Amtrak’s Capitol Limited (train 29) left South Bend, Ind., yesterday at 11:08 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, the Lake Shore Limited (train 49) followed. Next stop for both trains: Chicago, 84 miles west. The Lake Shore reached Chicago at 4:26 p.m., the Capitol at 5:20 p.m. This fiasco illustrates how precarious our railroad infrastructure is today, at a time of record shipper demand and probably record shipper unhappiness. The tale of what happened to these trains is worth retelling.Short form: there are limits to doing more with less, and railroads also have construction delays.
The railroad is basically in gridlock, shut down.Throw in a few crews, including the Capitol's running afoul of the Hours of Service Law, and nothing moves. Perhaps, though, the accountants are totting up the profits they hope to earn by moving all that freight with almost no crew reserve, and inadequate capital.
The problems seem to be twofold: trains needing to be recrewed and construction jobs associated with the Indiana Gateway project, which ironically is intended to speed up train movements.
The first two trains in the long line are empty oil trains and have been there all morning, probably waiting to be recrewed. Behind them is a manifest freight and then an intermodal train and finally the two Amtraks. On Main 2 sits a merchandise train, crewless, ruling out any overtakes.
By and by this conga line begins to wiggle its way west. But all must apparently stop and be flagged through a construction job (crossovers, signals) east of Porter (CP 482) and so not until 2:45 p.m. does the first oil can train rumble by Porter at 25 mph. Fifteen minutes later the second oil job goes by, followed after a bit by the manifest train and later by the intermodal train.
This is not a picture of a railroad in meltdown, but rather dysfunction. Everything gets done, but slowly and at great cost to the railroad and inconvenience to its freight customers and those of tenant Amtrak. I tell you this little tale because ones just like it are happening on a lot of railroads right now. And it is happening because railroads are not prepared on key routes with the crews, locomotives, or track capacity they need to handle a surge of new business. Call it the new normal, but don’t smile when you say it.What are the macroeconomic implications of consumers, badly served by business restructuring everywhere, deciding to do without?
I will be exploring some of these Amtrak routes in the near future, and will file reports, assuming I don't get stranded on some siding on a train out of booze first.