Amtrak protests move to prioritize freight trains

The panel of federal regulators that oversees operations on the nation’s railways is moving to allow railroads to prioritize freight trains over passenger systems such as Amtrak. 

The proposal, from the Surface Transportation Board, would invalidate a current federal mandate that requires freight railways to give preference to Amtrak on tracks that are shared between passenger and freight trains. 

The surface transportation panel has said the mandate to prioritize passenger trains was not spelled out in federal law, although it has been enforced since Amtrak was established in the 1970s. 

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"The law requires that '[e]xcept in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing … However, 'preference' is not defined by statute," the panel said in a notice of its proposed policy change. 

The surface transportation board is now proposing a change to a system where railroads that own tracks shared between passenger and freight trains are able to make more nuanced operational decisions.  

"Currently, we do not view the preference requirement as absolute," the panel said. "In other words, a host rail carrier need not resolve every individual dispatching decision between freight and passenger movements in favor of the passenger train. Under this view of preference, the Board would take a systemic, global approach in determining whether a host carrier has granted the intercity passenger trains preference." 

Amtrak and passenger rail groups have complained that the proposal would violate a long-standing federal mandate and result in delays for passengers on long-distance and commuter trains. 

The company said the proposal "ignores the clear, plain and unambiguous words of the statute" in comments that were submitted to the panel. 

"The language of [federal law] is clear and unambiguous. Amtrak trains are entitled to preference over freight transportation except in an emergency," the company said. 

"Any deviation from this clear and plainly-stated obligation requires the host railroad to apply for relief from its statutory obligation, and to sustain its burden of proving that granting preference to Amtrak trains would materially lessen the quality of freight transportation to shippers," the company continued.

Freight rail companies have applauded the effort to allow railways to determine the priority of trains on a case-by-case basis.  

"The Board has it exactly right in recognizing that 'the statute calls for comprehensive consideration of the factors affecting performance,'" the Association of American Railroads said in separate comments that were submitted to the panel.  

The rail group, which normally represents both Amtrak and freight companies, added that delays on passengers trains are not always caused by problems wit freight railways. 

"In some cases, unsatisfactory on-time performance may be attributable to 'Amtrak’s own behavior,' which is all the more reason for the Board to undertake 'a comprehensive and impartial on-time performance investigation, in which the Board considers Amtrak’s role in delays as well as the host carrier’s role,'" the AAR said. 

Passenger advocacy groups have sided with Amtrak, saying the proposal to eliminate the preference for passenger trains on shared tracks "will change how intercity passenger services like Amtrak will be treated by host railroads, which have legal obligations to give passenger trains right of way."

"The right of preference for passenger rail was established approximately 30 years ago by Congress, and has been reaffirmed by lawmakers ever since," National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) President Jim Mathews said. 

"The law was first written so host railroads — rescued by taxpayers in 1970 when Amtrak was created to relieve hosts of running passenger trains — had to give passenger trains preference unless they could win an exemption," he continued. "This was done by proving preference for passenger trains would 'materially lessen the quality of transportation provided to freight shippers.'”

The surface transportation board has said that eliminating the preference mandate for passenger trains would boost the efficiency of the nation's overall rail system. 

"A requirement of absolute preference might not, in the long run, promote efficient passenger service," the panel said in its notice of the proposed change.  

"Due to increased traffic density, the rail operating environment has become more complex since Congress first established a preference requirement in 1973," the notice continued. "This environment requires complex decision-making by the host carriers’ dispatchers. Past rail service crises, such as that during the late 1990s, have demonstrated that congestion at one location can adversely affect the rail network at large." 

Updated with new information on Feb. 25 at 3:15 p.m.