Feds drop proposal to prioritize freight trains over Amtrak

Feds drop proposal to prioritize freight trains over Amtrak

In a big win for Amtrak, a panel of federal regulators has reversed course on two proposals that the passenger rail service says would have led to significant delays.

The Safety Transportation Board (STB) announced Thursday it has reconsidered a proposal that would have allowed railroads to prioritize freight trains over passenger systems such as Amtrak. 


The panel originally argued that the policy change could boost the efficiency of the nation's overall rail system and said the mandate to prioritize passenger trains was not spelled out in federal law. 

The statute was established in the 1970s when Amtrak was created to relieve freight railroads of money-losing passenger services.

But the surface transportation board ultimately concluded Thursday that current law does say that passenger trains are to be given preference over freight trains on shared tracks. 

Amtrak argued that if the policy change had been implemented, long-distance and commuter trains would have seen a substantial increase in delays, since nearly 97 percent of the passenger railroad's route miles operate on host railroad tracks that are not owned by Amtrak. 

Freight rail companies, however, said the effort would have allowed railways to determine the priority of trains on a case-by-case basis.  

The safety board also decided to tweak a proposal that would have defined “on-time performance” by when a train reaches its end destination. Instead, performance will be measured by punctuality at intermediate Amtrak stations.

The definition is important because a 2008 law mandated that if on-time performance averages less than 80 percent for any two consecutive calendar quarters, Amtrak can petition the STB for an investigation and remedies for delays and congestion issues.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who is the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urged the STB to reconsider the proposals and pointed out that measuring performance at route endpoints only takes into account 10 percent of all Amtrak stations.

“The draft policy statement ... would have seriously disrupted passenger train travel throughout the country,” DeFazio said. “This is great news, and I will continue to work to make passenger rail efficient and accessible throughout the U.S.”