June 27, 2020

"Getting There" - What Does On-Time Really Mean?

You’re on a Metro-North train headed for Grand Central, nervously looking at your watch.  “Will we be on time?  Will I be late for the meeting?” you ask yourself as you pass 125th Street, usually just 11 minutes from the final stop.

Then, you hit congestion and the train crawls through the Park Avenue tunnel, stopping and starting.  You’re going to be late, and sure enough your train pulls onto the lower level platform five minutes after the scheduled arrival time.

But technically, your train is not late.  It’s on time.

How?  Why?  What feat of magic does Metro-North use to claim that train isn’t late?  Well, it’s just S.O.P.:  standard operating practice.

If a train arrives within 5 minutes and 59 seconds of its schedule, Metro-North… and most other North American railroads… consider it to be “on time”. 

Given a running time to GCT from CT of anywhere from 57 minutes (from Stamford)  to 2+ hours (from New Haven), a 5:59 margin of error is worth 5 – 10% on an average trip.  Wouldn’t we all like to be given that kind of margin of error in evaluating our work?

But Metro-North looks like a Swiss timepiece for OTP compared to Amtrak. Their standards for “on time” vary with the length of the trip:  up to 250 miles, the railroad gets a 10 min leeway.  But on longer runs, say from Chicago to California, their trains get a 30 minute leeway.

Trust me, land-cruises on trains like the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief are almost never, ever on time, even with a heavily padded schedule.  In June 2019 the Sunset Ltd from LA to New Orleans was on time less than 10% of the time.

It’s not uncommon for long distance to trains to arrive hours, even days, late due to weather, freight traffic or track conditions.  Quite justifiably, Amtrak passes the blame for these delays to the freight railroads over which all trains outside of the Northeast must run.

There have been major court cases about what priority the “host (freight) railroad” must give Amtrak’s trains, and so far the nation’s passenger railroad has come out on the losing end as the freight operators prioritize lucrative cargo over grumbling humans.

But between Washington and Boston, Amtrak owns the tracks (except for the 56 mile Connecticut portion from Greenwich to New Haven) so they’re in much more control of their operations and won’t get stuck behind coal and oil trains.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to real railroading countries like Japan and Switzerland where you can set you watch, be it a Casio or Patek Philippe, by the trains’ arrival and departure.

Years ago I was at a small station in rural Switzerland waiting for a train to Zurich and was chatting, in my pretty-good French, with the platform conductor asking him if the train was going to be on time.  “But of course, monsieur” he said, “to the minute!”

I tried to explain to him about Metro-North and Amtrak’s margin of error and he just looked at me like I was crazy.  “That is not a railroad,” he said.  “This is an on-time railroad,” he proclaimed as my train arrived, to the second!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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