Will the Supreme Court Help Amtrak Run Its Trains on Time?

Amtrak's Empire Builder line arrives on time just 21 percent of the time -- thanks, in part, to a court ruling removing Amtrak's ability to keep host railroads from causing delays. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/6005473616/in/photostream/##Loco Steve/flickr##
Amtrak’s Empire Builder line arrives on time just 21 percent of the time — thanks, in part, to a court ruling removing Amtrak’s ability to keep host railroads from causing delays. Photo: Loco Steve/Flickr

The Supreme Court has the chance to redeem its spotty record of late by making the trains run on time. Yes, it’s in their power.

If you’ve noticed lately that Amtrak trains have been more delayed and more run-down than usual, there’s a very good reason for that. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Amtrak had too much authority to keep freight railroads in line. Most Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor run on tracks owned and operated by Class I freight railroads, meaning passenger trains can often get stuck behind freight trains that leave whenever their cargo is loaded, not on a schedule.

The 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act established that Amtrak, along with the FRA, could enter into mediation with the host railroads if they were keeping Amtrak from meeting an 80 percent on-time performance standard, and that the railroads could be forced to pay fines. Ever since Amtrak’s creation in 1970, freight railroads have been required to give passenger trains priority.

But Amtrak’s gray-area status between public entity and private corporation — a “curious entity,” the appeals court called it — got in the way. The Court of Appeals ended up ruling that insofar as Amtrak is a private company, it shouldn’t have a regulatory role — especially if it’s then collecting the fines that the Class I railroads would have to pay as a result of that regulation.

The upshot of all that is that Amtrak has very little power left to negotiate with their hosts. And those hosts have taken advantage. Delay due to freight train interference is up 68 percent since the ruling.

Source: ##http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/621/650/Amtrak-Monthly-Performance-Report-June-2014.pdf##Amtrak##
Source: Amtrak, via NARP

And even the delays considered to be Amtrak’s fault are often the result of freight problems upstream. If a trip originated late because the train got to the station behind schedule due to freight delays down the line, that’s considered Amtrak’s fault. And those instances grew fivefold since the ruling.

On long-distance routes, trains are now more than half an hour late more than half the time. On the Empire Builder line between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, only 21 percent of trains arrive on time. Even the Acela — our country’s feeble brand of high-speed rail — was on time just 74 percent of the time. As Christopher Ingraham wrote on Washington Post’s Wonkblog:

Amtrak’s own performance standards, adopted just a few years ago, require the Acela to run with 95 percent on-time performance, and other routes to run between 85 and 90 percent on time. By that measure, all but one of Amtrak’s routes are flunking their performance goals, most by a wide margin.

The result is predictable: Ridership is falling. After breaking ridership records 10 of the last 11 years, Amtrak is slipping. This June, ridership was down 4 percent from last June, even though gas prices are slightly higher.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in June to review the lower court’s ruling on Amtrak’s ability to hold Class I railroads accountable for on-time performance. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, which is filing an amicus brief on Amtrak’s behalf, calls it “one of the most important issues NARP has ever tackled.”

35 thoughts on Will the Supreme Court Help Amtrak Run Its Trains on Time?

  1. The comedy here is that the ever so brilliant freight railroads (who have torn out hundreds of miles of second main tracks, alternate routes, former competing lines) are now unable even to meet customer expectations of slow moving freight (average speed 22mph). Reportedly BNSF has been turning away some business because they are choked on their Twin Cities to the West Coast route.
    Speed reductions imposed to prevent Lac Megantic repetition have exacerbated the capacity issue, but we should remember that wrecks most often reflect poor (read deferred) maintenance, and over worked crews (refusal to hire enough staff). I doubt SCOTUS can clean up this mess with an arcane decision on fine points of regulatory authority..

  2. David-

    While I agree with you that railroads should not have “torn out hundreds of miles of track …” this practice is not the result
    of bad railroad management. It is the result of bad policy– government policy.

    Rail is the only form of transportation in this nation which is, generally speaking, expected to rely on private investment to acquire, develop, maintain, signalize and police nearly all of its right-of-way. AND rail must pay taxes on that right-of-way and the improvements thereon. Because of this, railway companies are forced to be extremely conservative in developing capacity, and the freight companies carefully protect what little capacity they have.

