Economy

Amtrak woes may point to bigger rail service problems

Amtrak's Capitol Limited stops to pick up passengers at Martinsburg, W.Va., on April 6, 2014. Freight congestion on Norfolk Southern between Chicago and Toledo is delaying the train severely, and it was late 97 percent of the time in September. Amtrak is currently putting passengers on buses between those two cities. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy)
Amtrak's Capitol Limited stops to pick up passengers at Martinsburg, W.Va., on April 6, 2014. Freight congestion on Norfolk Southern between Chicago and Toledo is delaying the train severely, and it was late 97 percent of the time in September. Amtrak is currently putting passengers on buses between those two cities. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy) McClatchy

Last year’s freight congestion that was snarling Amtrak service in the upper Midwest has shifted east, and it’s gotten so bad that Amtrak has resorted to putting passengers on buses.

Congestion on Norfolk Southern in recent weeks has delayed Amtrak trains from Chicago to Detroit, Boston, New York and Washington.

“Everything we have between Chicago and Michigan and the East Coast uses that route,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman.

The Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder experienced the most severe delays last fall. Now it’s the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, which was late 97 percent of the time in September.

At least through Friday, Amtrak is putting passengers of its Capitol Limited and Lakeshore Limited trains on buses between Chicago and Toledo, Ohio.

Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the railroad was experiencing traffic volumes it hadn’t seen since the 2008 recession. Pidgeon said the railroad is in “a strong hiring phase” and is investing in new infrastructure and capacity east of Chicago.

“While that’s a good sign for jobs and the economy,” he said, “it comes with staffing and capacity challenges.”

Federal lawmakers and regulators are expressing concern about the congestion as it’s delaying freight shipments as well, notably for auto manufacturers, grain producers, coal-reliant electric utilities and even UPS.

“They’re handling the economy,” said Tony Hatch, a New York-based rail industry analyst. “They’re not serving x. They’re serving a through z.”

The Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroad rates and service, Wednesday required the nation’s Class I railroads, including BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX, to file weekly data reports on their service performance. Major shippers have complained in recent hearings that railroads don’t share enough information about the extent or the underlying causes of poor service.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators wrote STB Chairman Daniel Elliott, asking the board to move forward with a new rule that would give shippers more access to competing rail lines.

“Our states desperately need this injection of competition into the market to increase the quality of their rail service,” wrote Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and David Vitter, R-La.

The nation’s largest railroads have been the focus of increased scrutiny because of congestion and safety issues around the growing transportation of crude oil. Last year, BNSF, which blankets the western two-thirds of the country, struggled to move a record grain harvest on top of an increasing volume of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

A long, severe winter made things even worse. The nation’s leading rail hub, Chicago, became a black hole that swallowed entire trains.

Late last year, Amtrak took the extraordinary step of canceling the Empire Builder between Spokane, Wash., and St. Paul, Minn., to rebalance crews and equipment.

But it’s not even winter yet, and if Amtrak’s experience east of Chicago is any indication, things have already started to unravel.

“The passenger trains are like canaries in the coal mines,” Magliari said. “If they’re falling behind schedule, freight likely is, too.”

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