I hinted at an upcoming train trip in a reference to freight congestion laying out the Lake Shore and Capitol Limited.  And, indeed, a swing through Dixie while summery conditions were still present seemed like a good way to make use of the Amtrak gift certificate my colleagues gave me as a going-way gift.  But to get to Dixie might involve the tender mercies of Norfolk Southern's dispatching.  The itinerary I set up ultimately made use of several overnight trains, chosen in such a way that I'd have a leisurely morning, rather than the often-rushed wash-up-grab-breakfast-prepare-to-disembark that is nominal on the Lake Shore or Capitol or City of New Orleans coming into Chicago.

Thus, a leisurely connection from Metra to the eastbound Capitol: a chance to stow the kit in the Metropolitan Lounge, professionalism and some kindness to travelers in distress (not me) during the layover, chance to board the train ahead of the rush from coach.  Both trains from the east ran the Norfolk Southern gauntlet relatively painlessly, thus rested crews will be available for departure.

Amtrak 30 Capitol Limited, Chicago to Washington, 17 - 18 October 2014: Genesis diesels 177 - 7. baggage car 1260, transition sleeper 39029, sleepers 32048 - 32097, Cross Country cafe 37011, Sightseer Lounge 33011, coaches 31036 - 34044 - 35044.  Rake appears to have been turned quickly off Four, judging by numbers still posted next to the coach doors.  Proper numbers have been posted for the sleepers.  Effective 20 October, Amtrak have been running a shorter Capitol, in order to be able to cobble a train together from stock in the Coach Yard if the stock due to turn off 29 is delayed.
Because Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited equipment and Toledo-based operating crews normally make a same-day turn at Chicago, chronic westbound tardiness of the two trains arriving on Oct 4 caused the eastbound Capitol to depart at 2:54 a.m., more than 8 hours past its scheduled 6:40 p.m. Chicago departure. Missing all connections was unacceptable, so busing to and from Toledo began the next day and lasted for a week while NS dealt with its congestion.

When both trains resumed service into Chicago on Oct. 11, the westbound Capitol was running more than nine hours late at Toledo, prompting Chicago managers to scrounge for equipment to make up an eastbound Capitol that day which would be staffed with Chicago operating and on-board crews. It departed only nine minutes late, an hour before the westbound Capitol arrived.

Management has also decided that effective immediately, westbound Lake Shore Toledo-based crews will lay over in Chicago and handle the next day’s eastbound Capitol to avoid having that train’s departure delayed waiting for mandatory crew rest. Westbound Capitol crews will then have sufficient rest time to make a same-day turn back to Toledo on the eastbound Lake Shore. Once those moves were made, both eastbound trains have departed Chicago either on-time or less than 10 minutes late every day. This last happened in mid-April.
I should be grateful not to have been put on a bus, or that I had planned a trip to Michigan, as the corridor services are also being delayed by the freight congestion.
The Capitol has been suffering the longest delays because it is scheduled to travel through the corridor first in both directions. Especially westbound, NS dispatchers have found it more expedient to run these trains through the gridlock together, often joined west of Porter, Ind., by the three scheduled morning arrivals from Grand Rapids, Pontiac, and Port Huron, Mich. Since Sept. 30, the Capitol and Lake Shore have arrived four out of five instances into Chicago less than 15 minutes apart. None of the trains was less than three hours late.
That Friday, we got out of Chicago on time. But I have the name of a person to direct comments about what came later.
Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon declines to comment on specific conversations NS has had with Amtrak, though he tells Trains News Wire that “we generally have a cooperative relationship with Amtrak.”

“There’s palpable frustration in communities between Chicago and Cleveland over train congestion in that corridor, and that frustration is understandable. We’re frustrated too, because moving trains is just good business,” Pidgeon says. “These communities depend on Norfolk Southern to operate a safe, fluid network and that’s why NS is working proactively to solve these challenges and increase fluidity.”

