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Supreme Court Acts on Railroad Standards

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Vermont Rail Action Network



On Monday the supreme court upheld the ability of Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to set standards and enforce on-time train performance from the freight railroads.

From the beginning (in 1971) Amtrak has been an odd compromise.  It was created as a private corporation (similar to the post office).  It’s stock is in private hands (including Warren Buffet). Freight railroads (which used to run the passenger trains) were required to either make a payment to exit the passenger business or receive stock to make them a business partner.  This odd creation of a partly corporate, partly government structure led Monday’s case. In theory (and in law and contract) passenger trains are supposed to receive priority over freight.  We are blessed in Vermont that this is normal practice.

Anyone who has ridden long-distance trains knows that it doesn’t always happen this way.  Apart from the Boston – New York – Washington northeast corridor, almost all routes are operated, maintained and dispatched by the freight railroads. When Amtrak was created in 1971, it was established that Amtrak would pay “avoidable costs” for track access (plus a 5% markup).  In layman’s terms, whatever costs are incurred by the freight railroad to maintain the tracks at higher levels of passenger train standards would be covered.  Later, incentive fees for on-time performance were added to existing contracts with the host railroads.  The railroads were not compensated for the increased track capacity required by mixing fast and slow trains or the “opportunity cost” of turning down higher revenue potential freight so passenger trains could run.  The revenue that freight railroads get for running a passenger train can currently at times result in the equivalent dollars received from hauling a single boxcar.  The financial incentives for the freight railroads have not favored good treatment of passenger trains.

The last federal authorization bill (5 years ago) contained language that put teeth in requirements to enforce legal obligations of railroads to run on-time passenger trains.  Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration were mandated to create standards and penalties.  With this partnership, on-time performance improved dramatically.  But the hosting freight railroads sued on the basis that, as a private company, Amtrak was prohibited legally from regulating the freight railroads.  When the suit was decided favorably on behalf of the freight railroads, national on-time passenger train performance significantly tanked.  Dramatically.  However a few months ago on time service suddenly got better again when deterioration in performance caused the Surface Transportation Board to intervene.

Monday the Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to allow the regulation of on-time performance. This decision will likely produce a huge improvement in the handling and emphasis of priority passenger traffic.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers was a party to the lawsuit and is a vocal and respected representative of rail advocates in D.C.  The Vermont Rail Action Network works cooperatively with NARP.  Possibly, without NARP, there would be no Amtrak.

NARP’s annual “day on the hill” and council meetings will be in DC this coming April 18-22.  I have attended in the past (as has Carl Fowler and Wayne Senville).  I am seeking and encouraging volunteers to attend this year to represent Vermont. Registration is at:

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