Amtrak trains often trickle into Toledo after rash of delays

From The Toledo Blade:

Passengers get off the Amtrak train in Toledo.  THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
Passengers get off the Amtrak train in Toledo.

Christine Smith boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited in Chicago on Tuesday night to visit a friend in Toledo.

The train left Chicago two hours late and made it only about 15 miles to Indiana’s northwest corner, where it sat for about three hours, Ms. Smith recalled. By the time it got to Toledo, it was six hours behind schedule.

It was only the latest of a series of late Amtrak trains the Melbourne, Australia, resident said she had encountered since arriving in Los Angeles last month and riding from there to San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Spokane, and Chicago.

Late trains are nothing new for Amtrak, particularly for the overnight, long-distance trains such as those that serve Toledo — the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited. Trains running more than three hours late have become the norm recently, and they have often lost that much or more just on the Chicago-Toledo portion of trips. The Capitol Limited was 12 hours behind schedule on Sunday.

While there have been exceptions, by far the biggest obstacle to Amtrak’s time-keeping across northern Indiana and northern Ohio has been tracks blocked by freight trains belonging to Norfolk Southern, which owns and operates the line Amtrak uses between Chicago and Cleveland.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable what they’re doing to the American people. It’s a fraud,” Ms. Smith said. “Every train I’ve been on has been late leaving and late arriving, and freight trains are given as the reason.”

During the 12 months that ended in August, Capitol Limited trains arrived at their end stations in Chicago or Washington within 30 minutes of schedule only 22.5 percent of the time, while the Lake Shore reached Chicago or New York on time 30.8 percent of the time, according to Amtrak.

But August itself was significantly worse, and September data, when available, is unlikely to show improvement. In August, the best performer was the eastbound Lake Shore, which reached New York within 30 minutes of schedule 6.5 percent of the time — two trips. The westbound was late into Chicago every day of the month, and the Capitol Limiteds arrived on time once in each direction.

Late westbound arrivals in Chicago also translate to late eastbound departures, because Amtrak lacks spare equipment in Chicago to make up replacement trains when equipment arrives late, and it also does not have enough engineers and conductors to always have an extra train crew ready to replace one that has worked the maximum 12-hour shift set by federal regulation.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago, laid even the late departures from Chicago at Norfolk Southern’s feet.

“If the train is late getting to Chicago, it’s most likely going to be late eastbound while we’re servicing equipment and getting proper rest for our crews,” Mr. Magliari said. “The result is to drive up our costs, dissatisfy our passengers, and create ‘never again’ riders.”

While its ridership pales in comparison to major stations like New York and Chicago, Toledo historically has been Amtrak’s busiest Ohio stop, and its ridership has declined of late.

After peaking at more than 90,000 riders in 2010 and 2011, Toledo’s Amtrak ridership dropped to 87,073 in 2012 and 86,252 last year, according to statistics provided to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which owns the Toledo station.

During the first seven months of 2014, Amtrak’s Toledo ridership has fallen by another 7 percent, those statistics show.

David Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the freight-train backlog is a product of “more trains and capacity challenges in the corridor between Chicago and Cleveland” because the freight traffic exceeds what the company handled before the 2008 recession.

“We generally have a cooperative relationship with Amtrak because we are each other’s landlords,” Mr. Pidgeon said. “We run on their network and they run on ours, so there’s plenty of business and personal incentive to keep the cooperation going.

“We want to keep freight and passenger trains moving, period.”

One of the busiest pieces of railroad in the entire United States, Norfolk Southern’s double-track main has become, to varying degrees, an obstacle course of stopped and slow-moving freight trains.

A particular growth area has been oil shipments from the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota to terminals on the East Coast, rail traffic that simply didn’t exist before 2009 but now accounts for dozens of trains through Toledo each week.

Rail expansion

Norfolk Southern is building a third main track between Chesterton and Gary, Ind., a 30-mile section that is the busiest stretch of the region’s busiest freight railroad. It includes several major junctions and runs through the heart of one of America’s most heavily industrialized areas, the steel mills and a major oil refinery along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Until that third track is ready for use, its construction is impairing train traffic.

