Federal Railroad Administration proposes on-time performance metrics for Amtrak

A photograph of two trains.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is proposing service metrics that would measure the on-time performance of Amtrak’s intercity passenger rail operations.

The application of these metrics pertains to the Class I railroads because Amtrak and the Class I railroads share track on certain routes. The Class I railroads own the track but passenger trains have priority dispatching per congressional mandate.

FRA on Friday said it had issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would define Amtrak’s on-time performance. Amtrak trains would need to achieve an average on-time performance rate of at least 80%.

The rule would also set additional measurements for evaluating how well Amtrak serves the public, including financial performance and customer service metrics, according to FRA.

The agency said that in crafting the proposed rule, it conferred with numerous stakeholders, including the Class I railroads, Amtrak employee labor organizations, an advocacy group representing Amtrak passengers and the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

“After extensive stakeholder consultation, FRA is proposing new metrics to promote transparency for railroads and travelers alike,” said FRA Administrator Ron Batory. “We expect that all parties are interested in achieving higher performance.”

Establishing these on-time performance metrics and standards could enable Amtrak to sue the freight railroads if they’re unable to accommodate Amtrak in meeting the metrics. The idea of filing lawsuits against the freight railroads so that Amtrak can meet on-time performance standards is not new. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill last November that would enable Amtrak to sue the railroads if Amtrak can’t meet certain on-time performance metrics because of the freight railroads. Meanwhile, the STB has the authority to investigate when trains fail to meet an average on-time performance rate of 80% for two consecutive quarters.

FRA expects the Federal Register to publish the proposed rulemaking notice soon. Once it’s available, written public comments can be submitted for 60 days. FRA also plans to hold a hearing on the issue, possibly online should the agency need to comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding COVID-19.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, also known as PRIIA, mandated that FRA and Amtrak jointly develop new or improved metrics and standards that would measure the performance and service quality of intercity passenger train operations.

FRA and Amtrak drafted metrics and standards, but the freight railroads contended that Amtrak shouldn’t have a role in drafting the standards since Amtrak has a vested interest in what the standards should be. The issue of how to interpret Section 207 of PRIIA, which defines Amtrak’s involvement, was under debate in the federal courts for several years. It even made its way to the Supreme Court, whose ruling led to the eventual outcome that Amtrak could be involved in drafting metrics and standards.