How does Amtrak deal with time changes?

I was talking to a friend yesterday, and somehow in the course of conversation Amtrak came up. I’m not sure how exactly that happened, but…

Anyway, my friend claimed that when the clock goes back an hour in November that Amtrak trains literally stop for an hour and wait for the time to “catch up.” Meanwhile in March when the clock goes forward an hour they just run an hour behind. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, so I called BS on it.

And then I pulled up Amtrak’s timetable:

Fall and spring time changes
Amtrak operates according to prevailing local time, either standard time or daylight saving time. At the spring time change (second Sunday in March), Amtrak trains traveling overnight will become one hour late and will attempt to make up the time. At the fall time change (first Sunday in November), Amtrak trains traveling overnight will normally hold at the next station after the time change then depart on time. Arizona does not observe daylight saving time. Please observe footnotes in schedules for trains serving Arizona to determine your departure or arrival time.

Oh, the joys of Amtrak. When the clock goes back an hour they literally just sit at a station, and when the clock goes forward an hour they just try to make up the time. After all, at Amtrak an hour late is basically considered an early arrival.

There’s even an interesting Chicago Tribune article about this from 1985:

R. Clifford Black, Amtrak`s manager of corporate communications in Washington, conceded that “it`s a rather confusing procedure unless you spend a lot of time pondering it, and not many people do.

Asked why Amtrak must brake for time when planes do not circle in the air for an hour, Black answered: “There aren`t that many planes flying at night. They can adjust their departure times, and they don`t make numerous intermediate stops like trains do.“

Filed Under: Travel
  1. 25000 points for sleeper car msp to New Orleans for 4 people, meals included. I can deal with a time change for that price.

  2. Presumably on long-distance trains they were at least an hour late already anyway so they can just carry on.

  3. “25000 points for sleeper car msp to New Orleans”

    Am I reading that right? You want to take a train from Minnesota to Louisiana?

  4. I never understood why we have different time zones & daylight savings, etc. Why can’t we just have one standard time everywhere? It would definitely help some US Airways agents booking an HND-LAX flight on ANA! 😉

  5. If you give it a little thought, it’s kind of hard to see how else they could handle it. Should they publish a separate schedule just for the two days a year that the train would be stopping at different times? How should hey accommodate passengers who show up for the regular 4am train, only to be told it passed through an hour before?

    Airlines do the same thing, right? If a flight is scheduled to leave LGA at 11 pm, land in MSP at 2 am, then continue to SFO at 4 am, it’s going to fly that schedule 365 days a year, including the two days a year on which it would be spending an hour more (or less) on the ground in MSP. Am I mistaken?

  6. Larry’s right. It’s really the best system. It’s not like the train stops in the middle of a stretch of track at precisely 2am… it arrives early at the next station, and then leaves on time.

  7. “Airlines do the same thing, right?”

    When was the last time your airplane was in a holding pattern in the air for an hour?

  8. Time zones were created at the behest of the railroads. Before we had them every town had its own time. That meant timetables were in each stop’s time and conductions had to reset their watch between every stop to the upcoming towns local time. It was a complete mess.

    The reaction to the proposal of time zones was predictable. Religious leaders for example called the idea ungodly or even the work of the devil.

    Anyone who doesn’t like time zones will love China. The whole country runs on Beijing time. Of course the Chinese out west simply create de facto time zones by adjusting when work starts and stops accordingly (start at say 11 am, end at 8 pm).

    Amtrak’s handling of daylight savings time strikes me as lazy self interest. My guess is that they would simply rather inconvenience everyone than have to deal with the passengers who show up late on the day time springs forward and miss their ride.

  9. I don’t get it. Just publish a different schedule for those two days. Are Amtrak schedules really so consistent from day to day that this would confuse people? I don’t think so.

  10. Amtrak is pretty easy to get compensation from, so I’m sure some readers could find this policy quite lucrative…

  11. Mindblowing.

    Amtrak is in a bit of a bind, as they have trains that run for 3 days (e.g. the “Sunset Limited” between Orlando and LA), and they have to intertwine thes in the schedule of local trains who immediately adjust to the time zone change. So it’s not as easy as it may look.

    However, a more nuanced, train-specific, schedule change for those 3 days would be on order — it’s not like we live in the era of printed schedules and the “will attempt to make up the time” is total complete and utter BS way of running things.

  12. @LarryINYC:

    You are mistaken. I’ve flown a redeye (SEA->ORD IIRC) the night of a leap forward, and the flight was scheduled to accomodate the DST jump.

    If you look at UA’s schedule for SEA->IAD redeyes on/around the November 2nd “fall back”, you’ll see the November 2nd flight is schedule to arrive an hour earlier, despite the same departure time and same duration

  13. *Err sorry, actually change is November 3rd at 2am, which is why the flight that leaves the night of the 2nd is affected.

  14. Off topic, I think it would be awesome to see Ben review an Amtrak trip. Think about it, their sleeper cabins are very similar to the Emirates A380 F cabin (shower, full bed, etc) minus the bling…..

    Don’t they even have a departure lounge??

  15. Bgriff is right. Amtrak isn’t on time anyway. So it’s more of a ‘train will arrive an hour less late, or an hour more late’.

  16. @Jackson: it’s not the _arrival_ time that’s in question, it’s the _departure_ time of the intermediate stop of any multi-stop route. The Amtrak trains still _arrive_ an hour earlier at the first post-change-of-clock stop (like your flight). They just hold there an hour before continuing.

    In the example you cited, the closest approximation is whether the plane then returned to SEA departing an hour earlier than usual simply because it arrived an hour earlier than usual. I’ll be you the answer is no.