When only one track is open for trains, traffic only goes one way while opposing trains wait. The spot where Ms. Smith’s train stopped is near the west end of the Chesterton-Gary construction zone. LaPorte, Ind. — where the Chicago-bound Amtrak trains from Toledo have often sat for hours in recent weeks — is near the east end.

And not only have passenger trains to and from Toledo been affected by that problem, so too have Amtrak’s five daily round-trip trains between Chicago and Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Port Huron, Mich., which use the same rails west of Chesterton.

The third track in northwest Indiana is one of several capacity-improvement projects under way on Norfolk Southern in the region.

Most prominent among the others is a $160 million expansion of the Bellevue, Ohio, yard, which will double in size when the project is done later this year, easing congestion at other yards, Mr. Pidgeon said.

That “will ease the demand for space in Elkhart and hopefully significantly reduce transit times for our freight trains, keeping us moving and the network fluid,” he said.

Norfolk Southern has 50 new locomotives soon to be delivered and also has bought several hundred used ones in the past year or two to address shortages.

It also is hiring close to 100 new train conductors in the Toledo area and has transferred 120 more from other parts of its system to the Cleveland-Chicago corridor to alleviate crew shortages, Mr. Pidgeon said.

The Ohio Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group, cites another factor in the freight-train delays: An automated dispatching system Norfolk Southern has been introducing on portions of its rail network during the past two years.

The system, called the Auto-Router, is designed to mimic a job human train dispatchers have done for years — deciding which trains run on which tracks at what time. The automated system could supplement that work, allowing the human dispatchers to work larger territories, or eventually it could replace them.

Train dispatching is a job with a lot of variables because freight trains don’t all travel at the same speed. Some are long, heavy, and slow; others are short and, ideally, fast.

Hills, track repairs, and certain trains’ need to stop at yards along the way to pick up or drop off cars also can factor into how trains are dispatched.

Critics of the system including OARP — also known as All Aboard Ohio — and Norfolk Southern sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to talk to reporters said the Auto-Router system’s flaws are contributing to the railroad’s congestion.

Passenger complaints

While Amtrak riders interviewed by The Blade said they understand how the passenger trains are at the freight railroads’ mercy, some said the passenger-train operator could handle the situation better, too.

Jean McGraw of Port Clinton, who boarded the Boston-bound Lake Shore in Sandusky in late September to visit a sister in New Hampshire, said she and her travel companion got two emails “in the middle of the night” about train delays but got no updates after that.

And when the bus Ms. McGraw and other Boston-bound passengers rode from Albany got to Boston at 4 a.m. the next day, the station there was locked. The passengers cajoled the bus driver into letting them take shelter in a neighboring bus garage, she said.

“That was it — it was ridiculous,” Ms. McGraw said.

As compensation, Amtrak offered vouchers good toward future train travel. Ms. McGraw said she hopes to use hers once the current problems are resolved, but her companion swore off train travel because of the experience.

Untested is whether Norfolk Southern’s handling of Amtrak violates a 1973 federal law directing the freight railroads to give the passenger trains preferential handling.

A more recent federal law, passed in 2008, directed the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak to develop performance standards for Amtrak trains.

However, a later appellate court ruling stalled this. According to the rail passengers association, Amtrak’s overall on-time performance has plummeted since that 2013 ruling, which is the subject of a pending Supreme Court appeal.

Dan McMackin, a United Parcel Service spokesman, said his company has recently changed the train routes it uses to move packages in response to train delays, though he did not confirm that the company specifically removed its cargo from the Norfolk Southern route.

“We have seen some recent lower reliability in several lanes and are adjusting accordingly, with guidance from our rail service partners as to appropriate network corrections,” Mr. McMackin said. “While there have been lanes affected over the last several months, we expect long-term reliability to return and most of our adjustments are seen as temporary.”

But while UPS may be ready to send packages back to the Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago corridor once Norfolk Southern’s problems are resolved, Amtrak could have a harder time winning back Tanya Miller, of Taylor, Mich., one of the riders who boarded the New York-bound train in Toledo on Wednesday morning.

“This is my first time and my very last time taking Amtrak,” she said. “I’m not recommending Amtrak to anyone.”