Why Amtrak runs late

Waiting on a Train by James McCommonsBOOK REVIEW

Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding across America
By James McCommons
Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
Chelsea Green, 284 pages, $17.95

The Amtrak train that connects my Virginia town to Washington, DC normally runs four or five hours behind schedule. This is apparently perplexing to the European tourists who dutifully arrive on time for their scheduled 1 p.m. departure. At least they get the best benches in the station waiting room. They also get plenty of time to enjoy those seats before the locals drag their suitcases in at 4:30 or 5:00 to catch that day’s Amtrak Cardinal bound for DC’s Union Station.

Whenever I ride Amtrak I hear different explanations on why the trains always run late. “Bush hired an Amtrak board that hated trains and tried to starve the system to death”; “the tracks are old and dangerous and the trains can’t travel at full speed”; “passenger trains have to give way to freights and let them pass.”

While all three explanations are correct, the biggest culprit is freight trains, according to James McCommons in Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding across America.

Coal cars first, people second

In his year riding trains across America, McCommons found that the US actually has the most extensive rail system in the world, even after half a century of neglect and contraction. But that system doesn’t carry people. It carries freight.

By the 1960s, iconic rail companies like the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Southern Pacific were losing money on every passenger trip, beaten by the Happy Motoring Industrial Complex. This alliance of federally subsidized highways, cheap gasoline, and the power of Detroit pulled passengers off trains and put them into automobiles.

Worried that the operators would shut down their passenger lines for good, a group of rail advocates worked with Congress and the Nixon Administration to cobble together an agreement for the federal government to take over the failing lines. Thus was born Amtrak.

As part of the agreement that allowed them to offload their money-losing passenger service to the federal government, the rail companies handed over rail cars and other equipment, but they retained ownership of the tracks to continue to run freight. The freight operators were supposed to give right-of-way to Amtrak for a fee. But because they suffered little punishment if they caused delays for the passenger trains, the freight operators had plenty of incentive to shunt Amtrak off onto a siding so that their own boxcars could pass.

This system still prevails today. Until something induces freight trains to move aside for Amtrak, your train will almost never arrive on time.

Passengers vote, boxcars don’t

But McCommons writes that passenger rail could make a comeback because of many hopeful recent developments. These range from investment by the Obama Administration to a new understanding by the freight companies of the political benefits to playing nice with Amtrak.

“Passengers vote, boxcars don’t” goes a recent saying in the industry. There’s widespread public support for more and better passenger rail, which could translate into support for pro-Amtrak candidates at the ballot box. And when good rail is available, travelers vote more and more with their feet too and take the train. When gas prices rise, even more drivers leave their cars at home if they can access good rail service.

As James Howard Kunstler writes in his foreword, rebuilding America’s passenger rail system could be a do-able morale builder as we deal with today’s recession while preparing to face the longer term effects of peak oil, what Kunstler calls “the long emergency.”

Even the perpetually late Cardinal has now added daily service from our station to Washington, DC. Now, if they can just get you there closer to when they say they will, then the service is sure to flourish as peak oil kicks in and gas prices begin to rise again.

And whether you’re on a train or not, McCommons’s book is a must read if you care about the future of passenger rail in the US.

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