As an upstate New York native, I’m partial to winter sports and especially winter Olympic events. Since we’re well into Winter Olympics season, I thought it might be fun to look at the latest stats for on-time performance through an Olympics lens. But let’s just say that if the on-time performances for America’s trains were Olympic events, we’d probably be in the middle of the medal pack versus the rest of the world.
Yesterday we received Amtrak’s preliminary January numbers for on-time performance and while there have been some interesting improvements in individual routes, on-time performance in January declined against the prior 12 months systemwide as freight train interference continued to make the average Amtrak passenger nearly an hour and a half late.
A lot of folks continue to zero in on high-profile – and embarrassing – locomotive failures but by the numbers, engine failures remain a vanishingly small contributor to overall Amtrak delays. Amtrak locomotive failures contributed around 50 minutes of delay per 10,000 train miles in January, compared with about 500 delay minutes from freight train interference. Overall, the six major host railroads racked up 1,097 delay minutes per 10,000 train miles during the month. That’s 18 hours of delay, about 70% of Amtrak’s overall delay minutes. Amtrak can take the blame for 21% of delays, or five and a half hours’ delay over 10,000 train miles.
Freight-train interference and slow orders are the top two leading causes for all that delay.
Customer on-time-performance (Customer OTP) is the new standard by which the Surface Transportation Board will measure whether trains are running behind schedule badly enough to justify a complaint or an intervention.
Using Customer OTP as the yardstick, passengers getting off at any stop -- endpoint or intermediate -- can't be any more than 15 minutes later than the published arrival time, and trains must meet that standard at least 80% of the time. If Amtrak delays fall below that standard for two consecutive quarters, Amtrak (or anyone else) can lodge a complaint. Amtrak missed that mark in January by six percentage points. In fact, for the most recent 12 months systemwide Customer OTP is only 76%.
With that in mind, let’s look at the January medal-winners in our three passenger-rail events: NEC Corridor Routes, Non-NEC Corridor Routes, and Long-Distance.
In the Northeast Corridor, your gold medal winner on the podium for January is the Keystone service, posting 92.1% Customer OTP. The few times that Keystone riders were late, they were late by an average of 34 minutes. The Springfield Shuttles running on the Northeast Regional line took the silver medal, clocking in with an 89.1% on-time performance. The average minutes late for a Springfield rider, if they were late, was 51 minutes; that’s 11 minutes worse than the 12-month average for that route. The Northeast Regional spine services took the bronze in the NEC Corridor Event, with an 82.7% customer OTP.
Coming close but failing to medal were the Acela, at 78% on time, the Northeast Regional service as a whole at 76%, the Roanoke, Virginia, portion of the Regional at 72.3%, and the Regional lines to Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond, which were only on-time 66% of the time in January. That was a significant drop-off from their 12-month average of nearly 76%.
The Non-NEC Corridor routes are having a much better Passenger Rail Olympics, with 10 out of 24 services tracked beating the 80% target and one – the San Joaquins – just meeting it. But your medal winners among our state-supported competitors were the Hiawatha, at 93% taking the gold, the Ethan Allen Express snagging silver while operating under the Empire services at 92.7%, and the New York to Albany segment of the Empire service picking up the bronze at 91.6%. Finishing out of the medals but still beating the Customer OTP target were the Capitol Corridor services, the Pacific Surfliner, the Downeaster, the Empire services as a whole, the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr, the Missouri service, and the Piedmont.
Unfortunately, the Long-Distance Routes event likely won’t be televised, since none of those services made the medal round. Overall, January Customer OTP for the long-distance routes came in at 50.6%, a slight improvement over the 49% pace of the prior 12 months, but still a long way to go from where they need to be.
The Palmetto came the closest at 78%, which is a strong improvement over the prior 12 months’ performance of 62.7%. The Texas Eagle, surprisingly, has made a real comeback in on-time performance, coming in at 75.5% for the month of January – an impressive gain over its 57.8% over the prior 12 months. The Lake Shore Limited came in at 69.1%, and the City of New Orleans notched 63.2%. For the City, however, it wasn’t really a “good news” story, since that route actually had exceeded the 80% target for the prior 12-month period at 81.8%.
The Auto Train suffered the worst OTP in January, coming in at only 30.8%. That’s more than 10 percent worse than its previous 12-month performance. Moreover, late passengers were later than in prior periods. During the previous 12 months, when an Auto Train customer was late, they were late an average of two and a quarter hours. In January, that topped three hours.
If you’d like to read more about what’s behind Amtrak delays, click here for a great explanation of the root causes and what we need to do to fix it.