11-year Saga Over Amtrak’s On-Time Performance Metrics Comes to an End

11-year Saga Over Amtrak’s On-Time Performance Metrics Comes to an End

December 04, 2020  | Paul Lewis

It seems fitting that the “Amtrak Joe” Biden Administration will be able to use new data to evaluate the performance of America’s intercity passenger trains. But like the Sunset Limited, these metrics arrive at the station after a lengthy delay. In fact, the incoming president can thank George W. Bush for signing the law that requires Amtrak to report on-time performance and enables the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to investigate and punish host railroads for excessive delays.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA, Public Law 110-432) required Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop metrics and minimum standards for measuring the performance and service quality of Amtrak service. After a 10-year court battle that made its way to the Supreme Court (twice), FRA published the final rule the week before Thanksgiving.

While PRIIA requires reporting of metrics on a number of performance areas, including financial, customer service, and public benefits, it’s the on-time performance (OTP) metrics that are most important to intercity passenger rail. Given that the private railroads on which Amtrak operates cause some of its delays, and that these delays are often outside of Amtrak’s direct control, it currently has little recourse for addressing those delays. But Section 213 of the PRIIA law enables the STB to use the OTP metrics as a basis for investigating and awarding damages when warranted.

The rule also mandates greater transparency from Amtrak, which has to report when it is responsible for certain delays, if it is meeting customer service performance targets, and be open about its financial performance. The final rule applies to all intercity Amtrak trains, but not to other intercity passenger trains not run by Amtrak or by commuter railroads.

On time performance metric

The FRA settled on a simple, straightforward “customer on-time performance (OTP)” metric for its primary measurement of on time. As defined in the rulemaking:

The customer on-time performance (OTP) is percentage of all customers on an intercity passenger rail train who arrive at their detraining point no later than 15 minutes after their published scheduled arrival time, reported by train and by route.

The final rule requires Amtrak and host railroads to negotiate schedules to something that they agree is achievable. The customer OTP is weighted for all passengers using a straightforward calculation laid out in the rulemaking.

The standard for the customer OTP is a weighted average of 80 percent on-time for all customers over two consecutive quarters. The 80 percent OTP standard does not change over time. While the standard is set at 80 percent, a train or route dipping below that 80 percent threshold does not necessarily spur an STB investigation nor does it mean that freight railroads are responsible for missing the standard. The other metrics in the rule can help STB make the determination on whether an investigation or penalty are warranted. The rule delays the application of the customer OTP standard until later in 2021 to give time to resolve disputes over schedules.

(Note: The metric and the standard are a huge improvement over the original final rule published in 2009, which was invalidated by court order. In that rule, FRA set a 3-part definition for on-time, including “effective speed,” measured to a FY 2007 baseline (or in other cases a 2008 baseline) with the standards improving over time.)

Other metrics

The final rule includes the following metrics as part of on-time performance:

  • Train delays: total minutes of delay for all Amtrak-responsible delays, host-responsible delays, and third-party delays for the host railroad territory within each route.
  • Station performance metric: number of detraining passengers, the number of late passengers, and the average minutes late that late customers arrive at their detraining stations, reported by route, by train, and by station
  • Host Running Time: the average actual running time and median actual running time compared to the schedule running time between first and final reporting points for a host railroad segment, reported by route, by train, and by host railroad.
  • Train Delays per 10,000 train miles: minutes of delay per 10,000 train miles for all Amtrak-responsible and host -responsible delays for the host railroad territory within each route.

The rule requires Amtrak to report six metrics on customer service. Based on customer satisfaction surveys, Amtrak must report overall satisfaction and satisfaction with Amtrak personnel, information given, on-board comfort, on-board cleanliness, and food service.

Amtrak must also report financial metrics, including cost recovery, avoidable operating costs covered by passenger revenue, fully allocated core operating costs covered by passenger revenue, average ridership, and total ridership.

Finally, Amtrak has to report several metrics that relate to what the rulemaking calls public benefits. These include:

  • Connectivity (percent of passengers connecting to and from other Amtrak routes)
  • Missed connections (percent of passengers that missed connection to an Amtrak service)
  • Community access (percent of Amtrak trips to and from not-well-served comminutes, as further defined in the rulemaking)
  • Service availability (number of daily trains per 100,000 MSA population for top 100 MSAs)

The end of the line?

 The metrics and standards have the potential to directly address the dismal state of Amtrak’s long distance service. Of Amtrak’s 15 long distance routes, only 10 had on-time performance of greater than 50 percent in 2018 (using Amtrak’s metric, not this rule’s). Some route, like the Sunset Limited, arrived on time only 26 percent of the time.

 Although the rule is final, future litigation or revisions to the law could derail things. As discussed in a recent House hearing, the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Board is upcoming, potentially reshaping its role in addressing Amtrak and host rail issues.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents the major freight carriers, has concerns about the metrics, particularly the customer on-time performance. Specifically, the PRIIA law cites using this metric as a basis for investigation of freight rail-caused delay, but the metric itself does not discern between the responsible host railroad. Although the rulemaking recognizes this shortcoming and suggests STB use other metrics during its potential investigation, how this rule is implemented and what it means for Amtrak and the host railroads is still unclear.

Even if the new metrics point to delays that are clearly the fault of the host railroad, current law does not give Amtrak a direct remedy. Amtrak must petition the STB for relief (a lengthy process), or, if the STB decision is not to Amtrak’s liking, the Justice Department has to decide whether or not to take a host railroad to court to enforce Amtrak’s preference right (which Justice rarely does). Section 9204 of the mammoth infrastructure bill passed by House Democrats this past summer would change that law and would give Amtrak the right to take its host railroads to federal court itself to enforce its preference rights.

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