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News / Clark County News

Amtrak grades host railroads for delays to passenger service

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 6, 2018, 10:49pm
2 Photos
Passengers exit an Amtrak train at the Amtrak Train Station in Vancouver, Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2018.
Passengers exit an Amtrak train at the Amtrak Train Station in Vancouver, Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2018. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In terms of causing fewer train delays, Amtrak’s host railroads in the Pacific Northwest performed pretty well last year, especially compared with other companies around the United States and Canada.

In a new report, Amtrak graded its landlord rail lines on a scale of A to F in a report titled the “Host Railroad Report Card” for the 2017 calendar year. Of the six class 1 railroads evaluated, the Pacific Northwest’s two class 1 companies, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Corp., received a B and a B-, respectively. Only Canadian Pacific fared better, receiving an A.

BNSF’s grade was based on its trains being responsible for less than 1,000 minutes of delay per 10,000 train miles traveled by Amtrak trains on its network. Union Pacific, meanwhile, caused less than 1,200 minutes of delay per 10,000 train miles.

BNSF tracks host Amtrak passenger trains from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland on the Cascades route, from Seattle to Portland on the Coast Starlight route and from Minneapolis, Minn. to Portland on the Empire Builder route.

Union Pacific then hosts the Cascades from Portland to Eugene, Ore., and the Coast Starlight from Portland to Moorpark, Calif.

“You are served by two of our better host railroads,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

But Union Pacific’s spokesman Justin E. Jacobs didn’t see it the same way.

“Union Pacific takes significant measures to ensure our commuter partners are successful operating along our rail network. We are disappointed that Amtrak is trying to deflect its own service issues to host railroads, including Union Pacific,” he told The Columbian in an email.

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About a half hour later Jacobs followed up with an emailed announcement addressed to “Media Partners” that “Washington’s transportation infrastructure will receive a $31 million boost from Union Pacific Railroad in 2018. The company’s planned private investment will enhance safety, operating efficiency and support customer service.”

In response, Magliari said Amtrak isn’t a “commuter” nor is it shirking responsibility for late trains.

“Clearly, there are delays we are responsible for and we own them but the majority of the delays all over the network are on places on other people’s railroads and due to other people’s railroads,” he said. “Nothing is more important to our customers than did the train arrive on our schedule. The folks who work the train could be sweet as cherry pie, and the cherry pie could be good too, but if the train is late, the customer is disappointed… That’s why we’re transparent with these reports.”

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the company “continues to focus on safety and investing in capital improvements to ensure timely movements of all of our customers — including freight and passenger.”

He added that the company has spent more than $900 million on track improvements in Washington state in the last five years.

Excluding it’s own Northeast corridor, Amtrak operates its trains on track networks owned, maintained, and dispatched by private railroads, which it refers to as “host” railroads. Those companies operate not only their own freight trains, but grant access to Amtrak and other carriers on their networks. The host railroads make the dispatching decisions about which trains will leave first and which ones will wait.

According to the report, federal law gives Amtrak passenger service precedence over freight movements, but that’s often not what happens.

Amtrak pays host railroads $142 million to use their tracks and other resources for operation.

“Host railroads often choose to force Amtrak trains with hundreds of passengers on them to stop and wait in favor of their trains carrying coal, garbage, crude oil, empty freight cars, or any freight that the host chooses to prioritize,” the report reads. “Sometimes a host railroad will make Amtrak passengers follow the same slow freight train for 50 to 100 miles, or may even make Amtrak passengers wait while individual freight cars are switched into or out of industrial facilities.”

Magliari said the volume of freight a class 1 carrier takes on often has a direct impact on Amtrak’s timeliness. He said a few years ago, when oil drilling in the Bakken Formation of the Upper Midwest ramped up, BNSF trains began moving a lot of materials in and out of that area. In turn, Amtrak routes that operated on those lines, specifically the Empire Builder route, also suffered delays.

“One reason Empire Builder performance is much, much better now than it was is because of the investments (BNSF) made in their railroad,” he said.

Columbian staff writer