It has been reported that Union Pacific lobbyists in Austin, Texas, are presently urging the Texas general assembly to disapprove a state loan which would allow continued operation of Amtrak's Texas Eagle. This arrogant tactic clearly postures the Union Pacific Railroad under the nineteenth century railroad robber baron philosophy of "The public be damned!" Since Union Pacific management has apparently chosen to oppose Amtrak passenger service in Arkansas and Texas, a close review of the Union Pacific-Amtrak relationship is warranted. This review shows that the Union Pacific/Missouri Pacific is responsible for many of the problems which have plagued Amtrak service for decades. The railroad's actions over the past 23 years, culminating with the present lobbying effort, demonstrates a callous disregard for the public convenience and necessity.
Amtrak has experienced problems with the operation of the Texas Eagle, dating back to the days of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1974. For years, the Missouri Pacific limited Amtrak to an arbitrary 60 mph speed limit, when other passenger trains throughout the nation were allowed to operate at 79 mph over similar track and signal systems. Even now, Amtrak trains operating over former Missouri Pacific tracks are limited to a 75 mph maximum, a speed limit which is less than the safe maximum speeds prescribed by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Interstate Commerce Commission.
The Texas Eagle has one of the worst on-time records of any Amtrak train, and this poor performance has unquestionably affected ridership over the years. According to Amtrak's analysis, "On time performance of the Texas Eagle has been weak to poor for the past several years. FY-95 performance at 72.7% was the best for the past 3 years. Performance for FY-96 was 65.7%. The Texas Eagle has only averaged 68.3% on time from FY-89 to present. The leading cause of delay over the past 4 years has varied between freight train interference (FY-93, 94, 96) and maintenance of way slow orders (FY-92 and 95.)" Both freight train interference and M/W slow orders are conditions that are almost wholly within the control of the Union Pacific Railroad, and both categories were significantly higher on the Texas Eagle compared to the total Amtrak system. Freight train delays accounted for 27% of Texas Eagle delays during the first quarter of FY-97, while the system average for freight train delays was only 14.6%. Maintenance of way slow orders caused 22.7% of Eagle delays, but only 16% of delays for the entire Amtrak system. These statistics suggest that the operation of Amtrak passenger trains over the Union Pacific/Missouri Pacific is not a priority of rail management. Federal law requires passenger trains to generally be given preference over freight trains, and with the dismal record compiled by the Union Pacific, it is questionable whether the railroad has in the past dispatched Amtrak and freight trains in compliance with the law.
It must be noted that Union Pacific realizes a profit from the operation of the Texas Eagle. Amtrak pays Union Pacific generally on a cost plus basis for the right to operate over Union Pacific trackage. When the train does operate on time, the Amtrak contract specifies that the Union Pacific receive an incentive bonus. In other words, the railroad receives a bonus, not for any extraordinary effort, but for simply doing the job as specified. Any extra expenses, directly related to passenger train operation, are charged back to Amtrak.
Given the fact that Amtrak operations generate a small profit for Union Pacific, why is the giant corporation opposing a State of Texas loan which would keep the Texas Eagle operating? That is a question which might best be answered by the Union Pacific itself, although the general reason is simply that the passenger train requires a level of precision and expertise which is not required for most Union Pacific freight operations. Passenger trains require a precision operation to remain on schedule, while Union Pacific freight train operations are conducted on a more random or haphazard basis. In most cases, freight trains are operated not on an exact schedule, but whenever a sufficient number of freight cars have been accumulated. Some additional effort is required to dispatch an Amtrak passenger train in the midst of changing freight operations. Various industry sources, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have suggested that the railroads implement a more structured and scheduled freight train operating system, in order to minimize train crew fatigue, a major factor in many rail accidents. Along the route of the Texas Eagle, Union Pacific has made little movement toward implementing this goal, which would improve safety and make reliable passenger train operation easier to achieve.
Union Pacific's lobbying effort should be recognized for what it is, namely a blatant attempt to remove a passenger train solely for the convenience of the railroad, while totally disregarding any public benefit of the passenger service or any sense of public responsibility on the part of the Union Pacific.
Prepared for Arkansas Rail by Bill Pollard.
Posted 2 April 1997
During the ongoing efforts to preserve passenger train service along the Texas Eagle route, there has been a widespread and persistent belief that the Union Pacific Railroad was actively opposing Amtrak efforts to secure a bridge loan from the State of Texas. In response to those concerns, the Union Pacific Railroad publicly announced last week that the company was maintaining a position of neutrality on the Amtrak loan legislation then under consideration by the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives.
From the standpoint of those working to preserve the Texas Eagle, a statement of support from the Union Pacific would have been preferable, but it should be acknowledged that Union Pacific's unequivocal statement of neutrality does represent a significant improvement compared to the past acrimonious and adversarial relationship which frequently existed between the host railroad (both Union Pacific and predecessor Missouri Pacific) and Amtrak.
While acknowledging Union Pacific's stated neutrality on the Texas loan issue, it must be noted that from a more global perspective, Union Pacific has signaled considerable dissatisfaction with Amtrak's proposal to develop an expanded express business which could eliminate Amtrak's need for government operating assistance. The development of this express business is absolutely critical to the long-term survival of passenger rail service in America, and both Union Pacific and Amtrak must resolve their differences over express services in a manner which is mutually beneficial and profitable to both companies. The market in which Amtrak seeks to compete is dominated by truck transportation, and development of Amtrak's express initiative would help reduce highway truck congestion while providing a new source of income which would be shared between Amtrak and the host railroad.
Until mid-October 1996, the on-time performance of the Texas Eagle was among the worst of the entire Amtrak system, with over half of the delays being attributed to Union Pacific causes such as freight train interference or track maintenance activity. Since mid-October, the Texas Eagle has experienced a remarkable and near miraculous improvement in on-time performance, and a large part of this improvement has been due to expedited handling by the Union Pacific Railroad. For the past few months, the route has consistently approached 90% on-time, a level of reliability far superior to that of previous years. Union Pacific is to be commended for the improved dispatching of the Texas Eagle; hopefully this trend will continue during the spring and summer months when track maintenance is traditionally at an increased level.
A reliable rail passenger service on this route is unquestionably in the public interest, and the widespread public and political support for the Texas Eagle over the past seven months should serve as notice to both Amtrak and Union Pacific of the public's expectations on this matter.
Prepared for Arkansas Rail by Bill Pollard.
Posted: Saturday, 12 April 1997.
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