I know there are a number of reasons why freight has the right-of-way over long distance passenger service, but that is not helping to get people onto these trains. One of the worse is the NYC to New Orleans Cresent. Because I will be taking it in May, I've been noting the daily running times since November 1. Since then, it has averaged 3.7 hours late. Over those 3 months, it has been up to 10 hours late a few times. It also has arrived on time only a few times (Christmas and New Years dates) and only an hour late on some Sundays (less freight traffic?).
I have read in several places that Amtrak has priority by law over freight trains. I can't cite a reference right now. There are many reasons for delays. Some of these are: railroad dispatching, weather, freight broken equipment, and Amtrak equipment issues. One of the reasons that Amtrak has so many delays is that there are no real penalties for railroads giving priority to freight and delaying passenger trains. I think that if the freight railroads had a strong incentive to keep Amtrak moving, assuming delays aren't beyond the railroad's control, that the passenger trains would be closer to schedule. Passenger trains were mostly on schedule back in the 1950s when management made sure their trains such as the Super Chief, Empire Builder, or Merchant's Limited were on time. NH Joe
I agree that Amtrak would be doing much better if dispatching delays could be disincentivized. You'll never get rid of mechanicals and weather of course.
Tonight's westbound Builder has just left Chicago, almost 4 hours late. Doubtful that it was a result of mechanical or weather on that one. At least it's running. We'll see about the #8 in a few hours.
The problem with Amtrak delays is that some of the basic economic factors in railroad operation are being overlooked, and railroads are not receiving fair compensation for the capacity utilization impact of Amtrak.
The timing of freight operations has an inherent randomness such that it is impossible to operate them with the schedule precision that is needed for passenger trains. A railroad cannot know days ahead the number of cars that it will move each day. That's especially true for carload movements. For example, with plastic pellets the shipping plant is filling orders from different customers each day in different locations. I could give you a few dozen other examples off the top of my head.
Each passenger train operated takes several time slots away from freight trains because many have to be delayed to make a specific time slot available. If you are running many trains at 40 miles per hour on double tracks, you can handle a hundred trians in a day. But add to the mix a few trains running at 80 to make an average schedule speed of 50 to 60, and that smooth operation becomes chaotic.
Delayed freight trains cost a lot of money - higher crew wages, more locomotives, worse car utilization, increased dispatcher expense, distraction of management attention, etc. If there Amtrak paid fees to the railroads to compensate for all of these costs, the railroads would be more open to passenger operations.
You can talk all you want about laws to give preference to Amtrak, but Congress can't change the basic economics and operating characteristics of railroads. Doing so is a dog barking at the moon.