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Amtrak & CP to Collaborate on New Service

January 12, 2022

Amtrak has announced its support for the Canadian Pacific (CP) railroad’s proposed purchase of Kansas City Southern, a combination that would give the company control of 20,000 miles of rail. The buyout must be approved by the Surface Transportation Board—which imposed a freeze on mergers in the railroad industry two decades ago—before it can move forward. CP is the sixth largest railroad company in the U.S. Kansas City Southern is the seventh largest.

For its part, CP has agreed to cooperate with Amtrak on its vision for a major expansion of its network and increased service on some routes. Specifically, CP owns the tracks used by Amtrak’s Hiawatha line, which runs from Milwaukee to Chicago. Amtrak plans to increase the Hiawatha’s frequency and extend its service from Milwaukee to St. Paul. CP will also work with Amtrak on adding service in two Southern corridors that have been without trains for more than 50 years: New Orleans to Baton Rouge and Dallas to Meridian (MS).

The CP/Amtrak agreement is important for at least two reasons.

First, CP has by far the best record of the Class 1 railroads in terms of cooperating with Amtrak.

Amtrak assigns a grade point average (GPA) and a grade to the freight railroads, based on the amount of time its trains lose to delays on their tracks. (Amtrak trains technically have priority; even so, freight traffic frequently causes delays.) In 2020, CP and BNSF received GPAs/grades of 4.0 (A) and 3.3 (B+), respectively, for their four-year performance. In other words, there were relatively few delays on their tracks. CSX, Union Pacific, Canadian National, and Norfolk Southern ranked third through sixth, respectively, with scores/grades of 2.8 (B-), 2.7 (B-), 1.3 (D+), and 0.5 (F).

Notably, the Hiawatha line whose service Amtrak plans to upgrade had the second-best on-time performance of all Amtrak routes—94 percent. Only the Keystone route—from New York City to Harrisburg (PA)—performed better, at 96 percent. Of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes, only the City of New Orleans received a passing grade for on-time performance, at 88 percent. See the full report card here.

Second, because most rail infrastructure in the U.S. is privately owned, fruitful relationships with the Class 1 railroads are the foundation for improving passenger-rail service. “A strong passenger-rail system in the United States must have the full cooperation of the Class 1 railroads,” as FK Plous observes in this essay for the Alliance. “Instead of confronting the railroads, passenger-train advocates must seek opportunities to collaborate” in ways that “enable both passenger and freight trains to play larger roles in the U.S. economy.” The agreement between Amtrak and CP is a great step forward.

Go here for our in-depth analysis of how the shared-use system could be improved,including this suggestion: Reform the way on-time performance is incentivized. “Amtrak makes incentive payments based on the performance of all trains on the host railroad,” as we note. “One late train reduces the payment, even if all of the others are on time.” Paying incentives on a route-by-route basis would alter this calculus.

Even more fundamentally, Amtrak needs to pay more to use the freight railroads’ tracks, so that the companies will be incentivized to invest in making their infrastructure more accommodating of fast, light passenger trains.

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