Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) is pressing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take a greater role in ensuring that Amtrak and the freight railroads improve their rates for on-time performance.
In Oct. 22 letters addressed to FRA Administrator Ron Batory and Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, Durbin suggested the FRA should “push” the freight railroads, particularly Canadian National (NYSE: CNI), to improve Amtrak’s reliability for riders.
Amtrak shares track for certain portions of the freight railroads’ rail network, including the U.S. Northeast corridor and a 310-mile stretch between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois. When Canadian National is not operating freight trains on this stretch of track, Amtrak runs passenger rail service known as the Illini and Saluki routes.
The freight railroads have a statutory obligation to give Amtrak preferential treatment on shared tracks, but the freight railroads “ignore” that obligation, Durbin wrote, adding that as a result, freight interference caused roughly 60% of Amtrak’s delays in fiscal year 2018.
Durbin said he also has pressed Canadian National to resolve “repeated freight interference and speed restrictions” on the Illini/Saluki route. On-time performance has been as low as 6% for northbound Illini trains and 17% for northbound Saluki trains in 2018, compared with an on-time performance rate of 29% in 2017.
These delays result in Amtrak needing to pay financial penalties for crew staffing violations, he said.
“Unacceptable OTP [on-time performance] not only harms Amtrak’s passengers and its reputation, it is a key factor in driving Amtrak’s operating loss of $171 million in FY 2018,” Durbin wrote.
The FRA declined to comment on Durbin’s letter, but Canadian National, which goes by CN, said it has been working with Amtrak and the FRA to find ways for Amtrak trains to operate safely without the necessary speed restrictions on certain routes.
“Once an effective solution has been validated and implemented, the speed restrictions should be lifted,” CN spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis said. “There are still a number of steps to take in the testing process, but CN is dedicated to work as fast as possible with Amtrak on a solution that allows Amtrak’s trains to run safely without a speed restriction. Removal of the speed restriction will significantly increase on-time performance.”
Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General releases report
Durbin’s letter comes on the heels of an Oct. 14 report by Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General describing on-time performance’s impact on Amtrak’s financial prospects. An amendment that Durbin passed last year funded the report.
The report concluded that improving on-time performance by five percentage points on all routes could result in $12.1 million in financial benefits in the first year, with an estimated $41.9 million in cost savings in subsequent years. The report defines on-time performance as “how a train performs compared with its published, scheduled arrival time at each station and final destination on its route.”
The report also found that Amtrak doesn’t fully measure systematically how poor on-time performance affects its financials and so it has limited data it can use to address the issue with stakeholders.