Happening Now

Freight Railroads to Congress: "Not so Fast!"

December 6, 2019

At a hearing held yesterday by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, Congressional leaders looked at how the surge in the movement of goods movement is impacting transportation investment needs—and how the added stress to the system is negatively affecting passengers.

Titled “Where’s My Stuff? Examining the Economic, Environmental, and Societal Impacts of Freight Transportation,” the Committee investigated the way digital commerce has increased demand on a system in a way that's invisible to most Americans.

“Whether they realize it or not, shoppers who took advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are relying on a vast and complex freight network to provide and deliver their purchases,” said Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR).

Committee leaders also investigated the impact this freight surge is having on passenger traffic on roads and rails, highlighting that more than two out of every five miles of America’s urban interstates are already congested. Sparks flew when Chair DeFazio directly confronted Ian Jefferies, President & CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), about freight train interference and the harm it is doing to Amtrak Passengers:

Rep. DeFazio: As you know, a couple of decades ago Congress gave Amtrak trains preference over freight… And under PRIIA Congress directed the FRA and Amtrak to develop minimum performance standards, and then of course the freight industry sued, and now our delays and on-time performance are up dramatically… I live 112 miles from [Portland, Oregon], I’d rather not drive on Intersate-5, but [Amtrak’s] scheduled is 3 ½ hours for 112 miles and they frequently don’t meet that. We now have freight [trains] that are running three miles long, they don’t have three mile long sidings. So how do you recommend that we deal with this issue. Because I’m pretty much getting to the point of some pretty strong legislation. Do you have any suggestions short of that.

Jefferies: I think we’re happy to see FRA moving forward with a rule. They estimated in a hearing to the Senate Commerce Committee that they expect to have that out next June, I believe. We think they’re taking the right approach by taking information from all stakeholders, moving forward on the dashboard…

Rep. DeFazio: Who’s that? The FRA?

Jefferies: Yes sir.

Rep. DeFazio: We had Mr. Batory here, he was one of the most embarrassing witnesses we ever had to tell the truth. So I’m not putting a lot of stock in his rule, but we’ll see how that works out. But you have to do something here or we’re going to have to do something in the surface bill that you’re probably not going to like, and it’s going to be very prescriptive.

Jefferies: Well we think it’s important that FRA move forward with the rule to get metrics & standards done.

Rail Passengers has taken part in the FRA’s outreach on Metrics & Standards for Amtrak, and we look forward to hearing back from them on a final rulemaking. However, Chair DeFazio is correct: passengers are being harmed here and now, and host railroads must live up to their statutory obligation to dispatch Amtrak trains on-time.

Fortunately, the legislation Chair DeFazio described has already been unveiled in the Senate. Join us in calling for Congress to pass Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) Rail Passenger Fairness Act, which would provide Amtrak with the ability to sue any freight railroad that intentionally breaks the law in by delaying passengers! Act Now!

To its credit, AAR did include a call for increased funding to Amtrak and commuter railroads. Jefferies made clear that the freight railroad industry supports public funding for passenger rail programs that allow local stakeholders to “partner with freight railroads to advance projects of mutual interest, including projects to help lessen road and port congestion, enhance safety at highway-rail grade crossings, improve port connectivity, facilitate intercity passenger and commuter rail service and improve the quality of life for communities.”