    ALL other modes of transportation rely in part or in whole on taxpayer
    dollars to acquire, develop, maintain, signalize and police their
    TAX-FREE right-of-ways and the TAX-FREE improvements on those
    right-of-ways (And those tax dollars received from railway companies help cover the costs).

    Until we correct the distortion of transportation economics, including the many and varied indirect costs of driving, rearranging the chairs will not have adequate impact on getting us where we need to go.

  3. How sad that the Supreme Court needs to get involved with something that should be common sense. I drive profesionally. Trucks and Motor Coaches. Even I know that human “freight” must be handle very differently than standard frieght. I mean a box of ceiling tiles is not going to complain about being late, or going to slow. I travel #Amtrak quite a bit, because flying has become a joke. Passenger service MUST take prority over frieght exactaly for the reasons listed in the article. Rail is coming back and needs to be encouraged, not treated as the Bastard Children of the transportation world.

  4. Railroads get their fare share of Taxpayer dollars, don’t believe otherwise. I work for a Class 1 railroad, i know what Taxpayer dollars are paying for. Railroads are also owned and ran by some of the greediest this nation has to offer, has been since the 1850’s. BNSF just released a plan to remove the conductor from over the road trains to save a dollar. Those in government in 1960’s knew this, and that is why Amtrak had the powers to fine for making it’s trains late, with that power removed, by Republican nominated judges in the D.C. court, Amtrak is 100% at the Class 1’s mercy, and it’s performance is showing that.

  5. Yeah David, it has been three decades of decline. I have seen so much stuff removed or abandoned it don’t care to think about, i only think of 60, the age where i can get out. Even with this so called boost, investment is a joke. I know BNSF lost the cold train from Seattle to Chicago. Like the rest of them, BNSF is only concerned about running oil cans down the rails.

  6. What’s bad, is that the railroads have been forcing out the people who use common sense like you talk about. More important, those politicians of the late 60’s, early 70’s knew the true color of railroads and put that provision in for a reason. Now, this two party joke we have as a government, wants to hold everybody hostage while they read green eggs and ham to their kids.

  7. Lol, c’mon folks, the Class 1 freights were all practically bankrupt a few decades ago; now they’re all profitable, running more volume than they ever have, and investing billions a year in capital improvements. I know railfans are disappointed that no one’s being forced to run one train a week of low value freight down some weedy branch line, but let’s not pretend that they aren’t successful businesses that know what they’re doing.

  8. While the long distance delays are due to freight conflicts, the Northeast Corridor is not dispatched by the freights. Amtrak & the commuter railroads have only themselves to blame there.

  9. A box of ceiling tiles might not complain, but rest assured that many whole supply chains operate on very tight just-in-time minimum-stock framework for which the economic and operational impacts of non-punctual deliveries are large.

  10. Passenger train operations as expected from modern services is just too incompatible with the general traffic management philosophy of Class I railroads of today. These railroads run rather lean operations, having downgraded many hundreds of miles of tracks in terms of speed to better ft very heavy and long freight trains.

  11. *This* Supreme Court? We are screwed. Can I say that in a family sustainable-transportation and -community blog? We are screwed.

  12. Andrew- Thank you. I do NOT dispute the fact that freight railroads sometimes receive taxpayer dollars and other “favors.”

    But “fair share?” I do not believe it approaches equity. If you believe otherwise, I would be happy to receive whatever information you might provide to substantiate your claim.

    In Oregon, our state’s Connect Oregon program provides a very small amount of money to non-road transportation– but in relative terms, it is an extremely small amount.

    There certainly are some exceptions to my statement upon which you commented, but generally speaking it holds true. Government policies strongly discourage expansion of rail infrastructure while promoting expansion of non-rail infrastructure.

    As far as corporations being “greedy,” you are certainly correct. That is their nature– their purpose. From my perspective, and I suspect yours as well, the greed has gotten out-of-hand and is damaging our nation’s long term viability. I am not promoting railroad corporations– I wish to promote the application of railway technology to better serve our communities (passenger and freight).

