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Amtrak vs. Freight Train Priority Disputes Reopened

Image via Flickr by Loco Steve

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court created a law giving Amtrak priority over freight trains on common railroad tracks. It was meant to improve Amtrak’s on-time performance for passenger trains. However, that law is temporarily being revisited because of complaints from freight carriers. The Supreme Court has decided to give freight carriers another chance to plead their case that the Amtrak priority law is unfair.

The biggest complaint from freight carriers is that Amtrak is a private organization and should therefore have no authority with the Federal Railroad Administration to regulate traffic on common railroad tracks. Giving Amtrak trains priority forces freight carriers to delay their own traffic unfairly.

Amtrak is technically a competitor with all freight carriers because of the shared lines. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that Amtrak is like a government entity. This is something that the appeals court will have to ultimately decide. The government also stated that all passenger trains are already given priority over freight trains and the regulations were just created to enforce that existing law.

Amtrak was created by Congress in 1970. It was set up as a for-profit company that is subject to government oversight because of the vast number of citizens the line serves. As a matter of fact, Amtrak receives federal subsidies each year in the billions of dollars. The president also nominates Amtrak’s board of directors.

The current regulations state that if Amtrak averages less than 80 percent on-time for passenger trains, then the Federal Surface Transportation Board can investigate whether the delays were caused by freight trains. If that turns out to be the case, those freight carriers would have to pay restitution to Amtrak. The laws are being revisited, but there really isn’t much chance that the laws will be changed in favor of freight carriers.

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