Officials looking to cut down on delayed Amtrak trains

Officials looking to cut down on delayed Amtrak trains

Politicians and policymakers are talking about taking more steps to ensure that Amtrak trains are on time in Illinois, and they're pointing to the route that serves Champaign as an example of why change is needed.

Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin chaired a meeting on the issue in Champaign Wednesday.  He said this year, freight train interference on the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale rail line that's operated by Canadian National has caused Amtrak trains on that route to be delayed around half the time.

That makes for some unhappy community members, said University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

Federal Surface Transportation Board Chairman Dan Elliott said his organization is studying the issue, but he's also pointing to a law that allows the board to enforce Amtrak's right to have robust access to the rails.  And Elliott said if Canadian National doesn't abide by that law, the board could hit the rail company in its pocketbook.

According to Durbin, Amtrak is also making a case to the feds about what "on time" standards that Canadian National should be held to.

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Transportation

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wdlandsaw wrote on August 20, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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The removal of the 2nd set of rails and the collision avoidance system were huge mistakes.  Just re-installing the Automatic Train Stop system would allow 110 MPH trains on that line again, and the 2nd set of rails would allow direction running and reduce traffic congestion.

JRR wrote on August 20, 2014 at 11:08 pm

wdlandsaw wrote that "re-installing the Automatic Train Stop system [on the CN main line through Champaign] would allow 110 MPH trains on that line again".

The word "again" inaccurately implies that 110 mph speeds were EVER authorized on this main line -- the most allowed was an even 100. That technicality aside, there would be little gain to restoring the archaic automatic train stop system that CN's predecessor Illinois Central removed with federal approval in the early Nineties.

The signal system on CN's main line is undergoing an upgrade to the high-tech Positive Train Control (PTC) system that's mandated as part of federal legislation passed after a head-on collision involving a commuter train in Los Angeles killed 25 in September 2008. These systems are to be in place by the beginning of 2016.

PTC-compliant systems are being mandated on rail lines carrying passengers or certain forms of toxic freight. Mind you, by the government's own numbers, these systems would only prevent a thin percentage of rail accidents -- but I digress. 

Even with positive train control (investment by the railroads is likely to exceed $12 billion) to guard against a litany of human errors, the main line through Champaign is nowhere near ready for 110 mph passenger trains without a substantial amount of investment in upgraded track. The track's owner (CN) has little interest in such investment since they have no desire to run freight trains faster than the current 65-70 mph maximum for that traffic. 

So who pays for the upgrades? Amtrak has been starved of cash for years, and federal and state governments are similarly strapped.

Restoring the second track all the way from Carbondale to Chicago would be a profligate waste of money given current levels of freight and passenger traffic. Certainly strategic lengthening of sidings and even new sidings here and there would improve capacity, but at something approaching a million dollars a mile, one has to choose wisely, because the treasury is bare.

cea wrote on August 20, 2014 at 7:08 pm

The on-time problem is primary a capacity issue which fines won't fix. A few things that Senator Durbin and his colleagues in Washington could be doing to actually address the increasingly-congested rail network _and_ improve passenger performance: (1) revisit the tax code's treatment of investment in rail infrastructure; (2) reform Amtrak's financial model, including aligning payments to host railroads with the actual impact of Amtrak service on their operations, possibly by reducing frequency of long-haul routes and focusing on more practical and profitable regional routes; (3) support proven public/private partnerships--like the Chicago CREATE project, which if fully funded would substantially decrease rail and road delays in the Chicago area (and rail delays nationwide due to the importance of Chicago as a rail hub), or the recent DOT/IDOT/Union Pacific partnership which upgraded much of the St. Louis to Chicago corridor--both involving a combination of public and private funds; and (4) adopt a rational, free-market based climate policy which incentivizes energy-efficient modes of transportation and reduces taxpayer-funded subsidies for less efficient modes. Freight rail in the USA is thriving, in spite of lavish taxpayer-funded subsidies for competing modes. It would be nice to know that the Federal government views it as the critical link in our transportation network which it is, rather than merely an annoying impediment to Amtrak service.