Will the Supreme Court Help Fix Amtrak’s Awful On-Time Performance?

We all know that over the past several years Amtrak’s On-Time Performance (OTP) has gone from pretty-good to not-so-good to just-plain-awful. The usual reason given for all these late trains is “freight traffic”, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Here’s the short version:

For some time, and as prescribed by law, Amtrak has been working in an advisory capacity with the Federal Railroad Administration, the government agency regulating America’s railroads. After considering Amtrak’s input, the FRA then sets on-time standards the freight railroads must meet when handling the Amtrak trains that run over their tracks. But the freights went to federal court claiming Amtrak is a private corporation and, as such, cannot tell another private corporation how to run it’s business. The court agreed with that argument and ruled accordingly. Clearly, the freight railroads took that as license to stop giving priority to passenger trains running on their tracks. 

The lower court’s decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, to the great surprise of many, the court agreed to hear the case. I couldn’t be more proud that the National Association of Railroad Passengers has filed an amicus brief with the court supporting the argument that Amtrak is NOT a private corporation because it was created by an Act of Congress, the Amtrak board of directors is appointed by the president, and it receives subsidies from both federal and state governments.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the almost system-wide deterioration of Amtrak’s On-Time Performance is going to affect ridership. Latest figures indicate that demand is still up, but the concern is over the longer haul. OTP was a big issue on two of my most recent train trips and I overheard more than a few “never-agains” from other passengers as we sat on sidings waiting for two or three freights to go by.

I have to wonder if it ever occurs to those obsessive proponents of cost-cutting in Congress that increasing revenue is another and much better way for Amtrak to reduce the amount of annual subsidy it gets from the federal government. If those lawmakers truly care about that, why aren’t they bird-dogging the on-time issue which is costing Amtrak ridership and revenue?  And what about all the money Amtrak keeps shelling out because of passengers’ missed connections? Hotel rooms. Meals. Charter buses to get them where they have to go. 

Three years ago, an Amtrak official told me missed connections were costing the railroad $140 million a year. I asked the same person for an updated number a few months ago and he said the number hadn’t changed. That was nonsense, of course. If misconnects were costing Amtrak $140 million a year when their OTP was over 70 percent, what do you suppose it is now when Amtrak trains are on time 35 percent of the time? 

It’s a big mess … and it means there’s a great deal riding on the forthcoming Supreme Court’s review of that lower court decision.