  17. Just to be precise, it’s Daylight SAVING Time. It’s neither plural nor possessive – leave off the last “S” for SAVING. Of course we don’t save anything, we just shift it around. But that’s another thread…

  18. I’m sick of people bashing Amtrak. As if planes are never late. I’ve been on flights to Chicago that took just as long as it would have taken to fly.

  19. Ben, I think that there really is no other way to approach it. The trains impacted by this are mainly long-haul trains, some of which run daily, others just 3x/week. If you didn’t stop the trains for an hour, you would cause more grief for those impacted by a day or more versus those whose trip is impacted by an hour.

  20. Lucky, when I was your age, back in the ’60’s, paper train timetables (ever seen one of those?) all used standard time, even for locations that were on daylight time. 🙂 Not sure when the change to current policy took place.

  21. Here in Sweden, there are one more departure of local trains during this night. Or how many would be in that hour.

    However, in Denmark the trains that are running (4 of them) just stop for an hour, free coffee and so for all the passengers. The strangest thing ever.

  22. Miso is correct – many other railroads around the world all use the same procedure. So it’s not at all an Amtrak-specific thing. But I’m sure a few people on this blog have figured it out better than hundreds of railroads for decades! 😉

    Think about it… train is slated to arrive at Podunk Station at 02:00 AM and depart at 02:15 AM. Let’s say it actually arrives at 02:00 the morning of the change. When the clock hits 02:01, it instantly becomes 01:01 AM. So when the clock hits 02:15, it’s time to depart and the train leaves. All following stations are not impacted. The Spring change is more problematic but as noted, the usual late arrivals probably mean little difference – but a longhaul train could make up the time by throttling up just a bit more than normal ops.

    @UAPHil: The reason that was the case, was that except for during WWI and WWII, the specific way of implementing DST was done optionally on a local basis. It was impractical to keep schedules up with every locale’s sometimes varying implementation, so they just went with standard time for schedule publishing.

    Within Arizona, the Navajo Nation does observe DST (its borders extend into neighboring states). Though there aren’t any Amtrak stops within the Nation.

  23. This actually happened to me about 10 years ago. We took the train with a sleeper from Miami and our goal was Princeton NJ. The ticket had us changing in Washington DC for the only morning train to Princeton.

    When I realized the time change issue, I asked the conductor how this was handled and he told us, “I don’t know. Check it in DC.” Missed the connection. The good part was that they put us on the then new Acela to Trenton so that was fun, and it wasn’t hard to take a NJTransit to Princeton. But it’s a messed up way to do things.

  24. Lucky,

    You obviously have a much better method for dealing with this issue, so why not tell us what it is?

  25. Sorry Lucky – love your blog, but this wasn’t one of your better posts. The Amtrak way of doing this is the most sensible way of handling as outlined in several replies already above.

  26. I once took Greyhound CLE/ORD when the clocks changed in the fall.
    The bus left NYC on time the night before, but the following morning ran an hour late. This meant arrivals in Chicago arrived an hour late but… departing busses left on time. Those poor people changing busses had to wait for the next bus.

  27. I still don’t understand why they can’t adjust the schedule and have the trains continue to run instead of stopping. could someone explain why they can’t just say the train will be here at x:xx and explain to people that it x:xx includes the time change? It makes zero sense.

  28. Let’s not forget that except for in the Northeast, Amtrak operates almost exclusively as a guest on other companies’ rails. We can probably thank UP, NS, and the rest of the Class Is for this policy (although one wonders if they stop their trains for an hour in March).

    I wonder if there’s ever been an analysis of the effects of the DST switch on local commuter railroads’ on-time performance. Hypothetically, there would be a ripple effect from Amtrak and the freight railroads that operate overnight on the same rails.

  29. They can’t just speed up to “recover” that lost hour can they? Besides “on time” being Amtrak speak for at least a half hour late (as you said) they can’t travel any faster on the rails than they are now. As for Fall, yep, if they keep to their current “timeliness” they might make it from Chicago to Albany on time if they just keep moving.

    If you think it is bizarre to wait at a station for an hour, it is the norm in Europe. Lots easier than having a separate time table for that one day. I discovered this 25 years ago traveling overnight from Salzburg, Austria to Zurich, Switzerland. I would wake up every time the train stopped at a station. When I saw the same station name twice, I figured I had just woken up quickly again. In the morning, looking out at the lovely scenery going by, and my watch, clearly it was going to be a rush to make my plane if I made it at all. Someone told me it was DST change and we had stayed at a station for an hour. Now mind you this was back before Europe changed their DST dates to match the US change dates. They, intelligently, didn’t follow us again when GWB move the Spring date 2 weeks earlier and the Fall date 1 week later.

    Instead of Daylight Saving Time and Standard Time, we should start calling it “Standard Time” and “Daylight Wasting Time” since what is now “Standard” is only 1/3 of the year.

    Don’t know how Europe handles the “spring forward” change though.

  30. I am wondering if plan can do the same thing. When plans flight to USA from those countries that do not have DST, can they hold still in the sky for one hour than land on USA ? Exciting, I am gonna buy a ticket that fly to USA on that day.

  31. I have an Amtrak ticket to depart from a California town Saturday night (technically Sunday morning, March 12) at 1:47 a.m., and I couldn’t get a straight answer from the Amtrak person I talked to about what time they change the clocks or whether I should go with standard time or daylight savings time. Can I assume they don’t change until 2:00 a.m., meaning I should plan for a 1:47 a.m. standard time (whistle stop) boarding (knowing it might be late, but that’s another story)?

  32. Airplanes don’t hold for an hour because aviation uses UTC time that doesn’t have a “daylight savings time.” Their schedules are unaffected regardless of local time zones or local time changes.

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