A rare peek at an Amtrak-host railroad contract

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, July 17, 2018

An examination of the docket (containing all the documents entered into the record) of last week’s two-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing on passenger train safety affords a rare opportunity to read at least parts of one of Amtrak’s commercial and operating agreements with its host railroads, mostly private freight carriers. The NTSB’s inquiry into what happened to lead to Amtrak’s Silver Star being diverted onto a siding south of Columbia to collide with a parked CSX freight train in the wee hours of Feb. 4 has led the federal investigative body to examine Amtrak’s contractual relationship with CSX. Thus the agreement between these two railroads, albeit a redacted copy, has come into the public domain. 

Amtrak's eastbound Cardinal, operating on the CSX-controlled Buckingham Branch Railroad (ex-C&O), passes over the Norfolk Southern ex-Norfolk & Western Shenandoah Valley line at Waynesboro, Va. in April 2011. Photo by Flickr.com user John Mueller.
Reading the agreement, though it is mostly dry legalese, feels like getting to take a peek behind a curtain, since the text of Amtrak’s host railroad agreements is generally kept under wraps as proprietary commercial information. They are considered contracts between private parties, despite the fact that they greatly influence how Amtrak is able to carry out its public mission (for which Congress created it and the U.S. president appoints its directors) and the effectiveness with which it is able to invest taxpayer dollars. For these reasons, I would favor a requirement that similarly redacted copies of each of Amtrak’s 37 agreements with 30 host railroads be made publicly accessible.

The agreement currently in force with CSX was first executed on June 1, 1999 and has since been amended once. Even though everything in the document pertaining to money (primarily the amounts Amtrak pays CSX for its hosting services) and liability is blacked out from the public copy, it still offers some interesting insights into how the prerogative that Amtrak has had since Congress granted it in 1970 is exercised. Among them:

  • CSX is obligated to move Amtrak trains efficiently: The freight carrier “shall make every reasonable effort … to deliver Amtrak trains to all scheduled passenger stops … by the scheduled time therefor” and “to avoid excessive delays and, consistent with safety, to make up delays” regardless of where they occur, as well as “to service, inspect, and perform running repairs as necessary” so that an Amtrak train may complete its trip over CSX lines.
  • Track maintenance to passenger standards: CSX is required to maintain all of its lines used by Amtrak at the same level of utility (a measure that includes track classification and speed and “a reasonable degree of passenger comfort”) as they were at the start of the agreement, with limited exceptions. CSX must bear the entire cost of such maintenance, though Amtrak reimburses the freight carrier for the incremental cost that hosting its trains imposes on CSX. The host may adjust speeds at various locations as long as the overall ‘pure running time’ (scheduled time minus dwell times and padding) on that segment is not lengthened. If CSX receives FRA approval to downgrade a track segment resulting in lengthening of Amtrak’s running time, Amtrak must pay for any adjustments necessary to maintain its previous higher speed.
  • CSX cannot object to Amtrak carrying mail and express: CSX agrees to provide Amtrak “with the use of facilities and the services requested by Amtrak” for operating Amtrak trains, “including the carrying of mail and express … to the extent authorized by the [Passenger Rail Service Act of 1970].”
  • Undefined ‘physical capabilities’: Amtrak’s “routes, schedules and consists shall be compatible with the physical capabilities of CSXT.” However, it is not explained how CSX’s physical capabilities are to be determined.
  • Amtrak has right to run additional & special trains over CSX track: “Amtrak shall have the right from time to time to request, and … CSXT hereby agrees to provide modified or additional services, including special trains,” though these trains “shall be subject to the physical limitations of CSXT and shall give due regard to CSXT’s speed, weight and other operating restrictions and rules and safety standards and to the avoidance of unreasonable interference with the adequacy, safety and efficiency of its other railroad operations.” Conversely, CSX must also recognize “the importance of fast and convenient schedules and passenger comfort and convenience to the success” of Amtrak services.
  • Eastbound Capitol Limited train 30 passes under B&O-heritage signals on CSX's Cumberland Subdivision at Cross Roads, W.Va in December 2010. Photo by Flickr.com user John Mueller.
    CSX must maintain its facilities used by Amtrak: If the host disposes of an ancillary facility that it owns but is used by Amtrak, such as a station building, platform, canopy or servicing facility, it must notify Amtrak and, on Amtrak’s request, “furnish a substitute facility reasonably equivalent in utility.” This does not apply to CSX-owned facilities that are leased to Amtrak.
  • CSX may not voluntarily dispose of any line used by passenger trains listed in Amtrak’s public timetable without Amtrak’s prior written approval, and “seasonal changes or suspensions of [Amtrak] service of 180 days or less shall not be deemed discontinuance of use” by Amtrak.
  • Limits on CSX’s capital responsibility: The host is not required to “purchase, construct, rebuilt or replace Rail Lines, locomotives, cars, rolling stock or ancillary facilities” though it must furnish all labor, materials equipment and facilities necessary to host Amtrak trains.

The only question Amtrak or CSX officials received at the NTSB hearing regarding this contract pertained to whether it contains explicit safety requirements or metrics. Safety is only referenced six times in the non-redacted part of the document, which only generically refers to Amtrak operations over CSX being in keeping with the host’s safety standards and to safety concerns being considered when contemplating changes or additions to Amtrak’s operations on CSX lines. “By regulation, we’re governed by the host railroad’s operating practices and we report to their supervision when our crews traverse those routes,” explained Amtrak Vice President for Safety Compliance and Training Justin Meko in the hearing. Amtrak can require its crew to undertake more restrictive precautions than the host requires in areas that Amtrak has control over, but cannot compel a host railroad to enforce practices more restrictive than its existing policy.

The U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the world where a government-sponsored quasi-public company operates passenger trains over private infrastructure whose owners, at best, tolerate their presence and have no compunction nor commercial incentive to help passenger rail thrive. As this complex and legally fraught arrangement nears its 50th anniversary of existence in the U.S., perhaps it’s time to consider ways it could be improved upon. Ultimately, I believe a mix of stronger regulations and more incentives for host-tenant cooperation are needed, along with measures to level the playing field for would-be passenger train operators other than Amtrak. The national carrier must continue to maintain and improve upon an interconnected coast-to-coast ground travel network, but it need not hold a de facto monopoly on its product.

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