    I was very dismayed by the court ruling allowing dispatchers to place lower priority on RPS, and am hoping that the SCOTUS will overturn the lower court’s ruling. But that will take several months, and I would prefer a fix by Congress in the near term to minimize the very serious damage already down to RPS.

  13. “Fair share” covers a lot of ground with the railroads. DOT dollars pays for grade crossing signals, just about every state, county offers some form of tax relief for everything from number of employees to land taxes.
    It makes me sick to hear all these railroad executives talking how broke this or that, stalling on positive train control, reducing to one man crews, when the combined class 1 railroads, BNSF, Union Pacific, Northfolk Southern, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Canadian Pacific, Canadian National last year had revenues in excess of 600 billion dollars, over half a trillion dollars was brought in. Yet they still talk about being “broke” and need more federal assistance and waivers from positive train control to crew sizes. It’s laughable and ridiculous.

    Amtrak pays the freight railroads to use there track’s, over 2/3rds of Amtraks budget goes for this. To cut through the hype, taxpayer dollars are paying for Amtrak to ride the rails. If the cost that Amtrak had to pay to move it’s long distance over freight railroad tracks was lowered or removed, Amtrak would be a viable, positive return on investment operation. It’s laughable as it is no secret, the freight railroads gained many of miles of land through land pledges and give away’s from the government, yet a government operation, like Amtrak, is required to pay humongous fees to use the tracks of freight companies.

    The favorite among railroad executives now is to say one Amtrak train displaces 12 freight trains. I say BS to this. No way a 4 or 9 car Amtrak train set with 1 or 2 locomotives displaces anything. Also, they love to hand Amtrak the bill for track repairs and maintenance. This is playing out in Colorado with BNSF and Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

    Anytime a railroad plans yard extensions or other growth in any state, they are given very favorable terms from land to years of no taxes. No other industry enjoys those perks, not even Wal-Mart gets it so lucky.
    I hope the Supreme Court upholds the basics of what Amtrak is and can and has done, plus add some more for Amtrak to the plate.
    It is past time the government quits being passive and more assertive with the freight railroads. They are still very much a monopoly and should be treated as such. There is not a industry from raw materials to finished goods that they do not influence the price of.

  14. Andrew,

    While I understand and, in a very real sense, sympathise with your perspective, it ultimately remains highly impractical.

    If we as a people want rail-based passenger services to exist, we’ll need to make the necessary investments.


    Our private, for-profit railroad companies are no longer common carriers – at least not according to the classic definition of that term. Attempting to force their active participation in the movement of passengers will only damage their ability to compete against other modes which, without exception, freely dine at the taxpayer’s table.

    Yes, occasional scraps fall from this table and the railroads have learned to glean. Why should you begrudge this?

    DanInAloha is right: without substantive changes in government policy, nothing will improve.

    You may honestly believe today’s domestic transportation environment is “fair,” but it’s all in the eye of the beholder – and, will all due respect, your eye seems quite jaundiced.

    Take care,

  15. …which is the single best argument for public investment in infrastructure!

    After all, why should today’s railroads be expected to maintain excess capacity for a business in which they’re not active participants and from which they have no reasonable expectation of profit?

    There’s no practical reason why conventional freight and passenger services should be considered incompatible. Make passenger operations worth the companies’ time and effort, and you’ll soon see a profound change in “management philosophy”!


  16. Yes the private, for profit freight railroads are common carriers, despite how they managed to wiggle out from under their obligations, where they can move a train full of oil tankers, but leave a farmers crop sitting in the yard. And they are very much still a monopoly, moving over 40 percent of the country’s freight, the other 60 percent being split between land and water carriers.

    More to the point, a single, once a day scheduled, 4 to 6 car passenger train now causes “system wide disruption”? BS. The inability to manage is the problem. Has been for some time.

    Amtrak operation on class 1 lines is “contract” not magic, being nice, or simply because they have to. Contract. Both Amtrak and the Class 1’s agree to what, when, where, and how and sign their respective john Hancock’s. What the freight railroads are doing is plain simple law, violating a signed contract they agreed to. And they seem to be doing that a lot lately without government intervention. Until now. More to the fact, they are forcing Amtrak to pay a unfair price.

