Watch Now

U.S. Supreme Court ruling paves way for performance metrics for rail

Image courtesy of Patrick Dirden/Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case again about whether Amtrak can have a role in crafting the on-time performance metrics and standards for the freight railroads. The Court’s June 3 action paves the way for Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to finish establishing those metrics and standards.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) had sought for the highest court to re-hear a case questioning whether Amtrak, as a private entity, should be allowed to work with a federal agency to define how the freight railroads should meet on-time performance metrics and standards. Amtrak frequently shares track with the freight railroads, and it has blamed the Class I railroads for its delays. The railroads have said that Amtrak has a vested interest in crafting metrics that would place burdens on the railroads.

But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, meaning that the FRA and Amtrak could once again draft metrics and standards, and those metrics would go through a public comment period before being finalized.

“Amtrak is pleased with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court… We are eager to work with the FRA and all other stakeholders to develop clear, efficient and impactful metrics that will lead to better on-time performance for Amtrak customers and the entire rail system,” the company said.

One reason why the metrics and standards are important is because Amtrak and the freight railroads use the gleaned data as evidence during proceedings before the Surface Transportation Board (STB). There were several cases before the Board that are in limbo because the metrics and standards were invalid as a result of court rulings. Having metrics in place enables Amtrak and individual railroads to argue before the STB about situations where those metrics were not met and who was at fault for not meeting those metrics.

The data from the on-time performance metrics should also provide insight for future regulations.

While the AAR was disappointed in the Court’s decision, the trade group was “pleased that the metrics and standards remain invalidated.”

“We will work with the FRA and Amtrak in a way that recognizes the importance of moving increased freight volume to help support the U.S. economy,” AAR president Ian Jefferies said.

The AAR’s suit against Amtrak and the federal government has spanned years, starting in August 2011 after Amtrak and the FRA sought public comment on draft metrics and standards and issued those metrics in May 2010.

Since then, the suit has made it through several rounds of court hearings, traveling through the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia and all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in March 2015 overturned one part of a decision by the federal appeals court, and that part enabled Amtrak to work with the FRA on crafting the on-time performance metrics and standards. But the Supreme Court remanded the other part of the decision back to the lower courts for them to resolve, and so Amtrak’s exact role and the metrics and standards were still in limbo. That other part is related to the Court’s June 3 decision.

Meanwhile, the STB released its version of on-time performance metrics and standards in May 2015, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the STB’s version in July 2017. The Supreme Court also declined to hear that case.

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.