So says Tom Zoellner, my co-panelist at last month’s Zocalo event on public transit in LA and author of the engaging book Train. In Tom’s San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, he notes that Amtrak actually does by law have priority over freight, but that it’s not enforced in practice:
Big carriers like BNSF, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern are required under a 1973 law to make way for Amtrak trains. Yet the freights often treat Amtrak not like a visiting royal but a drunk party crasher. Dispatchers habitually make passenger trains wait for the “hotshot” trains carrying coal or liquid crude, even though the federal law says clearly: “Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction, or crossing.”
A potential Amtrak renaissance is buried in that one sentence — which should carry the force of law because it is the law — but is currently a meaningless blandishment because the Surface Transportation Board has no staff or incentive to crack down on Fortune 500 companies with political clout. Amtrak tried to get confrontational about this in 2012 when it complained about the Canadian National Railway, only to bring on a year and a half of talks that went nowhere. A more recent complaint against Norfolk Southern is also likely to end with murky outcomes and frustration.
He recommends that we tweet our congressional representatives with the hashtag #Amtrak2step. I will follow through. Amtrak is a low-cost alternative to more expensive forms of transportation, including high speed rail. Beefing up that service while we wait decades for better options should be a priority, and it starts with putting freight trains back in line as the law requires.