Saturday, October 17, 2009

Up-to-the-minute (?) news

The revelation in today's New York Times that commuter railroads around Manhattan cheat on their timekeeping is a shocker, shocker, shocker.

For years, says the Times, the 7:55 has been the 7:55. Now we discover that for years on secret employee timetables it has been the 7:56, simply to give sprinting commuters an extra minute to make the train.

This is dismaying. Train times used to be sacrosanct, a source of national pride. You could set your watch by the express as it departed the depot. Now the old Timex might be a full 60 seconds off, ruining all your careful calculations. That three-minute egg might in fact be a two-minute one; no wonder it's so runny.

On the other hand, there is always another hand, and it's not the one that counts off the seconds.

Amtrak (which admits it fudges on departure times but won't reveal which ones and where) shamelessly pads its arrival schedules.

An example:

The westbound California Zephyr is carded to depart Chicago Union Station at precisely 2 p.m., arriving in Naperville, the next stop, at 2:34 p.m. The eastbound Zephyr is scheduled to call at Naperville at 2:23 p.m., arriving at Chicago Union Station at 3:30 p.m.

Why the 19-minute disparity over those 28 miles?

That "slop" is built into the schedule to allow a train running late to "make up time." It doesn't, really. It can't run any faster than trackage rules allow. The only thing that's being made up is the "facts."

No need to bash the railroads for playing fast and loose with the truth about time. The airlines do the same thing.

At least in America, where close enough is good enough.


  1. the airlines for years have always considered anything withib=n 15 minutes on schedulem when they report their on time performance statictis. One thing that bugged me was our transn continel flights were the same for east and west. That don't fly honey when you have a hundred mile an hour jet stream

  2. My favorite airline fudge is claiming the flight has arrived on time when it's LANDED on time but has had to wait 30 to 45 minutes for its assigned gate to open because the flight occupying that gate is late leaving it.

    Both happened to my son and his family visiting from D.C. last week . . .

  3. There's another thing about Amtrak, at least at Chicago Union Station.

    When long-distrnce trains leave, the platform gates are closed five minutes before departure, for security reasons. Tough cheese for those who think they can make it just before the train leaves.

    And so Amtrak has a five-minute window to get stragglers already on the platform onto the trains and settled before departure right on the advertised.

    The last couple of times I've taken the California Zephyr and Sunset Limited, the trains began their departure roll just as the second hand touched 12.

    It seems like cheating, though.