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Rail News: Amtrak

Court: Passenger-rail law grants unconstitutional regulatory powers to Amtrak


By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday once again ruled that the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 grants Amtrak unconstitutional regulatory authority because it requires the passenger railroad to develop performance metrics for its freight counterparts.

Under the law, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration are required to craft performance metrics and standards as a way of enforcing Amtrak's statutory priority over other trains. However, since Congress designated Amtrak as a private corporation, the development of these standards represents an "unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to a private entity," Judge Janice Brown wrote in the court's opinion.

"[Congress'] chartered entities may either compete, as market participants, or regulate, as official bodies," she wrote. "To do both is an affront to 'the very nature of things,' especially due process."

The D.C. court previously issued the same decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it and sent it back for reconsideration. On remand from the superior court, the D.C. court maintained its position.

In 2011, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) challenged the provision of the PRIIA that allows Amtrak to create performance standards. The association is pleased with the appeals court's latest opinion, said AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg in an email.

"Amtrak and host freight railroads have longstanding relationships in which Amtrak performance has always been governed by individual contracts that freight railroads maintain, are better suited to address issues on individual routes than the 'one-size fits all' metrics and standards," Greenberg said.

Despite the AAR's challenge to the performance metrics, the association and its freight-rail members "recognize the importance of Amtrak and are committed to reliable passenger-rail service," he added.

Amtrak is disappointed with the court's decision, railroad officials said in an email.

"The members of Congress from both parties who approved that law intended to ensure that Amtrak trains receive priority over freight trains," Amtrak officials said in a statement.  "We hope that this legal morass will be resolved soon."

The national passenger railroad continues to urge the Surface Transportation Board to move forward with pending matters that require freight railroads to meet an 80 percent on-time performance benchmark, which "remains a requirement under the law," Amtrak officials said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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