Biden's Executive Order Acknowledges Passenger Rail's Biggest Problem

Outside the northeast, Amtrak uses privately-owned freight tracks, and getting stuck behind freight trains is the biggest cause of delays.
July 9, 2021, 2:51pm
Freight Train
Bill Clark / Contributor via Getty Images
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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On Friday, President Biden issued an executive order aimed at creating more competition in the American economy. The wide-ranging order covers many important issues ranging from right to repair to ownership of banking data to big tech mergers. And it called out one of the biggest stumbling blocks to more productive and useful passenger train service in the country, an issue that past administrations have rarely if ever formally acknowledged. It is the conflict between Amtrak service and the private freight rail companies that own the tracks they use.

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The stakes for this seemingly minor conflict are high. As record heat waves descend around the country, tropical storms and hurricanes become more frequent, and extreme weather of all kinds is being linked by experts to the human impact on climate change, reducing harmful emissions from transportation is an urgent priority. Moving trips from cars and planes to passenger rail is a great way to accomplish part of that goal. Unfortunately, few Americans can be convinced to do so in part because Amtrak cannot run reliable, consistent service between nearby cities.

Outside the Northeast corridor, Amtrak travels on someone else's tracks. Those tracks are owned, operated, and maintained by private freight rail companies. There are seven major freight rail companies, called Class I railroads, each with market-dominant roles in their specific geographic regions. In other words, they don't have meaningful competition and are incredibly influential in political lobbying efforts in their regions and, collectively, in Washington. 

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In each case, Amtrak has the legal rights to use their tracks, a deal that was struck as part of Amtrak's creation in the 1970s. Technically, it has even more than that: a legal imperative that the track owners prioritize passenger train traffic over freight, holding and even pulling freight trains over onto side tracks when possible to allow passenger trains through. The specific language in the law is Amtrak has the "preference," but freight railroad associations have fought to interpret that word to mean the exact opposite. In 2016, the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees the railroad industry, essentially ruled that the word "preference" means what you think it means. 

The problem is, this preference for passenger rail rarely happens in practice. Even after the STB's ruling, delays attributed to the "host railroad" have remained high. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the "host railroad" is responsible for more than half of all delay time across the country. This is time that Amtrak trains spend waiting for track to clear. If you've ever been riding Amtrak outside the Northeast and the train is just sitting there for no apparent reason, it is likely you were waiting for a freight train to get out of the way.

Biden's executive order directly recognizes this problem. "Freight railroads that own the tracks can privilege their own freight traffic—making it harder for passenger trains to have on-time service—and can overcharge other companies’ freight cars," it says in a sentence that echoes back to the Gilded Age robber baron days. As for what the order will do about it, Biden is encouraging "the Surface Transportation Board to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly."

This is easier said than done. As transportation guru Uday Schultz detailed in an extensive post, "The root of the freight-passenger mixing issue lies not in some nefarious desire on the part of the freight railroads to delay passenger trains, or one on the part of Amtrak to inconvenience their hosts. Instead, the problem stems from the fact that Amtrak and freight carriers exist in fundamentally different operating paradigms." 

As Schultz detailed, passenger trains run, in theory, on tight schedules, while freight trains may run on "schedules" where a departure is measured within hours rather than minutes, or maybe with no schedule at all and will leave when it has enough cargo. However, the freight industry's transition to a new business philosophy called precision scheduled railroading has slashed workforces and made the industry less safe, but it has also consolidated operations onto a more rigorous schedule than before which, in theory, could make coordinating with Amtrak possible. 

But, as we've seen before, theory is different from practice. The passenger rail part of the executive order instructs the Surface Transportation Board to do something it should have been doing already: enforce an existing law despite industry pressure to let it slide because it would hurt the bottom line. A core principle of precision scheduled railroading is operating efficiency, and it is not efficient to have freight trains waiting for passenger trains to go by, just as it's not efficient for passengers in a rail car doing the same. It won't be easy, but passenger rail in this country has little hope of growing if freight trains are still going to block the way.