Saturday, January 3, 2009

Rules are Rules, But They Should Bend Sometimes

It normally takes Amtrak’s train # 370, the Pere Marquette, four hours to make the run from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan. But on one forgettable, very non-normal day a week or so ago, the run to Grand Rapids turned into a sixteen hour nightmare.

As is often the case, there were several contributing factors. The weather was bad, of course, with snow and lousy visibility playing a part. But the real problem was a federal regulation that prohibits operating crews from working more than 12 hours without a break.

On that particular day, the Pere Marquette came to a halt somewhere in Indiana behind a CSX freight that had stopped on the main line because its crew had hit the 12-hour limit. So the Amtrak train, with something like 130 passengers on board, sat there waiting for a CSX relief crew to get the freight moving again. They waited for four hours.

The Pere Marquette finally got moving but, just 25 miles before reaching their final destination in Grand Rapids, the Amtrak crew "went dead". The train was diverted into a CSX yard where it sat waiting more hours for its relief crew to arrive.

There are lots of questions about this incident that need answering, not the least of which is why it took CSX and Amtrak so long to have replacement crews take over those two trains. But, more to the point, wasn’t it absurd that a regulation forced the Amtrak crew to shut down their train when another 30 or 40 minutes would have delivered 130 passengers to their final destination.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, tells me there is indeed some provision in the rules permitting operating crews to work beyond the 12-hour limit, but to do so results in lots of red tape and possible fines against the railroads.

By all means, let’s run our railroads safely … but there needs to be room for some flexibility and common sense. Ross says NARP and Amtrak are working on that. Good … but it's small consolation for those folks who finally got to Grand Rapids twelve hours late.


Mike said...

Jim, this story takes me back to my active duty days when we had fairly strict crew duty day limitations - BUT we had fairly low levels of waiver authority in order to complete a mission.

Agree - there's got to be a better way. Have any unions weighed in on this issue yet?

JIM LOOMIS said...

Heven't heard anything about union involvement ... perhaps because this hasn't been an issue given the inflexible enforcement policy that has been the practice.

Susan Och said...

I heard about the delayed train, but not about the cause. It seems that the staff has rights but the riders don't.

I just got back from dropping my daughter at the Amtrak in Kalamazoo, a 9 hour round trip. We pass the Grand Rapids station on the way, but we don't use the Pere Marquette in the winter because there is only one train per day, departing before 7 am, and we can't be sure that the roads will be plowed early enough to let us get there.

Today the 3:01 from Kalamazoo was on time, sold out, and got her into Chicago ahead of schedule.