News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak asks federal regulators to investigate Union Pacific handling of Sunset Limited

Amtrak asks federal regulators to investigate Union Pacific handling of Sunset Limited

By David Lassen | December 9, 2022

In first use of new enforcement procedure, passenger railroad seeks damages, other relief for delays it says result from freight train interference

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Passenger train stopped at station platform under blue skies
Passenger train stopped at station platform under blue skies
The Sunset Limited stops in Houston on  June 9, 2021. Amtrak has asked the Surface Transportation Board to investigate Union Pacific’s handling of the train. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Amtrak has asked the Surface Transportation Board to investigate what it calls the “abysmal” on-time performance of the Sunset Limited, which it attributes largely to the operating practices of Union Pacific, and seeks “damages and other relief” from UP as a result of those practices.

Amtrak lays out the details of its complaint in a 76-page document, one of two filings with the board on Thursday, Dec. 8. Since the complaint is the first of its kind under a provision of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 — which charges the STB with the responsibility to investigate passenger on-time performance issues and how to address those issues — Amtrak has also proposed a framework for the proceeding in a separate 17-page filing.

Amtrak’s filings came on the same day that the STB announced it had selected senior staff member Neil Moyer to serve as acting director of the STB Office of Passenger Rail, which is responsible for investigating and analyzing issues exactly like those raised in Amtrak’s filing. The board established that office in October.

The Wall Street Journal originally reported the filing in a paywalled article published Thursday. Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner told the Journal, “The public and Amtrak have waited a long time for what really is a pretty straightforward activity, which is just to have the board investigate and figure out what’s going on with these services that are failing to meet the basic standards.”

Graph showing lateness of Sunset Limited passengers with roughly four times as many late as on time
A graph showing the degree of lateness of passengers on the westbound Sunset Limited in fiscal 2022. Amtrak

The triweekly Sunset Limited travels most of its route between New Orleans and Los Angeles on Union Pacific. Amtrak’s filing alleges that during the passenger operator’s fiscal year that concluded in September, and in violation of Amtrak’s statutory right to dispatching preference, the train averaged more than 15 instances of freight train interference per trip, resulting in an average of more than four hours of delays.

The Federal Railroad Administration established on-time performance standards in 2020 — after a lengthy series of court battles — that require 80% of passengers to reach their destination within 15 minutes of the scheduled time [see “Analysis: FRA seeks Amtrak, host railroad scheduling cooperation,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 20, 2020]. Under those standards, the Sunset is currently the worst-performing train on Amtrak’s network and among the worst-performing in Amtrak history, the company says.

Over the last four quarters, the westbound train, No. 1, has posted customer on-time figures of 40%, 24%, 10%, and 11%; the eastbound train, No. 2, has posted figures of 40%, 35%, 11%, and 7%. Some 80% of passengers on No. 1 arrived more than 15 minutes late; for No. 2, the figure was 78%. Amtrak says UP is responsible for 74.2% of the delays, while it is responsible for 20.8% of delays and third parties are responsible for the remaining 5.1%.

The filing argues that many of the delays incurred by the Sunset are “attributable to UP corporate decisions, operational practices, or failures that result in systemic violations of Amtrak preference rights and cause substandard [customer on-time performance]”. Among those, it says, are that UP regularly runs freight trains longer than sidings along its route; when UP dispatches freight trains that do not fit into sidings, “the Sunset Limited trains must follow that non-fitter, which can result in hours of passenger delay.”

In addition to damages, Amtrak asks for relief “including (but not limited to) an injunction and other appropriate equitable relief to deter UP from taking future actions which may be reasonably be expected to result in delays to Amtrak on the Sunset Limited route.” Any damages, it says, would be used for capital or operating expenses on the route.

Amtrak’s second filing asks that the board investigate the steps that UP has taken to improve the customer on-time performance of the Sunset Limited and “whether and how UP’s corporate strategies and objectives drive substandard Amtrak on-time performance.” On the latter point, it asks the board to look at such matters as “how UP has reconciled its decision to implement Precision Scheduled Railroading with its obligations to host intercity passenger trains over the UP network.” It suggests that the board split its proceeding into two phases — an investigative phase to determine the cause of delays, and whether they are due to a failure to provide preference to Amtrak, and a remedial phase to determine possible damages and corrective action. It also offers a broad range of procedural suggestions regarding documents and interviews that should be part of the proceeding.

Asked for a response to the filing Union Pacific said in a statement today that “The Sunset Route is a critical Union Pacific artery, carrying freight trains with consumer goods between the West Coast ports and Texas, as well as passengers. It is essential that Union Pacific and Amtrak collaborate to design a schedule that is reasonable and achievable. We welcome the opportunity to share our efforts with the STB and remain committed to finding a solution that provides excellent service for passengers and freight customers.”

