The passenger rail carrier lost its leverage with freight rail companies after a federal appeals court ruling in 2013.
It's not just your imagination—Amtrak really has been delayed more than usual lately. According to the passenger rail corporation's latest monthly performance report, on-time arrival stands at roughly 74 percent for fiscal 2014 (which began in October 2013). That's down nearly 12 points from fiscal 2013, when Amtrak was on-time for 85 percent of its trips.
So what gives? Well, if you look closer at the above chart, you'll notice a clear dip between May and June of 2013. On-time performance fell from 83 percent to 76 percent between those months, and it's remained below the 80 percent-mark ever since.
What you're seeing is the aftermath of a U.S. Court of Appeals decision, issued July 2, 2013,* that severely damaged Amtrak's leverage with the freight rail companies whose tracks it shares. Roughly 72 percent of all miles traveled by Amtrak occurs on tracks hosted by other rail providers. In 2008, as part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, Congress gave Amtrak the power to penalize these providers for giving dispatch priority to freight trains using the same routes. The July 2013 decision called an end to that power, and likewise triggered the start of Amtrak's on-time performance decline.
In May 2014, for instance, host railroad delays accounted for roughly two-thirds of all Amtrak delays, according to Amtrak's performance report. Only 7 of Amtrak's 48 routes had a better on-time rate in May 2014 than in May 2013, before the ruling went into effect. Amtrak's latest report also shows that from June 2013 to May 2014, hosts have been responsible for 72 percent of Amtrak delays—with "freight train interference" the leading problem.
Amtrak spokesman Craig Schultz says on-time performance is a complex issue that can't be reduced to a single problem, but that shifts in host railroad dispatching priority had a clear and immediate impact across the board. Amtrak pays the hosts for its services, and provides incentives for on-time performance. But at the end of the day, he says, trains running on host railroads are subject to decisions made by dispatchers who don't work for Amtrak.
"That's really one of the major factors: the handling of trains—certainly on the long-distance network, especially—by host railroads," says Schultz. "That's something we're actively working with them to address."
Amtrak's long-distance routes rely heavily on host infrastructure and dispatching, and the latest performance figures—mapped nicely by Wonkblog's Christopher Ingraham last week—indeed show their recent struggles. Several routes failed to crack the 50 percent on-time rate in the past year. These include the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle/Portland) at 21 percent; the Capitol Limited (Washington to Chicago) at 29 percent; the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco) at 34 percent; and the Texas Eagle (Chicago to Los Angeles via San Antonio) at 45 percent.
(For the record, Amtrak varies its definition of "on-time" depending on the length of a route. Trains traveling less than 250 miles are on-time if they reach the final destination within 10 minutes of scheduled arrival, for instance, while trains traveling more than 550 miles get 30 minutes of leeway.)
Long-distance routes carry far fewer passengers than, say, trains in the busy Northeast Corridor. But even NEC trains have underperformed of late. In May 2014, Acela had an 80 percent on-time performance, down 10 points from May 2013. The Northeast Regional train, meanwhile, was at 78.5 percent in May 2014, down 9 points on the year before.
Host issues alone can't explain that decline. Amtrak took a beating with the long, cold winter this year; indeed, on-time performance in January and February 2014 dipped below 70 percent. Aging infrastructure in the region also causes delays on occasion. Schultz says the new fleet of electric locomotives slowly making its way onto Northeast Corridor tracks should improve reliability, among other benefits.
"Poor on-time performance is unacceptable to our passengers, to our employees, to our management," he says. "It's a major inconvenience to our customers. It impacts the business through decreased ridership, lost revenues, higher operating costs. So it's something we're really taking very seriously at all levels of the organization."
To some extent, Amtrak's ability to restore the high performance rates of 2013 may rest in the hands of the justice system. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal of the 2013 decision that went against Amtrak. The high court's next session begins in October. So there's a little more waiting in store yet.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article dated the U.S. Court of Appeals decision as June 2, 2013. It occurred July 2.