Appeals court: Amtrak can't have regulatory role

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has once again ruled that Congress can’t give Amtrak power to impose rail standards on other private railroads.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said Friday it is unconstitutional to give a “self-interested” company regulatory power over competitors — even if Amtrak is a public-private hybrid.

A 2008 law directed the passenger rail company to work with federal regulators to create standards that help keep trains running on time. Those standards give Amtrak priority over freight trains along common tracks. The freight railroad industry objected and filed a lawsuit challenging Amtrak’s authority.

The Supreme Court sent the case back, telling the lower court to consider that Amtrak was created by Congress with heavy government oversight and public subsidies.

After hearing the case again, the appeals court said that even if Amtrak is public, it’s still trying to maximize profits and can’t be given regulatory authority.

“There are limits to how far Congress may go to ensure Amtrak’s on-time performance,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the three-judge panel.

Brown is a Republican appointee, as are the two other panel members, Judges Stephen Williams and David Sentelle.

The Obama administration argued that Amtrak simply worked with the Federal Railroad Administration to devise the standards and that government officials retained ultimate control over how they were approved. The government stressed that Amtrak has to satisfy many statutory goals to operate in the public interest.

Brown said the government “identifies no way in which Amtrak’s special obligations in any way obstruct it from the pure pursuit of profit.”

Under the regulations, if on-time passenger train performance averages less than 80 per cent for two consecutive quarters, the federal Surface Transportation Board will determine whether delays are caused by freight railroads. Those railroad companies could have to pay damages to Amtrak.