Travel chaos has become the norm in recent months after two summers of pandemic-related lockdowns. While air passengers have been hit the hardest, rail travelers are also getting their share of the misery – from an increase in delays and cancellations to long waits on customer service lines.
“This is travel hell for everyone,” said Jim Mathews, President and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “The airlines are terrible at the moment. Gas prices are crushing budgets. Hotels are a mess. Everything is crowded. And yes, Amtrak is not immune.”
Intercity train service disruptions are on the rise, and more are likely this summer as uncertainties remain due to staff shortages and increased demand. Amtrak travel will also be hampered by heat this summer Speed limits and worsening problems on freight rail lines that often share tracks with Amtrak trains.
More than a quarter of Amtrak customers experienced delays in June, according to punctuality data, with an average delay of 76 minutes. The proportion of late customers is trending up, Amtrak data shows, and delays are getting longer. The disruptions are more pronounced for travelers on long-haul routes – who are delayed more than half the time – and in parts of the country outside the Northeast Corridor.
Cancellations have also increased, although they are rare. From Memorial Day weekend through mid-July A little over 1 percent of trains on the passenger rail network were canceled that year, according to Amtrak.
The mounting challenges come as demand for train services has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Railroad officials say Amtrak’s service levels are about 80 percent of 2019 numbers, while the airline has said it’s being forced to increase capacity because it doesn’t have enough staff to staff trains.
The battle that will determine the future of American rail passenger service
Disruptions across multiple modes of transport have been rampant this season, at a time when shippers are facing capacity and staffing issues. The implications for rail travelers were not as severe as those for air travelers, but they were not inevitable.
Amtrak’s problems have been better controlled, in part because it’s not prone to over-scheduling like airlines do. The company has generally added trains as demand increases, giving travelers the flexibility to buy tickets closer to their travel date.
“We face the same challenges as other travel segments,” Amtrak President Roger Harris said in an interview. “We know it’s a tough summer … We certainly anticipated delays and cancellations, but we tried to forestall that as much as possible.”
Historically, the most common cause of delays is freight trains interfering with passenger trains. Because Amtrak operates primarily on tracks owned by other railroads, its on-time performance depends on freight railroads, which are required to give passenger trains priority over other rail services. According to Amtrak, freight trains caused nearly 900,000 minutes of passenger delays last year.
Freight disruptions account for about 70 percent of delays on Amtrak’s national network and are up 15 percent this June compared to June 2021, according to Amtrak.
Robynn Tysver, a spokeswoman for the Union Pacific Railroad — which accounted for more than 1,500 delayed minutes per 10,000 Amtrak train miles last month — said the company is accelerating the hiring and adding 150 locomotives to its fleet to reduce slowdowns, which are causing theirs The result is said to be from “ongoing supply chain and congestion issues.”
“While Union Pacific prioritizes Amtrak passengers on the network, we understand that more work needs to be done,” Tysver said. “We are seeing metrics improving and are committed to achieving better network fluidity for all traffic on our system.”
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said staff shortages and growth in freight volumes have prompted a new business plan that would bring route improvements.
Virginia is adding two new Amtrak round trips to its rail service
Industry leaders say more frequent heat waves are also leading to more frequent delays on the rails. Amtrak trains have been traveling at slower speeds through the Northeast and other sections of the network in recent days due to heat warnings. High temperatures can cause rails to expand, resulting in railroads having to implement safety protocols.
If train delays or train cancellations occur outside of the traffic volume Northeast Corridor, this may mean arriving at a destination the next day or missing connecting flights. As with flight delays, the abrupt change of plan can become torture.
Jennifer Yu traveled aboard Amtrak for the first time this month when her trip from Seattle to Portland was delayed an hour due to mechanical problems. Two days later, while preparing for her return trip, she received an email from Amtrak stating that her train was canceled.
Amtrak cited “unforeseen equipment issues” on its Cascades route on Twitter. Yu, 27, spent an extra day in Portland before being rebooked on the next trip to Seattle. She said it took three attempts to connect with customer service and more than an hour on the phone to be rebooked.
“I prefer to return home earlier, but the delay gives me another chance to eat Portland food,” she said.
Twenty-five percent of Amtrak customers experienced delays on their trips in the past year, while the percentage of disruptions has increased over the past two months. More Amtrak passengers were delayed in June (28.3 percent) and May (27.6 percent) than in April, when 21 percent were delayed.
On the DC to Boston corridor, passengers with delays arrived an average of 44 minutes late in June, up from an average of 40 minutes over the last 12 months. Acela trains arrive on time on nearly 90 percent of journeys – and are among the busiest routes on the rail system.
Amtrak officials say the railroad is taking steps to compensate the increasing number of passengers who are experiencing problems.
The company recently launched a self-service ticket refund process that passengers can use if a train is canceled and is introducing an award benefit for late Acela passengers that includes an automatic apology if a train is delayed more than an hour. The company plans to introduce a system this fall that will allow passengers to change trains if they are delayed. While the options are convenient for passengers, they also aim to ease the strain on the company’s customer service lines.
Amtrak is also waiving change fees for reservations made through October 31st.
Claudia and Mark Hurd’s trip to Florida on Amtrak’s Auto Train was shortened by a day and a half. They paid $1,000 round-trip to avoid the 16-hour drive and high gas prices to get to their retirement home. You’ve had enough Snacks, reading, and Netflix movies for a little delay, but their June 13 trip went downhill about seven hours after departure.
Amtrak said in a statement that train 53, which was carrying 408 passengers, “encountered delays en route” and encountered debris on the tracks south of Dillon, SC, damaging numerous cars.
“The train continued south but was further delayed due to weather, speed restrictions and crew issues,” Amtrak said in a statement last month.
Some passengers ran out of food and parents were desperate for diapers. Others called local police to report their stranding, Claudia Hurd recalled. The Auto Train is Amtrak’s busiest route, arriving on time 24 percent of the time, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
“Once we had to stop that one time, the whole journey was doomed,” said Mark Hurd.