The railroad expects by the end of 2014 to have hired 1,300 new conductors, “with a significant number heading to the corridor between Chicago and Cleveland. We’re hiring and training right now,” Pidgeon says, and the railroad is “looking at other potential operational measures to take because the national and local economies are depending on us to get this right.”
In mid-October, sunset is just past six, thus no picture of a Rock Island commuter train on the flyover as the Capitol approaches the site of Englewood Union Station.
Metra trains have been using the Englewood Flyover bridge for some time, and no clatter accompanied the passing Lake Shore and other Amtrak trains, as it had for more than a century at the former site of Englewood Union Station. Crossing diamonds and intersecting rails at ground level have all been removed except for the track on which a Norfolk Southern locomotive was parked for the morning’s events. A Metra train posed on the bridge, as one did when an official publicity photo was taken on Sept. 18.
And perhaps there will be other flying and burrowing junctions to expedite the passenger trains.
With completion of the Flyover, an additional congestion relief project at 75th Street that will divert Metra Southwest Service trains to the ex-Rock Island tracks here and into Metra’s LaSalle Street Station from Union Station can now proceed. To the east at Grand Crossing, engineering studies continue to explore reopening a connection once used by empty Nickel Plate passenger equipment moves that would enable Amtrak trains destined to and from points south of Chicago to directly connect with Canadian National tracks. But funding for those initiatives has yet to be identified.
But first, we have to see the operational measures Mr Pidgeon refers to, in action.  Dining car manager (with the Cross Country Cafe and retrenchment, there aren't enough people to speak of a steward any more) comes through the sleeper, taking dinner reservations.  I request one for 7.30.  That call comes just east of Hammond - Whiting.  Not good.  Conductor mentions we're hitting the yellows of a freight in front of us.  Salad -- still delivered with dinner, the unbundling hasn't hit the Capitol yet -- near Ogden Dunes.  (That's easy to recognize, as the interurban is alongside to starboard.)  Finish dinner somewhere around La Porte, head forward to my room.

Have in hand the remnants of a half-bottle of Francis Coppola Diamond Collection merlot.  "Dramatic style, vibrant packaging, and fruit-forward smooth wines."  Whatever.

Train comes to a halt somewhere near New Carlisle.  Conductor notifies us that the dispatcher has thought better of running us behind that land barge, but we have to clear a few westbound freights by first.  One is by, and three more pass my window, before we get moving again.  South Bend 11.17 - 11.23 (versus a scheduled departure of 9.09 -- should have been finishing dinner there -- and a good crowd of passengers have been waiting in the drizzle for at least two hours.)  Sleeper attendant sets up my bunk; his rest period begins at 11.30 (if train is on time, that is after boarding the Toledo passengers.)  Drowse off, horn of freight passing, drowse off, horn of freight passing, drowse off, longer rest, awake with absence of train noise, look out window, Toledo, don't bother turning on lights to check watch, nod off again, awaken around 7.30, somewhere on the New Castle Secondary, or whatever the Cleveland to Pittsburgh connecting line is called now; plenty of time to shower, shave, dress, head to the diner for breakfast and look at Beaver Falls.  More operational measures for Mr Pidgeon to explain; there's a freight stopped to port, and another one stopped ahead of us, somewhere along the old Fort Wayne Division.  For some reason, a stack train has to get by westbound on the north-most track; then the freight ahead of us can cross over in front of the freight stopped to port and head into Conway Yard; we overtake it and pass Conway Yard.  As one passenger gripes, "four tracks and we can't move?"  I know Norfolk Southern cobbled some kind of a Pittsburgh - St. Louis line out of the Fort Wayne to Crestline, the Big Four to Indianapolis, and the Vandalia beyond, and the stacks run to Cleveland and thence to Chicago.  But there has to be a better way.

Arrive Pittsburgh 9.21.

Announcements on the train suggest the Pennsylvanian is being held for connecting passengers (perhaps no charter busses are available?) but before arrival only Altoona, Harrisburg, and Lancaster connecting passengers (no Latrobes or Johnstowns) are instructed to detrain; the Philadelphias and New Yorks have a better chance at a connection in Washington.

Enough time to stretch on the platform, and enough light for a picture.

Leave Pittsburgh 9.37.  We're on the left track, overtake a CSX freight climbing out of Pittsburgh.

At the Edgar Thomson blast furnace, the last Steelers at work in Pittsburgh daily including Sunday.  By night, travellers can get a peek at bottle cars with glowing orange linings.

Connellsville 11.10 - 11.11

That's a rather gaudy Molinaro Law Office behind.  I have on occasion criticized CSX, particularly for its handling of Boston commuter trains or the Boston section of the Lake Shore, but today we're not losing any more time on our schedule.

Railroads follow watercourses wherever practicable.  From McKeesport practically to Sand Patch, the Youghiogheny River is to starboard.

It's overcast, and the tinted windows hamper photography.  There is still color on the trees.

It's not a bad day for rafting, and a few adventurers are on the river upstream from this landing.

