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Federal Railroad Administration proposes on-time performance metrics for Amtrak

Image: Flickr/cadet_wilson

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is proposing service metrics that would measure the on-time performance of Amtrak’s intercity passenger rail operations.

The application of these metrics pertains to the Class I railroads because Amtrak and the Class I railroads share track on certain routes. The Class I railroads own the track but passenger trains have priority dispatching per congressional mandate.

FRA on Friday said it had issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would define Amtrak’s on-time performance. Amtrak trains would need to achieve an average on-time performance rate of at least 80%.

The rule would also set additional measurements for evaluating how well Amtrak serves the public, including financial performance and customer service metrics, according to FRA.

The agency said that in crafting the proposed rule, it conferred with numerous stakeholders, including the Class I railroads, Amtrak employee labor organizations, an advocacy group representing Amtrak passengers and the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

“After extensive stakeholder consultation, FRA is proposing new metrics to promote transparency for railroads and travelers alike,” said FRA Administrator Ron Batory. “We expect that all parties are interested in achieving higher performance.”

Establishing these on-time performance metrics and standards could enable Amtrak to sue the freight railroads if they’re unable to accommodate Amtrak in meeting the metrics. The idea of filing lawsuits against the freight railroads so that Amtrak can meet on-time performance standards is not new. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill last November that would enable Amtrak to sue the railroads if Amtrak can’t meet certain on-time performance metrics because of the freight railroads. Meanwhile, the STB has the authority to investigate when trains fail to meet an average on-time performance rate of 80% for two consecutive quarters.

FRA expects the Federal Register to publish the proposed rulemaking notice soon. Once it’s available, written public comments can be submitted for 60 days. FRA also plans to hold a hearing on the issue, possibly online should the agency need to comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding COVID-19.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, also known as PRIIA, mandated that 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. It even made its way to the Supreme Court, whose ruling led to the eventual outcome that Amtrak could be involved in drafting metrics and standards.

One Comment

  1. M.E. Singer

    The underlying premise that continues to be persistently avoided in discussing this issue is a requisite retrospective review to provide the substance of a background to explain today the necessity that triggered the inevitable intervention by the FRA.

    In essence, following the unloading of the Class 1’s responsibilities for intercity passenger services; the subsequent Staggers Act to relieve the freight railroads of their excessive high cost, anti-competitive regulations, the following conditions changed that everybody with a significant role acted oblivious to:
    1) In contradiction to the Hepburn Act of 1906 that inhibited any concept of price competition, the railroads were able to attract critically sharp managers to aggressively compete on price, service, and marketing.
    2) In respect to their knowledge of the business, this new class of managers attracted to the rails realized the need to take advantage of the Staggers Act to merge and achieve elimination of their duplicitous parallel routes.

    Throughout the decade of mergers in the 1980s1990s, it is relevant to identify the role of the USDOT and FRA to ensure OTP of Amtrak trains; access by Amtrak to increase frequencies on current or proposed routes; ability for Amtrak to to expand new routes. To what extent were such issues ever even officially introduced and discussed; a record created of agreement and understanding? What promises and commitment were made; quid pro quo or otherwise? What trade-offs were achieved?

    Going forward, we need to avoid the wistfulness of what could be and focus on the economics that drives this issue. Because a few individuals swoon to hearing the air horns piercing the fog in the Sacramento Valley won’t cut it. As mandates comes and go, time to take advantage of a knowledgeable FRA administrator to make sense of the economic issues confronting the Class 1’s and Amtrak.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.