By Meredith Martin Richards, Ph.D.


     Trains that reliably arrive and depart on time according to published schedules are the hallmark of an efficient and well-managed passenger rail transportation system.  European, British and Japanese passenger trains are famous for their punctual arrivals and departures. They operate on track networks under the centralized control of the passenger operator. Amtrak, on the other hand, depends upon the disperse, external control of self-interested third parties (the freight railroad corporations that own, maintain and dispatch rail traffic on the tracks) to determine its on-time performance.  It is no wonder that the on-time performance for Amtrak trains is highly variable and subject to changing priorities in the freight rail industry.

 

     Nowhere are the tensions between freight and passenger rail more in evidence than with the on-time performance (OTP) of Amtrak trains. After Amtrak was established in 1970, a subsequent act of Congress, the Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973, gave Amtrak trains precedence over freight in using the tracks and associated infrastructure: “Except in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing.”[i] In practical terms, this policy, when followed correctly, means that, when a passenger train is making its scheduled run on a railroad line, in order to keep the passenger train on schedule, freight trains are supposed to wait or move onto sidings to let the passenger train pass unimpeded. The law, unfortunately, failed to provide an effective mechanism of enforcement for the preference provision. Amtrak could initiate a complaint with the US Attorney General to investigate a persistent pattern of priority violations by a railroad, but at the same time, the Secretary of Transportation was authorized to grant a host railroad relief from the preference obligation if it was deemed to be detrimental to their business. The result of non-enforcement is that the preference mandate is often overlooked in the day-to-day operations of the railroads, and some railroads regularly flout it without apparent consequences.

Figure 1. shows the six major freight railroads ranked by their performance in FY2017 based on Amtrak records of instances of passenger train delays caused by each railroad.


     A 2012 report by the USDOT Inspector General found that Amtrak delays outside the Northeast Corridor were largely due to freight rail effects.[ii] Much of the cause arises when a slow freight train fails to yield to a passenger train, forcing it to wait on a siding, or requires the passenger train to follow the slow-moving freight train for 50 to 100 miles.

 

     In an extreme example cited by the US Government Accountability Office, delays from crude oil trains passing through North Dakota on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route contributed to its on-time performance of just 21 percent in FY2014, a record that resulted in a substantial decrease in ridership on the route.[iii] In 2017, Amtrak’s Crescent service, which serves Virginia stations, was late 67 percent of the time due to Norfolk Southern freight interference. [iv]


Figure 1. Six Class I Host Railroads ranked for on-time delivery of Amtrak Trains in FY2017, with minutes of delay per 10,000 train miles     


A Congressional Fix and AAR’s Unrelenting Opposition

     After decades of Amtrak experiencing poor OTP, Congress attempted to strengthen and quantify preference enforcement through PRIIIA provisions that (a) authorized Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to develop standard metrics for OTP (Sec. 207), and (b) gave the Surface Transportation Board[v] (STB) authority to investigate complaints or initiate its own investigations and fine a railroad if it failed to maintain at least 80 percent OTP (a relatively rigorous standard) for a passenger train for two consecutive quarters (Sec. 213).

 

     For Amtrak, this new policy was definitely a step forward. But things have not gone as Congress intended. The PRIIA provisions to enforce passenger rail priority have been relentlessly challenged in a convoluted series of court actions and appeals initiated by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents the interests of railroads in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including the six shown in the figure above. Amtrak’s first efforts to use the new enforcement mechanisms provided by Congress have gone nowhere while they await the outcome of years of litigation by the AAR.


     Here is a chronology of the AAR’s relentless court challenges of PRIIA policies regarding OTP:   

  • In 2010, Amtrak and the FRA set its metric standards according to the law. Between 2011 and 2013, the new regulations resulted in some of Amtrak’s best years for OTP.  
  • The AAR challenged Sec. 207’s constitutionality, arguing that Amtrak could not rightfully regulate its “competitors” by determining OTP standards. The initial court ruling upheld the PRIIA provision, but the decision was reversed on appeal by the AAR.
  • The Supreme Court vacated that decision and sent the case back to the Appeals Court, which as of 2018 has not yet issued a ruling, leaving the standards developed by the FRA and Amtrak in limbo.  
  • In 2015, after Amtrak filed complaints with the STB of substandard performance on lines owned by Canadian National Railway[vi] (see Figure 7. above) and on the Capitol Limited long-distance route,[vii]  the AAR petitioned the STB to clarify the 80 percent threshold it would use in its investigations. Hundreds of passenger rail advocacy groups and individuals weighed in with public comments, including many from Virginia.
  • In 2016, the STB issued the requested ruling, defining “on-time” arrivals and departures to be no later than 15 minutes after the scheduled time. Most importantly, the STB ruled that this standard would apply to “all stations” on a route, as opposed to only the destination station ― a difference that is critical for the 80 percent of Amtrak passengers who board and alight at stations other than a route’s endpoints.[viii]
  • Following this and an additional ruling by the STB that favored Amtrak, the railroads successfully challenged the authority of the STB to regulate OTP under Section 213, leaving no agency of government to enforce the PRIIA mandates. The AAR is now fighting Amtrak and the National Passenger Rail Association’s attempts to take that case to the Supreme Court.

