We know from Amtrak's historical performance data that Northeast Corridor routes enjoy pretty good on-time performance compared to the rest of the system. In June, for instance, Northeast Regional trains had a 76 percent on-time rate, while Acela trains ran at 73 percent. But performance varies considerably by the individual trains running these routes. There can be big performance differences between trains that leave at different times of the day, or different days of the week.
If you were planning a round trip from New York to D.C., what would be the best times to travel to minimize your likelihood of running into train delays? Amtrak's Web site doesn't make it easy to compare performance between trains, so I dug up the numbers and broke them down below.
I grabbed performance data for all Acela and Northeast Regional trains listed in Amtrak's timetable of trips between New York and D.C. The performance figures below represent the percent of trains running on-time over the past 12 months. The tables are color-coded by performance, from dark red (less than 60 percent) to dark green (greater than 90 percent).
Many factors can impact these numbers — everything from recent construction to the harsh weather during the winter months. But they provide a pretty good barometer of how individual trains are faring.
Let's say you're looking to depart New York on a weekday. Your best bet to minimize delays would be to leave early in the morning - really early. On weekday Northeast Regional trains, you'll need to leave before 6 a.m. to get a train with better than an 80 percent on-time rate. Train performance deteriorates throughout the morning and hits its nadir early afternoon — train 133, leaving at 1:09 p.m., has only a 42 percent chance of getting you to your destination on time. Performance creeps back up through late afternoon into evening.
I asked Michael DeCataldo, Amtrak's general manager of Northeast Corridor operations, why mid-day trains didn't do as well. He said morning trains often perform better because the equipment is already at the station. But mid-day trains are dependent on engines and cars arriving from other destinations, and any delays on those earlier trips will have a cascading effect throughout the day. Things improve in the evenings simply because there are fewer trains on the tracks, and hence fewer delays related to congestion.
If you're taking the Acela on a weekday, you should also try to leave as early as possible. On-time performance is best in the morning and deteriorates pretty steadily throughout the day. Whatever you do, try to avoid train 2173 leaving New York at 8:00 PM — it has the poorest performance of any Acela train.
Weekend performance is a different story. On average, Acela and Northeast Regional trains departing New York on the weekend have 15 percent better on-time performance than trains leaving on weekdays. The majority run on-time more than 80 percent of the time — that figure jumps to 90 percent for morning Acela trains. The reason for this is simple — "there are significantly fewer trains operating on the weekend," DeCataldo says.
You can rest a little easier on your return trip — trains departing D.C. for New York have about 5 percent better on-time performance than their southbound counterparts. Cataldo says this is partly because of schedule pressures — many northbound trains have designated time slots on a section of track between New Rochelle, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn., that is owned by Metro North Railroad. So Amtrak prioritizes getting them to that section of the track on time.
Overall, the best-performing Northeast Regional trains depart D.C. late in the morning. On the Acela, afternoon and evening trains are your best bet, excluding a late-afternoon rocky patch.
Finally, D.C. weekend performance is pretty darned good, averaging 85 percent across both lines. Every single Northeast Regional train has run with 70 percent or greater on-time performance over the past year. On Acela, as long as you avoid the early morning trains you'll be just fine.