Amtrak riders had a pretty rough Fourth of July weekend, at least judging by the talk of delays and outages in my Twitter feed. Vox.com's Max Fisher summed up the sentiment best: "Amtrak is a heavily-subsidized rail service with Russian quality at Swiss prices. It is the shame of the developed world." As it turns out, he was being a little too generous.
Swiss rail travel is actually affordable compared to the U.S. A weekend round trip between Geneva and Zurich costs about $189, or $0.53 per mile traveled. A weekend round-trip from D.C. to New York, on trains leaving at a reasonable hour (e.g., not in the middle of the night) will run you about twice that much, or $0.98 per mile. And if you were to take the Acela you'd be paying almost twice as much as that for the privilege of arriving 35 minutes earlier.
The quality comparison with Russia is a little trickier to suss out. At the very least, it's easy enough to demonstrate that Amtrak's on-time performance record is terrible, and getting worse. Amtrak publishes monthly on-time statistics for the rail network overall, as well as for individual routes and trains. Less than three-quarters of Amtrak's trains arrived at their destinations on time in May, according to the latest report. That represents a drop of nearly 12 percent from the year prior, and is a little bit worse than on-time performance among the major airlines.
But this masks considerable variation among the individual routes, most of which are performing much, much worse than the network average. Below, I've mapped Amtrak's 33 major routes and colored them according to their on-time performance. Click the image for a larger version.
Eight of the 33 routes, including most of the long-distance cross-country lines, experienced on-time arrivals less than 50 percent of the time over the past 12 months. The Empire Builder, running from Chicago to Washington, ran on time only 21 percent of the time in the past year. Only one in three California Zephyr trains made their trips between Chicago and San Francisco on time.
But terrible performance isn't limited to the cross-country routes. The Downeaster, from Portland, Maine, to Boston, saw 49 percent on-time performance. The Capitol Limited, from D.C. to Chicago, ran late more than 70 percent of the time.
Overall, only nine Amtrak routes ran on schedule more than 75 percent of the time. The reason Amtrak's overall on-time performance stands at a relatively high 72 percent is that the majority of Amtrak traffic runs along the busy Northeast Corridor between D.C. and Boston. And compared to the long-distance routes, those trains are doing okay (not that this is any solace to the travelers stuck in Delaware for four hours last weekend). The Acela and the Northeast Regional trains saw on-time rates of 74 and 75 percent, respectively.
But it's important to note that a 75 percent on-time rate is pretty terrible in absolute terms. Take the Acela, for instance. You're essentially paying twice as much for a 75 percent chance of arriving 30 minutes earlier, compared to a standard Northeast Regional trip. Amtrak's own performance standards, adopted just a few years ago, require the Acela to run with 95 percent on-time performance, and other routes to run between 85 and 90 percent on time. By that measure, all but one of Amtrak's routes are flunking their performance goals, most by a wide margin.
There are two major forces behind Amtrak's poor performance. The first is that Amtrak doesn't own most of the track it runs on, but leases it from a panoply of freight rail companies. You might think that would be a perfect recipe for finger-pointing and buck-passing whenever a problem arises, and you'd be absolutely right! A byzantine system of regulations governs rights-of-way between freight and passenger trains running on these tracks, and Amtrak is usually all too happy to blame the freight operators whenever a problem arises. A dispute between Amtrak and the freight companies on these issues is on its way to the Supreme Court. Shoddy, out-of-date infrastructure is another leading cause of delays.
How could we make things better? For starters, it's probably time to eliminate those costly, poorly-performing long-distance routes completely. According to a Brookings Institution study last year, few people ride them and they're costing Amtrak (and taxpayers) hundreds of millions of dollars per year. A one-way trip on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle will cost you hundreds of dollars and last at least 48 hours (that is, if you're on one of the one-in-five trains that runs on time). And that's in the cheap seats — no sleeper car for you. At those prices and time investments, there is literally no reason to take the train from Chicago to Seattle other than for the romance of being on a cross-country train. And there's no reason to keep pouring money into what amounts to a purely recreational transit option.
Amtrak should take the savings from the elimination of those lines and pour them into sorely-needed infrastructure for its busy coastal routes. I'll take a smaller, 21st-century rail infrastructure over a sprawling 19th-century one any day. I imagine most of those travelers stuck in Delaware would, too.
MORE: What do people think about Amtrak? Results of our reader poll.