Happening Now

Blame The Lawyers, Part 1…

February 1, 2019

Relying On Rail When Other Modes Fail

by Jim Mathews, President and CEO

Passenger Rail is tough. Hardy. No-nonsense. It’s the one mode that goes when everyone else slows.

Except lately.

Amtrak has taken a lot of flak for suspending trains for weather more frequently than a school superintendent in Atlanta. A few weeks ago, as a big snowstorm approached the Midwest and Northeast, Amtrak suspended service in and around Chicago.

And this week, as the Polar Vortex cast its black spell of Deep Cold across the Midwest – making it legitimately colder than Antarctica – Amtrak did it again.

Some of you may know that I grew up in the siberianoid provinces of upstate New York, where snow is a natural phenomenon and not a natural disaster. As middle schoolers, we all knew that if Mr. Blydenbergh (the superintendent of schools in our district) was able to make it out of his driveway, the amount of snow was irrelevant – school was open and we were going.

The one thing Mr. Blydenbergh closed school for was deep cold. Not the regular, standard-issue, snow squalls-on-Halloween kind of upstate cold, but double-digits below zero. That got his attention. At temperatures like minus 40 or minus 50, physics begins to get strange.

Which gets me to this week’s Amtrak service delays.

Stopping all rail service for snow is extreme, and usually unwarranted, in my view. Passengers rely on rail when other modes fail. We all have stories of riding a long-distance train inundated with refugees from airports, displaced from canceled flights on to Amtrak (sometimes for the first time in their lives) and amazed at how much better the travel experience can be. Amtrak is justly famous for these anecdotes, and really ought to play that up when the snow comes down.

But minus 50? That’s different.

Beating up Amtrak for cutting back service in those conditions is probably a little unfair. For one thing, it’s not like “the good old days” for ANY railroad in 2019, Amtrak, commuter or freight. Railroads today are hyper-focused on operating ratios, and holding lots of resources and manpower in reserve to keep the trains running in unusual conditions breaks that formula. People and resources cost money, and its money that many railroads no longer feel the need to spend.

Unlike 50 years ago, there are far fewer section gangs – track and signal maintenance and repair employees – and they’re more centralized. Which means they can’t just spread out along major routes, watching over junctions and interlockings to make sure switches don’t freeze or fail. When something breaks in the cold, those gangs have to travel longer just to reach the problem area, and they’re spread more thinly than ever before.

Way back when, railroads thought nothing of finding “casual labor” in a pinch to help out with bad storms, going so far as to trawl the local bars looking for strong hands and backs to shovel out yards for cash. What would OSHA think today about hitting up the bars for guys who need beer money?

The liability Amtrak would face in the event of a problem would be significant – perhaps even moreso given the spate of wrecks last year. No railroad, passenger or freight, is going to expose itself to the potential for unusual, unexpected or uncontrollable liability. And in this age of social media, that’s all Amtrak needs: someone live-tweeting a rare cold-related tragedy.

My message to Amtrak is the same as Mr. Blydenbergh’s was to us four decades ago: if it’s just snow, you’ve got to go. But in the Deep Cold, it might be best to stay home.