Happening Now

‘Freight First Act’ Is Fulsome Nonsense

October 31, 2023

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Amtrak is not the reason why your Amazon package is a day late, but a handful of radical lawmakers in the House are trying to make you think that it is.

Led by freshman Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, this small group is pushing something called the “Freight First Act” (HR 3893) to try to take away Amtrak’s 52-year-old legal right to go first.

That law was originally written so that host railroads – rescued by taxpayers in 1970 when Amtrak was created to relieve the host railroads of having to run passenger trains – had to give passenger trains preference unless they could win an exemption by proving that preference would “materially lessen the quality of transportation provided to freight shippers.”

If the railroads could not show that Amtrak would slow down their freight trains, Amtrak was presumed to be able to go first. It’s a more-than-fair bargain in exchange for the taxpayers bailing out the freight railroads when they created Amtrak to absorb those railroads’ debts and common-carrier obligations.

Burlison and his allies – T&I Chair Troy Nehls (R-Texas), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.), and Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) – want you to believe that Amtrak’s tiny number of daily trains are somehow clogging commerce all around the United States. But that’s fulsome nonsense.

So far this year, North American rail volume is down 3.8 percent compared with 2022, and 2022 was down 2.8% compared to 2021. Let’s be real. The dissatisfaction we’re seeing from freight shippers has nothing to do with the tracks being too crowded by Amtrak trains, and everything to do with an industry strategy that prioritizes stock buybacks over investing in the nuts and bolts of running a good railroad.

If freight railroads ran freight trains that fit the sidings on their railroad, then hosting Amtrak trains wouldn’t be a problem. But the freight railroads seem to think that it’s better to skimp on building the sidings they need to run three-mile long trains that break the law by blocking Amtrak trains. They’re crossing their fingers hoping the anti-Amtrak crowd in the House will pass a law strangling passenger service only two years after Congress passed the most meaningful capital investment in passenger-rail in the nation’s history. That way they don’t have to bother investing in the capacity that both shippers and passengers need.

In 2022, the Association of American Railroads was forced to publicly admit that “railroads understand that service is not at the level customers expect or deserve. Aggressive measures are underway to put the right plans, people, and equipment in place to improve service and reliability.”

Getting your friends in Congress to pass a law absolving you of the need to run a tight railroad is certainly “aggressive,” but hardly the way to keep last year’s promise to restore service to “the level customers expect [and] deserve.”

In our view, the Freight First Act is just a distraction from the important work of rebuilding America’s supply chain infrastructure, a silly finger-pointing exercise claiming – against all actual evidence – that somehow one six- or eight-car passenger train per day in each direction is grinding America’s commerce to a halt.

The Freight First Act would kill off nearly all Amtrak service off the Northeast Corridor. And that seems to be exactly what Burlison and his allies want.

Our coalition is pushing back against this very bad piece of legislation. There’s a markup for this bill scheduled for November sometime, and we’ll have to keep a close eye on whether that actually happens or not. But it would not hurt at all if each of you reading this called or emailed your member of Congress to tell them how much you oppose this bill and the damage it would do to our rail network just at the moment that rail is getting back on its post-pandemic feet.