News From the Northeast Corridor

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel — and it’s on time for a change!

The light is from the new Amtrak locomotives, which have helped reduce delays by more than 20 percent in the Northeast Corridor.

The company has almost finished a three-year program phasing in 70 locomotives to speed up service between Washington, D.C., and Boston, and between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

There were 1,138 locomotive-related delays in the 10 months ending in July 2013. That number dropped nearly 25 percent, to 857 delays, for the parallel period ending last month. The total length of the delays fell 30 percent, from 417 hours to 290 hours, according to Amtrak data.

In a world where bad news is almost constant, interrupted only occasionally for much worse news, the positive change at Amtrak, however partial, is certainly welcome.

Just two years ago, one travel critic bewailed the malaise: “Amtrak is a heavily-subsidized rail service with Russian quality at Swiss prices. It is the shame of the developed world.”

“As it turns out, he was being a little too generous,” observed The Washington Post. A little investigative reporting revealed that Swiss prices actually beat Amtrak: A weekend round trip between Geneva and Zurich cost about $189, or $0.53 per mile traveled; whereas a comparable trip from D.C. to New York came to $0.98 per mile.

And if using the service along the Northeast Corridor has helped you to understand the comparison to Russia, you should know that things are much worse out in the hinterland. Amtrak’s so-called Empire Builder, connecting Chicago to Washington, was on time for only 21 percent of its runs in 2013. Only one in three California Zephyr trains made their trips between Chicago and San Francisco according to schedule.

But getting the trains to run on time is not a simple matter of replacing the old, worn-out rolling stock with shiny new. There are ambushes all along the route.

For example, a recent deliberation of the Surface Transportation Board on measuring “on-time performance” was a might-have-been scenario that could have raised the aggravation level even higher.

Amtrak had to fight off a proposal by the Association of American Railroads, the lobby of the freight industry, for a change in the rules. They wanted to define “on-time” according to whether the train reached its final destination when it was supposed to, regardless of any lateness in arriving at individual stations along the route. Amtrak argued for keeping the measurement of punctuality on a station-by-station basis, noting lateness at each stop, not just the last stop.

Why quibble over these “on-time” semantics? And why would Amtrak favor a system that would, if anything, magnify its inefficiency?

Because if the Board had switched to recording only the time of the last stop, it would have favored the carriers who want priority assigned to freight where only one track is available on a given route. For if only the last stop counts, there would be less official lateness, and therefore arguably less cause for concern about passenger waits while freight trains rumble through interminably. If, on the other hand, the arrival time at each station is considered, there is more official lateness, and the case for passenger inconvenience becomes that much stronger, outweighing the loss incurred from idling freight trains that must make way for passenger trains.

While we slept peacefully in our beds, the legal tussle went on for months, and eventually involved not only the railroad, the freight industry and the STB, but also members of Congress and the Department of Transportation, the latter two supporting Amtrak.

In the end, big government showed its big heart. “The examples provided by individual passengers — e.g., of waiting for hours at unattended stations in remote or unsecured locations at night for late trains that would be deemed ‘on time’ at their endpoints,” the STB wrote in their decision, was more compelling than the case of the freight industry.

Forty million rail passengers in America could not agree more.

So Amtrak deserves a pat on the back. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement; not only in the hinterland, which did not get any of those 70 locomotives, but also in the premier Northeast Corridor, where trains still run late, if not as often.

With all the talk about revamping America’s crumbling infrastructure in recent months (kind of obscured lately by certain other features of the 2016 presidential campaign), it’s encouraging to see some actual progress. The candidates of both major political parties could not be further apart in almost every way, but one thing they agree on is that the country desperately needs a makeover if we are not to be stranded without bridges, electricity or clean water.

Of course, there is a slight disagreement over how much to spend — $275 billion, according to Mrs. Clinton; $500 billion according to Mr. Trump. But how much these fantastic numbers in the heat of a campaign have to do with fiscal reality anyway is an open question.

In the meantime, we can take encouragement from the Amtrak story. Considering the woeful performance record of the rail service over the years, this is indeed cause for hope. If Amtrak can get its act together, why not the rest of the country?