Passenger train in Chicago

In the US, freight is held accountable for passenger delays

Passenger train in Chicago

Whereas in Europe the debate continues on whether freight trains should be prioritised over passenger services, in the US the argument is the other way around. The US Senate last week introduced legislation that could bring infrastructure managers to court, for not prioritising passenger trains.

On 29 April, the bicameral Rail Passenger Fairness Act was presented in the US. The bill provides Amtrak with the ability to take the freight railroads (infrastructure managers) to court in order to enforce current law, which requires freight railroads to provide preference to passenger rail operating on their rail lines.

This legislation should help improve the on-time performance of Amtrak, the nation’s main passenger carrier. The Rail Passenger Fairness Act would hold freight rails accountable, reduce Amtrak delays, and save taxpayer dollars.

New government, new tide

Other than in Europe, freight traffic dominates on the US railways. Passenger traffic is mostly within cities, while intercity passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation’s passenger transportation network, plays a limited role today.

This is something the new Government would like to see changed. The Biden Administration presented a 2 trillion US Dollar infrastructure plan last week, which would set aside a substantial amount of money for rail development, with an emphasis on passenger service and mass transit.

“Rail lacks a multi-year funding stream to address deferred maintenance, enhance existing corridors, and build new lines in high-potential locations. There are currently projects just waiting to be funded that will give millions more Americans reliable and fast inter-city train service”, the White House says.

Freight largest source of delay

The new bill, which was proposed by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne Jr. and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, fits within that strategy. Passenger traffic should be improved, and they hold freight accountable for the poor accuracy rate of passenger traffic.

“While the Amtrak Improvement Act of 1973 mandated that intercity and commuter passenger rail be given preference over freight railroads in using a rail line, freight railroads continue to ignore their obligation to provide Amtrak preference. As a result, freight train delays have caused roughly 60 per cent of Amtrak’s delays in recent years”, reads the press release.


“For far too long, freight railroads have taken preference over passenger rail, resulting in poor on-time performance and delays for Amtrak riders. With the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, we can finally hold freight railroads accountable when they fail to follow the law and get Amtrak’s on-time performance back on track”, said Durbin.

Amtrak is particularly thankful for the introduction of the bill. “Host railroads are required by law to provide Amtrak trains preference over freight trains. Unfortunately, some host railroads frequently fail to meet this requirement and ‘freight train interference’ is the largest source of delay to Amtrak trains on host railroads, violating the law and inconveniencing passengers”, said Amtrak President & CEO Bill Flynn.

US investment

President Biden is calling on Congress to invest 80 billion US Dollars to address Amtrak’s repair backlog, modernise the high traffic Northeast Corridor, improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs. Moreover, it wants to enhance grant and loan programmes that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency, and electrification.

Thus, although the focus is mainly on passenger traffic, freight will not completely miss out on the investments. What’s more, there are projects aimed at alleviating congestion at ports and other choke points for freight, which should benefit intermodal traffic.

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Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is the editor-in-chief of, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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