18.11.14

AMTRAK PUSHES BACK.

The freight railroads have been delaying Amtrak all summer, and Norfolk Southern did a particularly bad job of getting my Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh.

There is a case on the freight railroads' obligations to Amtrak heading for the Supreme Court.  There's also a Surface Transportation Board, holding a few of the regulatory powers once entrusted to the late, unlamented Interstate Commerce Commission.
Amtrak filed the complaint under Section 213 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which calls for the STB to initiate an investigation upon the filing of a complaint by Amtrak if the on-time performance (OTP) of an intercity passenger train falls below 80 percent for two consecutive quarters, according to an Amtrak press release.

Amtrak also has a federal statutory right to preference in the dispatching of intercity passenger trains before freight trains, Amtrak officials said.

"Due to persistent excessive delays caused by [Norfolk Southern] and CSXT freight train interference, the OTP of the Capitol Limited at its endpoint terminals was 2.7 percent for the quarter ending Sept. 30, down from an already substandard 33.6 percent the previous quarter," Amtrak officials said in the release. "The delays are continuing as Amtrak had to provide bus transportation between Toledo and Chicago for six days in October to better accommodate passengers when Capitol Limited trains had often been eight to 10 hours late."
Surface Transportation Board hearings have in common with the old Interstate Commerce Commission a long lead time, and Fred Frailey at Trains notes that such proceedings are not to be entered into lightly.
This is the second such case Amtrak has filed under PRIIA Section 213. In 2012 it took Canadian National to task over unacceptable delays to the Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale, Ill. More than two years later, CN and Amtrak are still in the early stages. You get a flavor of the proceeding’s endless corridors of inquiry from this recent filing by Amtrak’s attorneys, the same Nossaman lawyers: “Any discovery directed by a Board decision on CN’s Second Motion to Compel Production and CN’s Appeal of the Board’s decision on CN’s first Motion to Compel can be produced once the Board issues its decisions on those Motions.” That’s correct, the case isn’t close to being argued because both sides are still busy collecting evidence from each other.

Section 213 is obviously not a weapon to be used lightly. As we are seeing in the CN case, resolution can take years, and the STB is always free to side with the freight railroad. And Joe Boardman, Amtrak’s president, has no appetite to pick fights with his host railroads. On the other hand, the long distance name trains this year got slaughtered, and a continuation of this pattern into 2015 and perhaps beyond would clearly ruin the long-distance franchise. I would be surprised if more such cases, involving the Lake Shore, Empire Builder and California Zephyr in particular, were not in the works.
Mr Frailey notes that Amtrak is likely to spend more in legal fees than it will ever recover in revenues or avoided compensation for delayed connecting passengers, for proceedings that will bring Charles Dickens and Jarndyce v. Jarndyce to mind.  Here, dear reader, is opportunity to get involved politically.  The pending Amtrak service to Rockford might have involved Illinois calling in favors with Union Pacific, and Senator Durbin explicitly called out Canadian National for its reluctance to work with Illinois and Amtrak.

In like manner, here is an opportunity for Passenger Rail advocates to mention to their representatives in Congress that Amtrak is incurring additional costs for substitute buses, hotels, and legal counsel in order that freight railroads can get their crews on short hours into terminals first.  It's corporate welfare or a hidden subsidy or theft, depending on how you wish to describe it.

I will report on the results of the letters I send.

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