News & Reviews News Wire Republicans push bill to limit Amtrak’s right of preference: Analysis

Republicans push bill to limit Amtrak’s right of preference: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | October 31, 2023

| Last updated on February 2, 2024

Majority of “Freights First Act” proponents represent areas without passenger service; Transportation Trades Department warns of consequences

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People, many with cellphones taking pictures, crowd station platform as passenger train arrives at night
Well-wishers crowd the platform at the Arcadia Valley Station in rural Arcadia, Mo., on Nov.18, 2016, to greet the first southbound Texas Eagle to stop at the newly established station. U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, who represents the area, supports legislation to withdraw Amtrak’s right of preference over freight trains. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Legislation that aims to reverse Amtrak’s statutory right of preference over host railroad freight trains “within 50 miles of a port or rail yard” has been introduced by a U.S. Congressman representing a rural district without any passenger service. Among its co-sponsors is the head of the U.S. House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Amtrak.

The “Freights First Act” was introduced in June by U.S. Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.), whose district in the southwest corner of the state has never been served by Amtrak. An original co-sponsor is Troy Nehls (R-Texas), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads and Pipelines.

In a press release on the bill’s introduction, Nehls said, “Taxpayer dollars heavily fund Amtrak, and their operations should not interfere with the movement of freight across our country that Americans need every day. Our nation’s supply chain should not be delayed, appealing to the needs of one company.” This mirrors a view he had expressed while leading a subcommittee hearing the previous day [see “Gardner’s bonuses, lack of profitability attacked …,” Trains News Wire, June 6, 2023].

The bill “Fact Sheet” released by Burlison refers only to the movement of goods, not people: “The Freights First Act removes Amtrak’s burdensome right of track mandate within 50 miles of a port or rail yard and ensures America’s businesses and working families receive their goods in a timely fashion. We should find ways to cut red tape to benefit our supply chain instead of providing special treatment to poor stewards of the people’s money like Amtrak. This bill does just that.”

Table showing seven congressmen supporting "Freight First Act," with their districts and whether they are served by Amtrak

The legislation has gained only three additional co-sponsors since it was introduced (see table above), but AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department president Greg Regan is concerned that rescinding Amtrak’s right of preference is a misplaced focus and a threat to the company’s ability to carry out its mission.

In a letter to Burlison recently shared with Trains News Wire, Regan writes, “This legislation would permanently harm Amtrak’s passenger rail operations for your constituents while ignoring the root cause of the issue. The real obstacle to reliable freight rail service is the industry’s use of the Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model that prioritizes profits over rail service and safety.” The full letter is reproduced below.

Congress continues to be preoccupied with challenges far more pressing than a few House members’ attempt to overturn Amtrak’s right-of-preference provisions enacted during the company’s early years. But the fact a subcommittee chairman is predisposed to endorse the effort reveals his intention to limit passenger rail’s ability to effectively contribute to national mobility.

Letter to U.S. Rep. Eric Burleson from Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department opposing the Freights First Act



21 thoughts on “Republicans push bill to limit Amtrak’s right of preference: Analysis

  1. If Amtrak paid what the capacity it uses is actually worth, their would be no need to force prioritization.

  2. Amtrak reminds me of a scheming tenant who exploits laws to avoid paying rent. What I’\ve never understood as a railfan, is why the government thought it could operate passenger trains without financial losses when the majority were historically loss-makers for railroads even before the advent of the Interstate Highways and the jet airliner?

    1. Passenger railroad patronage was eviscerated by the interstate highways. The Feds gave the PRR a large amount of cash to upgrade what we now call the North East Corridor. When PRR successor PC when feet up in 1970 the Feds needed to protect our investment. The railroads saw an opportunity to crack the public piggy bank by cooperating with nationalizing passenger trains. It was believed national rail passenger patronage would continue to dwindle to zero. Then interstate highway construction finished (initial layout) followed by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. To say things haven’t gone as planned would be an understatement.

    2. Mr. Pickney,

      Amtrack was founded to save / preserve intercity passenger rail travel. It was never designed nor tasked with being profitable. Yes, there’s a lot of politicians that have invoked such an idea, but it’s never been agreed upon and codified.

  3. Let’s not forget the deal, however flawed, that allowed the RR’s to trade off their money-losing passenger services for Amtrak’s “preferential access.”

