Amtrak ridership is up, but passengers grouse about frequent delays

By Andrea Sachs and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 25, 2010; F01

Amtrak's Northeast Regional train No. 177 was scheduled to arrive at Union Station at 1:25 a.m., but at that witching hour, it had made it only as far as Philadelphia, where it was stopped cold.

A half-asleep passenger asked a more conscious traveler what had happened. "Someone got hit by another train" farther south, outside Wilmington, Del., he replied.

In the cafe car, the staff had laid out free bottled water, trail mix, shortbread cookies, crackers and a cheese spread. But the travelers wanted their beds, not a buffet. The train finally left Philly at 2:58 a.m., arriving in Washington a little over two hours later. The sun was rising, and cabs were scarce.

Days later, a customer service representative called a passenger to apologize for the delay. "There was a trespasser," she said, offering a vague, slightly mysterious explanation. "It was beyond our control."

She said that the passenger would be mailed a $50 credit for a future train trip. The coupon duly arrived.

But weeks later, it remains unused.

To all those poor souls trapped on a stalled (or painfully slow) Amtrak train with no imminent plan to move (or arrive on time), here is the message: Learn to live with it.

Though many trains do run on time, or close to it, rail passengers frequently find themselves stuck in travel purgatory, because some unforeseen situation has tripped up Amtrak: A sluggish freight train is blocking the way; the engine's power source has conked out; a ne'er-do-well cow has wandered onto the tracks; there's cleanup on Track 1. The causes are legion, the delays legendary.

"It's a love-hate situation," said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine. "There's this promise of a really nice ride and experience, but it's really not there."

Still, many starry-eyed travelers continue to harbor hope that their Amtrak trip will succeed, especially now that the other modes of transportation are failing us. To fly, we dump out our wallets to nickel-and-diming carriers and expose ourselves to intrusive airport security, only to be crammed into a giant lipstick tube. Driving is no better, with clogged highways, irate drivers and gas prices that add up. Buses are cheap but lack personal space and some carry a strong whiff of street-food carts.

But train travel, we imagine wistfully and against most of the evidence, is different. The romance went out of it long ago, but we cling to the memories. We celebrate its presence in our lives on National Train Day, to be held in cities around the country, including Washington, on May 8. It's like the ex we can't stop contacting, believing that this time he or she won't disappoint. In our dream scenario, they show up on the dot, drop us off in a timely fashion, never skimp on meals and drinks and treat us kindly.

So we ask: Can America fall in "like" with Amtrak again?

To answer that question, we rode the rails up and down the East Coast in an attempt to rekindle the flame.

Northeast Regional, Washington to Boston

Selma Jacobs of Chevy Chase is traveling to New Rochelle, N.Y., for her nephew's wedding. The former National Institutes of Health employee has been taking Amtrak for 50 years.

"It didn't look much different back then," she says. "The price is much changed, though."

She used to take her sons to Manhattan for $10 round trip when they were children. Today, her round-trip ticket costs $180.

She has never considered taking the Acela. "It's so expensive," she says of the speedier train with WiFi and electrical outlets. "I don't need a plug. All I have is a cellphone. And when it rings, it takes me so long to pick it up because I have to figure it out."

There was a time when Jacobs really enjoyed the train. She and her husband once took a sleeper train from Seattle to Oakland, Calif. "Oh, it was beautiful," she remembers. The ride from Washington to New Rochelle, not so much.

Freighted with problems

Established by Congress in 1971, Amtrak runs the country's intercity passenger rail service, operating more than 315 trains per day over 43 routes that cover the nation like an intricate spider web. The company reported a personal best of 13.6 million passengers from last October through March, a 4.3 percent boost from the same period a year earlier.

But despite widespread supply and obvious demand, the government-subsidized company has been riddled with problems. "There have been peaks and valleys in the service and the equipment," said Wrinn. "The quality hasn't been consistent."

The problem lies in . . . well, so many places.

"First of all, they never have enough funding," said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit that advocates a national high-speed rail network. "Problem two is that they basically are borrowing track space from the freight railroads. They play second fiddle to freight. Freight is never on schedule. It's big and bulky and slow."