      As Jim Mathews, President and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association said about this byzantine battle between freight and passenger rail being fought in the courts:

 “For decades, rail passengers have been left waiting for freight trains to clear the rails. Even acts of Congress haven’t been able to budge them out of the way.

“We need the courts to now recognize and allow Congress’ goal to be carried out. The law creating Amtrak in the early 1970s codified a deal these railroads made with the American taxpayer: we’ll relieve you of your common-carrier responsibility for passenger service, and in exchange you’ll ensure those passenger trains get where they need to go on time. It has been a battle ever since.” [ix]


Percent OTP

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

Total (weighted)

69

71

80

80

78

83

82

72

71

79

Short distance (<400 mi)

72

74

81

80

80

85

84

75

73

81

Long distance (>400 mi)

40

52

75

75

64

71

72

51

54

63

Hours of delay by cause, Totala

101,655

94,566

79,304

79,976

86,021

79,235

78,604

100,018

102,058

89,983

Amtrakb

22,902

23,223

21,813

23,404

26,121

21,384

22,379

31,787

31,582

26,339

Host railroadc

72,565

64,724

46,842

44,090

48,707

46,564

44,632

57,413

57,701

48,555

Otherd

6,187

6,618

10,648

12,482

11,192

11,286

11,592

10,816

12,774

15,087

Table 1. Amtrak On-Time Performance Trends and Hours of Delay by Cause, 2007-2016[x]


     Table 1 displays the OTP of Amtrak’s long- and short-distance trains during the ten-year period 2007 ‒ 2016, and the cause of the delay. Note the improvement in OTP following the passage of PRIIA, and the deterioration following court rulings on its constitutionality. Amtrak’s records of OTP for each of its long-distance routes for the previous month and the previous twelve months can be accessed at its OTP webpage,[xi] which also reports the causes and corporate sources of the delays. For Virginia state-sponsored routes, DRPT reports the Endpoint OTP by month and year-to-date on its Amtrak Reports webpage.[xii]


References in this Article, with links to Sources

[i] Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93,146, §10(2), 87 Stat. 552 (initial version). Section 24308(c), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-87/pdf/STATUTE-87-Pg548.pdf  See also Karen E. Torent, Opening Comments of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Surface Transportation Board, Docket No. EP 728, https://www.midwesthsr.org/sites/default/files/documents/STB%20Statement%20of%20Policy%20Preference.pdf     

[ii] US Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Analysis of the Causes of Amtrak Train Delays, CR-2012-148 (Washington, D.C.: July 10, 2012, https://www.oig.dot.gov/sites/default/files/AMTRAK%20Delays%20Report%5E7-10-12.pdf

[iii] US General Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Amtrak: Better Reporting, Planning and Financial Information Could Enhance Decision Making. GAO-16-67, January, 2016, page 63. https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-67    

[v] The Surface Transportation Board is an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers. https://www.stb.gov/stb/about/overview.html

[vi] Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. ― Sec. 213 Investigation of Substandard Performance on Rail Lines of Canadian Nat’l Ry., NOR 42134 

[vii] Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. ― Investigation of Substandard Performance of the Capitol Ltd., NOR 42141 (add link).  

[viii] On-Time Performance Under Section 213 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, A Rule by the Surface Transportation Board, August 4, 2016, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/08/04/2016-18256/on-time-performance-under-section-213-of-the-passenger-rail-investment-and-improvement-act-of-2008

[ix] Jim Mathews, Rail Passengers Association, “Supreme Court Action on Freight Delays? Justice Dept. Cracks the Door Open for Supreme Court Freight-Delay Action,“ January 22, 2018. https://www.narprail.org/happening-now/news/blog/supreme-court-action-on-freight-delays/

[x] U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, https://www.bts.gov/content/amtrak-time-performance-trends-and-hours-delay-cause

[xi] Amtrak Train Route On-Time Performance. https://www.amtrak.com/historical-on-time-performance

[xii] DRPT Amtrak Ridership and On-Time Performance Reports for State-Supported Routes:

http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/media/2268/va-ridership-webpage-september-17.pdf