U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, introduced a bill Thursday that helps improve Amtrak on-time performance (OTP) in Illinois and around the country by providing Amtrak with the ability to take the freight railroads to court in order to enforce current law, which requires freight railroads to provide preference to passenger rail operating on their rail lines. The Rail Passenger Fairness Act would provide Amtrak with the ability to sue the freight railroads to enforce its statutory preference.
Last month, Amtrak published a report from its Office of the Inspector General that found that nationwide, Amtrak’s trains were late 27 percent of the time in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 and nearly 60 percent of those delays were due to freight interference.
“This bill provides Amtrak with the power to improve its passenger rail service and efficiency,” Durbin said. “By empowering Amtrak to hold the freight railroads accountable when they don’t follow the law, we can improve Amtrak on-time performance and save taxpayer dollars. For too long, we’ve seen on-time performance decline as a result of freight interference. The people of Illinois – and Amtrak riders nationwide – deserve assurance that they can arrive at their destination in a safe and timely manner.”
“Some railroads over which Amtrak operates have ignored the passenger preference law for far too long, delaying our customers by more than 1 million minutes last year,” said Amtrak President & CEO Richard Anderson. “Thank you, Senator Durbin, for introducing the Rail Passenger Fairness Act. It is a critical piece of legislation and we look forward to working with Congress to advance its consideration. This bill puts people first and helps us get our customers where they want to go on-time.”
Following the recent publication of the OIG report, Durbin sent letters to Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to continue a longstanding and crucial discourse on the negative effects of OTP on Illinois Amtrak riders—particularly along the Chicago-to-Carbondale Illini/Saluki route—at the hand of freight railroads. The full text of the letter to Amtrak is available here. Full text of the letter to FRA is available here.
The report found that OTP was a key factor driving Amtrak’s operating loss of $171 million during FY2018. The report also found that improving and maintaining on-time performance on all Amtrak routes, particularly on long-distance lines, would result in $41.9 million in annual cost savings and revenues, plus an estimated $336M in equipment savings.
The report again highlights the dismal OTP along the Illini/Saluki route in particular, citing OTP as low as six percent for Northbound Illini trains and 17 percent for Northbound Saluki trains during FY2018. This is a stark decline from an already-low 29 percent OTP on this route as of FY2017. Further, the report details how poor OTP leads Amtrak to pay financial penalties for crew staffing violations—and that out of the 1,329 penalties for late trains in FY 2018, 811 of these penalties were paid to engineers on the Illini/Saluki route.
Freight railroads continue to ignore their statutory obligation to provide Amtrak with preference on their tracks. As a result, freight interference has hampered Amtrak’s financial stability as well as reliability for riders—and it caused roughly 60 percent of Amtrak’s delays in FY2018.
Durbin has consistently taken an active role in holding Canadian National (CN) accountable for repeated freight interference and speed restrictions that have plagued the Illini/Saluki route with some of the worst OTP in the country.
Durbin offered an amendment requesting this OIG report during last year’s appropriations process, which passed unanimously, so that Congress could better understand the impact of poor OTP on Amtrak’s operations, and how to improve this issue for Amtrak’s ridership.