For the traveler languidly watching the landscape scroll by, it may come as a surprise to know that Amtrak doesn't own most of the track under its wheels. Although it does command stretches along the Northeast Corridor and in Michigan, most of the rails are controlled by freight train companies, such as CSX Corp., and state entities.

When not on its own turf, Amtrak has to share the track with the host company. Confronted with a freight train, Amtrak may have to reduce speed or stop and pull onto a side track to let the train pass. If only a single track is available, the traffic grows even knottier. "When you only have one lane of passenger train, that already causes conflict," Kunz said. "It's never-ending problems and potential delays."

Carolinian, Charlotte to Washington

At 7:45 a.m., two women are snug in their business-class seats, pillows on their laps, free drinks set on their fold-out trays. As part of their nice-to-meet-you conversation, the woman in the aisle seat, an admitted aerophobe, describes the taxing southbound journey she'd experienced a few days earlier.

The train, she explains, stopped a few towns shy of Charlotte while a storm pounded outside. A tornado had swept through the area, damaging the track. As the clock ticked interminably, a few impatient people jumped out of the train and ran through the woods to meet rides they had strategically arranged. Those without nearby family or friends patiently waited for instructions.

After about three hours, Amtrak staffers announced that they had called for buses to pick up the passengers and shuttle them the rest of the way. As the passengers were packing up their belongings, the plan changed. Stay put, the announcement ordered anew. Four hours after its scheduled arrival, the train chugged into a pitch-dark Charlotte.

"They kept us informed, but they didn't do what they said they'd do," the Virginia mom of two says, pleased that the skies are baby blue for her return to Washington.

In the cafe car after a smoke/leg-stretch break in Raleigh, a loquacious conductor is holding court to an audience of passengers and other Amtrak workers. "We left Raleigh 20 minutes late," he says in a loud outside voice. "Clocks are fixed objects. I still haven't figured out how we make up time."

Listening to dispatcher chatter on the walkie-talkie, he reports an upcoming situation. "When CSX goes south, we'll go north on Track 1," he says. Having passed Selma, N.C., the train is now inhabiting CSX territory, which means that freight train sightings are almost as common as the tobacco warehouses and shotgun homes paralleling the track.

The conductor banters on, describing the hazards lurking along the track: "A guy jumped on a freight train. I reported him. Then in Wilson, I saw the same guy sitting on the railroad ties. . . . Going to Pittsburgh, we hit two cows. . . . Ran into a horse once. . . . Every time you hit something, you have to report it."

He returns to the present situation: "We haven't lost any time, but we are going to now. I'm talking about this freight train."

At 1:54, the train starts sliding backward a half-mile to allow the freight train to pass. Two minutes later, the train stops because, of all things, another Amtrak train is approaching from the opposite direction. "As you can probably guess," a voice informs over the loudspeaker, "we've stopped. We've got problems, people." The train halts in a forested area with a swampy ground covering. Cellphone service is nil. More freight trains are up ahead.

"CSX is not going anywhere. That's what they do, folks: They get in our way," says the jocular voice. "What does that mean, exactly? We're going to be here awhile. We can't do much about the delay, but we can make you comfortable."

In business class, the beverage cart is depleted of Diet Pepsi, but the Sierra Mist will probably last through Washington.

Delays, delays, delays

A scrap of paper taped to the Amtrak ticket window in Charlotte reads, "Train 79 due to arrive at 8:14 p.m. is running late and will arrive at 8:45. Sorry."

When a passenger gripes about the delay, a cabbie puts it in context: "We consider that on time. Two or three times a week, the train is three or four hours late."

* * *

To keep its passengers in the know, Amtrak posts arrival data for all its routes on its Web site. Studying them can be very illuminating. In March, for example, the Carolinian/Piedmont was punctual nearly 70 percent of the time, which is consistent with its performance over the past 12 months. The records of specific trains are also available: The Carolinian's No. 80, for instance, logged an on-time performance of 39 percent last month and 53 percent over the past year; the Northeast Regional's No. 136 scored a perfect 100.

"You never know on a consistent basis if [the train's] going to be on time or late," said Wrinn.

