Amtrak’s dream of speedy service stuck behind lumbering freight trains

By Mike Lee | 12/12/2023 06:34 AM EST

The Biden administration wants to bring about a new age of train travel. But tension between Amtrak and the freight industry threaten to derail those ambitions.

An Amtrak train arrives at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

An Amtrak train arrives at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia on Nov. 22. Matt Rourke/AP

Even when everything goes right, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line is a long haul — a two-night odyssey from New Orleans to Los Angeles that crosses five states and three time zones.

But on one trip in April 2022, pretty much everything went wrong.

The train nearly hit a school bus. The police were called to handle an unruly passenger. And a few hours outside New Orleans, it was forced to wait hours behind a stopped freight train because Union Pacific needed to swap out the freight engine’s crew. Over the course of nearly 2,000 miles, the passenger train was slowed down or stopped by freight traffic 29 times — including an eight-hour wait outside San Antonio.


All told, the delays added about 12 hours to a roughly 46-hour trip. And while some of the problems are inevitable on a cross-country journey, experts say the hours of dead time caused by freight trains speak to a bigger and more persistent problem.

Amtrak has argued for years that freight traffic interferes with its ability to deliver passengers to their destinations on time. The problem not only cuts into Amtrak’s revenue, the company says, it prevents Amtrak from attracting new customers to its long-distance lines.

But a change could be coming.

After fighting for decades about freight train interference, Amtrak tried a new tactic last year — complaining to the Surface Transportation Board that the delays on the Sunset Limited violate a new federal standard for on-time performance on passenger lines.

It’s the first time since the standard took effect that the transportation board has delved into long-running tensions between Amtrak and the freight lines that control most of the tracks in the United States. And what the board decides — a ruling may happen as soon as next year — could have an outsize impact on the future of U.S. train travel.

The board could award damages to Amtrak, and it could order Union Pacific to take steps to alleviate the problems on the Sunset Limited line. That could encourage a rebirth of Amtrak service around the country and help taxpayers reap the benefits of the $66 billion that the Biden administration is pumping into passenger rail service under the bipartisan infrastructure law, according to passenger rail boosters.

If the situation stays the same, transportation advocates worry that U.S. passenger rail service will remain spotty and infrequent except for Amtrak’s home base on the East Coast.

The latest fight between Amtrak and freight rail has been years in the making.

Congress created Amtrak in 1970 to take over money-losing passenger routes the freight lines no longer wanted to serve. In exchange, the freight lines were supposed to give passenger trains preference on the tracks.

But the rail industry is much different now from it was 53 years ago. And that’s had an impact.

A series of mergers has left a handful of major railroads controlling most of the freight lines in the country. Many have cut back on train crews and decided to run longer, slower freight trains in a bid to boost profits. At the same time, Union Pacific and other freight lines have cut capacity — in some cases even pulling up sections of track, said Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.

“That’s been the story for decades,” Mathews said. “They’ve been taking capacity out.”

Lawsuits and delays

President Joe Biden speaks at an Amtrak maintenance facility.
President Joe Biden speaks at the Amtrak Bear Maintenance Facility on Nov. 6 in Bear, Delaware. | Matt Rourke/AP

Outside the Boston-to-Washington corridor, Amtrak trains generally have to share the tracks with freight trains. Amtrak pays the freight railroads to use the tracks, and in turn the railroad owners are supposed to expedite passenger trains unless there’s a good reason.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Amtrak’s long-distance service has been plagued by delays since its inception. Congress has tried on occasion to reform the system, but progress has been slow.

Between 1972 and 1973, on-time performance for long-distance passenger trains fell from more than 70 percent to 35 percent, according to Amtrak’s filing. And by 1979, the delays had gotten so bad the Justice Department sued one of the freight railroadsfor interfering with Amtrak’s service.

The delays happened on the Sunset Limited line, and it involved a stretch of track owned by Southern Pacific railroad between New Orleans and Houston. Union Pacific acquired that stretch of tracks in the 1990s, when it took over Southern Pacific.

A 2008 federal law, the Public Railroad Investment and Improvement Act, set a federal standard for on-time performance, required Amtrak to report how it met that standard and gave the Surface Transportation Board the authority to settle disputes among passenger and freight lines.

The law wasn’t fully implemented until 2020, however, because of more than a decade of lawsuits by the freight railroads.

Amtrak started collecting data about its on-time performance in 2021. It publishes a summary for each of its 15 long-distance lines and the performance of the half-dozen major railroads that control most of the nation’s tracks.

The results aren’t all bad. Canadian Pacific, now known as CPKC, scored an A grade on Amtrak’s annual report card last year, while CSX and BNSF both scored a B.

Still, none of Amtrak’s long-distance lines met the company’s goal, which is on-time arrival for 80 percent of passengers. The Sunset Limited service ranked last among the long-distance routes — its on-time performance was only 19 percent in 2022.

A Union Pacific spokeswoman said the Sunset route is a crucial freight artery for the company. And the railroad has argued in filings that Amtrak’s schedules are unrealistic.

“It is essential that Union Pacific and Amtrak collaborate to design schedules that are reasonable and achievable,” the Union Pacific spokesperson, Margaret Ronspies, said in an email. “We welcome the opportunity to share our efforts with the STB and remain committed to finding solutions that provide excellent service for commuters and freight customers.”

Amtrak categorizes delays in several ways to differentiate between unavoidable problems such as breakdowns and emergencies, and delays caused by the host railroad. The so-called host-responsible delays include freight train interference, signal problems and route changes.

