Amtrak’s On-Time Performance Heads for the Supreme Court.

The fright railroads own the track over which most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate and if they had the choice, they would refuse to accommodate any passenger trains. The thing is, they don’t have a choice. Back around 1970, when the government permitted the privately-owned railroads to get out of the passenger business, they agreed to allow Amtrak trains over their track and to give them priority.

But over the past year, Amtrak’s on-time performance has declined from mostly-OK to not-OK to lousy. There are a number of reasons for that, but mostly it’s because the host railroads have apparently adopted much more of a don’t-give-a-damn attitude than they’ve had in the past.

OK, so why the change? 

For years, on-time standards for Amtrak trains have been established by the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak working together. But a year ago, a federal court ruled that arrangement unconstitutional, saying one private corporation (Amtrak) could not determine rules affecting another private corporation (a freight railroad). That ruling, in effect, meant that the on-time performance standards established under the old arrangement were no longer valid and the freight railroads have apparently taken that to mean there are no longer any on-time standards which they are required to observe. You can imagine the result.

For the last few months of 2012 and for the first half of 2013, about 85-percent of Amtrak trains were running on time. (Click on the chart to enlarge), but look what happened halfway through 2013 when the appeals court made its ruling. On-time performance dropped and hit a low of about 67-percent for the first two months of this year. Yes, yes … I know it was an awful winter and bad weather was certainly a contributing factor, but the trend is clearly there and it all began with that court decision.
But here’s the latest news: The Department of Justice has appealed the lower court decision and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. And the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) is going to submit an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of the government’s position. NARP’s brief will be prepared and presented to the Supreme Court on a pro bono basis by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a member of NARP and serve on the Board of Directors.

It’s hard to over-state either the importance of this case or the significance of NARP’s role. And as far as we know, this will be the first time that the interests of the American railroad passenger will be brought before the highest court in the land. And that is a very good thing indeed!