Back from my first US trip - a few questions

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Back from my first US trip - a few questions

Postby Blillpers » Mon Sep 19, 2016 11:16 am

I've recently returned back home to Sweden from my first trip to the US, as well as my first time on Amtrak. I flew from Stockholm to New York, spent a few days there and then went across to Los Angeles via the Lake Shore ltd and the Southwest Chief. What a trip! Great scenery, nice people and good food. As a Swedish railroad employee (dispatcher), I have a few questions about the rail operations in the US.

I've understood that most of the trackage Amtrak operates on is owned by the major freight railroads. A few areas around the major cities are state owned/operated considering the large amount of commuter traffic. Amtrak also owns some trackage themselves, but this is restricted to the Northeast Corridor? With so many different infrastructure managers, I've understood that delays often occur to Amtrak as someone else is doing the dispatching (or traffic control, or whatever the correct term is). Who gets priority? Does the freight railroads have the right to prioritise their own trains even if Amtrak is on time and gets delayed? Are the freights run on a timetable? The way I've been told they are run completely randomly, but surely that can't be true?

The Amtrak trains are usually slower than their historical counterparts, in my case I went on the Lake Shore Ltd (19 hours) compared to the 21st Century Ltd (16 hours) and the Southwest Chief (42 hours) compared to the Super Chief (39 hours). Where is the time lost? Both trains seemed to have plenty of "air" in their schedules. Did the historical trains have tighter schedules? To me it looked like you could shave todays timetables down to the 60s timings by reducing the time spent in stations, but then punctuality would drop, of course. Were speed limits significantly higher in the 60s? As I understand it some form of cab signalling is required above 79mph. How many railroads have this? With the federal requirement for such systems, will more lines have their speeds raised above 79 as a byproduct?

Our lead unit broke down in Trinidad and we were eventually rescued by an BNSF engine some 3 hours late. Arrival in LA became 6 hours late. I suppose we had low priority and a lower top speed. But why were the freight engine still with us all the way? As I understood it the only reason one loco wasn't enough was Raton pass, and I had sort of expected the BNSF engine to be decoupled in Albuquerque. And how common is this? I suppose Amtrak gets the bill from whoever lended their engine.

Lots of questions, I'm sure I'll come up with more. And sorry for any grammar or spelling mistakes.
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Re: Back from my first US trip - a few questions

Postby deathtopumpkins » Mon Sep 19, 2016 3:28 pm

I've understood that most of the trackage Amtrak operates on is owned by the major freight railroads. A few areas around the major cities are state owned/operated considering the large amount of commuter traffic. Amtrak also owns some trackage themselves, but this is restricted to the Northeast Corridor? With so many different infrastructure managers, I've understood that delays often occur to Amtrak as someone else is doing the dispatching (or traffic control, or whatever the correct term is). Who gets priority? Does the freight railroads have the right to prioritise their own trains even if Amtrak is on time and gets delayed? Are the freights run on a timetable? The way I've been told they are run completely randomly, but surely that can't be true?


Amtrak owns part of the NEC, along with the Keystone Corridor, the Springfield line, most of the Chicago - Detroit line, and a few random short bits of track around stations mainly.

Amtrak receiving dispatching priority over host railroads' trains is actually the subject of a federal lawsuit right now (AAR vs. DOT). Amtrak is legally entitled to priority, but that's very difficult to enforce, and freight railroads are fighting it. It's especially complicated when a train runs over multiple host railroads - say the train is delayed one railroad A, and thus arrives on railroad B late enough that it missed its slot - the delay is not Amtrak's fault, but is it really fair to force railroad B to delay its own traffic because Amtrak missed its slot?

As for freight schedules, some trains (e.g. intermodal, etc.) are usually run on a schedule, but plenty of trains are also run when needed, especially on branch lines.