But Amtrak, can't you do something about the dead space in your non-revenue cars?  As an economy measure, the upstairs bartenders have been gone from the Sightseer Lounges for what, 20 years?  But their counters ride along, adding dead weight and occupying space that might be devoted to additional seating.  Either remove them, or figure out a way to staff them.

In like manner, the cafe end of the Cross Country Cafe was wasted space on the Capitol.  The crew commandeered one of the four tables for paperwork.  The other three generally ran empty, and the serving area at that end of the car was locked up and out of service.  Didn't appear to hamper function in the diner.  They announced an Express Diner serving for early afternoon, and the lounge crew had snack packs distributed to all passengers.  Ordinarily, there's not much lunch traffic with a 1.10 arrival in Washington.  Today, however, Cumberland with a double stop, 1.46 - 1.56.  On the mountain, we run around another eastbound freight, without first waiting for multiple westbounds.

And yes, I was taking copious notes on the dispatching and train-handling.

Martinsburg 3.26 - 3.39, some kind of swap meet in progress on the grounds of the vintage Baltimore and Ohio roundhouse.

Harpers Ferry 3.51 - 3.52, have to get into Maryland before Stonewall Jackson shows up.

The military sites are near the tracks, and the branch line bridge has a walkway for visitors.

East of Brunswick comes Point of Rocks, where the original Baltimore and Ohio to Baltimore heads northeast.

Rockville 4.40 - 4.42; 29 by at 4.40, already 11 minutes late; arrive Washington 5.05.

I've been invited by Amtrak to participate in a survey seeking my reaction to the delays I encountered on this segment of my trip.  Details of that survey to come.

For the present, some analysis and some reactions.

First, Norfolk Southern sending a land-barge out ahead of Thirty's anticipated departure from Chicago strikes me as a serious error in dispatching judgement, compounded by the subsequent decision to run Thirty around the land-barge, but only after several westbound freights cleared New Carlisle.  I've learned, however, that interchange of unit freight trains, including intermodal, coal, and oil trains, is neither systematic nor organized.
Chicago . . . something has changed, but what? All of my fingers point to oil. CSX is taking five trains a day from BNSF and Canadian Pacific, and NS as many. They bring back the same number of empty trains. Then there’s the tidal wave of fracking sand, much of its originating in northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Each train has to be interchanged, and often as not the receiving railroad isn’t ready and willing. You wonder why so many BNSF locomotives are ending up in New Jersey and Delaware? Because donating its locomotives to the use of the eastern railroads was the only way BNSF knew to get them to take its trains (can’t prove that either, but people with the words “vice president” in front of their names have told me just that).
We're apparently no longer in the world of the Maine Bullet or the Alphabet Route, in which connecting carriers knew when the hotshot freights were coming.
I’m surprised there isn’t a special, streamlined protocol for interchanging the loaded and empty trains in Chicago; what I’m told is that each train is an ad hoc event that must be individually negotiated. I am not surprised that Warren Buffet handed Berkshire Hathaway’s checkbook to Carl Ice and Matt Rose, to add infrastructure PDQ, or that Canadian Pacific is spending huge sums to lengthen sidings and put centralized traffic control on the former Soo Line. But I am puzzled why neither CSX nor NS has seemed to share the urgency of the two western railroads.
Perhaps, suggests Jim Loomis, it's short-term pain for long-term gain.
[Delays] started getting worse right around the time a lower court decision said Amtrak should not be working with the FRA to set on-time standards for Amtrak trains. That decision has been seen by some as a green light for the freight railroads to stop giving priority to Amtrak trains. (That decision has been appealed and that appeal will be considered by the United States Supreme Court, probably early next year. NARP has filed an amicus brief with the court pertaining to this case.)

Regardless, people are really starting to pay attention to this issue. In fact, our car attendant on the Zephyr had some very firm opinions as to the cause of the worsening OTP problem. What about the increase in freight traffic, I asked.

"Bullshit", he said. "The freight railroads don't want us running on their track and they're trying to get rid of us."

After having recently sat for hours on the Lake Shore Limited as freight after freight rumbled past, it's hard not to see at least a little truth in that.
I'm prepared to push the argument harder.  Every time a freight railroad delays Amtrak so as to move its traffic more expeditiously, the resulting compensation for missed connections, or for dog-catch crews for Amtrak, is corporate welfare.
I have to wonder if it ever occurs to those obsessive proponents of cost-cutting in Congress that increasing revenue is another and much better way for Amtrak to reduce the amount of annual subsidy it gets from the federal government. If those lawmakers truly care about that, why aren't they bird-dogging the on-time issue which is costing Amtrak ridership and revenue?  And what about all the money Amtrak keeps shelling out because of passengers' missed connections? Hotel rooms. Meals. Charter buses to get them where they have to go.
Warren Buffet famously speaks of paying a lower income tax rate than his secretary. Is he including the implicit subsidies every time Seven or Eight get stuck so the oil gets through in that reckoning?