  17. Andrew,

    While I wouldn’t disagree that the freight RR’s must be held accountable for delays to Amtrak, I must disagree with your assertion that 2/3rds of Amtrak’s budget goes to pay for passage on the freight RR’s tracks.

    Amtrak has a sweatheart deal that allows them to pay far under par value for passage on the freight RR’s. However, the simple proof can be seen in Amtrak’s financials.

    In 2012 total expenses for Amtrak were $4.0626 Billion. Of that, just about half at $2.030 Billion went to Salaries, wages, & benefits. With half the budget now gone, there is NO way that 2/3rd’s of the budget could be going to the freight RR’s.

    And in fact; Train Operations, which includes payments to the freight RR’s, was only a $245.7 Million line item in the budget.

  18. You left out maintenance fees paid to railroads for use of their tracks, and any other fees the railroads can come up with to charge Amtrak with.

    Where on Earth did you get $2.030 billion was paid to workers/managers/executives? Hell, the Class 1’s would be jealous of that pay. Amtraks operating budget for salaries, wages & benefits has been below $300 million dollars for some time now. Matter of fact Amtrak labor has been working on expired union contracts(still active though) since 2008. Wages and overtime $998 million, was Amtraks biggest drain for 2012 and will be a projected $1.2 billion in 2014. The train has to be crewed regardless if it’s moving or not, this is where the freight railroads are killing Amtrak at, that and loss of revenue ticket sales. If you’re going to read a spreadsheet read it right, or post a link to it.

    National routes, via freight railroad tracks, 31,385,337 ridership total, $2,284.6 revenue, $2,750.4 expenses. I know i’m not a mathematician nor a magician, do you note the difference there?

    Slice it how ever you want, the fact was Amtrak was on the road to supportability, and that was washed out by a republican appointed federal court.

    Politics as usual, has killed yet another American industry.


  19. Salaries, wages, benefits line item in your link is 1.9 billion in 2012. What’s your complaint exactly?

  20. About 500 million in unnecessary overtime. Not unnecessary for the employees who got it, unnecessary from freight rails handling, delaying Amtrak trains.

  21. Andrew,

    I left out nothing. All fees paid to the RR’s, and again they are negligible even with the Amtrak dreamed upon incentive plan where Amtrak pays out a bonus for a higher on time percentage.

    If one goes to the 2012 Audited Financial Report, link below and flips to page 70, one will see the Income Statement for 2012. Total wages, salaries, and benefits were $2.033 Billion. That alone makes it impossible for the freight RR’s to be collecting 2/3rds of Amtrak’s expenses.


    And again, the next line under wages “Train operations” includes all expenses paid to the freight RR’s as well as a few other items. The big bad freight RR’s aren’t draining Amtrak like you think. Sorry!

  22. Andrew,

    Your emotionally laden diatribe highlights a regrettable lack of objectivity. The real world tends to be far more nuanced.

    There are several groups now attempting to undermine or reverse the regulatory gains achieved by our railroad industry over the past 35-sum-odd years. Perhaps you’re already an active participant in these activities. If not, you may wish to join forces.

    Presuming y’all are successful…once railroading as we now know it ceases to exist, I trust you’ll find the alternative satisfactory.

    In the meantime, since pesky little things like statistical data aren’t on your side, I’d suggest sticking to stories about poor helpless farmers and the nebulous lack of “fairness” on the part of railroad executives.

    After all, that script has always played well in the heartland.

    I sincerely hope you’ll eventually find a more productive way to channel your energy. If not, perhaps we’ll meet someday – on opposite sides of the table!


  23. Garl,
    The time to sit at a table and discuss anything with the railroads is over. It will now be handled by lawyers on one side of a bench, and men and women in robes on the other side. Something neither side wants. As with the unpredictability of the SCOTUS, would require anyone with a brain, to avoid that place. However, there is a one sided push to end up there.

    No, i don’t think a repeal of the Staggers Act is underway. As there are those, not many, who was in government and rember the state of railroads very well in those years, i certainly do. Namely, VP Biden. And i don’t think any house of congress wants a border to border, ocean to ocean Conrail for the country to manage.

    The same shippers are voicing concerns over delays just as loudly in the U.S. As well as Canada and Mexico. No scientific study needed there to conclude there is a problem with freight railroads that extends far beyond Amtrak scheduling.

