Monday, March 19, 2012

More Iowa Crossovers Means Good News for Amtrak Passengers

Most people traveling around the country on Amtrak don’t realize that their train is running on track owned by one of the nation’s freight railroads. But the implications to that are many. If you’re a passenger on the California Zephyr, bound from Chicago to Denver, for instance, and you spend 40 minutes sitting on a siding in the middle of Iowa waiting for an eastbound coal train to come lumbering by, it’s because a BNSF* dispatcher elected to put you there and gave priority to his company’s train.

The freight railroads are supposed to expedite passage for Amtrak trains and create “slots” in the schedules for them, but if there’s a long delay somewhere, a passenger train can find itself outside that slot. That’s when the problems start compounding and the delays begin to pile up. Specifically, the Zephyr has had a history of delays, and most often it all starts in the State of Iowa.

One of the solutions is to provide more crossovers, where trains can be switched from one track to another. In this case, that would mean allowing an Amtrak train to pass a slower-moving freight with neither train having to stop and wait on a siding. All that track work costs money, of course, and the freight railroads understandably don’t want to spend anything to improve Amtrak’s on-time performance. And Amtrak, as we all know, has barely enough money just to keep operating.

But today we learn that some federal stimulus money – more than $17 million – is going to be spent adding several such crossovers to the BNSF tracks through Iowa. That means jobs for the people who will do the work and it’s good news for those of us booked on the Zephyr in the months ahead.

*Burlington Northern Santa Fe

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