And the breakdown of connections has a deleterious effect on the national rail network.
[A] big factor dampening ridership on trips of all distances has to be drooping reliability. Through August, the last month for which Amtrak has publicly released data, fiscal year endpoint on-time performance dropped from 72 to 50 percent for the overnight trains; 82 to 74 percent for state-supported services; and 87 to 77 percent on the Northeast Corridor, including Keystone and Virginia trains. Statistics, however, do not begin to measure the cumulative impact on repeat business when passengers endure the kind of “never again” experiences like the 2:35 a.m. Lake Shore arrival into New York on Oct. 6 or the westbound’s 10 hour, 25 minute-late Chicago arrival Oct. 13.
And the truncation of Capitol consists may prove to be a false economy.
According to several different Amtrak sources, vocal protests of passengers with existing sleeping car reservations downgraded from bedrooms to roomettes and roomettes to coach over the last week prompted management to run a second full sleeper on Capitol Limited departures that are already well booked in both cars. Inventory will be contracted and the lounge dropped on future trips, thereby making enough cars and locomotives available to build a fourth set of equipment so the eastbound Capitol can always leave Chicago on time.
A late train, with fewer amenities, however, is not going to attract business.
The staffing plan also calls for one lead service attendant to assume both café and dining car functions, though a second service attendant would be available to wait tables and take orders. This practice was launched in 2007 when the former dining cars were converted to diner lounges following a round of 2005 Congressional hearings demanding an end to food service losses without considering the impact on ticket revenue.

The cars debuted on both the City of New Orleans and Capitol Limited, but proved inadequate as both lounges and dining cars. Sightseer lounges were restored to both trains following complaints and plunging customer satisfaction index scores.

The combination of freight congestion and lack of sufficient long-distance cars and locomotives to meet and grow demand has forced Amtrak to choose between capacity with amenities that bring passengers back and the reliability of getting trains out of their terminals on time.
Amtrak's response: set up a committee.
Amtrak is establishing a committee of rail and transportation leaders to identify infrastructure and operational improvements to address the rail traffic gridlock in Chicago. The panel is charged with identifying and evaluating infrastructure investments and operational actions that will optimize Amtrak on-time performance and improve freight rail service. Its objectives are to minimize disruptions and delays, and accelerate the construction of infrastructure projects. A final report on recommendations is expected by the end of May 2015.
Well before then, I hope that some grass-roots activism will bear fruit. Amtrak personnel were properly diplomatic about being laid out by the freight railroads.  I labor under no such constraints, and on the Capitol and other delayed segments, I suggested to tablemates at meals or in the lounge that their members of Congress exist to do constituent service.  In addition (wonky alert) the state departments of transportation that pay for corridor service suffer from the weakness of the national network, and that's another set of officials (and their legislative managers) to solicit cooperation.  And Jim Loomis's Travel and Trains suggests a more drastic measure.
The government hasn't done anything. Every single day, thousands of taxpaying American citizens are being seriously inconvenienced and put to additional personal expense because containers full of Hello Kitty dolls from Japan have priority over people.

The freight railroads certainly don't give a damn about Amtrak or the 300 or so human beings on this train who will be dumped out onto the streets of Chicago sometime tonight. In fact, they expect us to believe that with all their computers and their systems and their technology, they're unable to expedite passage of one damn train a day between Albany and Chicago.
But Passenger Rail advocates know the procedural buttons to push.
There are a few of us, however -- veterans of Amtrak travel, including a couple of NARP members -- with a somewhat different view to today's experience: we're pissed.

Here's an idea! What if the government sends a totally unofficial message to the freight railroads: Start running Amtrak on time. If you don't, FRA inspectors are going to be all over you like flies on a cow pie. They'll inspect everything from your locomotives to your coffee pots and they'll find something wrong with every damn one of them! Sounds like a plan to me.
Perhaps, starting with "random" inspections of freight locomotives on terminal yard ready tracks in Chicago two hours before the Amtrak trains are due to leave?

I'll have more on the freight rail interference, and the features of other segments, in the next few days.

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