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(Coincidentally?) Sunset Tops FRA’s Most-Improved List

April 19, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Amtrak’s beleaguered Sunset Limited got dramatically better in the first fiscal quarter of 2024 – in fact, the westbound Sunset came within four percentage points of meeting the Federal customer on-time performance standard.

Remember, this is the train whose performance was SO bad – on-time as little as 17 percent – that Amtrak’s lawyers decided to haul Sunset host Union Pacific before the Surface Transportation Board in late 2022. It’s the first-ever Section 213 legal action filed by Amtrak since the law and its regulations took effect. The poster-child for late trains.

Also remember that for many years there’s been a lot of hand-waving from host railroads about how physically impossible it was to run Amtrak trains on time. Too much traffic, they said. Or not enough sidings, they said. Or whatever the excuse du jour was when someone complained.

And yet, funnily enough, when the worst offender finds their legal team responding to months of interrogatories from Federal regulators with the power to impose fines and penalties, not only does the Sunset get better, it climbs to the very top of the Federal Railroad Administration’s “most-improved” list.

The top.

The FRA’s latest passenger-rail performance stats are out today, and seven routes saw on-time performance improve by 20 points or more since the final quarter of Fiscal 2023. That’s news all by itself!

The Sunset improved by 37 points, from an overall Customer OTP of 29 percent in the final quarter of Fiscal 2023 to 66 percent in the first quarter of Fiscal 2024. The westbound train was on-time 76 percent of the time – the standard is 80 percent – while the eastbound train came in at 55 percent.

The six other routes in the “most-improved” list were: the Auto Train, up 37 points to 75 percent; the Missouri service, which rose 32 points to exceed the standard and reach 87 percent; the Zephyr, up 25 points but even so coming in at a sickly 54 percent Customer OTP; the Illini/Saluki, up 23 points to once again exceed the standard at 86 percent; the Empire Builder, improving 22 points to 64 percent overall Customer OTP, and; the Texas Eagle, rising 21 points to 71 percent overall.

While other routes didn’t make that “most-improved” list, Customer On-Time Performance still got better across the board in the first Fiscal quarter of 2024 (which covers October, November, and December of calendar 2023).

“Customer OTP for the Amtrak system was 78 percent, which was six points higher than the previous quarter and three points higher than FY 2023 Q1,” FRA reported today. “Customer OTP on Amtrak’s Long-Distance routes was 67 percent, up from 50 percent in the previous quarter and 54 percent in FY 2023 Q1.”

Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do. Of the trains that operated in the first quarter of FY 2024, 63 percent met the 80 percent Customer OTP standard and 33 percent failed to meet the standard. FRA notes that 4 percent did not operate in either the fourth quarter of FY 2023 or first quarter of FY 2024.

My takeaway from this is pretty simple: the new customer metrics and standards, which we all fought so very hard over two decades in Congress, the courts, and the Supreme Court to get put in place, are doing exactly what they were designed to do. These new rules work. They bring transparency and also goad the poor performers into action.

There's a lot more data underneath these reports, and if you’re curious I’d encourage you to go look at them and download the spreadsheets with all the details. Also, FRA has really improved the presentation in these reports, with the summary report now including one-page summaries of how each individual route is performing against all the standards. It really looks terrific, and makes it easy to look up your own favorite route.

The summary report can be found at this link; the detailed on-time performance data for each operated train can be found here, in an FRA-supplied spreadsheet; the landing page where FRA posts all of the performance-standards data can be found by clicking here.