Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak on-time performance’

Appeals Court Strikes down STB On-time Standards

July 17, 2017

Another federal court has struck a blow at the efforts of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time standards for Amtrak trains.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the STB standards to be unconstitutional, saying that the STB had “exceeded its authority” in creating the standards.

The appeal court ruling came in the wake of a similar U.S. Supreme Court ruling that development of on-time metrics by the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak as directed by Section 207 of 2008’s Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act was unconstitutional.

In the Eighth Circuit ruling, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith acknowledged that the absence of such on-time standards would make it impossible for the STB to investigate or adjudicate disputes brought by Amtrak against host railroads in the event that punctuality fell below 80 percent for two consecutive quarters.

However, the court in essence decided that the STB’s inability to measure on time performance is not a problem for the judiciary to solve.

There are two cases pending before the STB in which Amtrak alleges that host railroads needlessly delayed Amtrak trains.

One case involve the handling by Canadian National of the Saluki and Illini between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, while the other regards Norfolk Southern’s handling of the Capitol Limited west of Pittsburgh.

In both cases, Amtrak contends that dispatching decisions made by the host railroads are delaying its trains.

The STB had contended that it had the legal right to establish on-time standards “by virtue of its authority to adjudicate complaints brought by Amtrak. Any other result would gut the remedial scheme, a result Congress clearly did not intend.”

Supporting the STB’s position were 13 intervenors, including the National Association of Railroad Passengers and its state affiliates along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Challenging the STB were Union Pacific, CSX, CN and the Association of American Railroads.

They argued that the “gap-filling rationale does not allow one agency to assume the authority expressly delegated to another.”

The court found that the only place in federal law where the 80 percent standard was spelled out was in section 207, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional because Amtrak had a hand in developing it.

Although the court let stand Congress’ setting a statutory right of passenger train “priority” over freight trains, the practical effect of the court decision is that Amtrak has no way to challenge a host railroad’s systematic denial of that right.

Instead, the only motivation for railroads to keep Amtrak trains on time are the proprietary and confidential incentive contracts Amtrak has been able to negotiate with its host railroads pertaining to on-time handling.

The only action Amtrak can take against a host railroad would be to refuse to make incentive payments due to non-performance under the terms of its operating contracts with a host railroad.

The court rulings do suggest that Congress could give the FRA a mandate to establish on-time standards provided that Amtrak was not a participant in the writing of those standards.

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Court Sides With Freight Railroads in Amtrak Dispute

March 25, 2017

In the end Amtrak’s freight railroads prevailed in court.

A federal judge ruled in their favor by ruling that Section 207 of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act is unconstitutional and thus the metrics and standards that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued in 2011 in terms of evaluating on-time performance have now been struck down.

The ruling was made by Judge James E. Boasberg based on the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution against the taking of life, libery or property without due process of law.

The Association of American Railroads had filed suit challenging the legality of Section 207.

Boasberg’s ruling was made after the case had been remanded court by the U.S. Supreme Court with instructions as to how to proceed in the case.

Therefore, observers say, it is unlikely that the U.S. Department of Transportation will appeal the ruling.

In his ruling, the judge relied on a precedent set in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling involving Southern Pacific that found that rights granted to people by the Constitution are also granted to corporations.

The court ruled that the regulatory authority of the federal government rests only with individuals appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which is also known as the appointments clause.

The AAR had challenged Section 207, in part, because it allowed Amtrak to have some regulatory power even it is a part of the industry that is being regulated.

In July 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that Amtrak is a private company that may not be granted regulatory powers, overturning a May 2012 ruling by the District Court that Amtrak is a governmental entity.

A unanimous Supreme Court in March 2015 ruled that for the purposes of the constitutional clauses in question, Amtrak is a part of the government.

In sending the case back to the district court, the Supreme Court instructed it to rule further on the questions of due process and appointments.

The latest court ruling means that although Congress may lawfully create companies that act commercially within an industry and may also create regulatory bodies, it cannot create entities that do both at the same time.

AAR had asserted that Section 207 allowed Amtrak to do that.

Amtrak’s Moorman Favors Negotiations With Railroads Rather than Government Force

December 22, 2016

Amtrak President Charles “Wick” Moorman prefers negotiations with its contract railroads rather than government regulation or court action when it comes to improving the passenger carrier’s on-time issues.

Amtrak logoMoorman said during an interview with Politico that on-time performance is a sensitive subject, but he thinks the freight railroads are amendable to talking about how to improve Amtrak’s performance.

Moorman said he knows that delays caused by freight trains are hindering Amtrak’s long-distance trains, but he also believes the railroads are putting forth their best effort to give passenger trains good on-time performance.

