Happening Now

Freights Say It's Too Hard To Be On Time

April 30, 2020

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

So now the host railroads’ strategy is clear: after the Supreme Court ended a decade of nonsense by saying, “Enough!” the railroads have now decided to claim that Amtrak schedules are just too hard to meet.

Too hard.

It's too hard to go even more slowly than we did in 1960.

As many of our older members will know, there are trains today that run hours later than they did decades ago, despite advances in technology. Take the City of New Orleans…that storied train of poems and songs is scheduled to show up five hours later than it did back in the day. But according to the freight railroads, it’s just too hard today to be on time.

I testified today before the Federal Railroad Administration in support of the proposed new rules for operating quality and on-time passenger rail service (more formally the Metrics and Minimum Standards for Intercity Passenger Rail Service). I hope you were able to listen in.

During my oral testimony, I noted that tens of millions of people in hundreds of American communities have been waiting for more than a decade to see this moment. Passengers have a right to be on time, and the proposed rule – while not perfect – gets us all that much closer to getting there.

Today’s session began with Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, sending a clear signal that despite the most recent string of defeats in the courts, freight railroads are lawyering up again. This time, their strategy is to declare that Amtrak’s schedules are unrealistic nearly across the board and that the FRA is making a legal mistake in building its rule around them. Then they put up a parade of freight executives to talk about just how hard it is to run an on-time railroad.

The freights’ strategy is clear: get FRA to require Amtrak to lengthen schedules even more, making passenger rail so trip-time uncompetitive that passenger rail dies in the United States.

I replied during today’s hearing by saying that it’s not a recipe for degrading service to insist that trains run at least close to on time. The freights’ assertion that schedules have not been changed in decades is misleading, because while some schedules need another look, many others have been changed repeatedly.

And the suggestion that many current schedules are just too hard to maintain is belied by reality. On time performance was much better before 2013 when Federal court action suspended performance metrics, leaving the freights with no consequences for running late trains. And it improved again when certain railroads had a bright public light put on them last year.

Our experience in the past five years shows that when it comes to whether a train can really run on time, the Class I railroads’ consequences matter more than the schedule.

We know that late trains are the single most significant cause of passenger dissatisfaction. But Rail Passengers would also like to state for the record that the customer OTP standard benefits everyone, not just Amtrak passengers. Our Association recognizes that late trains stem from a complex mix of causes. However, another crucial piece of the puzzle is the lack of capacity, along with the industry’s increasing adoption of ‘precision railroading.’ Shippers have already testified at length before the Surface Transportation Board about the degree to which ‘precision’ railroading has turned out to be anything but.

Rail Passengers believes that the proposed rule will encourage more disciplined operation for host railroads, promoting fluidity, speed and reliability for all users. We all want a fluid and reliable railroad – commuters, shippers and end-use customers deserve nothing less. While we are sympathetic to the host railroads’ challenges, the fact remains that our members rely on, and pay for, timely and regular service on those routes, whether riding as an Amtrak passenger or as a daily commuter on systems all across the country like Metra or MARC.

To underscore a point we made in our written comments, the proposed rule provides a mechanism for adjusting schedules, but no requirement that all sides approach that task in a spirit of goodwill. As written, Amtrak and Class I hosts could well file perfunctory requests and responses to one another and then head straight to the STB or even Federal court.

After more than a decade of litigation, we at Rail Passengers want to say strongly that we hope everyone will negotiate in good faith and work to adjust recovery time without simply extending schedules so that trains run even less competitively than they do today. Going straight into yet another round of litigation can’t be the answer.

Working together using the principles that FRA outlined in its preamble to the proposed rule is the right way forward. And if FRA has to take the step of requiring, in regulation, that the parties must make good faith efforts, then so be it.

The docket will stay open until June 1st. I’m still encouraging all of you to file comments on this rule, so long as they are constructive, fact-based and relate to your experience as a passenger.

(NOTE: We’ll post a link to the hearing replay here as soon as it becomes available.)