Even weeks later, Claudia and Mark Hurd remember as if it was yesterday: the sudden midnight stop in rural South Carolina aboard Amtrak’s Auto Train, and the cascading events that turned a normally 17-hour trip from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., into a 35-hour nightmare.
It included five hours to repair damage left by the object on the tracks, long stretches crawling at low speeds, a crew change south of Savannah, Ga., that took hours, clogged toilets and passengers running out of food.
Travel chaos has become the norm in recent months after two summers of pandemic-induced confinement. While flyers have taken the biggest hit, rail passengers, too, are getting their share of misery — from an increase in delays and cancellations to long waits in customer service lines.
“It’s travel hell for everybody,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association. “The airlines are terrible right now. Gas prices are crushing budgets. Hotels are a mess. Everything is crowded. And, yeah, Amtrak is not immune.”
Disruptions to intercity train operations are on the rise, and more are likely this summer as uncertainties linger amid staffing shortages and increased demand. Amtrak trips also are being hampered this summer by heat-related speed restrictions and worsening problems on freight rail lines, which often share tracks with Amtrak trains.
More than one-quarter of Amtrak customers encountered delays in June, according to on-time performance data, with an average delay of 76 minutes. The share of delayed customers is trending up, Amtrak data shows, and delays are getting longer. The disruptions are more pronounced for travelers on long-distance routes — which are late more than half the time — and in parts of the country outside the Northeast Corridor.
Cancellations also have risen, although they are rare. From Memorial Day weekend to mid-July this year, just over 1 percent of trains across the passenger rail network were canceled, according to Amtrak.
The rising challenges come as demand for train service has rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Railroad officials say Amtrak service levels are at about 80 percent of 2019 numbers, while the carrier has said it’s constrained to increase capacity because it doesn’t have enough workers to staff trains.
Disruptions across multiple modes of transportation have been widespread this season at a time when carriers are facing capacity and labor challenges. The effects for train passengers haven’t been as severe as those facing air travelers, but they haven’t been unavoidable.
Amtrak’s problems have been more controlled, partly because it tends not to overschedule, as has been a practice for airlines. The company generally has added trains as demand rises, having flexibility that comes with travelers buying tickets closer to their travel date.
“We’re facing the same challenges as other travel segments,” Amtrak president Roger Harris said in an interview. “We know it’s a tough summer … We certainly expected delays and cancellations, but we tried to get ahead of it as much as possible.”
Historically, the biggest cause of delay is freight trains obstructing passenger trains. Because Amtrak operates mostly on tracks owned by other railroads, its on-time performance is dependent on freight railroads, which are required to give passenger trains preference over other rail traffic. Freight trains caused nearly 900,000 minutes of passenger delays last year, according to Amtrak.
Freight interference accounts for about 70 percent of delays across Amtrak’s national network and have gone up 15 percent this June compared to June 2021, according to Amtrak.
Robynn Tysver, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific Railroad — which last month was responsible for more than 1,500 delayed minutes per 10,000 Amtrak train miles — said the company is accelerating hiring and adding 150 locomotives to its fleet to reduce slowdowns, which she said are the result of “ongoing supply chain and congestion issues.”
“While Union Pacific gives Amtrak passengers preference on the network, we understand more work needs to be done,” Tysver said. “We are seeing metrics improve and are committed to achieving better network fluidity for all traffic on our system.”
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said personnel shortages and freight volume growth have prompted a new company plan that should bring track improvements.
Industry leaders say more frequent heat waves also are forcing more frequent delays on the rails. Amtrak trains in recent days have traveled at lower speeds across the Northeast and other sections of the network because of heat warnings. High temperatures can cause rails to expand, requiring railroads to implement safety protocols.
When train delays or cancellations happen outside the busy Northeast Corridor, it can mean arriving at a destination the next day or result in missed connections. As with flight delays, the abrupt change in plans can turn into an ordeal.
Jennifer Yu was traveling for the first time aboard Amtrak this month when her ride from Seattle to Portland was delayed an hour because of mechanical issues. As she prepared for her return trip two days later, she got an email from Amtrak indicating that her train was canceled.
Amtrak on Twitter cited “unforeseen equipment” issues on its Cascades route. Yu, 27, spent an extra day in Portland until she was rebooked on the next Seattle-bound trip. She said it took three attempts to connect with customer service and more than an hour on the phone to get rebooked.
“I prefer to return home earlier, but the delay gives me another chance to eat Portland food,” she said.
Twenty-five percent of Amtrak customers were delayed on trips in the past year, while the share of disruptions rose in the past two months. More Amtrak passengers were delayed in June (28.3 percent) and May (27.6 percent), than in April, when 21 percent were affected.
In the D.C.-to-Boston corridor, passengers who encountered delays arrived, on average, 44 minutes late in June, up from an average of 40 minutes during the most recent 12 months. Acela trains arrive on-time during nearly 90 percent of trips — and is among the rail system’s best-performing routes.
Amtrak officials say the railroad is taking steps to compensate the rising number of passengers who experience issues.
It recently launched a self-serve process for ticket refunds that passengers can use when a train is canceled and is piloting a rewards benefit for delayed Acela passengers, which includes an automated apology when a train is delayed by more than an hour. The company this fall plans to launch a system allowing passengers to change trains when theirs is delayed. The options, while convenient to passengers, also aim to reduce the burden on the company’s customer service lines.
Amtrak is also waiving change fees for reservations made by Oct. 31.
Claudia and Mark Hurd’s trip to Florida via Amtrak’s Auto Train was cut short by a day and a half. They paid $1,000 for the round-trip to avoid the 16-hour drive and hefty gas prices to get to their retirement home. They had enough snacks, reading materials and Netflix movies for a small delay, but their June 13 trip went downhill about seven hours after departure.
Amtrak said in a statement that Train 53, carrying 408 passengers, “encountered delays while en route” and struck debris on the track south of Dillon, S.C., causing damage to numerous cars.
“The train continued south, but was further delayed due to the weather, speed restrictions and crew issues,” Amtrak said in a statement last month.
Some passengers ran out of food and parents were desperate to find diapers. Others called local police to report being stranded, recalled Claudia Hurd. The Auto Train is Amtrak’s most-delayed route, arriving on-time 24 percent of the time, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
“Once we had to stop that one time, the whole trip was doomed,” said Mark Hurd.