    I know plenty of railroad executives, my maternal grandfather was one. He was very vocal against the Staggers Act. He believed business should run it’s course, up to and including bankruptcy, with the better company buying the pieces of the old. He was also in the group that was pushing for the creation of Amtrak. And he sit on the Conrail advisory board during it’s first three years.

    I don’t speak being on the outside looking in, this current round of stupidity by the freight railroads is not helping anything. After SCOTUS finishes with Amtrak, there will be thousands of shippers having their cases heard next.

    I seriously hope they haven’t loaded the officer special up with beer and wine yet. It’s about to get very sobering.

  24. Agree with Garl. There is no reason why RPS up to at least 90 mph and perhaps higher is incompatible with freight service.

    If freight rail had not been pushed out of the LCL shipments by government policies that strongly favor trucking and aviation, railroads would be much more interested in higher speed freight traffic..

    We need to correct past errors and move LCL and passenger service back to rail in order to conserve energy, labor, land and environment.

    The greatest impediment to effective railroading is government policy that forces railroad companies to employ extremely conservative approach to right-of-way expansion/improvements and investments in modern technology.

    It is true that truly high speed RPS is not compatible with slow, heavy freight trains.

  25. While conflict with freights certainly creates delays for passenger trains, the primary cause is lack of adequate rail capacity (single track and short sidings). In some areas we need double main, in congested areas triple or …

  26. Andrew,

    If all the shippers who are “voicing concerns” get their way, it will require at least some re-regulation, whether anyone is willing to publicly admit they want the Staggers Act to be repealed, or not.

    While we’re at it, I honestly don’t believe our blessed government is capable of being proactive about ANYTHING! Moreover, I can’t imagine that “any house of congress” has considered the possibility – or even the theoretical NEED – of a “border to border, ocean to ocean Conrail for the country to [mis]manage”. Just attempting to wrap my mind around that idea has given me a headache!

    Our elected officials simply look for ways to generate votes. Shippers see an opportunity to reap higher profits (which, presumably, is all right – for them).

    As with most things in life, I’m sure there’s enough blame to go ’round.

    If I may be candid, it makes me a bit uncomfortable to be forced into the position of industry cheerleader. That’s the A.A.R.’s job!

    I simply think your point of view is unjustifiably one-sided. You can pretend all you want about “monopolies” and “fair share”; the way it once was is no more – and the way it is now has been working, at least to an extent.

    Show me the political will to do something – ANYTHING – substantive about transportation, then we can discuss all those bad ol’ railroad companies and their horrific excesses.

    In the meantime, if it is indeed too late to “discuss anything with the railroads,” we’ll need to ride this out and see what happens.

    As I’ve so often said: it may be different, but it’s never boring!


  27. Like highways duplicity in handling trucks and passenger cars and airports handling of freight and passengers so to should railroad tracks be put in the public control. Public transportation is critical and a certain type of industry should not be in control of such. We as a citizenry should exert our political will for such.

  28. When the AAR failed to push for the adoption of electronic over pneumatic air brake systems, the biggest technological advance since diesel engines became wide spread, i lost all credibility for that organization, as well as the FRA, who had concerns with not being able to see the braking levels stored on the “black box”. So in 2014, we are using version 3 of George Westinghouse’s air brake system from the 1860’s.

    The AAR, is the sole purpose this entire Amtrak debate is in the news.

  29. I’ll answer back with a question. Where is Amtrak going to get the money to pay back the massive loan of billions upon billions of dollars they need to do such a thing?

  30. Well then, time to plow up some fucking Interstate Highways and put tracks on ’em. No humor or irony intended.

  31. Sure, if we were laying all new track we’d have a full high speed rail system for this country. Personally, I’d be all for that, but that would take billions of dollars and many years. In the meantime we have one rail system that we all have to share. Commuters are more sensitive to time than freight so Amtrak should have the authority to organize the system.

  32. I was taking the train from St. Louis to Chicago back in the late 60’s. There were 2 lines between the stations. Subsequently 1 set of tracks has been taken out. If they wanted trains to go faster, they should have put the second set back so the freight trains could have been going both ways at once.

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