July 11, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

Today the Surface Transportation Board (STB) opened an investigation into the on-time performance of Amtrak's Sunset Limited long-distance passenger train that runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles, along the I-10 corridor through Texas.  Amtrak has argued its service is directly impacted by host railroad Union Pacific's performance. 

The decision announced today follows Amtrak's Complaint and Petition for Board Investigation and Other Relief that was filed in December 2022. When Amtrak filed its complaint the Sunset Limited was one of the worst-performing trains in the entire National Network according to the Federal Railroad Administration's own quarterly data.  

An intercity passenger rail service that provides on-time arrivals to fewer than 80 percent of its passengers for two consecutive quarters may file a complaint with the Board to initiate an investigation.

The Sunset Limited serves El Paso, Alpine, Sanderson, Del Rio, San Antonio, Houston and Beaumont in Texas. 

The complaint and request for an investigation primarily took issue with the performance of Union Pacific, the host railroad for the vast majority of the train’s route. The STB will conduct an investigation and, if found in Amtrak's favor, would determine if penalties against UP would be appropriate.

“Today’s unanimous decision reflects the Board’s serious commitment to fulfilling its Congressionally-established duties under PRIIA to adjudicate disputes over passenger rail on-time performance.” STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman noted, “The investigation that we are initiating today is the first of its kind. It involves a significant Board-led component as well as party-led discovery. This framework will ensure that the Board has the information it needs to fulfill its mandate to enforce the preference standards and ensure reliable on-time performance for passenger rail.”

DC-based Rail Passengers Association President/CEO Jim Mathews stated "“The April host railroad delay report (the most current available) shows that the typical Sunset passenger was late 63 percent of the time, and was an average of an hour and a half late getting to their destination. Freight-train interference is by far the largest single category of delays, and host railroads are responsible for more than two-thirds of all delays.” Matthews also said Amtrak’s delays come as UP runs long freight trains but hasn’t invested in building enough longer sidings to accommodate the trains. 

Delay minutes are tracked for each Amtrak train according to 40 individual delay codes across three categories: Host Responsible Delays (including freight train interference and slow orders on the track), Amtrak Responsible Delays (including equipment problems and delays related to passenger loading and unloading), and Third Party Responsible Delays (primarily weather-related).

The STB it was noted that today’s decision finds that the standard has been met for initiating an investigation under section 213 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) and charts the investigation’s course, which will include fact-finding led by the Board through interrogatories and requirements for production of documents, as well as party-led discovery. 

At the end of the investigation’s first phase, the Board will decide whether delays or failures in on-time performance are attributable to a rail carrier’s failure to provide preference to Amtrak over freight transportation as required by law. Subject to the Board’s first phase decision, a second phase would then develop the record needed to assess possible damages and any other relief.

The Board’s decision in Complaint & Petition of the National Railroad Passenger Corp. Under 49 U.S.C. § 24308(f)—for Substandard Performance of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited Trains 1 & 2, Docket No. NOR 42175, may be viewed and downloaded here

Photo credit: Amtrak, at Sanderson, Texas