Prior to the creation of the procedure now being used for the first time, only the U.S. Department of Justice could bring a case regarding performance issues on behalf of Amtrak. That happened only once — in 1979 over Southern Pacific’s handling of the Sunset west of New Orleans.

20 thoughts on “Amtrak asks federal regulators to investigate Union Pacific handling of Sunset Limited

  1. Off topic but on the topic of UPRR. I wonder (idle speculation) if UPRR’s trouble has anything to do with Stellantis closing the Belividere (Illinois) assembly plant. The plant’s location near Rockford never made any sense to me, as Chrysler was relatively concentrated in Detroit and its inner suburbs. Although Chrysler was more dependent on its own truck fleet and less on railroads, why it would choose to locate on a CNW branch line was curious, as CNW did not serve Michigan.

    This could mean the end for UPRR’s branch line from West Chicago to Rockford, which also serve the Illinois Railroad Museum.

  2. I have said it before, I’ll say it again, Union Pacific is in the hands of short term profit Wall Street types, NOT Railroad men who want to make money running a railroad, which means you provide a service good enough to keep and get customers who want rail service. Just look at how UP runs itself, long slow trains, (fewer crews) razor thin staffing, ect. all to run at the lowest possible cost to please a Wall Street investor who could care less about RR service….just make money IN THE SHORT QUARTERLY TERM

    1. Exactly right Mr Kimball. Railroads need to be run by railroaders who have a vision for the long term. Innovations that are practical and workable for service to our nation and its people. Railroads as well as other industries that are important to the economy, the people and the national security should never be the plaything of Wall St, short term investors or hedge funds.

  3. I wouldn’t expect less from Utterly Pathetic. They are a perfect example of how not to run a railroad. Be Specific…. Don’t ship Union Pacific.

  4. I said this when SP was running 1 and 2 late regularly. Look at the performance of the freight trains and it’s clear the RR is incapable of running ANYTHING on time.

    UP can point to its current embargo history. It’s clear it has decapitalized and has avoided adding facilities for its megatrains to the extent that it can’t handle the traffic it has.

    And that’s why 1 and 2 can’t run on time to any schedule.

  5. Another Problem is that the Union Pacific (after purchasing from Southern Pacific) has reduced the speed limits on a relatively straight Sunset route over the last 20 years for passenger trains due to internal engineering standards, further flattening of the curves, or other reasons (Just easier not to raise speeds). This can be clearly seen from a review of changes in the employee timetables over these years. Sometimes there were segments of stretches of higher speed running, but now these stretches have been eliminated. Did the U.P. simply not want to put up a change in speed limit sign on the right of way? Some railroads used this as an excuse in the past. With each lowering of passenger train speed limits, there is one more opportunity for a late train. Because of less 70, 75, and 79 mph running, there is less opportunity for recovery of a late train. Some should take a further look at what U.P has done here.

    1. Lower speed limits cost less, and that adds to the lower operating cost which improves the operating ratio. All of which most importantly keeps the stock price up that increases senior executives compensation. It is that simple.

  6. We must not forget that Amtrak gave the UP many hours of added running time on this route–beginning way back in the Alex Kummant era at Amtrak. But as with the more recent slow-up of the CRESCENT to “help” NS untangle its precision unscheduled railroad when Amtrak adds running time the freight carrier almost always takes it and continues to stab the passenger train. “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

  7. Nothing new here. We all know that the freight railroads hate Amtrak and will do whatever is possible tp make life miserable for Amtrak. The freight railroads are well armed with top notch lawyers, lobbyists and their friends and backers on Wall Street. Amtrak is fighting an uphill battle with the freight lines to win it’s case . However Amtrak has plenty of blame and faults of their own Equipment shortages, poor mainenance, and bumbling and inept management and the inability to hire and keep workers. Not to take the side of the freight lines or defend them but if you are running an operation that brings in money for your investors and stockholders and keeps Wall Street happy, are you going to be happy with a daily passenger train that fouls up your time sensitive freight shipments and causes endless delays for customers and shippers ? I would think not. But on the other hand both parties are to blame for this mess The freight railroads and Amtrak for not working together or cooperating to ensure smooth seamless service and on time arrivals. The real loser in all this is the paying customer and passenger who has to endure endless waits and late arrivals. Railroads whether they are freight carriers or passenger carriers are running a service business and their responibility is to provide on time, eficient and decent service to the customer or passenger and who is being sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed and serviing the selfish needs and desires of Wall Street and their army of greedy stockholders and investors.
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  8. The metric is useless. If a train is 4 hours late it gets counted as late. If it’s 16 minutes late, it gets counted as late. It makes a big difference to passengers.

  9. After the CN case wondered who would be next. Thought it would be NS because it was several daily delayed trains. Guess it is Amtrak taking down the worse rr: UP. Might also be way requiring UP to go daily with Sunset to mitigate the unfortunate delays without compensation, That would be a non money solution that would make it much harder for UP to contest.

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