Late trains have many causes, from sharing tracks to basic accidents

late trainsThose who travel by train in North America must plan trips to avoid any set plans within an hour or two — sometimes more — of their scheduled arrival because of late trains. Though trains offer a relaxed and pleasant way to get around, delays are a fact of life on the rails. Though there is nothing passengers can do in the short term to change this (there are ways they can help in the longer term — more below), understanding the most common causes of train delays can make them somewhat less aggravating, especially if the train’s crew offers an insufficient explanation.

Here are some factors that often throw North American passenger trains off their schedules. These are more likely to affect intercity passenger trains (Amtrak or VIA Rail Canada) than commuter trains, which are more self-contained and where the passenger carrier has more control over the operating environment, but can affect any train using the national rail system (many commuter lines also share track with freight and intercity passenger trains).

• Freight train interference: In the vast majority of North America (nearly everywhere outside of the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington), passenger trains operate over track owned by private rail freight carriers and shared with their freight trains. Many of these lines are limited in capacity, and passenger trains that generally go up to 79 mph must compete with much longer freight trains that top out between 40 and 60 mph. While dispatchers (train traffic controllers) employed by the freight carriers are legally obligated to give passenger trains priority, they sometimes fail to do so, either out of operational necessity or for the sake of their employer’s convenience. A passenger train may wait on a side track on a single-track line to let a freight train going the opposite direction pass, or may be stuck crawling behind a slow freight train going in the same direction, or may have to wait for a freight to clear an intersecting track.

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Many of North America’s main lines were once double- or triple-tracked, but over time tracks have been removed to save on maintenance expenses. There are also a variety of rail traffic control systems in use, from signals and switches controlled remotely by central dispatching centers to train orders given over the radio or on paper and switches that train crews must operate by hand. And given that passenger carriers generally do not pay their host railroads rates equivalent to that which they earn from freight traffic, railroads have little incentive to invest extra money to maintain their track to higher-speed passenger standards. This situation stems in part from the fact that intercity passenger rail lacks the dedicated stream of federal funding that the competing travel modes — highways and aviation — enjoy. This is a predicament that we, as citizens, can help change (see below).

• Tight schedules: While most North American passenger trains have generous padding in their schedules (meaning that more time is allotted between two given points than it should take to traverse that distance under ideal track, traffic and weather conditions), some schedules lack ample padding in order to maintain attractive departure or arrival times or to satisfy operating agreements with host or tenant railroads. In cases where there is insufficient padding, any small cause of delay makes the train late for the rest of its run. In some cases, the schedule only allows one minute for most station stops, and on busy travel days, it will take well over one minute to load and unload all the passengers getting on and off. So travelers should expect shorter-distance trains to be delayed more frequently on the busiest travel days, such as around holidays and long weekends.

• Mechanical problems: If the engine, braking system or computer system on a locomotive fails, it often must be taken out of service, requiring the train to proceed powered by one locomotive, if it had two to begin with, or the host railroad to lend a locomotive to replace a broken one. Similarly, mechanical failures on a passenger car may require the car to be cut out of the train or passengers to be moved out of it. All of this unplanned-for maneuvering takes time that the schedule may not allow to be made up. Sadly, mechanical failures are becoming more and more frequent as Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada’s fleets age and insufficient funding is available for replacement or overhaul or routine maintenance is deferred for lack of funds.

• Track maintenance: Thanks to private railroads’ ability to invest in their own capital improvements and to the constant need for inspection and upkeep on well-used lines, there’s rarely a day in the year where railroad crews are not out performing work on some portion of a passenger train’s route. Only rarely is track work extensive enough to force the rerouting, termination or bus substitution of a train. Usually, it just causes delays, because trains must move much more slowly than usual through the work zone for the safety of the track workers. Work may also limit capacity on the line by taking one or more tracks out of service on a multi-track railroad, meaning trains will have to wait for others to make it through more than usual.

• Accidents and incidents: Most North American railroads have numerous road-railroad grade crossings, where the railroad is protected from road traffic going across it usually by only flashing lights and a gate arm that comes down in advance of a train, and sometimes only by a crossbuck. These are where collisions with cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians — which tragically occur too often — are most likely to happen, because trains simply cannot come to a complete stop in a short distance when going at full speed.

If travelers are on a train that is involved in a grade crossing collision that results in a fatality, expect a delay of at least two hours while law enforcement and a coroner examine the scene and the engineer is relieved by another. New rail engineers may have to come from a considerable distance in a car or van to get to the train. However, even collisions that total road vehicles rarely cause major damage to much heavier and more solidly built locomotives or railcars. If there are no fatalities, no debilitating damage to the locomotive, and any obstruction to the track can be easily cleared, the delay may only be 30 minutes or so. But if train equipment is significantly damaged or other hazards are present as a result of the collision, it will take longer to get the train going again.

If a train is delayed by an hour or more, if it’s a short-distance train, or two hours or more if it’s a long-distance train, passengers can often get compensation from the railroad, especially if the delay causes them to miss an important event or otherwise significantly inconveniences them. Compensation generally comes in the form of a certificate that can be redeemed for future travel on that railroad within the coming year, or might be offered as a coupon for a future upgrade or bonus loyalty program points.

To file a complaint and ask for compensation, in the case of Amtrak, it is best to either call 1-800-USA-RAIL (say ‘Agent’ when ‘Julie,’ the automated agent, answers, then ask the live agent to transfer passengers to Customer Relations) or send an email via the ‘Contact Us’ link at In the case of VIA Rail Canada, call 1-800-681-2561 or send an email to this address.

In the longer term, there are ways passengers can contribute towards improved rail travel in the US. Lobby your elected officials to press for long-term changes. These include legislation that allows better enforcement of passenger trains’ statutory priority over freight trains, as well as a program of consistent, dedicated investment in rail infrastructure to provide more capacity for faster passenger trains to maneuver around slow freight trains on busy routes. To learn more about how travelers can help make train travel better, visit our partners at the Rail Passengers Association.