November 08, 2019
Amtrak On Time Performance
Passenger trains should run on time, to move people quickly and keep the nation going. A trip from Chicago to New Orleans should not take five hours longer today than it did sixty years ago, when technology and innovation have improved so significantly.
In April 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a federal standard for “on-time performance” of Amtrak trains. This seemingly minor bureaucratic move is the culmination of a decade of litigation by ELPC and others, and it is a huge step forward in providing quality passenger rail for Americans. Let’s take a look at how we got here, and how we hope to see train travel improve across the Midwest thanks to this important decision.
Amtrak is Built on a Priority Promise
Before 1970, railroads were regulated monopolies that were required to carry both passengers and freight. That year, in response to a major railroad bankruptcy, Congress created Amtrak to relieve railroads of this legal obligation. Railroads agreed to give Amtrak access to their tracks in exchange for being relieved of the responsibility to serve passengers themselves. But within three years, the grand bargain was falling apart, as freight railroads subjected Amtrak passenger trains to unreasonable delays. If a train full of coal and a train full of people came to a crossing at the same time, the coal train should have pulled aside to let the people pass, but instead, passengers often saw the opposite. In 1973, Congress clarified that freight railroads were required to give Amtrak trains a preference over freight, except in situations where railroads sought a waiver.
Unfortunately, that didn’t fix the problem. Intercity passenger rail trains still suffered from poor service reliability due to freight rail interference. Amtrak’s on-time performance for long-distance trains fell below 40% by 2008. Even though Amtrak trains have a statutory right of preference, it had no practical ability to enforce this requirement. So, Congress declared that year that Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) should jointly define on-time performance standards. The Surface Transportation Board could then investigate if trains were late and enforce the law as necessary. Amtrak & FRA’s proposal was that 80% of the passengers must reach their destination within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. Sure enough, on-time performance started to improve.
The Legal Battle Picks up Steam
Freight railroads were not happy with this decision, so they launched into a tortuous legal battle challenging every effort to hold them accountable to the 1973 requirement that they provide preference to passenger trains. First, they argued that Amtrak is a private company and thus unable to set government standards. When they won this argument in the DC Court of Appeals in 2013 overall on-time performance dropped again, from 83% down to 42%. The data shows that more trains run on time when Amtrak has the power to enforce its right to preferential dispatching via on-time performance standards; take that power away and performance plummets.
It’s really not that complicated: passenger trains should run on time, to move people quickly and keep the nation going. A trip from Chicago to New Orleans should not take five hours longer today than it did sixty years ago.
The issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court. In 2014, ELPC filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of ourselves, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, All Aboard Ohio, and Virginians for High-Speed Rail. We argued that Amtrak is, in fact, an arm of the federal government that relieves freight railroads of their pre-existing obligation to provide interstate passenger service. The United States Supreme Court agreed and even cited evidence we had brought to the Court’s attention.
That was just the first round. Freight railroads then argued that the Surface Transportation Board didn’t have the authority to set its own standards because that authority rests with the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak, a challenge they won in 2017. Then came the question of whether allowing the FRA and Amtrak to jointly set standards was illegal because if, in theory, they couldn’t reach an agreement, then an outside arbitrator would be brought in. That question was finally settled in 2019, when the courts determined that FRA and Amtrak could proceed with rulemaking but could not go to an arbiter if they disagreed. They didn’t, as the currently proposed rules demonstrate. With this latest decision, “the Supreme Court ended a decade of nonsense,” as the Rail Passengers Association put it, to reiterate passenger priority under the law.
It’s really not that complicated: passenger trains should run on time, to move people quickly and keep the nation going. 80% on-time is not even a terribly high bar to meet, as history has shown here in the U.S. and other rail networks have shown around the world. Freight rail corporations have capitalized on years of legal confusion to the detriment of the American people, and they continue to complain that being on time is just too hard. Now they are looking to fudge the numbers and extend the expected travel time to account for freight interference, by making rail travel more cumbersome for passengers. A trip from Chicago to New Orleans should not take five hours longer today than it did sixty years ago, when technology and innovation have improved so significantly.
Freight rail corporations are capable of cooperating with passenger rail, and our rail system can be efficient once again. Amtrak is more popular than ever, with a record 32.5 million passengers in 2019. If passengers know they can get where they’re going quickly and on time, then we can expect to see ridership continue to grow well into the future.
The legal process can be a long and windy road, but ELPC is in it for the long haul. From our attorneys to policy advocates, our business specialists to communications experts, our staff is fighting on many fronts to ensure that Midwesterners have reliable and sustainable transportation options. Many of our neighbors do not or cannot drive, so a comprehensive rail network can improve mobility and economic activity.
Transportation is the leading source of carbon pollution, but trains use far less energy to move people more efficiently than fossil-fuel powered cars and planes, making rail the climate-friendly option. ELPC will continue to work towards high-performance passenger rail, as the most practical and environmentally responsible way to transport groups of people safely, comfortably, and affordably across the Midwest.