Added Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm, "Amtrak is frustrated by the delays as well. There are a lot of moving parts to make passenger rail more convenient and trip time accurate."

Take, for example, the No. 80: Train interference is responsible for 51 percent of the tardiness; track and signal snafus count for 18 percent; and passenger issues (i.e., assisting disabled travelers, late boarders, etc.) take up the remainder.

Northeast Regional, Boston to Washington

Everything seems to be going okay until after New York, and even then, no one knows what has caused the delay. By the time it reaches Philadelphia, the train is 17 minutes off and will never be able to make it up.

"They're late very often," says passenger Nenad Dedic, who takes the train back and forth from his home in Philly to his Google job in New York. "I'm tired of the unpredictable service. Sometimes it's a suicide, sometimes it's snow, sometimes it's rain. Sometimes it's the sun."

A passenger asks the conductor why the train, due in Washington at 9:35 p.m. after a 7-hour 55-minute trip, is running behind. "People getting off the train at the last minute," she says.

"Every minute we're late cuts into my sleep time," says Ed, the chipper cafe car cashier. He has to be on the 8 a.m. train the next day. "It could be worse," he continues. Once, the train didn't pull into Union Station until 1 a.m. "There was a tragedy," he says, looking down.

The train arrives at 9:56 p.m., 21 minutes late.

"Get ready, get set, go," Ed says, as passengers jump off and run to the cab line.

Funding and the future

The government controls Amtrak's purse strings, requiring the corporation to ask Uncle Sam for an allowance that it never fully receives. "Amtrak was starved for funding for many, many years," maintained Kulm, the Amtrak spokesman. "It has no dedicated source of money like highways and airplanes." (Speaking of starving, many passengers complain of food shortages in the cafe car.) And while revenues cover 80 percent of operating costs, Amtrak has never made a profit. Of course, to be fair, no passenger trains in the world earn a profit.

However, Amtrak's piggy bank is now wagging its tail. As part of last year's stimulus bill, the company received $1.3 billion for infrastructure projects on top of its annual federal appropriation of $1.6 billion, which supports its operating and capital budgets. Separately, states received $8 billion, of which $4.5 billion is dedicated to projects to improve existing or future Amtrak routes. With fuller pockets and a deadline of February 2011, Amtrak has set to work trimming trees that can tangle in overhead catenary wires (the train's power source), replacing electrical equipment predating World War II, improving drainage alongside tracks (you hear that, Rhode Island?), rebuilding bridges and more. "The list goes on and on," said Kulm, adding that 49 percent of the funds will be dedicated to the Northeast Corridor.

Kulm puts at the top of his fix-it list equipment that is long in the tooth and slow in the joints. "Replacing passenger cars and locomotives is most urgent," he said. "The older cars limit how fast we can go. They also give a poor perception of Amtrak. They're dated and tired-looking."

Moreover, Grandpa's trains are running on Great-Grandfather's tracks and structures. For instance, when burrowing through a tunnel in Baltimore that was built in 1873, the trains must decelerate to 30 mph to negotiate its S-shaped curve.

Last year, Amtrak started rehabilitating and restoring its locomotives and passenger cars and has already incorporated some of the improved equipment into its fleet. The company is also gazing toward the horizon. "We're looking toward the future to being America's high-speed-train operators," he said, referring to the super-swift trains that can clock up to 220 mph. There's no guarantee, however, that Amtrak will be selected to run high-speed rail.

Northeast Regional, Boston to Washington

Train 99 pulls out at 8:40 a.m., right on time. In the past 12 months, its on-time performance has been 48.3 percent.

The train arrives in New York at 12:36, nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule. "This is the earliest we've ever been," the conductor declares, sounding amazed. "This is like a world record."

Carolinian, Charlotte to Washington

Jon Kaplan and his wife, Stephanie Martin, of Arlington, chose to ride the train to Greensboro mainly for their baby girl, who's not a fan of car seats. But while she sleeps and gurgles for the entire seven-hour journey, her parents have to remain alert and awake.

"It's not really romantic," says Kaplan, who passes the time strolling the aisles with the baby in her sling and sampling the veggie burger and pizza in the cafe. "But, pardon the expression, it's not really a train wreck, either."

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