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Dude, where’s my train? Why freight makes Amtrak late

caption: A mile-long BNSF Railway coal train winds its way through Seattle's Carkeek Park in June 2023.
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A mile-long BNSF Railway coal train winds its way through Seattle's Carkeek Park in June 2023.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Like other Amtrak routes, the Cascades run — between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Eugene, Oregon — is often late.

Audrey Lundin of Portland stands on a train platform in Edmonds, Washington, waiting for the southbound Amtrak Cascades. It’s about 45 minutes late.

It is Lundin’s fourth trip on the line that runs between Vancouver, Canada, and Eugene, Oregon, and her first major delay.

It could be worse: Amtrak’s Empire Builder, inbound from Chicago, is about five hours behind schedule.

“I prefer it to driving,” Lundin said. “I do not have to be on the road, navigating traffic and the Seattle roads. And I can read or watch something.”

According to the Washington state Department of Transportation, 47% of Amtrak Cascades trains arrived on time in 2022, with on-time performance rising to 56% in the first nine months of 2023.

“Come on down, folks, come on down!” An Amtrak conductor shouts to hustle boarding passengers along after the train rolls up and perhaps make up a little of its lost time.

Late is par for the course for Amtrak trains nationwide. The passenger rail company blames illegal interference from freight trains for most of its passengers’ often-substantial delays.

Rail advocates say enticing more passengers to take a train instead of driving or flying — and making a dent in the heavy climate impact of American transportation — will require measures to reduce those delays and boost train travel’s speed and reliability.

caption: Amtrak’s Seattle-bound Empire Builder stops in Whitefish, Montana, in January 2023.
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Amtrak’s Seattle-bound Empire Builder stops in Whitefish, Montana, in January 2023.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Riding the rails causes less climate damage than driving alone or flying.

But in Washington state, rail service can be slow and unreliable, in part because freight trains often get to go first.

Most Amtrak trains run on someone else’s property. The Amtrak Cascades rolls above Canadian National Railway tracks in British Columbia, BNSF Railway tracks in Washington, and Union Pacific Railroad tracks in Oregon.

It might seem logical that Amtrak often gets second-class treatment, having to yield the right of way to the property owners’ trains.

But in the United States, freight railroads are not only required to let passenger trains use their tracks, they’re required under federal law to give passenger trains priority when dispatchers have to juggle passenger and freight trains.

“The law is very clear,” said Sean Jeans-Gail with the Rail Passengers Association in Portland. “Amtrak is given priority dispatching preference, and the freights have been violating that with impunity for the last decade.”

The Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973 states, “Except in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing.”

“It's not like the highway system. You don't have the privilege or the luxury of passing lanes,” explained Jason Biggs, interim head of the rail, freight, and ports division at the Washington state Department of Transportation. “There are sidings. There are areas where there's double track, some areas where they're single track. So, it has to be a very deliberate dispatching and management of rail traffic that's out there.”

Tune in to, and you can hear BNSF dispatchers juggle freight and passenger traffic in real time.

“You’re going to be waiting to cross over a little bit, Amtrak, coming up to Edmonds,” a BNSF dispatcher told one Amtrak Cascades crew on Tuesday.

Another dispatcher gave Amtrak’s Empire Builder a green light to enter Seattle’s King Street Station, its final destination.

“After stopping, AMTK 319 at King Street has authority to pass signal displaying ‘stop’ from Lead Two to King Five, over,” the dispatcher said.

Jeans-Gail said the 50-year-old federal law that lets passenger trains go first has almost never been enforced.

“I guess I can only say if you have a highway with a speed limit, but absolutely no enforcement and absolutely no penalty for breaking the speed limit, you shouldn't be surprised when people speed,” Jeans-Gail said.

Amtrak spokesperson Kelly Just declined to be interviewed, but the passenger rail corporation has urged Congress to let it sue the freight rail companies over the delays. Freight railroads have lobbied against that idea.

BNSF Railway spokesperson Lena Kent did not reply to an interview request. Spokesperson Jessica Kahanek with the American Association of Railroads, whose members include both freight railroads and Amtrak, declined an interview request.

"There is no one-size-fits-all model to balancing these needs and limited capacity," Kahanek said in an email.

Amtrak can file complaints with a federal agency called the Surface Transportation Board if on-time performance drops below 80% for six months.

In 2022, 32 of Amtrak’s 39 services failed to arrive on time that often.

Severe delays on the Sunset Limited line from New Orleans to Los Angeles led Amtrak to file its first complaint with the Surface Transportation Board in December 2022. The board then launched its first-ever freight-delay investigation in July. It could lead to financial penalties for track owner Union Pacific and a precedent for other rail-traffic conflicts.

Of the 24 rail routes that Amtrak runs with funding from state governments, the Amtrak Cascades had the worst performance in 2022.

In March and April 2023, freight traffic was delaying Amtrak Cascades trains enough to drop their on-time performance to 40%. Washington state officials told BNSF they needed to do better, and they got results, according to Biggs. Performance rose to 64% on time by September.

“There's room for improvement, but certainly not a systemic or willful delaying of trains out here,” Biggs said.

He said Washington state and Amtrak have a good relationship with BNSF.

“An adversarial relationship, just my observation, does not help on-time performance,” Biggs said. “In fact, it either stagnates it, or it goes into a dispute process.”

Amtrak and passenger-rail advocates say companies like BNSF are running such slow, gigantic freight trains that they save money by ignoring federal law and forcing smaller passenger trains to pull over and wait.

“Trains are so long now, two and three miles long, so even when they're on the siding, they overflow onto the main track, and the passenger trains can't get through,” said Mary Paterson of Seattle, a volunteer with the advocacy group Solutionary Rail. “So ultimately, probably, the trains have to be shortened again.”

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited complaint faulted Union Pacific for not maintaining sidings long enough to park jumbo-length trains.

Washington transportation officials are finalizing a 20-year plan for better passenger rail. But they say they don’t currently have any funding for infrastructure improvements that could speed the ride between Seattle and Portland.

“That's a decision for the Legislature,” Biggs said.

The agency does plan to boost daily Amtrak Cascades trains from four to six this fall.

Paterson said WSDOT is dragging its feet through a climate crisis.

“We do not have 20 years to mode-shift to rail,” Paterson said. “We do not have 20 years to slash emissions or vehicle miles traveled. This needs to happen by 2030.”

I spoke with Paterson, who said she rides the train for climate reasons, the night before she left on a 24-hour train trip from Seattle to the San Francisco Bay area.

Such slow travel isn’t for everyone. But advocates say even modest boosts to speed and reliability could help rail entice a lot of frequent flyers and road warriors, as long as there’s good Wi-Fi on board.

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