The Surface Transportation Board said it will look into why Amtrak’s Sunset Limited passenger train service is prone to delays.
The investigation was triggered because Amtrak trains on the Sunset Limited service, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles, haven’t met on-time performance standards for two consecutive quarters, per section 213 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Ac (PRIIA) of 2008, according to the board’s decision. The on-time performance standard calls for arrivals to be on time at least 80% of the time, on average.
There will be at least one phase in the investigation, STB said Tuesday. This phase will consist of STB looking into whether Amtrak’s delays or inability to meet the on-time performance metric were because of a rail carrier’s failure to provide preference to Amtrak over freight transportation as required by law. A second phase, which will depend on the outcome of the first phase, would look at how to assess damages or provide relief.
This investigation would be the first proceeding that the board is undergoing per the PRIIA that looks at whether a rail carrier is contributing to delays on Amtrak’s network. Although the on-time performance standards were part of the 2008 PRIIA Act, they were in legal limbo for several years because the rail carriers questioned in the courts how much input Amtrak should have in crafting the on-time performance standards.
“Today’s unanimous decision reflects the Board’s serious commitment to fulfilling its Congressionally-established duties under PRIIA to adjudicate disputes over passenger rail on-time performance,” STB Chairman Marty Oberman said in a statement. “The investigation that we are initiating today is the first of its kind. It involves a significant Board-led component as well as party-led discovery. This framework will ensure that the Board has the information it needs to fulfill its mandate to enforce the preference standards and ensure reliable on-time performance for passenger rail.”
Amtrak had asked STB last December to initiate an investigation into why the Sunset Limited service is prone to delays. The route of the Sunset Limited travels mostly over Union Pacific’s (NYSE: UNP) network.
In filings to the board, Amtrak has argued that UP doesn’t utilize enough longer sidings that can accommodate UP’s trains, and as a result, Amtrak’s trains get stuck waiting for UP’s trains. Amtrak has also said UP doesn’t account for the impact that UP’s crew changes might have on Amtrak’s service.
Meanwhile, UP has said the schedule for Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service doesn’t align with the on-time performance standards set up in the federal metrics.
In response to STB’s decision, Amtrak said: “On behalf of our Amtrak passengers affected by the chronic delays on host railroads, Amtrak is pleased by the Surface Transportation Board’s action to investigate the substandard on-time performance and freight train interference described in our complaint regarding Sunset Limited service. Amtrak believes vigorous STB oversight is important to improve Amtrak reliability on routes operated over host railroads.”
The Sunset Limited service runs three days a week between New Orleans and Los Angeles, passing through Houston, San Antonio and Tucson, Arizona.
Subscribe to FreightWaves’ e-newsletters and get the latest insights on freight right in your inbox
Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.