In recent years, the on-time performance of passenger trains has been the subject of a U.S. Surface Transportation board rule-making proceeding and Amtrak has filed complaints with the STB about the dispatching practices of certain railroads, notably Canadian National.

The STB has said it will examine on a case-by-case basis situations in which a freight railroad is to blame if Amtrak is unable to meet an 80 percent on-time performance goal.

The STB also will implement new formulas for calculating on-time performance.

Court Sides With AAR in On-Time Rules Dispute

May 3, 2016

A federal appeals court ruled last week that a 2008 law unconstitutionally gave Amtrak regulatory power over its contract railroads.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with the Association of American Railroads in saying that the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 gave Amtrak too much power when it comes to writing regulations pertaining to on-time performance metrics.

It was the second time that the appeals court has ruled in favor of the AAR.

Amtrak logoAn earlier decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court which sent the case back to the appeals court for further review.

AAR had brought suit against the U.S. Department of Transportation in an effort to invalidate Section 207 of the 2008 PRII law.

In its latest ruling, the appeals court said the law’s giving Amtrak the authority to write regulations that affect its host railroads is in violation of the Constitution’s Due Process clause.

The court also knocked down the clause that gives the Surface Transportation Board the authority to appoint a mediator to arbitrate disputes between Amtrak and a host railroad over on-time performance.

The case has a long history that began with a federal district court siding with the U.S. DOT in favor of the law.

AAR appealed that decision to the appeals court, which said in July 2013 that Amtrak is a private company.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in March 2015 that Amtrak must be considered a governmental entity but instructed the appeals court to decide the question of the propriety of a government entity that is a participant in a private marketplace being able to regulate that marketplace.

However, concurring opinions by justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas noted that the situation might violate a host railroad’s right to due process.

Those opinions said that regulators must be “disinterested” government bodies rather than competitors in the business.

In its latest ruling, the appeals court cited the Alito and Thomas’s opinions, but conceded that Amtrak and its contract railroads are not competing for the same customers.

They are, however, the court said, competing for the same scarce railroad route capacity and therefore must be considered economic competitors.

As for the STB’s authority under the 2008 law to appoint an arbitrator, the appeals court said that an independent arbitrator appointed by the STB cannot make final regulations because he or she is not a duly appointed or sworn Officer of the United States, as the Constitution requires.

The AAR originally filed suit acted after the U.S. DOT began to promulgate regulations under Section 207 if the PRII with the railroad trade group arguing that the law was an unconstitutional delegation of rule-making to a private company.

In briefs to the court, the AAR relied on the congressional proclamation of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 creating the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) not be treated as a government entity but instead be operated as a for-profit business.

Although the appeals court last week struck down Section 207, it left the rest of the 2008 PRII intact and did not disturb Amtrak’s statutory rights to access of freight railroad tracks on an incremental cost basis.

Nor did the appeals court set aside laws that give Amtrak trains “preference over freight transportation.”

Congress could revise the 2008 law to grant the U.S. DOT the sole power to write on-time performance metrics and standards, in consultation with Amtrak and other others.

In doing so, Congress could give the authority to mediate between Amtrak and a contract railroad to the STB, whose members are duly sworn Officers of the United States, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The court did not say that it was improper for the federal government to promulgate on-time performance regulations.

Notes From 2,500 Miles Aboard Amtrak

April 2, 2009
The second seating in the diner of the City of New Orleans is just getting underway as the trains heads north through the Mississippi delta country on March 20, 2009.

The second seating in the diner of the City of New Orleans is just getting underway as the trains heads north through the Mississippi delta country on March 20, 2009.

Just over a week ago, my wife and I returned from an Amtrak trip between our home in  Cleveland and New Orleans. The journey covered more than 2,500 miles and involved riding the Capitol Limited between Cleveland and Chicago, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy. Here are a few observations about our excursion.

Timekeeping was pretty good on all trains. No. 29 was seven minutes late arriving in Cleveland, but that was largely because the train had to do a run-around move and then back into the station. Arrival in Chicago was 31 minutes early. No. 59 reached New Orleans 48 minutes early and No. 58 halted at Chicago Union Station 15 minutes early. The eastbound Capitol Limited was three minutes late arriving in Cleveland.

To be sure, schedule padding had a lot to do with the early arrivals at the terminal points. No. 59 was late departing every station except Homewood and Jackson. The other three trains were often late at intermediate points, as much as 44 minutes late leaving Newbern on the southbound City of New Orleans.

