STB urges mediation in Amtrak-CN contract renewal dispute

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Southbound 'City of New Orleans' approaches Jackson, Miss., on April 12, 2019. Most of the train’s recovery time, or padding, is lumped at two checkpoints; Amtrak wants on time performance to be measured throughout the route.
Bob Johnston
WASHINGTON – The Surface Transportation Board will appoint a mediator to resolve differences in long-simmering operating agreement negotiations between Amtrak and Canadian National.

The agency’s decision, released late last week, provides a rare glimpse inside a document which governs on time performance measurement, financial incentives, and penalties.

Amtrak and its hosts generally keep contract details between each other secret, routinely rebuffing attempts at outside investigation on grounds that divulging one carrier’s agreements can be used as competitive leverage in negotiating other contracts. Despite requests by both Amtrak and CN not to do so, the STB “determined that it could not present interim findings and guidance with respect to particular issues without disclosing certain (confidential) information.”

The case dates from July 30, 2013, when Amtrak requested that the STB, “institute a proceeding to establish reasonable terms and compensation for Amtrak’s use of the facilities and services of CN” because the two parties were unable to agree on provisions of a new contract. Discovery, rebuttals, and supplemental arguments between the two parties dragged on through March, 2019.

The STB’s position is that Amtrak and CN must still hammer out an agreement under the auspices of a 30-day “Board-sponsored mediation.” Chairman Ann Begeman is directed to name one or more mediators by next week.

Here is a brief synopsis of the significant issues in dispute and the STB’s view on each:

Measuring on-time performance
  • CN: Wants it measured as in the current contract, generally only at endpoints
  • Amtrak: Wants it calculated based on host railroad delays and arrival times at all stations
  • STB: Asks parties to negotiate an all-station metric because the current endpoint-only measurement reduces service quality for passengers traveling between intermediate stops, which comprise 75% to 95% of travelers aboard Amtrak trains traveling on CN tracks.
Incentives and penalties
  • CN: Wants to maintain the status quo but lengthen schedules if sufficient infrastructure doesn’t exist to make them realistically achievable
  • Amtrak: Wants to pay incentives based on achieving 80% on time performance, less penalties which include a metric accounting for minutes of host railroad delay
  • STB: Affirms it has jurisdiction on applying the 80% on-time performance requirement and urges the parties to incorporate a “degree of lateness into their penalty calculation” because “while increasing the lateness of already-late Amtrak trains may not have negative consequences for CN, it negatively affects Amtrak and its passengers.”
Incremental costs
  • CN: Wants costs to include delays to its freight trains caused by the presence of Amtrak trains
  • Amtrak: Wants costs it must pay CN to be limited only to “avoidable costs in the short run” (because the Amtrak train is running on CN property) rather than including costs to maintain physical plant used only by passenger trains or cost incurred by CN to provide preference.
  • STB: Says any costs incorporated into the agreement must be “specific, verifiable, and quantifiable.”
The Board acknowledges that Amtrak and CN had differences on establishing the root cause of delays or how a recovery time base is determined and distributed across a schedule, but declined to offer any findings.

It also devolved a long-standing dispute over inadequate automatic crossing warning device shunting of certain Amtrak trains to the Federal Railroad Administration, which the STB revealed is already actively investigating. The railroad now requires minimum passenger train axle counts on all of its routes, while other host railroads do not.

“The STB’s decision provides Amtrak and CN with guidance on a number of important issues and orders the parties to mediate to try to resolve outstanding issues,” Canadian National spokesman Alexandre Boule tells Trains News Wire. “CN appreciates the Board’s approach and agrees that the parties are best-equipped to negotiate an operating agreement (and) looks forward to working with Amtrak to reach an agreement.”

Trains News Wire is awaiting a response from Amtrak.

The STB’s 29-page decision is available online.
The northbound 'Illini' crosses CSX Transportation’s ex-Baltimore & Ohio route at Odin, Ill., where the diamond has been removed, on April 6, 2019. Amtrak says CN has caused the Carbondale-Chicago train to incur numerous delays.
Bob Johnston
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