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DeFazio Fights Proposals That Would Significantly Delay Amtrak Train Travel in Oregon

Apr 13, 2016
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) urged the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to reconsider two proposals that would significantly delay Amtrak train travel throughout Oregon and the United States. The STB recently proposed that freight railroads, not passenger rail service, should have priority on shared rail lines across the United States. This proposal ignores a federal law that clearly states Amtrak has preference over rail lines. The STB also proposed a rule that Amtrak should only consider performance at the originating and terminating locations on a route when determining if a train is considered on-time. As a result, Amtrak would not be required to analyze track congestion or on-time performance at intermediary stops, which include Portland, Salem, Albany, and Eugene. Both of these measures would lead to significant delays on the Coast Starlight, and the Cascades routes through Oregon.

“The law is incredibly clear: Congress’s intent was that Amtrak trains be given preference over freight rail transportation. Inexplicably, the Surface Transportation Board has decided to ignore current law and Congressional intent, and give priority to freight rail over passengers traveling by rail throughout the country. In addition, they will no longer be required to measure on-time performance at all intermediary Amtrak stations. If there are serious congestion issues or delays between Portland, Salem, Albany, and Eugene, Amtrak won’t be able to request an STB investigation and remedies for unacceptable delays. I strongly urge the STB to reconsider these short-sighted, unreasonable proposals,” DeFazio said.

BACKGROUND

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 these instances, the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) has taken it upon itself to ignore current law and determine, inaccurately, Congressional intent.

Under the new STB definition of “on-time performance”, Amtrak would only be 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 leave performance within 24 states unmeasured altogether since those states have intermediate stations but no endpoint stations. It also ignores many routes experiencing significant delays between intermediary stops.

In Oregon, performance would only be 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 be considered for on-time performance and any significant delays on those routes would be 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-writes this federal law. STB would essentially allow freight trains to have priority over passenger trains. Amtrak believes that if the policy change is adopted, passenger trains running on tracks owned by freight railroads will experience 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.

 

The letter can be found below. A PDF version of the letter can be found here.

April 13, 2016

 

 

The Honorable Dan Elliott                                                     The Honorable Deb Miller
Chairman                                                                                 Member
Surface Transportation Board                                                 Surface Transportation Board
395 E Street, SW                                                                     395 E Street, SW
Washington, DC  20423                                                          Washington, DC 20423

 

The Honorable Ann Begeman
Vice Chairman
Surface Transportation Board
395 E Street, SW
Washington, DC 20423

Dear Chairman Elliott, Vice Chairman Begeman, and Member Miller:

            I write to express my concerns regarding the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to determine a definition of “on-time performance” for purposes of Section 213 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) (P.L. 110-432), and the Proposed Policy Statement on Preference for Amtrak trains, dated December 28, 2015 (EP-726 and EP-728).

            In both these instances, the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) has taken it upon itself to ignore current law and determine, inaccurately, Congressional intent.

            With respect to the NPRM, Section 213 of PRIIA states: “If the on-time performance of any intercity passenger train averages less than 80 percent for any two consecutive calendar quarters, the STB may initiate an investigation on its own, or upon the filing of a complaint by Amtrak, an intercity passenger rail operator, a host freight railroad over which Amtrak operates, or an entity for which Amtrak operates intercity passenger rail service, the Board shall initiate such an investigation to determine whether and to what extent delays or failures to achieve minimum standards are due to causes that could reasonably be addressed by a host rail carrier or Amtrak or other intercity passenger rail operators.”

            Although Congress clearly defined “on-time performance” as less than 80 percent for any two consecutive calendar years, the STB re-writes current law and proposes to re-define when a train is “on time” based on when it “arrives at its final destination within five minutes of its scheduled arrival time per 100 miles of operation (capped at 30 minutes).” The STB claims this was derived from a previous definition of on-time performance used by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1973, ignoring the fact that the ICC changed the definition in 1976 after a series of public hearings to: “Where safe operation permits, the train shall arrive at its final terminus and at all intermediate stops no later than 5 minutes after scheduled arrival time per 100 miles of operation, or 30 minutes after scheduled arrival time, whichever is less.”

            The STB further ignores the fact that section 24101(c)(4) of title 49, United States Code, states that “Amtrak shall operate Amtrak trains, to the maximum extent feasible, to all station stops within 15 minutes of the time established in public timetables.”

            Measuring performance only at the endpoints of Amtrak routes makes no sense and would make the law essentially meaningless. The fact is looking at endpoints takes into account performance at only 10% of all Amtrak stations; leaves performance within 24 states unmeasured altogether since those states have intermediate stations but no endpoint stations; and leaves unaddressed the many routes where performance appears to be above 80% when measured only at the last station on the route, but is significantly and chronically less than 80% at stations all along the route.

In the Pacific Northwest the preponderance of stations served along the Cascades corridor are intermediate points and even the region’s two largest cities, Portland and Seattle, are intermediate points for certain schedules. In fact, 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 be considered under your proposed definition of on-time performance.

 

With respect to the Policy Statement on Preference, the STB should withdraw it altogether. 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.

Unfortunately, in the Policy Statement, the STB seemingly re-writes current law, claiming that “Congress expressed its view that “preference for…passenger transportation…[should not] materially lessen the quality of freight transportation provided to shippers.”

The law does not state that at all. In fact, it provides only two exceptions to preference: in emergencies and when a freight rail carrier seeks relief and the STB provides it. To date, not one freight rail carrier has petitioned the Board for relief.

Section 24308(c) of title 49, United States Code, states: “Except in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing unless the Board orders otherwise under this subsection. A rail carrier affected by this subsection may apply to the Board for relief. If the board, after an opportunity for a hearing, decides that preference for intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation materially will lessen the quality of freight transportation provided to shippers, the Board shall establish the rights of the carrier and Amtrak on reasonable terms.”

I believe the law is clear: Congress’s intent was that Amtrak trains be given preference over freight rail transportation. I strongly urge you to reconsider your proposals in the NPRM and the Policy Statement.

 

Sincerely,

 

PETER DeFAZIO
Ranking Member

 

 

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