Senate passes 'Southwest Chief' and on-time performance amendments

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A Southwest Chief route inspection train prepares to leave Newton, Kan. on Aug 4, 2016.
Two photos, Bob Johnston
The southbound Saluki is more than an hour late passing through Farina, Ill., north of Centralia, Ill., on May 5, 2018.
WASHINGTON – Amtrak management’s refusal to provide a $3 million match that would unlock a $16 million federal grant for Southwest Chief route improvements, as well as an explosion of host railroad delays to passenger trains this summer, have prompted the U.S. Senate to pass two amendments to the chamber’s fiscal 2019 transportation legislation.

Amendment No. 3414 to funding bill H.R. 6147 states, “It is the sense of Congress that 1) long distance rail routes provide much needed transportation access to (millions of) riders in 325 communities in 40 states, and are particularly important in rural areas; and 2) long distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network.” Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and joined by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., the amendment passed 95 to 4. Its clear intent is to tell Amtrak management that it cannot unilaterally decide to scrap portions of the national network.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Heinrich specifically mentioned how Amtrak’s plan to “literally put our citizens in the back of the bus” by truncating the Southwest Chief would harm the communities it serves.

Earlier, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsored Amendment No. 3422 to the same legislation, which instructs Amtrak’s Inspector General to update a 2008 report, “Effects of Amtrak’s Poor On-time Performance.” It passed 99 to 0. Durbin has been a vocal critic of host railroads’ delays to Amtrak trains during the last decade, often calling out Canadian National over its lethargic handling of the state-supported Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., Illini and Saluki.

Repeated delays in that corridor prompted Amtrak to file a lawsuit in 2014 against CN (and another in the Chicago-Cleveland corridor against Norfolk Southern) under terms of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act’s Section 207. The challenge has stalled because the 80 percent on-time performance metrics have since been ruled unconstitutional, as they had been developed jointly by the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak.

However, last week, the D.C. Circuit’s U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the right of Amtrak and the FRA to set on-time performance metrics if the law’s binding arbitration provision were eliminated. Though the Association of American Railroads may challenge the court’s decision, Durbin’s amendment again puts egregious delays under the federal microscope following a period when host railroads could reasonably believe that Amtrak had no legal remedy to enforce its statutory right of preference over freight trains.

Amtrak issued a statement Thursday, noting “on-time performance is one of the biggest factors in customer satisfaction and has been an ongoing challenge. We are pleased that the Senate acknowledged the importance of the issue with a vote of 99-0…We look forward to the report from the Inspector General.”

The company declined to issue a statement “at this time” on Sen. Udall’s amendment aimed at forcing Amtrak to maintain the Southwest Chief route.
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