The scuttlebutt on railfan chat lists these days is that an Oct. 6 letter from Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel Elliott III to NS Chairman Wick Moorman asking for a detailed explanation about what the railroad is doing to improve Amtrak on-time performance is responsible for an improvement in Amtrak timekeeping.
Those who follow the on-time performance of the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited have noted that the hours-long delays have begun to disappear.
The trains are still running late, but in the past week or so the tardiness has been more in the range of two hours or less.
The link between the STB letter and the uptick of on-time performance of the two Amtrak routes serving Northeast Ohio is at best circumstantial.
A number of factors have played a role in improving the fluidity of the NS Chicago Line. Amtrak has also taken steps to protect itself.
One of the steps Amtrak has taken is to alter the practice of having the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited equipment and Toledo-based operating crews make same-day turns in Chicago.
The habitual excessive delays suffered by inbound Nos. 29 and 49 meant that outbound Nos. 30 and 48 were delayed by hours because of the need for crew rest and equipment servicing.
One step has been to scrape together a fourth equipment set for the Capitol that can be sent out regardless of how late the inbound train is that day.
For now, that has meant shortening the consist of the Capitol Limited by removing the Sighterseer lounges in favor of 37000-series diner-lounges. Half of the car is a full-service diner while the other half serves up lounge car fare.
On one occasion, the makeshift equipment set for the Capitol departed Chicago for Washington, D.C., just nine minutes past its scheduled 6:40 p.m. departure time and passed that day’s inbound No. 29 en route. That No. 30 was staffed by a Chicago-based operating and on-board crew.
Amtrak also has decided to have the Toledo-based crews that bring the Lake Shore Limited into Chicago to layover there and handle the next day’s outbound Capitol Limited
Inbound Capitol Limited crews are expected to have sufficient rest time to make a same-day turn back to Toledo on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited.
Since these crew and equipment assignments have been implemented, Nos. 30 and 48 have departed Chicago either on-time or less than 10 minutes late every day, something that last occurred back in April.
Another factor has been the opening earlier this month of the Englewood flyover, which separated the NS Chicago Line from Metra’s Rock Island District on the south side of Chicago.
Summer track work on NS is winding down, meaning that there are fewer segments of single tracking occurring.
NS also has been increasing the number of operating crew members assigned to Chicago Line trains through new hires and transfers from elsewhere in the system.
The Amtrak Capitol Limited “self-help plan” has pros and cons. Amtrak cut the number of coaches assigned to the Capitol Limited from three to two and eliminated the transition sleeper used by the crew.
Nos. 29 and 30 will continue to carry two sleepers, one of which will be used by the on-board crew. The lower level of one of the coaches will also be used to store checked baggage.
With the Capitol Limited now operating with five cars, Amtrak is assigning one P42 locomotive to the train rather than the customary two.
Amtrak expects to save money on fuel and on labor cost due to the reduced number of on-board service employees.
The shortened consist also means that last-minute travelers might find coach seats and sleeper accommodations aboard the train unavailable.
However, Amtrak only expects to continue using the shortened consists through Nov. 18 eastbound and Nov. 20 westbound.