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Amtrak Takes the Fight Against Train Delays Online

March 18, 2019

Amtrak's new strategy for casting a spotlight on the causes of passenger delays is grabbing national headlines.

By Sean Jeans-Gail | Vice President, Government Affairs | Rail Passengers Association

Amtrak trains getting stuck behind freight trains isn’t news for passengers, unfortunately. But Amtrak’s new, attention-grabbing strategy for highlighting the underlying reasons behind these delays is grabbing national headlines—including a frontpage story on the Wall Street Journal:

A long-running battle between Amtrak and major freight railroads over train delays has entered a new phase of hostilities: fighting about tweets.
Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, has taken to using a Twitter handle, @AmtrakAlerts, to tell riders when trains are delayed, including when they are stuck because of freights.

That prompted a lawyer for Norfolk Southern Corp. to send a demand late last month to Amtrak: stop tweeting about our trains, or the railroad “will be forced to consider further action.”

The story includes the response issued by William Herrmann, Amtrak’s Vice President and Senior Managing Deputy General Counsel. It’s a response that deserves to be quoted at length:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your February 22, 2019 letter requesting that Amtrak “refrain from further statements from its Twitter account.” First, thank you for following the @AmtrakAlerts Twitter account. Our customers really appreciate these explanations about when and why they are being delayed by a freight train. Amtrak loses over $140 million dollars a year due to delays caused by host railroads and our customers lose thousands of minutes of their lives waiting to arrive at their destinations. These numbers have considerably increased over the last decade and Norfolk Southern, and its terrible service to Amtrak customers, bears significant responsibility for this increase. As a Norfolk Southern customer, Amtrak demands that Norfolk Southern meet or exceed 80% on-time performance at all stations on all Amtrak routes as required by law.

Your letter is surprising mostly because it focused on just a single tweet about train 20(15) from the @AmtrakAlerts Twitter feed. While train 20(15) was initially delayed by a mechanical issue, the subsequent 198 minutes of delay due to Norfolk Southern compounded this problem, which is sadly all too common. While you complain this was due to the train being “off plan,” the thousands of severe delays to Amtrak passengers caused by Norfolk Southern make clear there is no Norfolk Southern “plan.” In 2018, Norfolk Southern delayed Amtrak trains for 464,342 minutes, the equivalent of 322 days. For many Amtrak customers, enduring severe delays caused by Norfolk Southern are the norm. In 2018, each Crescent train was, on average, delayed nearly 2.5 hours by Norfolk Southern freight trains alone, in addition to many other Norfolk Southern- caused delays.

In just the first two months of 2019, a single Norfolk Southern freight train (Train 21M) was responsible for over 1,346 minutes of delay to Amtrak trains on Norfolk Southern territory. In 2018, this same freight train caused 9,786 minutes of delay to Amtrak trains and the customers on board. This consistent pattern of delays caused by a single Norfolk Southern freight train demonstrates a clear violation of 49 U.S. Code § 24308, which requires Norfolk Southern to provide Amtrak trains with preference over freight transportation. Moreover, each and every violation of Amtrak’s preference right and resulting delays to our passengers are causing irreparable injury to Amtrak’s business and public reputation. Our passengers have every right to know why they are being delayed, and Amtrak is duty-bound to tell them.

The letter goes on to detail eleven other instances of Amtrak trains being delayed by Norfolk Southern freight train interference in the past year, and notes that it ranked last among the Class I railroads in performance in 2018. (You can find out more at Amtrak's Host RailRoad Report Card.)

Amtrak deserves credit for this bold new strategy. Of course, no matter how cathartic this public shaming of Norfolk Southern might be for any Amtrak passenger who’s suffered hours of delays at the hands of freight dispatchers, it’s unlikely this problem will be resolved on Twitter. However, a journalistic spotlight might be just the thing to garner political support for a more substantive solution: Rail Passengers Association is asking Congress to grant Amtrak a Private Right of Action to enforce dispatching preference during our annual Day on the Hill in Washington, D.C.

We suspect there will be a lot more attention to this issue this year. And that’s good for passengers.