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Lessons from Japan for U.S. train operator Amtrak

(The following story by Peter Landers appeared on the Wall Street Journal website on August 13, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When you’re operating a train, seconds matter. That’s the lesson from Amtrak, the largest U.S. rail operator.

As the WSJ reported 17 years ago, Japanese trains measure their timeliness not by minutes but by seconds. A motorman in that classic article fretted that his subway was running late because it was eight seconds behind schedule.

Government-owned Amtrak, by contrast, considers a train on time so long as it arrives within 10 minutes of the scheduled time on routes of up to 250 miles. Even by that standard, the company’s flagship Acela Express running the Boston-New York-Washington route had an on-time record of only 78.5% over the last 12 months, according to Amtrak’s website.

Amtrak’s chief executive, Joseph Boardman, is well aware of the issue. He is set to deliver a speech next month in New York on the subject of “Why Seconds Matter,” and he told us he’ll be drawing on Japan’s experience.

Mr. Boardman said Amtrak’s on-time record suffers because of decades when roads and air travel got the bulk of U.S. transportation investment. “This country abandoned the railroads,” he said. Without more attention to trains, he added, “we’re not going to compete with the rest of the world.”

Still, things are looking somewhat better. Ridership was up 4.7% in the nine months ending June 30 over the same period a year earlier, and Amtrak recently found $298 million to buy new cars for long-distance service. Some of the cars to be replaced date to the 1940s and 1950s. And the U.S. is putting $13 billion into high-speed rail.

For the train nerds out there, we’ll mention another area where Mr. Boardman said he is jealous of Japan. Bullet trains in Japan travel on dedicated track, of course, and even local and regional lines often have separate tracks for express trains. The Acela, however, travels for much of the line on the same track as slower trains, constraining its schedule.

Friday, August 13, 2010

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