With gas prices still dizzyingly high, and seemingly unlikely to fall anytime soon, more and more travelers are turning to Amtrak.
The American rail system has seen a significant jump in traffic, up almost 14 percent since last July, and is on track to smash the previous record of 25.8 million passengers.
But Amtrak has long gotten flak for its delays, often caused by having to share routes with the freight train companies that own most of the tracks.
So which routes are notorious for delays and which ones will whisk you to your destination on time?
TOP FIVE ON-TIME ROUTES*
*As of July 2008
Milwaukee – Chicago
Year-To-Date (YTD): 87.7 percent July: 88.5 percent
Amtrak’s most on-time route is, probably unsurprisingly, also one of its shortest. That said, the Hiawatha line is an important one for travelers in the Chicago area looking to avoid the woefully crowded O’Hare or the slightly-less-woeful Midway Airport. Why? The Hiawatha line runs from downtown Milwaukee to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport and then on to downtown Chicago. So in about 90 minutes, you can ride directly from Milwaukee’s airport into Chicago, effectively making Milwaukee a third airport for the Chicago area. For more, check out our article on America’s Best Alternate Airports.
New York – Pittsburgh
YTD: 87.1 percent July: 87.1 percent
This line runs west from New York to Pittsburgh via Philadelphia and Harrisburg and connects much of Pennsylvania to the Amtrak network. Since Amtrak owns the line as far as Harrisburg, you’re likely to face significant delays only once you’re beyond that city (although they’re not unheard of elsewhere on the line). In terms of scenery, the Pennsylvania section runs through Dutch Country, the Mennonite/Amish section of the state dotted with farmhouses and bell towers and criss-crossed by horse-drawn buggies.
Auburn – Sacramento – Emeryville (San Francisco) – Oakland – San Jose
YTD: 84.8 percent July: 86.7 percent
Rising fast in popularity (passenger numbers are up by one-third since July 2007), the Capitol Corridor links a number of the Golden State’s cities. Like the San Joaquins (see below), the scenery is diverse: everything from graffiti-strewn walls and overgrown backyards to green farms and fields. Appropriately for a train whose terminus is Silicon Valley (San Jose), the Capitol Corridor was among the first to get Wi-Fi service. Another bonus of this route is that, appropriately for Northern California, the public transportation connections to the train stations are, generally speaking, top-notch. In Sacramento, light rail urban trains are a few steps from the Amtrak station, while in Oakland, a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station is just across a pedestrian bridge.
San Francisco Bay Area/Sacramento – Bakersfield/Southern California
YTD: 83.8 percent July: 80.4 percent
The San Joaquin route runs from Sacramento south to Bakersfield in central California, through much of the area known as the Central Valley, where a huge chunk of the nation’s produce is … well, produced. While there are some farm views and vineyard vistas, there’s also plenty of graffiti lining the tracks as the train trundles through the Central Valley. Still, since this is one of Amtrak’s most on-time trains, the scenery changes fast enough to keep all but the most vista-averse happy with the view.
Boston – New York – Philadelphia – Washington, DC
YTD: 82.4 percent July: 82.6 percent
Of all its lines, the Acela may be considered Amtrak’s “flagship.” It is the only line that approaches anything close to ‘high-speed’ – roaring along at up to 150 mph. Of course, a European would likely scoff at such piddling train speeds, but for America, it doesn’t get faster than this. Plus, since Amtrak owns its own rail lines in the Northeast and doesn’t have to rely on the kindness of freight trains, delays are minimized.
BOTTOM FIVE ON-TIME ROUTES:
Chicago – St. Louis – Dallas – San Antonio – Los Angeles
YTD: 14.3 percent, July performance: 0.0 percent
The Texas Eagle’s woes illustrate what is perhaps the biggest downfall of Amtrak’s service: The longer the route, the more likely it is to be delayed. This makes it tough for Amtrak to compete with the airlines (or even highways) on longer-haul routes. The Texas Eagle also has the dubious distinction of being the only Amtrak route to not be on time even once in the most recent month for which statistics are available. Also adding to delays on this route are the Texas rails, which are also bustling with freight trains, along with the routes out of Chicago.
Chicago – St. Louis – Kansas City, MO
YTD: 21.6 percent July: 30.6 percent
The two worst lines in terms of on-time performance share one thing in common: both suffer massive delays on the Union Pacific sections of their routes out of Chicago. In fact, nearly all of the routes that originate, end, or pass through the Windy City suffer significant delays. Why? Well, it’s essentially because Chicago is the country’s biggest rail hub. Massive amounts of freight traffic pass through, causing serious delays for Amtrak trains attempting to navigate the freight traffic. And with gas prices still astronomical, many freight movers are switching to trains instead of trucks, causing further delays.
St. Albans, VT – Burlington – Springfield, MA – New York – Washington, DC
YTD: 27.2 percent July: 43.5 percent
The main problem with this route is the condition of its tracks, which, while improving, are still in a pretty sorry state. This means that trains can’t reach their top speeds, resulting in delays. Again, Amtrak can rather fairly blame delays on the fact that it doesn’t own the tracks. But you still should have plenty of time to take in Vermont’s lovely foliage, as your train will likely be trundling along pretty slowly. That said, the Vermonter’s on-time percentage has begun to improve and it may be the most likely route to escape the bottom five.
Chicago – Denver – Emeryville, CA (San Francisco)
YTD: 27.2 percent July: 16.1 percent
Again, Chicago and a long-haul route combine to create an on-time nightmare. Already one of Amtrak’s longest routes, the California Zephyr traverses half the country, but rarely meets its schedule. The upside? The sections of this route in the Rocky Mountains (i.e.-everything west of Denver until you reach the California border) are among the most scenic in the whole Amtrak system. The tracks wind among the mountains for hours (and hours and hours) passing unspoiled meadows, deep canyons and roaring mountain streams. If you can, make a beeline for the observation car with the glass dome top as soon as you get back on the train in Denver (they usually make everyone get off so they can clean the train in Denver). That way, you’ll score the best views for the next few hours of the trip.
Chicago – Grand Rapids/Port Huron/Detroit – Pontiac
YTD: 27.8 percent July: 19.4 percent
The Michigan Services is a sort of umbrella term for what is actually three different routes traversing Michigan from the Amtrak hub in Chicago. The Wolverine runs between Chicago and Pontiac, Michigan, just outside Detroit, the Pere Marquette between Chicago and Grand Rapids, while the Blue Water connects Chicago to Port Huron.
The saddest part about this route making the list is that Amtrak owns a significant portion of the tracks—roughly from just outside Chicago to the Michigan city of Kalamazoo—which allows trains to reach relatively high speeds of nearly 100 mph. Unfortunately, the problems in Chicago that delay trains across the nation make a big impact here. The parts of the tracks that Amtrak doesn’t own in Michigan aren’t much better.
For more information on the on-time records of America’s trains, visit this page on Amtrak.com.
By New Media Manager Matthew Calcara for PeterGreenberg.com.
Check out Peter’s take on Amtrak in his blog post: Larry King, Amtrak and Rule 240.
Get more information on When Amtrak Is the Better Travel Option.
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