollars a year to use their tracks.
(Check out the full Host Railroad Report Card for Frequently Asked Questions and more details regarding calculations and definitions.)
How did we get here?
Amtrak owns only 3% of the 21,400 route-miles traveled by Amtrak trains, primarily on the Northeast Corridor. The rest are mostly owned by freight railroads. Prior to Amtrak’s creation in 1971, railroads provided both freight and passenger services. However, because the railroads were losing money on their passenger trains, Congress created Amtrak to relieve the private railroads of their obligation to operate passenger trains while retaining an efficient way to transport large numbers of people in areas all across the country.
In return for relieving freight railroads of this obligation, two very important conditions were ultimately put into law: Amtrak would have access to the rail lines to operate passenger trains and – now this is where it gets interesting – those passenger trains would have preference over freight.
What happens when freight trains go first?
Right now, essentially nothing. By law, only the Department of Justice can enforce Amtrak’s right to preference over freight, and it has brought only one enforcement action against a freight company in Amtrak’s history – 40 years ago! As a result, freight railroads suffer no significant consequences for prioritizing their freight over our rail passengers.
What can you do about it?
We’re going to continue doing everything we can to put people before freight, but we need your help.
Contact your Members of Congress and tell them:
- Freight railroads are ignoring the law, and
- Amtrak needs legislation so they can enforce the law for you and put people before freight.