Congressional leaders and regulators are looking at ways Amtrak can improve its on-time performance, and they’re employing different tactics to get to that goal.
The freight railroads factor into Amtrak’s ability to meet certain on-time performance metrics because the railroads and Amtrak share the same track in certain areas of the U.S. rail network, such as heavily-trafficked areas near Chicago or along the Northeast corridor. According to a 2020 Amtrak fact sheet, 72% of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by other railroads, including commuter line Metro-North and Class I railroads such as BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP). By law, the freight railroads must give Amtrak and passenger rail priority use of the track.
Last Thursday, Democratic congressional leaders – U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey – introduced the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, which they say will help Amtrak improve its on-time performance across the country.
The bill enables Amtrak to sue freight railroads in situations in which it might be unclear whether the freight railroads are providing passenger rail with preferential access.
“For far too long, freight railroads have taken preference over passenger rail, resulting in poor on-time performance and delays for Amtrak riders. With the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, we can finally hold freight railroads accountable when they fail to follow the law and get Amtrak’s on-time performance back on track,” Durbin said. He has introduced similar legislation in past sessions. “Illinoisans – and Amtrak riders across the country – deserve the assurance that they will arrive at their destinations in a safe and timely manner.”
Groups supporting Durbin’s bill include the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART); the Transportation Communications Union; the Rail Passengers Association; and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.
The current on-time performance metrics require Amtrak and host railroads to certify Amtrak schedules and set an on-time performance minimum standard of 80% for any two consecutive calendar quarters.
On-time performance means that passengers arrive at their destinations or detraining points no later than 15 minutes after their published scheduled arrival time. The performance metrics, which became effective on Dec. 16, 2020, will begin to apply to trains on July 1.
Meanwhile, roughly two weeks prior to the introduction of Durbin’s bill, the Surface Transportation Board on April 15 said it has formed a passenger rail working group to develop plans to help ensure passenger rail, namely Amtrak, can meet the newly established on-time performance metrics.
The working group’s composition consists of STB staff, with Frank O’Connor, deputy director of its Office of Economics, serving as chair. To ensure that STB is meeting its regulatory responsibilities, the group may explore options such as creating an office at STB focused on passenger rail issues and establishing a passenger rail advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
“To most effectively prepare the board for its upcoming responsibilities in monitoring and enforcing Amtrak on-time performance, we need to quickly take stock of existing resources and determine which processes will most expeditiously bring disputes to a fair resolution,” said STB Chairman Marty Oberman.
“The formation of an internal agency passenger rail working group will ensure the board is ready for these duties and will give us a firm foundation upon which to proceed. In the long run, we look forward to working closely with Amtrak and the freight railroads in the nation’s effort to improve its intercity passenger rail system,” Oberman said.
The working group’s formation could also potentially address concerns raised by the Association of American Railroads during a November 2020 congressional hearing on STB’s role in ensuring a robust passenger rail system.
Setting on-time performance metrics was actually a controversial issue for many years. The issue began when the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, also known as PRIIA, mandated that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak jointly develop new or improved metrics and standards that would measure the performance and service quality of intercity passenger train operations.
FRA and Amtrak drafted metrics and standards, but the freight railroads contended that Amtrak shouldn’t have a role in drafting the standards since Amtrak has a vested interest in what the standards should be. The issue of how to interpret Section 207 of PRIIA, which defines Amtrak’s involvement, was under debate in the federal courts for several years. The debate made its way to the Supreme Court in 2015, with its ruling leading to the eventual outcome that Amtrak could be involved in drafting metrics and standards.
Section 213 of PRIIA authorizes STB to investigate a failure to meet the on-time performance standard, either on its own initiative or upon complaint by Amtrak or another eligible complainant, according to STB. During the investigation, STB would look at whether the failure to meet the on-time performance standard is connected to a freight railroad’s actions.