The Sunset Limited trains between New Orleans and Los Angeles experienced about five hours of host-responsible delays at the beginning of 2022, and the slowdowns increased to nearly seven hours at the end of 2022.

Union Pacific controls about 90 percent of the track between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Amtrak says its passenger trains are routinely forced to follow Union Pacific’s longer, slower freight trains or wait on sidings while freight trains rumble past.

The incident on the westbound Sunset Limited in April 2022 was one of several cases where passenger trains were forced to stop on the rails while freight trains changed crews.

‘Awful. Awful. Awful’

The Sunset Limited train left New Orleans at about 9 a.m. April 3, 2022, and it was supposed to arrive in Los Angeles at about 7:35 a.m. April 5, according to data Amtrak filed as part of the case with the transportation board.

Before it even left Louisiana, however, it hit delays because of signal problems and freight trains. Around 4:35 p.m., it encountered the Union Pacific train, whose crew had stopped because it had hit the maximum number of working hours under federal safety rules.

Union Pacific sent a relief crew using a ride-hailing service, but it arrived in the wrong spot. A supervisor had to drive to the scene and deliver the crew to the Union Pacific freighter.

All the while, the Amtrak passengers waited.

The Amtrak train finally arrived in Los Angeles at 7:14 p.m. — nearly 12 hours behind schedule.

These kinds of delays hurt Amtrak’s efforts to win new passengers or expand its service, the company told the transportation board.

Its filing with the transportation board includes copies of complaints from passengers who said they’d missed business meetings and travel connections and had to cope with canceled hotel reservations.

“My plans have been ruined, I had to have my friends wait for hours for me, I had to cut out parts of my planned trip. Awful. Awful. Awful,” one rider wrote.

Another wrote: “At one point the train stopped and waited for three separate freight trains to pass. I thought passenger trains had priority over freight trains, but it wasn’t what I witnessed.”

Amtrak filed its complaint against Union Pacific in December 2022, and the transportation board agreed to hear the case in July. The Biden administration has urged the board to expedite the case, saying it would spur discussions between Amtrak and the freight railroads.

“We believe that in turn this will lead to more reliable intercity passenger rail service across the country,” John Putnam, general counsel for the Transportation Department, said in a letter to the transportation board.

Union Pacific and the Association of American Railroads urged the board to take a go-slow approach, saying it should follow the procedures it used in a previous case. That case, involving Amtrak and Canadian National railroad, has been pending since 2013.

Union Pacific and the railroad association also said the board shouldn’t rely on Amtrak’s data about on-time performance, which is collected by each train’s conductor.

Conductors “only record the observable, immediate cause of delay ‘out the window,’” the railroad association said in a filing. “Conductors are not necessarily reporting, nor aware of, what actually caused the supposed interference.”

That means Amtrak’s data is “of little or no value in addressing the broader question of whether the host freight railroad has failed to honor Amtrak’s statutory right of preference,” the association added.

Union Pacific argued that Amtrak doesn’t make room in its timetables for the kind of delays that are inevitable on cross-country trips.

“Amtrak is asking the Board to commence litigation based on schedules that are not realistic,” the freight railroad said in a filing.

Amtrak said it already builds hours into its Sunset Limited schedule to accommodate routine delays, and it said the blame lies with Union Pacific.

Union Pacific’s freight trains often exceed two miles in length, but the railroad hasn’t built sidings long enough to allow trains to pass each other, Amtrak said. There’s a 450-mile stretch on Union Pacific’s tracks in New Mexico and Arizona where there aren’t sidings long enough to accommodate a 10,000-foot train.

It’s a complicated case because it involves Union Pacific and two other freight railroads, along with local government agencies that control the last miles of track in New Orleans and California.

The transportation board ordered all the parties to provide information by this month. Once it makes a determination on the cause of the delays, it’ll hold a second round of deliberations to determine how to fix the problems.

A spokesperson for the transportation board said he can’t comment on any potential remedies while the case is pending, noting that it’s the first time the board has addressed on-time performance for passenger rail.

Not just the Northeast

The case is being closely watched.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pointed out that Amtrak’s Cascades line between Oregon and Washington is late about a third of the time, even though the service is supported by the two states.

“Passengers rely on trains to be on-time. Those expectations are too often unmet when Amtrak’s lines in my district and on routes around the country are at the mercy of rail lines owned, and controlled, by private Class I railroads,” Larsen said in a statement. “I am eager to see the STB address this issue.”

Earlier this year, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) held up appointments to Amtrak’s board until the Biden administration agreed to appoint a member from outside the Northeast. He said he wants Amtrak to focus on long-distance trains serving rural areas of Montana and other states.

“For Amtrak to truly work the trains have to be on time, but too often that’s not the case for western rail lines,” Tester said in a statement. “While I appreciate Amtrak’s efforts to make the rail system more accountable to passengers nationwide, issues like this are why I wrote a provision into my bipartisan infrastructure law to require geographical representation on the Amtrak Board.”

Cities around the country have been trying to either connect to passenger rail or improve their existing connections.

Amtrak recently announced it’s reopening service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. State and local officials have been exploring the idea of train service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and between Dallas and Meridian, Mississippi.

All those plans would depend on negotiating smooth service with the freight railroads involved, said Knox Ross, chair of the Southern Rail Commission.

One solution would be for Amtrak to haul freight on some of its long-distance lines. That would give the host railroads an incentive to allow faster Amtrak service, since they could charge a premium for expedited cargo delivery, Ross said.

“You have to find that happy medium,” he said. “In some places that’s easier than others.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Association of American Railroads.