I was riding Amtrak’s Chicago to Carbondale, Illinois, Illini when a passenger asked the conductor how the train was doing.
He pointed at me and said, “ask that guy. He knows everything that is going on.”
I don’t know if the passenger understood that the conductor meant that I was listening to the host railroad’s radio conversations on a scanner.
I take my scanner when I travel on Amtrak because I learn more that way about why a train is late than I would from crew announcements made on the public address system.
What I’ve learned from years of listening to railroad radio transmissions is that the reasons why Amtrak trains are late are quite varied. It is not always because the host railroad gave preference to its freight trains although I have seen that happen.
Signals and switches malfunction. Accidents occur. Trains ahead are slow to get out of the way even when the dispatcher is trying to get Amtrak by.
I’ve seen situations in which every opposing freight train that Amtrak encountered is waiting in a siding and yet we still lost time due to slow orders and/or extended and unexpected dwell times in stations.
Dispatchers sometimes gamble that a freight train on the main ahead will clear up before Amtrak arrives. But it doesn’t always happen that way.
I once sat for several minutes not far from my destination of Mattoon, Illinois, because a Canadian National local ahead had not yet finished its work and gone on its way.
I was aboard an already very late Lake Shore Limited that halted almost within sight of the Cleveland station. A switch at Drawbridge on the Chicago Line of Norfolk Southern wouldn’t move.
The railroad tried running a freight train over the switch in the hope that that would pry it loose. It didn’t. A maintainer had to be summoned and it took time for him to arrive.
At least twice I’ve been aboard Amtrak when a freight train ahead of us struck something and the railroad was shut down while police and EMTs responded.
I had been dozing aboard the eastbound Lake Shore Limited when I awakened to notice we had stopped just east of Toledo.
I saw flashing red lights moving on a nearby highway. A westbound NS freight had struck a vehicle at a grade crossing.
Railroads say with some justification that in making dispatching decisions they look at the larger picture in an effort to keep all trains moving and not just Amtrak.
One morning on a trip to Chicago, the NS Chicago East dispatcher during a conversation with the engineer of Amtrak No. 29 said, “you have just the one train to take care of. I have one, two, three, four, five . . . trains to take care of” as he counted on his computer screen the number of trains that he was dispatching. It was more than 10.
The greatest good for the greatest number comes into play when one of two tracks is out of service for maintenance.
Inevitably, Amtrak waits while one, two or three freights in the opposing direction go by on the open track.
Delays occur because of freight congestion. One morning west of Waterloo, Indiana, Amtrak No. 29 kept getting a series of approach signals, which meant moving at restricted speed on Track No. 1.
A heavy freight train ahead of us was moving slowly on the same track. A parade of eastbounds went past us on Track No. 2.
In theory, the Conrail Toledo West dispatcher could have halted that eastbound traffic until No. 29 could run around the slow freight. I can only presume that that didn’t occur because the chief dispatcher decided that it was better to keep those trains moving.
They don’t say it out loud on the radio, but dispatchers probably think “this is our railroad and by gosh we need to keep our trains moving. Ten, 15 or 20 minutes delay to Amtrak won’t make that much difference.”
One Conrail crew member knew what was going on and quipped on the radio, “you’ve been ‘Calvinized,’ Amtrak,” a reference to the former comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
From a dispatcher’s point of view, it is a matter of balancing competing interests.
Of course, I’ve seen many instances in which Amtrak was run around slow traffic ahead or a freight train was held “to get Amtrak by.” It all depends on the situation at hand.
I’ve also seen Amtrak gamble and lose big time, too. I was aboard a Lake Shore Limited trip that departed Chicago on time but with an engineer who had just over two hours to work before outlawing.
Amtrak had a relief crew lined up but rather than putting them aboard No. 48, it sent them by van to South Bend, Indiana, the next station stop after Chicago.
The NS Chicago West dispatcher told the engineer of No. 48 that heavy freight traffic ahead made it unlikely that he would reach South Bend before outlawing.
They agreed that No. 48 would stop at Amtrak’s Hammond-Whiting station and the relief crew would board there.
It took awhile to reach the relief crew by cell phone to tell them of the change in plans and by then they had already reached South Bend. They headed west on the Indiana Toll Road, but got stopped in traffic due to a serious accident involving fatalities.
We sat at Hammond-Whiting for more than a couple of hours, which reduced a busy NS mainline to a single-track operation.
The Amtrak crew never made an announcement about why we were sitting there for so long.
Later, I woke up west of South Bend. We had halted short of a crossover because an NS freight was stopped ahead of us.
The Amtrak engineer had stopped short in the hope the dispatcher would line us to go around the freight. Instead, the dispatcher ordered No. 48 to pull ahead and stop just behind the stopped freight.
That might have been a bit of retaliation by NS for what had happened earlier at Hammond-Whiting. At least two NS trains following us crossed over and went around us, at least one of which was on short time.
No. 48 had to get another crew at Bryan, Ohio, meaning it took three crews to move No. 48 from Chicago to Toledo when it ordinarily takes just one.
I had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the dining car on that trip and didn’t reach Cleveland until almost noon.
My experiences riding Amtrak and listening to the radio conversations lead me to conclude that much if not most of the time dispatchers want to move Amtrak along or at least keep a passenger train moving.
Some dispatchers on CN, for example, will alert Amtrak engineers to locations where they might encounter freight traffic and where they can expect clear sailing.
But things happen on the railroad and not just Amtrak is delayed.
I was riding the westbound Empire Builder as it crawled its way on Canadian Pacific tracks through Milwaukee because of congestion.
An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train along with CP and freight trains of other railroads were also caught in the morass.
The CP dispatcher was discussing the matter with the hogger of one of those trains and said about the situation, “sounds like piss poor dispatching to me.” I don’t know if he was talking about himself or decisions made by someone else, but at least he was being honest.