No simple solution for railway's gridlock

When Amtrak recently reported fiscal-year results, passenger trains weren't the only the railcars in focus. The railroad says freight trains caused steep delays and consequently a drop in ridership in some of its busiest markets this year.

In Illinois, for example, Amtrak saw a 4 percent decline in passengers, as its trains between Chicago and Cleveland experienced delays of four hours or more on a near-daily basis.

"The freight railroads simply have to do a better job in moving Amtrak trains over their tracks," Joe Boardman, Amtrak president and CEO, said in the full-year report. "Amtrak is prepared to take all necessary steps with the freights to enforce our statutory, regulatory and contractual rights to meet the expectation of our passengers for improved on-time performance."

Good luck. Amtrak is collateral damage in a mounting problem plaguing North America's entire rail system: gridlock.

Amtrak train pulls into the train station at Emeryville, California.
Mardis Coers | Getty Images
Amtrak train pulls into the train station at Emeryville, California.

As more goods travel by rail, volumes this year have surged 3.6 percent over the first 43 weeks versus the same period in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Analysts said rail traffic is almost back to its 2006 peak, and they expect the growth to continue as the U.S. economy recovers and this mode of transport proves more cost-effective than trucking for some customers.

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But it's causing more and more congestion. This year customers have complained about backlogs, delays and service interruptions, even as the disruption wrought by a harsh winter has faded.

"Overall capacity has not really grown all that much since 2006," said Christian Wetherbee, transportation analyst at Citi Investment Research. "Efficiencies have been added, but it is causing some slowdown, and certain commodities moving now that weren't moving before, particularly crude, are causing these corridors to get more congested."

The product mixand its routeshave transformed dramatically. The AAR said 1.6 million less carloads of coal are moving across rails than eight years ago, and the source of that supply has changed. Western railroads have had to quadruple-track the route in and out of Gillette, Wyoming, while the coal industry in the Appalachian region continues to suffer. Intermodal, or containers equipped for multiple types of transport, has jumped 5.4 percent this year. Trains are carting more autos thanks to strong demand, and two record harvests in the Midwest have meant more grain cars.

Nothing, however, is growing fasteror disrupting network velocity more dramaticallythan the North American energy boom. In 2006, crude oil accounted for 3,000 carloads; an estimated 650,000 carloads will cart crude in 2014, according to the AAR.

"We've seen a big impact on our railroad from growth in the energy business, from frack sand to natural gas liquids to crude oil," Wick Moorman, chief executive of Norfolk Southern, told CNBC, following an earnings report that fell short of analyst expectations. "We've got a lot of infrastructure and a lot of work going on, but right now we just have a slower network and that affects every train on the network."

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That includes Amtrak. It's not surprising the passenger rail service is experiencing issues in Illinois. Chicago, where the eastern, western and Canadian networks converge, is the biggest, busiest and most congested rail hub in North America. It can take a freight train as long as two days to get across the city.

In October a new $140 million railroad overpass called the Englewood Flyover was officially opened to help mitigate some of that Chicago traffic, creating a bypass for passenger trains including Amtrak's.

Chokepoints like Chicago are the reason Canadian Pacific Railway recently approached CSX about the possibility of a North-East freight rail deal. Canadian Pacific had hoped to bypass the costly gridlock through consolidation. Such a deal has already been scrapped due to regulatory concerns, but not without the chief of Canada's second-biggest operator bluntly issuing a warning.

"We're quickly approaching a time where none of this works," stressed Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison, in a special investor call focused specifically on rail M&A. "We cannot continue to go down the road that we're going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we've experienced before."

Other operators including CSX, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern have since argued that consolidation won't ease congestion, but instead cause at least short-term, increased delays in the form of merger-related service interruptions.

These companies say they're pouring billions into ordering more locomotives, training additional crews and developing better switchboard technology. The Class I railroads will invest $26 billion in capital expenditures and maintenance this year, according to AAR, a billion more than 2013. To a much smaller extent they are also adding more 'steel in the ground' to expand capacity for the approximately 50 percent of existing routes single-tracked throughout the U.S.

Industrial giants including General Electric have been developing applications to automate locomotives and better manage velocity. GE is testing technologies with operators like Norfolk Southern and Berkshire Hathaway's Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

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"Toward the end of 2015, we would expect to see these service issues start to right themselves," said Citi's Wetherbee. "A merger could go a long way toward improving over the networks over the next three, four, five years, but in the short term we will see additional crews, additional locomotives trying to do all the work."

He noted that some companies have grappled with delays and service interruptions more than others. Norfolk Southern has suffered setbacks in recent quarters and BNSF has struggled most of the year, hit hard by the tough winter weather and its dominating rail exposure in North Dakota, another network pressure point where rocketing crude-by-rail demand has been causing weeks-long backlogs in grain shipments.

"It does take a while to respond to the market," said Ed Hamberger, CEO and president of AAR. "If you talked to anybody about North Dakota in 2009, no one would have predicted what we've seen."