Granted, I was asleep during many hours of our journeys, but I noted very little freight train interference en route. The longest delay we incurred was when the northbound City of New Orleans sat for a while next to the New Orleans airport waiting for the southbound City to clear the single track ahead.

Upon leaving Memphis on No. 58, I heard the CN dispatcher tell our engineer on the radio that a freight would be in the siding at Tipton and that we might catch up with another freight ahead of us and experience a slight delay. I’m not sure if that was the case or not.

Arguably, it helped that the track work season has yet to start in earnest. There was no severe weather to contend with. We traveled in March and in my experience that’s a good month to ride Amtrak. Perhaps with the recession there are fewer freight trains to get in the way. Still, it seemed that the dispatching provided by the host railroads has improved.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meal service in the dining cars. Amtrak seems to slowly be upgrading food quality and perhaps the worst of the “diner lite” era is over. On the Capitol Limited to Chicago, I noted that you have something of a choice with the omelet. Last September when I rode the Capitol you had no choice because, I was told, the omelet was made from a mix and you could not leave anything out that you didn’t want.

It was my first experience with the cross country diner on the City of New Orleans and I couldn’t tell any difference in the quality of food or service in this car compared with other Amtrak diners. I did note, though, that the New Orleans style cuisine touted in the Amtrak timetable did not live up to its billing. There was no bread pudding in either direction, no jambalaya or red beans and rice. The menu did feature seafood gumbo, which I did not try.

The diner on the southbound trip did not have the chef’s special of crab cakes. The server claimed that those are put on by the commissary in New Orleans, which had failed to stock the diner well enough for the trip to Chicago and return. The crab cakes were
available on the northbound trip. I found them quite good, accompanied by a very tasty sauce. Sure, the crab cakes were not as good as the one I had in a French  Quarter bistro, but given what Amtrak has to work with that is probably not a fair comparison. It was good enough that I ordered the crab cakes on the Capitol Limited.

For the most part, the menu on the City of New Orleans was the same as that on the Capitol Limited, but with some variation. The City offered a cheddar and broccoli quiche at breakfast that was more like a casserole. It was so good that I ordered it twice. This offering was not available on the Capitol Limited, whose catch of the day at dinner was Mahi Mahi as opposed to salmon on the City of New Orleans. I sampled the salmon on the southbound trip and found it good, although not great. It was enhanced with a nice  sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. The latter tasted like homemade, not instant.

On all four trains, we had diners set up in the new configuration. I’m not sure what to think about this. Yes, it does give the diner a non-traditional look, but if you draw one of the short tables, you wind up sitting with your back to the window. That I didn’t like. Yes, I could see out the window on the opposite side of the car, but that required looking over someone else’s table.
 
I wonder if this new seating arrangement has reduced the capacity of the diner. That did not appear to be much of a problem on the City of New Orleans, but was an issue on the Capitol Limited. Shortly after leaving Chicago, a dining car employee announced he would soon come through the coaches to take dinner reservations with the earliest seating at 9 p.m. The train departs Chicago at 7:05 p.m. Serving begins as early as 6:30 p.m. but sleeping car passengers get first crack at reservations. With three sleepers on the train, there are a lot of first class passengers to feed.

The dining car guy never did come through the coaches to take reservations. When he announced the 9 p.m. seating, he apparently said something about open seating now. We went to the diner and were promptly seated. That the server never came through the coaches was hardly surprising. With just two servers and seatings every half-hour I just didn’t see where there would be time for anyone to break away to the three coaches to take dinner reservations. On nights like these, the diner could use some more help.

If you have not dined on Amtrak lately, they are still using the paper plates and stainless steel silverware with cloth napkins at some meals. This does not appear to compromise the quality of the food much, although real china would be better.

The on-board personnel of the City of New Orleans in particular was friendly and accommodating. There were coach attendants on the Capitol Limited, but they never seemed to be around much and I had no dealing with them. 

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal has a first class lounge called the Magnolia Room. It is not staffed and you enter it by punching in a code that you must get from the ticket counter. It was a nice lounge, although it does not have enough chairs. Also, if you don’t wish to watch TV you are out of luck.

From my observations, all of the trains were full or near capacity. Although we had sleepers on the City of New Orleans, I heard an announcement as we sat in Chicago that the train was full and that every seat was needed. This was in March on a Monday night.
Presumably, Amtrak would be able to sell more seats during the peak travel season this summer if it has cars to add to the trains.

In summary everything worked out the way that it should. The few glitches that occurred were not significant enough to spoil our enjoyment. We both had a very good trip. This was Amtrak as good as it can be given the resources it has and the conditions under which it must operate these days.