For the first time ever, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board is asking for comments from YOU, the rail-riding public, on two important proposed rule-making decisions: one concerns on-time performance standards and the other centers on whether passenger trains can continue to be given preference in transit on host railroads.

This is one of the extremely rare times in which regulators will be watching the total number of comments, so it’s important that the regulators hear individually from all NARP members and interested rail passengers right away on both actions, but no later than the two deadlines: Feb. 8, 2016, for On-Time Performance, and Feb. 22, 2016, for passenger-train preference.

Generally the STB limits comments to those directly related to the industry, and you can be sure that industry has already weighed in – and continues to weigh in – on these very important points. Don’t let YOUR voice get drowned out, and don’t let YOUR concerns go uncounted!

BACKGROUND

On December 28, 2015, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) issued two decisions proposing definitions and policy guidance regarding passenger train on-time performance (OTP) and related preference issues. The Board is seeking separate public comments on both proposals. The comment period ends February 8, 2016, for the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) concerning on-time performance, and on February 22, 2016, for STB’s proposed “policy statement” on how it intends to treat the definition of preference.

The December 28, 2015 STB release announcing the actions can be found here. Links to the full text of both decisions are included in this release.

On-Time Performance

The proposed definition would consider a train to be “on time” if it arrives at its final terminus no more than five minutes after its scheduled arrival time for each 100 miles the train operated, or 30 minutes after its scheduled arrival time, whichever is less. 30 minutes would be the maximum tolerance allowed, even for national network trains which can travel over 2,000 miles between end points.

More important, and somewhat disappointing, STB intends to measure OTP only at the endpoints rather than at all stations along a route : in effect, STB is telling Americans in 24 states (those without endpoints, or more than half the states served by Amtrak) that regulators don’t care if YOUR train is on time. Under STB’s proposal, some 90% of Amtrak stations’ OTP would never be measured.

As poor on-time performance is one of the biggest factors which hurts rail passengers, the STB’s proposed rule-making offers the opportunity to provide a significant service improvement for passengers, generating additional revenues for Amtrak, while also reducing operating costs…or it could permanently block Amtrak from taking action to ensure OTP for 65% of its passengers who get off at an intermediate station. (Deadline for comments: February 8, 2016).

Preference

The regulators at the Surface Transportation Board are engaging in administrative overreach on this controversy, issuing a “Policy Statement” on how it will view the need for a right to preference without any input from any outside parties – even though “preference” has already been defined, and periodically reaffirmed, by elected legislators who make the law on behalf of the voting public. The Dept. of Justice and the Dept. of Transportation have also addressed preference on numerous occasions.

This “statement,” which would have effects every bit as binding and far-reaching as an actual rule, was issued without hearing any evidence, without taking any public testimony, and without even undergoing any kind of formal rulemaking procedure.

Behind closed doors, regulators are trying to fundamentally change the rules of the game for how Amtrak can press host railroads to honor their legal obligations…going around the intent of Congress as expressed some 30 years ago and consistently reaffirmed in law and court rulings.

The law was originally written so that host railroads – essentially rescued by taxpayers in 1970 when Amtrak was created to relieve the host railroads of having to run passenger trains – had to give passenger trains preference unless they could win an exemption by proving that preference for passenger trains would “materially lessen the quality of transportation provided to freight shippers.” STB’s unelected rulemakers want to flip the burden of proof on to Amtrak, even though the law (49 U.S. Code Section 24308c) was written to put the burden of proof on host railroads. The STB wants to force Amtrak to prove to the bureaucrats that a host railroad’s failure to give preference did NOT “materially lessen the quality of freight transportation.”

NARP is urging its members and the rail-riding public to call for this “policy statement” to be withdrawn, because we believe changing what laws say and how they’re applied should be done by elected lawmakers and not by bureaucrats behind closed doors. (Deadline for comments: February 22, 2016)

HOW TO FILE YOUR COMMENTS

NARP Board Member John DeLora has prepared the following information to assist you in submitting comments:

Last March, NARP wrote to the STB about poor on-time performance nation-wide and in particular noted the extremely poor performance on Amtrak routes owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway (NS). The STB responded to NARP that they hadn’t received any complaints. NARP sent the STB the 1,300 plus complaints and stories we had received via our on-line campaign over the previous six months. Within two days, the STB sent a letter to NS demanding to know what NS was doing to improve OTP.

NS and the other railroads over which Amtrak operates immediately took notice and within days, virtually every route in the country began showing significant improvement.

But without the proposed STB OTP rulemaking going into effect, it is possible that the railroads will once again let Amtrak OTP suffer. Your comments WILL make a difference again, just as they did in the Fall of 2014!

NARP is asking you to file comments both as an individual and — if you are with a government entity, chamber of commerce, university, student organization or other interested party — to also file comments representing the organization.

The following information tells you how to file a comment. For passenger advocates, it is better to file as an individual; so leave the “affiliated” box on the STB form blank. If you are with any official body, do state your affiliation.

Some points to make when commenting as an INDIVIDUAL:

  • Clearly state that you do ride Amtrak – be VERY BRIEF as to the reasons for your travel.
  • List what station you normally travel from.
  • Speak to the importance of on-time trains to you (particularly if you regularly connect to other trains or services which can be affected by late trains).
  • Identify if your city does not have scheduled air or intercity bus service! If the train is the only available public transportation option in your area, speak to the importance of on-time and reliable Amtrak service.

If you are affiliated with an ORGANIZATION, please include all of the above points PLUS:

  • The importance of existing AND FUTURE train service growth to your community.
  • Ridership at your city’s station (this can be found at http://narprail.org/our-issues/ridership-statistics/. This data is available in many forms, but “by city” will probably be most useful for you. When you click on OK for Adobe Acrobat, give it about a minute to open up (It’s a HUGE file). Use the scroll bar on the right to scroll down to your city.

The STB’s proposed rulemaking allows for ten minutes late for each intermediate stop and for up to 30 minutes late at route endpoints. I suggest that we use ten minutes late for all intermediate and end-point stops, period.

How to file comments with the STB:

1. Compose your comments on a computer, which should include the docket number at the top (EP-726-0 in this case), your name and mailing address

  • Include why on-time performance is important to you.
  • State what you think is a reasonable standard – within 5, 10, 15 minutes of schedule, and should it apply to intermediate stations as well as end-point stations.

2. Save your comment document in PDF format (this is a STB requirement) and in an appropriate file name.

3. Go to www.STB.DOT.Gov

4. Click on “Efiling”, then on e-file in the drop-down box in the upper left.

5. You must create a ‘Log-In Account’. To do this select the ‘Request A Log-In Account’ button on the top right of the ‘Welcome to E-Filing at STB’ page. Provide the requested information and hit submit.

6. Click on ‘ Formal Filing’

7. When asked if you have served all parties, answer ‘NO’.

8. For NARP members, when it asks for ‘Affiliation’, leave blank or enter ‘none’.

9. Proceed directly down to ‘continue;

10. Fill out the form, making sure all fields with an asterisk are filled out, then scroll down and click on ‘browse’ to attach your PDF comments document file.

After submitting your comments you will receive an auto-reply return email stating it has been received by the STB.

The next business day you can go to http://www.stb.dot.gov/filings/all.nsf/WebFilingDate?openform to see all filings. They are organized by date of filing, so scroll down until you see yours. You can read the filings of others, too.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact John Delora at 313-757-6608 or via email at jdelorasr@gmail.com.

Thank you for taking the time to submit a comment. Your efforts will help improve the train riding experince of all passengers.