Thursday, May 14, 2009

How To Be On Time and Late at the Same Time


Amtrak’s OTP (on time performance) has improved quite a bit over the past year or so, but for far too long it had been abysmal. How abysmal? Well, three years ago, when I took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, we were supposed to arrive in Los Angeles at 9:00 p.m. We were seven hours late and didn’t pull into LA’s Union Station until 4:00 in the morning. And this was not an isolated incident. Most of Amtrak’s long distance trains were late most of the time … often very late.

The problem, of course, is that most Amtrak trains operate on track owned and controlled by the freight railroads and too often passenger trains were forced to wait while priority was given to freight traffic. In the case of my ill-fated trip on the Coast Starlight, dispatchers for the Union Pacific Railroad constantly shunted us off onto sidings to let their freight trains rumbled by.

Clearly, rail passengers needed some realistic idea as to when they would reach their destinations, so for many years Amtrak has fallen back on a kind of slight-of-hand: they’ve padded their schedules, adding time arbitrarily between stations along the way to allow for all those likely delays.

For example, take a look at the current timetable for the Sunset Limited. The westbound train, which originates in New Orleans, is scheduled to make the 56-mile run to its first stop at Schriever, Louisiana, in 90 minutes, departing at 11:55 a.m. and arriving at 1:25 p.m.

But that stretch comes at the end of the eastbound train’s route and, to allow for delays that may have occurred along the way, the timetable shows the train departing Schriever at 1:08 p.m. and arriving in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. See? Schedule makers have allowed the eastbound train almost three hours to cover those same 56 miles.

Prodded by Congress, there now seems to be a lot more cooperation between Amtrak and the various freight railroads. Let’s hope that continues … and that passenger trains will start arriving “on time” in “real time.”

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