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NARP Urges Federal Regulators To Reject Prioritization of Freight Over Passengers

February 23, 2016

Release #16-02

For Immediate Release (#16-02)

Contact: Robert Brady

(202) 289-4001

New Surface Transportation Board Policy Overreaches Federal Law and Would Cause Significant Passenger Delays

Washington, D.C. – In written comments to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) strongly urged the administrative body to withdraw its new “Policy Statement” on implementation of preference provisions for freight railroads over passenger rail. NARP’s response, submitted on February 22, highlights the administrative overreach of the STB’s power, noting the statement would have the same impact as if it were an actual regulation issued by federal lawmakers. Moreover, the “Policy Statement” would cause passenger rail line delays, hinder on-time performance, and lead to numerous, costly tolls on the rail-riding public who rely on and pay for timely and effective rail service.

[Read the full statement.]

“The STB issued this ‘Policy Statement’ behind closed doors and without any input from any outside parties and outside the formal rule-making process that is required,” said Jim Mathews, NARP president and CEO. “As a result, regulators will change how inter-city passenger services like Amtrak will be treated by host railroads which have legal obligations to give passenger trains right of way.”

The right of preference for passenger rail was established approximately 30 years ago by Congress, and has been reaffirmed by lawmakers ever since. The law was first written so host railroads – rescued by taxpayers in 1970 when Amtrak was created to relieve hosts of running passenger trains – had to give passenger trains preference unless they could win an exemption. This was done by proving preference for passenger trains would “materially lessen the quality of transportation provided to freight shippers.”

The effect of STB’s new policy statement would be to flip the burden of proof from host railroads to passenger rail lines, which would have to prove to STB that a host railroad’s failure to give preference did not “materially lessen the quality of freight transportation.” As written, STB’s statement is a largely impossible burden for passenger rail lines to prove given the need for access to proprietary data and information from the host railroad.

“We have seen in the past, when a court invalidated preference between the summer of 2013 and late 2014, that when freight rail is given priority, on-time performance (OTP) for Amtrak is significantly hurt,” stated Mathews. “By the summer of 2014, Amtrak’s OTP dropped by half and quickly unraveled a decade of record ridership, hurting Amtrak’s bottom line and independence from public subsidies.”

Bad on-time performance carries with it other effects. During the period following the appeals court’s decision on preference, which was later reversed by the Supreme Court, passengers suffered financially, as well as losing personal moments that can never be recouped. In October 2014, NARP submitted more than 1,300 stories from passengers who were hurt by delays caused by freight interference. Stories included people missing crucial medical appointments, business meetings, weddings, and even funerals of loved ones.

Joanna Roe, a Washington state resident, boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder outside Vancouver, Wash., to travel to Boston for a funeral. After crossing into Montana and North Dakota, Roe stated, “We were pulled off the main line so many times I lost count. It kept getting longer and longer. We were delayed so often that we had to have two separate crew changes, which delayed us even more as we waited for the new crews to arrive.”

Roe ultimately missed her connecting train in Chicago and was put up in a hotel with only $10 for food for the day. Without enough time to continue her trip by rail, Roe was forced to book an expensive flight from Chicago O’Hare in order to attend the funeral.

“Losing out on new business partnerships, or even on important memories and opportunities to say good-bye to family and friends, are more than temporary inconveniences. Preference delays have caused real emotional, physical and financial pain that discourage people from taking trains in the future, and it’s important that regulators hear these concerns,” said Mathews.

On December 28, 2015 the STB announced that it had issued two decisions proposing new definitions and policy guidelines, one regarding preference issues between freight and passenger rail, and one on passenger train OTP. Regarding preference, NARP urged its members and the rail-riding public to call for the “policy statement” to be withdrawn, as the association believes changing what laws say and how they’re applied should be done by elected lawmakers and not by bureaucrats behind closed doors.

Following the deadline for submissions regarding preference, commenters supported NARP's position by nearly 10 to 1, recognizing that STB's issuing of a policy statement was an overreach that should be withdrawn. In addition, in less than 24 hours more than 60 members of NARP have written to the STB on Amtrak’s behalf to voice their concerns and support passenger rail service.

About the National Association of Railroad Passengers

NARP is the only national organization speaking for the nearly 40 million users of passenger trains and rail transit. We have worked since 1967 to expand the quality and quantity of passenger rail in the U.S. Our mission is to work towards a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want. Our work is supported by more than 28,000 individual members nationwide.