The Amtrak trains are usually slower than their historical counterparts, in my case I went on the Lake Shore Ltd (19 hours) compared to the 21st Century Ltd (16 hours) and the Southwest Chief (42 hours) compared to the Super Chief (39 hours). Where is the time lost? Both trains seemed to have plenty of "air" in their schedules. Did the historical trains have tighter schedules? To me it looked like you could shave todays timetables down to the 60s timings by reducing the time spent in stations, but then punctuality would drop, of course. Were speed limits significantly higher in the 60s? As I understand it some form of cab signalling is required above 79mph. How many railroads have this? With the federal requirement for such systems, will more lines have their speeds raised above 79 as a byproduct?


Speeds were definitely higher in many places "back in the day" - both because the route was maintained to a higher track class (especially where railroads used to host multiple passenger trains a day instead of Amtrak's 1 or less), and because federal regulations (and enforcement thereof) were a lot more lenient. It was possible to make up time by running above the MAS if you were running late. But now that speed is usually controlled automatically, and engineers are constantly monitored, this is no longer possible. So Amtrak needs to include more schedule padding in case of delays. This also ties back to my point above - if the same railroad is running the passenger train and freight trains for their own account, they are very likely to find a way to give that passenger train good signals - dispatchers will work hard to get other trains out of its way, rather than just view it as a nuisance.

And speeds are based more on track classes than cab signalling or PTC. Neither technology will increase speeds at all unless someone pays for track upgrades.
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Re: Back from my first US trip - a few questions

Postby ExCon90 » Tue Sep 20, 2016 2:34 pm

Another factor bearing on this is that when there were numerous daily passenger trains instead of one, there were more main tracks available. For example, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central maintained what amounted to two parallel double-track railroads between New York and Pittsburgh (PRR) and Buffalo (NYC). Freight and passenger trains ran mostly on their respective tracks at their own speeds and were thus kept out of each other's hair. And all operations--through passenger, local passenger, through freight, and local freight--were the ultimate responsibility of one Division Superintendent responsible for his territory, and while the whole railroad might have to stand aside and salute as the principal passenger train went by, it was up to a single Superintendent to see that everything kept moving. Today, in many cases we have a freight railroad hosting Amtrak trains and regional suburban trains operated for "tenant" operating authorities. After the decline in passenger service the number of parallel tracks was reduced, in some cases to the point that even freight service suffered. This problem was made worse after the freight railroads were largely freed of government rate regulation, and freight traffic increased markedly; this after decades of decline had most railroad officials thinking in terms of a steady reduction in traffic and almost afraid to put back some main tracks for fear that the projected traffic increase wouldn't happen after all, since the railroads had seen steady decreases since about 1950.

--and by the way, your English is fine.
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Re: Back from my first US trip - a few questions

Postby Engineer Spike » Fri Sep 23, 2016 8:27 am

To answer your other question, it is common for a borrowed freight unit to stay on. There are no Amtrak locomotive shops in New Mexico, or Arizona, at least that I know of. Los Angeles was likely the next spot where a spare might have been. It would have also delayed the train even longer, if they swapped out the BNSF, for another Amtrak unit. I used to work for BNSF, in Aurora, Illinois. We ran the commuter trains to Chicago. Every once in a while a BNSF would have to substitute.

Sometimes the California Zephyr detours off the normal BNSF route. When this happens, a Union Pacific engine must lead. This is because the UP, and also its former Chicago and Northwestern lines each have cab signals. Since Amtrak does not normally run here, none of the Amtrak units have either the UP, nor the C&NW cab signals.

The normal term is train dispatcher. Metro North, and Canadian railroads use the term rail traffic controller. A few railroads use other terms, if they had replaced union train dispatchers with management dispatchers. Pan Am called theirs train operation managers, but they reorganized the union, and are back to being dispatchers.

One other point is that you ran on Amtrak lines from Poughkeepsie, NY, where you left Metro North track, until Hoffman's, which is between Schenectady, and Amsterdam, where CSX is joined. Amtrak has the last couple of miles into Chicago Union Station.
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