MIPRC on-time performance legislative resolution available; advances in Illinois

March 16, 2020

One key to successful passenger rail service is reliable schedules giving travelers a certain – or near-certain – expectation that trains arrive at or leave the station when the timetable says they will.

Federal law, the Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973, grants Amtrak preference over freight trains; a statutory deal dating from Amtrak’s origin as the national successor to individual railroads’ passenger services: railroads accepted it in exchange for Amtrak assuming services they no longer wished to offer.

But the law is largely ignored by the freight railroads that carry most passenger services (Amtrak owns just three percent of its trains’ 21,400 route miles), and that’s costing Amtrak and – through its federal funding, taxpayers – millions.

According to Amtrak, during fiscal year 2019 alone, freight train interference caused 6.5 million customers on state-supported and long-distance trains to arrive at their destination late, which Amtrak defines by route distance:

  • more than 10 minutes later than the scheduled arrival time at the train’s endpoint for trips of 250 miles or shorter;
  • more than 15 minutes later for trips of 251 to 305 miles;
  • more than 20 minutes later for trips of 351 to 450 miles;
  • more than 25 minutes later for trips of 451 to 550 miles; or
  • more than 30 minutes later for trips of more than 551 miles.

Amtrak’s on-time performance figures for Midwestern routes in FY 2019 can be seen here.

MIPRC supports federal legislation, the “Rail Passenger Fairness Act” (S.2922), introduced by Illinois U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, to give Amtrak a private right of action in federal court to enforce its access rights. We support this measure whether as stand-alone legislation or as part of the pending renewal of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015. (See MIPRC’s positions on the FAST Act’s renewal here.)

MIPRC also created a template resolution for state legislatures to indicate their support for strong passenger rail service and passage of the Rail Passenger Fairness Act. The template has been introduced in the Illinois House and Senate by MIPRC Commissioners Rep. Mark Halpin (HR 751) and Sen. Pat McGuire (SR 1064), respectively.

HR 751 passed the House Transportation Committee on March 3 by a 10-2 vote. SR 1064 is awaiting assignment to a committee for a hearing.

Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General, in a 2019 report, showed poor on-time performance wastes taxpayer dollars to the extent that a mere five percent improvement on all Amtrak routes would result in $12.1 million in savings to Amtrak in the first year. If on-time performance on long-distance routes reached 75 percent for a year, Amtrak would realize an estimated $41.9 million in operating cost savings along with a one-time savings of $336 million due to a reduction in equipment replacement needs.

Currently, only the United States Attorney General can bring a civil action in federal court to enforce Amtrak’s preference rights. That happened just once in Amtrak’s entire history, against the Southern Pacific Transportation Company in 1979.

On-time performance is a solvable problem. For example, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 included provisions for the enforcement of Amtrak’s preference rights. For two months after its enactment, the on-time performance of long-distance passenger trains improved from 56 percent to 77 percent and Class I freight train interference delays across all Amtrak routes declined by 40 percent.

One year after enactment of PRIIA, freight train interference delays had declined by 54 percent and the on-time performance of long-distance trains reached 85 percent.

But after some of those provisions were ruled unconstitutional by a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court in 2014, long-distance train on-time performance declined from 72 percent to 50 percent while freight train interference delays increased 59 percent.