Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Transport: Remembering Buffy the Train Slayer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Three years ago almost to the day, I took Amtrak's Coast Starlight on an overnight trip from Seattle, Washington to San Jose, California. In that era before the economy started to slow down, the Starlight was known for being consistently late, in large part because of congestion caused by freight train traffic. This trip would prove the most delayed of any I had ever taken on the Starlight before or since, and a major reason was someone called "Buffy the Train Slayer."

There were actually many reasons that the Coast Starlight was delayed during that era. The railroad lines used by the train south of Portland, Oregon were historically owned by the Southern Pacific which merged into the Union Pacific in 1996. The UP integration of the SP was extremely problem-prone, some related to deferred maintenance under the SP, some simply related to high traffic volumes and other, more normal factors. Even ten years later, the UP was playing catch-up. The highest-volume lines had been prioritized for upgrading and repairs, and the line plied by the Coast Starlight was not one of them. At one point in 2006, there were four hours of "slow orders" on the Starlight route, or speed restrictions on tracks that required passing over them at lower speed than normal for safety reasons. With four hours of lost time, there was no chance of running on time, even if no other delays were encountered, even accounting for slack in the schedule--there wasn't four hours of slack.

Usually, though, there were other delays. Some were Amtrak's own fault because of inadequate maintenance, as a locomotive would fail or a car would have a problem and have to be set-out enroute, or a relief crew would not arrive as expected to meet a late train. However, the largest single factor was what Amtrak called "freight train interference." On lines owned by freight railroads, such as nearly the entire route of the Coast Starlight, the freight railroad controlled dispatching and decided which trains would get to go first. In early 2006, there were more freight trains than Union Pacific could really run on the Sacramento to Portland portion of the Coast Starlight route. It was a major headache for the train dispatchers that were trying to set up the routes for all the trains.

Some were more skilled than others, and a certain dispatcher that worked second trick (afternoons) on the "Dispatcher 68" desk that controlled the line between Portland and Oakridge, Oregon gained a reputation for not getting trains over the road quickly. It wasn't just Amtrak crews and passengers that noticed. Freight crews didn't reach their destinations within their hours of service mandated by Federal law and had to be relieved frequently. Track maintainers became frustrated with the dispatcher with initials "SKR" since they couldn't get time on the track to make repairs. The situation became so famous that it began to be written about on-line and known worldwide.

In one particularly egregious incident, an Amtrak Cascades train from Eugene to Portland, Oregon took six hours to go the approximately fifty miles between Salem and Portland scheduled for not much more than one hour. Railroad enthusiast John Bauer happened to be on board that train and like many people had gone to the bistro car to pass the time while the train wasn't moving. Someone there asked the conductor what was going on, and he said something about the dispatcher really "stabbing" the train. As Bauer told the story:
Passengers took it from there with "What was that movie about a slayer?" "It was the Vampire something wasn't it?" "Yeah, that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "Well, how about this being Buffy the Train Slayer?"
The name stuck. The dispatcher with initials SKR became known as "Buffy the Train Slayer" worldwide.

I had never experienced "Buffy" before the trip three years ago, but I wouldn't soon forget. The train had encountered heavy freight train traffic on the BNSF Railway between Seattle and Portland, but still left Portland and entered "Buffy"'s territory only 3 minutes late. The first sign that all wasn't quite right should have come with a ten minute delay for a meet at a siding called Gervais, but on a busy railroad that isn't necessarily a big deal. When I first realized we were in trouble was when the dispatcher contacted our crew south of Salem to communicate two unforeseen speed restrictions and gave her initials as SKR in the process. I knew of "Buffy" and her reputation, and I now knew that my train's progress was at her mercy.

All still seemed reasonable until just we were stopped by a red signal just short of the Eugene station, running about a half hour late. Twenty minutes later, the northbound Coast Starlight pulled out of the station and we were allowed in. This seemed a bit odd, as the station stop at Eugene usually took ten minutes or less, and we proceeded to pull out of the station about an hour late. However, I didn't know what "Buffy" had in store for us next.

The next siding past Eugene station was Judkins, and there was a relatively short northbound freight in the siding. "Buffy" instructed us to back into the south end of the siding behind it. We followed the instructions and waited, with no indication of how long we would be there. In an hour, a northbound train passed, but we still didn't get a signal to proceed. Only after another twenty minutes passed and another train went by did we finally continue southbound, now more than two hours late. After two more bad meets, we finally left "Buffy"'s territory, about three hours late.

It didn't get better overnight, as we encountered the bulk of the "slow orders," but likely also faced more freight interference. This underscores the fact that while "Buffy" had become notorious, in many ways she was simply a reflection of Union Pacific policies at the time that did not prioritize Amtrak trains. She was basically doing her job as directed by Corridor Managers above her, in some sense the scapegoat for a situation she didn't really create.

The next day there were further delays, including the addition of a private car to the train at Oakland and a major delay while we had to wait to use a bottleneck section of track just north of San Jose while three shorter-distance passenger trains were allowed to run first. Final arrival in San Jose was seven hours, twenty minutes late for what should have been a twenty-four hour trip. It was the worst timekeeping I had ever experienced on Amtrak.

Things have changed in the past three years. "Buffy the Train Slayer" changed territories in late 2006 and no longer dispatches the Coast Starlight route in Oregon. Union Pacific has repaired the vast majority of the slow orders on the route. The economy has slowed and the number of freight trains on the route has decreased markedly. Most significantly, the Union Pacific now has a policy of trying to earn incentive payments from Amtrak and makes a real effort to run the trains on time. In 2008, I took three trips on the Coast Starlight, all of which reached their destinations on time or early. In February 2009, the Coast Starlight ran on-time 91% of the time, well above Amtrak's nationwide average and better by 10% than any airline. Less than a quarter of the delays were attributed to "freight train interference." It all makes "Buffy the Train Slayer" seem like a distant memory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The real Buffy the Train Slayer dispatched the Southern Region for UP. "Buffy" came from his original nickname of Buffalo Bob and had the Train Slayer moniker long before I arrived in the Spring Tx office in 1999