Saturday, April 07, 2007

Steve Hallock calls for Amtrak "priority" not "preference" on freight tracks

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Southern Illinois University professor Steve Hallock points out that the host railroads have been doing a worse job moving Amtrak trains on-time over their tracks.

As he writes:
The private freight companies that own most of the tracks used by Amtrak outside the Boston-New York-Washington corridor fail to yield the rails to passenger trains — despite a federal regulation that Amtrak is supposed to have “preference over freight transportation” in using tracks. According to an Amtrak spokesman, the only way for this to change is for the Justice Department, acting on behalf of Amtrak or under its own initiative, to file a lawsuit.

Such a suit is unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the Bush administration’s hostility toward Amtrak, as demonstrated in its continued substandard budget proposals and its call for privatization of the train service. And then there’s the wording of the regulation, which uses “preference” rather than “top priority” or “maximum priority.” This language is vague enough to stymie any successful litigation.

We should improve the FRA regulation and require the host railroads to invest Amtrak trains -- which are the only trains in the network with a timetable to keep, as freight trains are not on any schedule besides asap -- with a "maximum priority" over all other traffic.

The Lautenberg-Lott bill (get those co-sponsors, readers) also invests the Surface Transportation Board and not the Department of Justice with the ability to enforce the regulation.

And we should take this a step further. Those host railroads that do a good job moving Amtrak trains on time should be financially rewarded. They ought to make more money moving an Amtrak train through their network than they do moving a coal or UPS train. And if a host railroad does a bad job moving Amtrak trains, they ought to be fined a significant amount of money.

Unenforced regulations clearly are not working. It's time for new policy solutions to the problem of getting the host railroads to move Amtrak trains on time. Market incentives have to be part of the solution.


Blogger Benjamin said...

Absolutely! The DOT's statistics website (sorry, can't find the URL right now) said that in 2006, over 70% of Amtrak delays were from freight railroad interference, and it's only getting worse. MWHSRA should push big for "priority over preference" with legislators.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Christopher Parker said...

That means 30% of delays were NOT from the freight railroads - which is high. I'm sure some of that is weather and inevitable, but there have been ongoing equipment maintenance issues.

3:22 PM  

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