    1. This was the pre-Staggers era of excess capacity. Those days are long gone and the railroads rationalized to just what they need. The former ATSF passenger main across Kansas is an example of maintaining an 80 mph ROW with zero justification from freight traffic. Ergo, BNSF goes hat-in-hand for the funds to maintain class 4 track standards.

  4. I have no doubt there is a small yard (2 or 3 tracks, whether in use or mothballed) or a group of seldom used MOW sidings that could be claimed to be a “yard” every 50 miles along nearly all Amtrak routes.

    1. Exactly! I can’t think of a city served by Amtrak that doesn’t have a yard nearby of some sort! Heck, a industry track with a single switch could be twisted to become “a yard”, because these idiots have NO IDEA what they’re talking about, and don’t apparently care to learn.

    2. Agree with Alex. The term “yard” is too ambiguous and has no qualifier in the body of the bill. Either they have no idea what they’re on about…or they are purposely kicking the hornets’ nest to counter those looking to push for greater enforcement of Amtrak’s priority dispatching.

  5. Interesting wording: within 50 miles of a port or yard. What are they really looking for here? Amtrak (legally) gets preferential dispatching without a mechanism to pay for the necessary capacity to ensure all traffic is fluid. The notion of capex on the entire 21,000 miles of Amtrak’s network is a non starter. So how about capex on just those areas “within 50 miles” to deal with the worst of the crunch? Give us a dollar figure.

  6. Representative Burleson is my representative from the 7th district of Missouri. I have been to events where he is present, looked him in the eye and listen to him talk. He is crazy. This man is dangerous. He also wants to make machine guns legal again

    1. The scary part is that like so many of our current representatives in congress he’s crazy but still got elected. Go figure.

  7. Let’s not forget that the freight railroads are controlled by the Wall Street syndicate who are the friends of these Republican legislators and politicians. They and the freight railroads see Amtrak as a threat to their money making schemes and machinery. The freight railroads have powerful lobbyists and freinds both in Wall Street and Congress and will do all they can to either force Amtrak off their rails or just pressure Congress to eliminate Amtrak totally. I fail to see where a lone daily Amtrak train or maybe two or three daily trains or in some cases like the Sunset Limited or the Texas Eagle run only three times a week are disrupting the freight lines schedules or interferring with their operations.It is like the gang or a bunch of bullies picking on one little kid that can’t fight back. We have the freight railroads as the bullies picking on Amtrak, a struggling poor passenger railroad who has to deal with lack of funding, inept management and a hostile Congress. We elect what we consider smart, creative and intelligent human beings to govern and lead us and of course have the solutions and answers to any problem that arises but sadly the smartest people are not in government but out on the streets, in private business and in their homes and cities and towns. Rather our government is made up of idiots, bumblers and bunglers who are the servants and vassals of Corporate America and Wall Street and who also can be swayed by quick riches and money thrown at them by these “evil empires” and bullies such as the freight railroads picking on Amtrak and trying to crush passenger rail or make life miserable for both Amtrak and the passengers riding the trains
    Joseph C. Markfelder

    1. Mr. Markfelder,

      The coalitions that make up the political party are in flux. Any notion that Wall Street favors the Republicans are a result of you not keeping up with how the world has changed. Cheers.

  8. I’d love to see the research that shows prioritizing Amtrak trains is a significant cause of delay in the fluid flow of fright across the United States as opposed to PSR, unmanageably long trains, sidings that are too short, crew availability, and so forth, and maybe even PTS.

  9. All the major issues facing Congress & these 2 dumbasses focus on this? How will this benefit their constituents compared to the other issues like Soc Sec, Medicare, skyrocketing drug prices, etc. Just keeping the old Party line alive eh!

  10. Amtrak has been crapified already by incompetent management and decades of underfunding. This will turn Amtrak’s already sorry state into VIA Rail.

    1. Absolutely Gregg. We’ve spent tens of billions of dollars on Amtrak so let’s just throw it all away.

      I have news for these Congress Members. A railroad that can’t run a seven-car Amtrak train twice daily can’t do anything else either.

      Where I live CPKC runs eight Amtrak train pairs and lots of freights — everything runs on time. Where I hang out train-watching near Chicago, BNSF sees dozens of passenger trains and lots of freight. It all manages to get through.

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