Engineers can still legally make up time today, just not all of them take advantage of it. Saying that they can't make up time is an insult to them. There are plenty of tricks they can use to keep the trains on time, but some of these tricks are not taught nowadays. The senior Engineers will remember things to do that they were shown years ago. Common sense also plays a big part.
Equipment design and operation is a big issue with the new diesel coaches/locomotives. With the old engines, you could temporarily suppress the speed control and power brake the train into a code drop without losing too much speed. Nowadays, the speed control hits you with a full service application and it takes half a minute to gain your speed back. There are also a lot of places in the rails where the speed code will "flip" (temporarily flipping to a lower speed and then shooting back up to 80 MPH). This is a nuisance to the crews because it delays the train and knocks everybody around.
Other ways Engineers can make up time are figuring out where to set up their brakes to slow down for a curve, speed restriction or station. For instance, coming out of Y Interlocking going east, there is a mile long straightaway then a 55 MPH left hand curve. Before that curve, the train is permitted to operate at MAS after it leaves the Interlocking. The objective for the Engineer would be set up as close to the curve as he can while aiming to be at 55 MPH once he hits the curve AND maintaining his speed while enroute to that curve and proceeding through the curve. If he sets up the brakes too soon, the train would stay at 55 MPH way before it hit the curve. Taking advantage of the Maximum Authorized Speed (MAS) is something that should be carefully adhered to. If a train is permitted to be operated at 65 MPH, it should be operated at 65 MPH.
To run a hot train, the Engineer has to know his Physical Characteristics. That way he can anticipate whats ahead and keep the train moving as fast as he is able to. Engineers have to know the grades of the track ahead of them to know whether they should keep the throttle open to pull the cars uphill or to keep a low throttle as not to hit "overspeed" while traveling downhill. They also have to know where curves and signals are and where to slow down for them. At night, things are a lot different, too. Sunlight makes things easier, but at night other techniques are used. When slowing down for a curve at night, the Engineer should look for the "dark" spot in front of him which would be the horizon of the trees in front of the curve. That's a great indicator to help the Engineer judge where the curve is.
It is both the Conductor and Engineers obligation to keep the trains on time. They work with each other to communcate signals, orders, messages, clearance cards and mechanical issues to one another. If the crew can solve a problem quickly without calling for help, they should solve it themselves as to not further delay a train. Strong communication skills, mechanical knowledge and team work goes a long way when trying to keep a on a tight commuter schedule.
Little tricks like that are the unknown factors to the Public about keeping a train on time. So next time you say that Engineers can't make up time, think about what I said. The public should recognize that it takes a lot more than what meets the eye to keep a train on schedule. Tricks and techniques like I mentioned are used quite often on the Railroad today.