The freight rail industry is fighting a regulation that allows the federal government to fine Class I carriers if Amtrak-provided data shows the railroads caused delays in passenger service.
The Association of American Railroads last month filed a lawsuit against the federal government arguing it is unconstitutional to give “lawmaking and rule-making authority” to Amtrak, which, it says, is a private company.
Amtrak is a “financially interested private party that stands to directly benefit from violations of the rules it created” when it levies complaints against carriers to the Surface Transportation Board, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit was filed against the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration on behalf of the top seven railroads operating in the U.S.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes as the freight railways are showing growing concern over the Obama administration’s revved up push for passenger service and it might affect their operations. It also suggests the Class I industry is emboldened after getting the DOT earlier this month to scale back its positive train control initiative, and sinking congressional attempts to reauthorize the STB earlier this year.
The federal government in recent years has pumped billions of dollars into Amtrak upgrades, which Class I carriers have resisted as they painstakingly work out details for improvements on their systems. Although Amtrak pays major railroads millions of dollars annually to use their tracks, the freight carriers argue their operations shouldn’t take a backseat to passenger rail.
For shippers, fines against freight carriers for slowing down an Amtrak train carry advantages and disadvantages. Fines accrued by Class I carriers will likely be passed on to customers, but the federal hand slap could be encouraging to shippers looking for broader rail regulation.
Mandating Amtrak to reach better on-time will impede freight railroads’ timely training dispatching, especially in regard to time-sensitive shipments, and repairing tracks, the AAR said.
“The body of evidence is conductor reports, so it is Amtrak alleging delays based on their reports and their own problems with on-time performance,” said Patti Reilly, the AAR’s vice president of communications.
The FRA would not comment on pending legislation, spokesman Brie Sachse said. The lawsuit doesn’t target the STB because the agency didn’t create the Amtrak performance standards.
The FRA and Amtrak created the standards measuring on-time performance and train delays.
The FRA has released three consecutive quarterly reports showing Amtrak hasn’t met service standards on various routes. Since the regulation took effect in March 2010, Amtrak has yet to file a complaint against a major railroad for preventing it from meeting its service standards, Reilly said.
The freight rail industry generally has supported the push for improved passenger rail, saying investment in upgrades inevitably will improve fluidity across all networks. However, some carriers have broken ranks to criticize high-speed rail. Michael Ward, CSX Transportation chairman, president and CEO, said in April he “can’t be part of” President Obama’s high-speed rail push because the service won’t make money and freight systems can’t withstand trains moving as fast as 110 mph.
The freight sector’s lawsuit makes similar digs against Amtrak by stating the passenger service “is not, and had never been, self-sufficient,” and “has long struggled to run its trains on time.”
It’s unclear whether the AAR’s attacks on Amtrak’s financial record and service reliability signal a more aggressive pushback on passenger rail or are simply aimed at strengthen the legal case.
“The freights want to work with passengers and Amtrak to find a happy medium for the unimpeded flow of passengers,” Reilly said.
Still, with freight railroads owning 97 percent of the 22,000 miles Amtrak operates on, future clashes loom as freight railroads run more and longer trains, while Amtrak is pressured to operate tighter schedules. Besides, squeezing freight rail will dampen the Obama administration’s other goal to reduce truck pollution and road congestion.
“Taking rail capacity from freight to provide rail capacity for passengers is not the answer to America’s urban congestion problems, as it will only shift thousands of trucks onto the highways,” James Young, Union Pacific Railway’s CEO, president and chairman, told the U.S. House’s transportation and infrastructure subcommittee in 2009.
Something has to give, but the AAR said it hasn’t sought to find or create a service standard for Amtrak that doesn’t rely on data provided by the passenger rail service.
Right now, the association said it’s focusing on striking down the “unconstitutional” segment. Considering the industry’s lobbying heft, it could score a hat trick this year by pushing back federal regulation.