Travel chaos has become the norm in recent months after two summers of pandemic-induced lockdown. While travelers have been hardest hit, rail passengers are also suffering their share of misery – from an increase in delays and cancellations to long waits in customer service lines.
“It’s travel hell for everyone,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “The airlines are terrible right now. Gasoline prices are crushing budgets. Hotels are a mess. Everything is crowded. And, yes, Amtrak is not immune.
Disruptions to intercity train operations are on the rise, with more likely this summer as uncertainties persist due to staff shortages and increased demand. Amtrak travel is also being hampered this summer by speed restrictions and worsening problems on freight rail lines, which often share tracks with Amtrak trains.
More than a quarter of Amtrak customers experienced delays in June, according to on-time data, with an average delay of 76 minutes. The share of delayed customers is on the rise, according to Amtrak data, and delays are getting longer. Disruptions are most pronounced for travelers on long-distance routes – which are late more than half the time – and in parts of the country outside the Northeast Corridor.
Cancellations have also increased, although they are rare. Memorial Day weekend through mid-July just over 1% of passenger rail network trains have been canceled this year, according to Amtrak.
The mounting challenges come as demand for rail services has rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Railroad officials say Amtrak’s service levels are around 80% of 2019 figures, while the carrier said it was forced to increase capacity because it didn’t have enough workers to equip trains.
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Disruptions in several modes of transport have been widespread this season at a time when carriers are facing capacity and labor problems. The effects for train passengers were not as severe as those faced by air travellers, but they were not inevitable.
Amtrak’s problems have been better contained, in part because it tends to stay on schedule, as airlines do. The company has generally added trains as demand increases, providing flexibility for travelers to buy tickets closer to their travel date.
“We face the same challenges as other travel segments,” Amtrak President Roger Harris said in an interview. “We know it’s a difficult summer… We certainly expected some delays and cancellations, but we tried to get ahead of it as much as possible.”
Historically, the main cause of delay has been obstruction of freight trains by passenger trains. Since Amtrak primarily operates on tracks owned by other railroads, its punctuality depends on the freight railroads, which are required to give preference to passenger trains over other rail traffic. According to Amtrak, freight trains caused nearly 900,000 minutes of passenger delays last year.
Cargo interference accounts for about 70% of delays on Amtrak’s national network and increased 15% in June compared to June 2021, according to Amtrak.
Robynn Tysver, spokesperson for Union Pacific Railroad – which last month was responsible for more than 1,500 minutes of delays per 10,000 Amtrak train miles – said the company is ramping up hiring and adding 150 locomotives to its fleet to reduce slowdowns, which she says is the result of “persistent supply chain and congestion issues.”
“As Union Pacific gives preference to Amtrak passengers on the system, we understand that more work needs to be done,” Tysver said. “We are seeing improved metrics and are committed to improving network fluidity for all traffic on our system.”
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said staff shortages and growing freight volume prompted a new business plan which is expected to deliver track improvements.
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Industry leaders say more frequent heat waves also lead to more frequent delays on the tracks. Amtrak trains in recent days have traveled at lower speeds through the Northeast and other sections of the network due to heat warnings. High temperatures can cause the expansion of the rails, forcing the railroads to implement safety protocols.
When train delays or cancellations occur outside of busy areas Northeast Corridor, this can mean arriving at your destination the next day or leading to missed connections. As with flight delays, the abrupt change of plans can turn into a test.
Jennifer Yu was traveling on Amtrak for the first time this month when her trip from Seattle to Portland was delayed an hour due to mechanical problems. As she prepared for her return trip two days later, she received an email from Amtrak stating that her train had been cancelled.
Amtrak on Twitter cited “unforeseen equipment” issues on its Cascades route. Yu, 27, spent an extra day in Portland until she was rebooked on the next trip to Seattle. She said it took three attempts to connect with customer service and over an hour on the phone to get a new reservation.
“I prefer to go home earlier, but the delay gives me another chance to eat Portland food,” she said.
Twenty-five percent of Amtrak customers have experienced travel delays in the past year, while the share of disruptions has increased in the past two months. More Amtrak passengers were delayed in June (28.3%) and May (27.6%) than in April, when 21% were affected.
In the DC-Boston corridor, passengers who experienced delays arrived, on average, 44 minutes late in June, compared to an average of 40 minutes over the past 12 months. Acela trains arrive on time for nearly 90% of trips and are among the most efficient routes in the rail system.
Amtrak officials say the railroad is taking steps to compensate for the growing number of passengers who are experiencing problems.
It recently launched a self-service ticket refund process that passengers can use when a train is canceled and is piloting an Acela Delayed Passenger Rewards benefit that includes automated apologies when a train is canceled. delayed for over an hour. The company plans to launch a system this fall that allows passengers to change trains when theirs is delayed. The options, while convenient for passengers, are also intended to reduce the load on the company’s customer service lines.
Amtrak is also waiving change fees for bookings made before October 31.
Claudia and Mark Hurd’s trip to Florida via the Amtrak Auto Train was cut short by a day and a half. They paid $1,000 round trip to avoid the 16-hour drive and high gas prices to get to their retirement home. They had enough snacks, reading material and Netflix movies for a little delay, but their June 13 trip went downhill about seven hours after departure.
Amtrak said in a statement that train 53, carrying 408 passengers, “encountered delays en route” and struck debris on the track south of Dillon, SC, causing damage to numerous cars.
“The train continued south, but was further delayed due to weather, speed restrictions and crew issues,” Amtrak said in a statement last month.
Some passengers ran out of food and parents were desperate for nappies. Others called local police to report they were blocked, Claudia Hurd recalled. The Auto Train is Amtrak’s most delayed route, arriving on time 24% of the time, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
“Once we had to stop once, the whole trip was doomed,” said Mark Hurd.
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