Happening Now

Time To Get Serious About On-Time Trains

October 14, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

A year ago July, I told all of you how important it was that the Federal Railroad Administration’s new passenger-rail rules were coming into force because it meant we would finally see something really done about late trains. This week the Surface Transportation Board announced an extremely welcome next step – formally setting up STB’s Office of Passenger Rail, which will “be responsible for investigating and analyzing issues regarding Amtrak on-time performance.”

It took more than 15 years to get to this moment, and passenger rail advocates should take a few minutes to congratulate themselves for everything it took to make this possible. It IS worth celebrating, because it means that today there is now a Federal agency, with statutory enforcement authority, dedicated to enforcing your right to be on time. We don’t have to persuade the Attorney General of the U.S. to take a railroad to court on Amtrak’s behalf, or shake our fists outside a window. There’s a legally supported mechanism, a process, and it should make it better for all of us who take trains.

On Thursday, Surface Transportation Board Chair Martin Oberman put the world on notice that this new office is open for business.

“The agency stands ready to handle any on-time performance cases that are filed,” Oberman said in a prepared statement. “We are fully analyzing the quarterly data provided by the FRA, and we are developing a basis for determining whether any Board-initiated investigations may be necessary.”

We at the Association have been keeping a careful tally of late trains, and obviously so has Amtrak. We understand that Amtrak is preparing to take some of its first complaints under the rules – which flow from Section 213 of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act – to the new Office very soon. Meanwhile, we intend to participate by filing undocketed correspondence with the Board with analyses of late trains reports.

The new Office of Passenger Rail, however, will be well-placed to do these kinds of analyses on their own. There had been some concern that STB would not have a big enough team or enough resources to carry out these important assessments. For the past year, however, an internal STB team led by senior staff have been working with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Volpe Center to develop specialized data tools to “quickly analyze FRA’s on-time performance quarterly data,” STB said.

Under the new rules, Amtrak trains' on-time performance (OTP) will be measured from the point of view of the customer. Passengers getting off at any stop -- endpoint or intermediate -- can't be any more than 15 minutes later than the published arrival time. Amtrak trains must meet this standard 80% of the time. If Amtrak train delays fall below that standard for two consecutive quarters, Amtrak, the states, or rail authorities can lodge a complaint. The STB itself is also able to decide on its own initiative to step in to investigate the cause of any persistent delays and determine whether those delays can be blamed on causes that could “be reasonably addressed” by a host railroad.

“During the course of any such investigation, STB is authorized to identify reasonable measures and make recommendations to improve train service, quality, and on-time performance,” the Board said last year. “STB may also award damages and prescribe other relief should it determine that failure to meet the on-time performance standard was attributable to a rail carrier’s failure to provide preference to Amtrak over freight transportation, as required under 49 U.S.C. § 24308(c).”

We’re hopeful that the stage is set for things to get much better when it comes to late trains.