Train War Goes Off the Rails—And Onto Twitter


Norfolk Southern wants Amtrak to stop tweeting; passenger railroad wants less freight interference

WASHINGTON—A long-running battle between Amtrak and major freight railroads over train delays has entered a new phase of hostilities: fighting about tweets.

Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, has taken to using a Twitter handle, @AmtrakAlerts, to tell riders when trains are delayed, including when they are stuck because of freights.

That prompted a lawyer for Norfolk SouthernCorp. to send a demand late last month to Amtrak: stop tweeting about our trains, or the railroad “will be forced to consider further action.” 

In the letter, the freight carrier disputed a Feb. 16 Amtrak tweet, which said that its Crescent train from New Orleans to New York was running six hours late because of “Norfolk Southern freight train interference along the route.” 

Norfolk Southern said the train was actually delayed when a sleeper car and a dining car decoupled after the train departed New Orleans. It accused Amtrak of putting out “a misleading narrative that operates at the expense of Norfolk Southern’s reputation.”

Amtrak, which claims freight trains are the greatest cause of delays to its riders, didn’t back down, firing back a letter this month that accused Norfolk Southern of violating a federal law that gives passenger trains the right of way and reeling off a list of 11 examples of delays since April 2018 it said it had suffered on account of Norfolk Southern.

While the Crescent train had suffered a “mechanical issue,” more than three hours of additional delay was caused by meeting or following behind eight different Norfolk Southern trains, Amtrak said. 

“Thank you for following the @AmtrakAlerts Twitter account,” Amtrak Vice President William Herrmann wrote in the letter. “Our customers really appreciate these explanations about when and why they are being delayed by a freight train.”

Norfolk Southern declined a request for comment.

Beneath the Twitter spat is an unsettled and difficult challenge for both Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads, whose tracks Amtrak uses for almost all of its passenger service outside of the Northeast.

Federal law says that freights must make way for passenger trains, except in emergencies and some other instances. But freight railroads are loath to sideline their own slower-moving trains to let passenger trains pass, especially as keeping to their own timetables takes on increasing importance in the shipping business.

Travelers board an Amtrak train. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

Congress attempted to clarify the issue in 2008, passing a law overhauling passenger rail operations that would have allowed Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to set standards to determine on-time performance—and given another government agency, the Surface Transportation Board, the power to punish railroads for failing to meet them.

But the Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing freight railroads of which Amtrak is also a member, sued to block the new metrics from taking effect.

After a decade of legal wrangling, the law was found unconstitutional in part, but an appeals court has upheld a requirement that Amtrak and FRA come up with on-time performance metrics. Amtrak says it expects to begin developing those standards even as the parties wait to hear if the Supreme Court will hear AAR’s appeal.

Amtrak’s delayed riders are tweeting too.

“What is happening to make this train two hours late?” Matthew Wright tweeted at Amtrak in December, referring to a northbound Crescent.

“Crescent train 20 is delayed by about 3 hours due to freight train interference along the route,” Amtrak replied from its primary corporate account.

“So… now it’s three hours?” Mr. Wright responded. “This is ridiculous.” 

Mr. Wright said his father took that trip and Amtrak eventually offered a $100 voucher toward a future trip for his troubles. 

Amtrak officials grumble that their own notoriously unreliable long-distance trains are frequently off-schedule because there is no enforcement of the federal law that gives them precedence over freights.

Freight cars sit at the Norfolk Southern Corp. rail yard in Decatur, Ill.PHOTO: DANIEL ACKER FOR THE WALL STREET

Freight railroads, for their part, argue that forcing their trains onto sidings to make way for Amtrak would make them vulnerable to Amtrak’s own delays, cause them economic hardship and disrupt the flow of goods.

“We believe that passenger rail service on corridors owned by the freight railroads should be done safely and not impede freight rail traffic,” an AAR spokeswoman said. “Passenger rail use hosted on freight rail infrastructure should not compromise freight railroads’ ability to serve their customers and power the national economy.”

The bad blood between the railroads shows no sign of abating soon.

“In your letter,” Amtrak’s Mr. Herrmann wrote, “you indicated if Amtrak fails to cease tweeting information regarding delays, Norfolk Southern ‘will be forced to consider further action.’ We urge Norfolk Southern to live up to that promise by taking immediate action to improve the on-time performance of Amtrak trains on your railroad.”

Two days later, Amtrak issued its annual report card on its host railroads, giving the carriers an average grade of “C” for how often passengers traveling across their rails were late.

Amtrak gave Norfolk Southern an “F.”

Story by Ted Mann for wsj.com

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