Amtrak’s initial report card on freight railroads ranges from A to a pair of F’s

Source: Shutterstock

It isn’t just shippers that are angry at the nation’s railroads.

Amtrak has released its first-ever quarterly report card on the performance of the class 1 railroads with which it shares track space. The relationship between Amtrak and the railroads is like that of a landlord and a tenant: outside of the Northeast corridor, which Amtrak owns, Amtrak passenger trains move on tracks owned by class 1 railroads. The question of priority between Amtrak and freight movement has always been an area of friction.

The law is clear about who is top banana in the relationship: Amtrak. “Except in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing unless the Board orders otherwise” is the relevant section of the transportation law governing the rights of Amtrak. A possible change in that prioritization two years ago fizzled. 

Service on class 1 freight railroads has deteriorated in recent months, enough to have led the Surface Transportation Board to request information from the railroads as to the cause. 

For its report, Amtrak set a benchmark of delays per 10,000 train miles. It defined that as “the number of minutes of host-responsible delay, divided by the number of Amtrak train miles operated over that host, times 10,000.

“Put in perspective, an “F” host forces Amtrak trains on a particular route to wait one hour and 40 minutes on average for freight trains, and forces many Amtrak trains on this route to wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes,” the report card says.

So how did the big six of railroading do? Canadian Pacific received an A. BNSF got a B+ and Union Pacific got a B minus. CSX got a C, and Norfolk Southern and Canadian National both were handed an F. 

The quality of the grades and the amount of overlap of the routes does not appear to be correlated. Canadian Pacific and its A rating only has four Amtrak routes running on CP tracks. BNSF, with its B+ rating, has 11. Norfolk Southern, with its F rating, has 11 overlapping routes, while fellow F-grade holder Canadian National has seven.

Beth Toll, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said in an email to response to Freightwaves questions that Amtrak has seen a deterioriations in freight operations recently, “leading to severe delays for Amtrak passengers,” she said. “To that end, the Report Card may be indicative of the experience that shippers have on some hosts, as well.”

Asked if the railroads knew this report was coming, Troll did not answer directly. “All of our hosts know where they are performing, and poorly-performing hosts have been fully aware of Amtrak’s concerns and data since long before the Report Card was issued,” she wrote.

Tough words for Norfolk Southern

Norfolk Southern came in for particularly pointed criticism in comments about the New Orleans-New York Crescent service. “The typical Amtrak train, carrying approximately 350 passengers, is delayed over 1 hour and 40 minutes due to Norfolk Southern’s freight trains and many Amtrak trains on this route are forced to wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes,” the report said. “Amtrak trains full of passengers are often routed into side tracks while they wait for NS freight trains using the main track.”

Norfolk Southern did not respond to an email request for comment.

With Amtrak and shippers both unhappy with class 1 railroads, it’s important to note that they are not necessarily on the same side of the debate. Taking steps to alleviate Amtrak’s concerns could exacerbate freight movement woes that have become a big issue with shippers. It also comes as Amtrak itself is under fire for several actions and delays in installing Positive Train Control safety systems on its full fleet, an ongoing process for freight railroads as well and which has been blamed by some of them for their own delays. 

The tone throughout the report card clearly appears to seek a confontational tone. “Host railroads often choose to force Amtrak trains with hundreds of passengers on them to stop and wait in favor of their trains carrying coal, garbage, crude oil, empty freight cars, or any freight that the host chooses to prioritize,” the report said.

Note the freight that was highlighted in that list: things that are dirty (garbage), not particularly popular (coal) or non-productive (empty freight cars). The “any freight” reference could be cars, televisions, appliances or literally hundreds of other things more desirable than hauling solid waste, but they were not singled out.


John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.