July 28, 2016

STB Reverses Ill-Conceived Proposals That Would Have Led to Significant Amtrak Delays

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) applauded the announcement that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has reconsidered two proposals that would have significantly delayed Amtrak train travel throughout Oregon and the United States. In December 2015, the STB proposed that freight railroads, not passenger rail service, should have priority on shared rail lines across the United States. The STB also proposed a rule that would have only allowed the STB to consider performance at the originating and terminating locations on a route when determining if a train is considered on-time. Both of these measures would have led to significant delays on the Coast Starlight, and the Cascades routes through Oregon. DeFazio wrote a letter to the STB in April 2016, strongly urging them to reconsider both proposals.

“In December 2015, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and draft policy statement that would have seriously disrupted passenger train travel throughout the country. The NPRM proposed measuring Amtrak on-time performance only at beginning and end stations, taking into account performance at only 10% of all Amtrak stations and essentially ignoring performance in 24 states that have intermediate stations but no endpoint stations. In the Pacific Northwest, the majority of stations served along the Amtrak Cascades corridor are intermediate points. In addition, the draft policy statement proposed giving freight traffic preference over passenger rail, contrary to congressional mandates.

In April, I sent the STB a letter strongly urging them to reconsider both decisions, and I am happy to announce that they have.  Today, the STB confirmed that the law is clear—Amtrak trains have preference over freight rail traffic. In addition, they announced that on-time performance will be measured at intermediary Amtrak stations. The 2008 law maintained that if the on-time performance of any Amtrak train averages less than 80 percent for any two consecutive calendar quarters, Amtrak may petition the STB for an investigation and remedies for unacceptable delays and congestion issues. Intermediate stations will be considered in those measurements. This is great news, and I will continue to work to make passenger rail efficient and accessible throughout the U.S.,” DeFazio said.


On December 28, 2015, the STB issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to determine a definition of “on-time performance” for purposes of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) and the Proposed Policy Statement on Preference for Amtrak trains. In both of these instances, the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) took it upon itself to ignore current law and determine, inaccurately, Congressional intent.

Under the prior STB proposed definition of “on-time performance,” Amtrak would have only been required to monitor performance at originating and terminating locations on each rail route. Measuring performance only at the endpoints of Amtrak routes takes into account performance at only 10% of all Amtrak stations. It would have left performance within 24 states unmeasured altogether since those states have intermediate stations but no endpoint stations. It also ignored many routes experiencing significant delays between intermediary stops.

In Oregon, performance would have only been measured on some trains: where Portland and Eugene are the endpoints. The Coast Starlight wouldn’t be measured at all in Oregon, nor would the northbound Cascades trains (which Oregon pays for) that go beyond Portland to Seattle. On the Cascades alone, 359,135 of the 742,337, or close to 50% of all passengers, get off at intermediate stations. Those intermediate routes would not have been considered for on-time performance and any significant delays on those routes would have been ignored by the federal government. Amtrak’s current on-time performance on the Cascades is around 76% and the Coast Starlight, which stops in Eugene, currently runs on-time only 35% of the time.

At the same time the Board issued the NPRM, it also issued a proposed Policy Statement to interpret what Congress meant by Amtrak “preference” in 1973. Current law clearly states that Amtrak passenger trains are to be given preference over freight trains. This was done in return for relieving freight railroads of money-losing passenger service in the 1970s when Amtrak was created.

The Board’s Policy Statement essentially re-wrote federal law. STB would have essentially allowed freight trains to have priority over passenger trains. Amtrak believed that if the policy change had been adopted, passenger trains running on tracks owned by freight railroads would have experienced a substantial increase in delays, as nearly 97 percent of the passenger railroad's route miles operate on host railroad tracks not owned by Amtrak.

In April 2016, DeFazio fought the two proposals, writing a letter to the STB that the law is incredibly clear, Congress’ intent was that Amtrak trains be given preference over freight rail transportation. He also argued that the proposed on-time performance changes ignored current law, and would ignore congestion issues along routes.

DeFazio’s letter can be found here.