December 9, 2020 - Jim Mathews, -

Amtrak took deadly aim at the problem of chronically late long-distance trains in a Surface Transportation Board filing, using a complaint about the Sunset Limited’s “abysmal” performance to accuse Union Pacific of deliberately engaging in a “pattern and practice” of violating Amtrak’s legal right to preference, and to demand a remedy and damages.

In the complaint and accompanying motion filed yesterday and made public this morning, Amtrak urged STB to act quickly, asking the Board to gather documentation during the next 60 days, to interview key personnel “on a rolling basis” so that the probe can keep moving, and to issue a preservation order to ensure that no Union Pacific documents go missing because of automated-deletion policies or similar retention programs. Amtrak also asked the STB to issue a protective order so that documents and information which might contain proprietary information can be produced quickly, even though Amtrak believes most of the information needed and which will be provided would probably be safe for public review.

It's the first formal complaint under the Federal Railroad Administration’s new passenger-rail metrics and standards, which took effect two years ago, and as a result Amtrak made a separate motion to the Board outlining how Amtrak thinks STB should carry out its first-ever Section 213 investigation.

“The Board should ... investigate whether and how UP’s corporate strategies and objectives drive substandard Amtrak on-time performance,” Amtrak said in its motion. “The Board should examine corporate plans, policies, and protocols, as well as other documents and information concerning how UP dispatchers are trained, directed, evaluated, and compensated; how UP dispatching algorithms are programmed; how UP trains and dispatching centers are staffed; how UP seeks to ensure that Amtrak’s statutory right to preference is effectuated; and how UP has reconciled its decision to implement Precision Scheduled Railroading (‘PSR’) with its obligations to host intercity passenger trains operating over the UP network.”

In its complaint, Amtrak accuses UP of “routinely” prioritizing freight trains over passenger trains, despite the long-standing legal requirement to give passenger trains preference. Whether resolving meets and passes, determining access to main lines, or otherwise failing to ensure that tracks are available for the scheduled and infrequent transit of Sunset Limited trains, UP is doing a “clearly substandard” and “abysmal” job, Amtrak says.

“There is no indication that COTP [Customer On-Time Performance] on the Sunset Limited trains will improve absent the Board’s intervention,” Amtrak argued. “In fact, in August 2022, COTP on the Sunset Limited Trains dropped to 4.6 percent, notching the worst monthly customer on-time performance since Amtrak began measuring COTP in 2016.”

Amtrak puts the blame squarely on UP’s business practices, especially its embrace of precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), which results in freight trains longer than UP’s sidings can accommodate.

Union Pacific has “institutionalized and operationalized practices” which systemically violate the law on Amtrak preference, Amtrak says, citing the failure to align the length of its giant PSR-driven trains with its sidings, the failure to plan for expiring crews, the failure to properly coordinate and communicate with other railroads, and the failure to properly route Amtrak trains.

Union Pacific routinely runs freight trains as long as 12,000 feet, Amtrak says, among the longest of any Class I railroad. But even as UP has made its trains longer and longer, it hasn’t invested in building longer sidings to handle them, choosing instead to spend billions each year on stock buybacks. Amtrak claims that freight trains longer than 10,000 feet can’t take a single siding for more than 450 miles along the Sunset Limited’s route.

This operating model forces Amtrak’s shorter, faster passenger trains to follow long, slow-moving freight trains, imposing many hours of delay. Amtrak data show Sunset trains are forced to follow freight trains 3.9 times per trip on UP tracks, imposing an average delay of nearly an hour and a half each time. In fact, throughout Fiscal 2022 Sunset Limited trains had to wait behind freight trains an average of 15.5 times each trip, sitting around while freight trains finished traversing UP’s rail lines, crossings, or junctions.

And just in case this just seems like a blizzard of numbers and legal jargon, let’s not forget what it means to real, actual, paying passengers. Since the summer we’ve received hundreds of complaints and testimonies from passengers stuck on late trains across the system, which we’ve provided to Senate Commerce Committee staff looking into the continuing problem of poor customer experiences on Amtrak.

Amtrak included several stories from passengers in its STB filing, including one account from a Sunset passenger whose house closing fell through because of delays: ““Didn’t make it to close a deal on a house. A man came all the way from Georgia to sit around after he clearly expressed to me that he had a flight back home at 7:30 that night[.] I told him I would arrive around 11:10 as the schedule stated[,] but give me until 2 pm latest because of freight traffic. That was no problem…I made it to the meeting place at 7 pm [and] he had already left…thank you Amtrak.”

An interesting piece of context here is that while the Sunset is really one of the worst offenders, it is hardly alone. In August we noted that of 43 individual routes Amtrak operates, during Fiscal 2022's second quarter 24 of them had customer on-time performance bad enough to justify some kind of enforcement action by the Surface Transportation Board if Amtrak were to seek it. 2Q FY22 was the first quarter in which there were enough quarters measured and tracked to meet the regulation's requirements for two straight quarters of poor performance. Moreover, 14 of the 15 long-distance routes could, theoretically, have qualified for enforcement or investigation as of the end of the second quarter. Only the City of New Orleans, with its first-quarter score of 80 percent, would not have made that list.

Your Association staff is preparing filings of support to the docket, which will include our own tracking data as well as additional examples from passengers of how the delays have hurt them. If you have your own Sunset horror story, please follow this link to share it with us so that we can use it in our filings.

You can read Amtrak’s detailed complaint and evidence at this link, as well as Amtrak’s shorter procedural motion here at this link.

Photo credit: Amtrak