The court ruled that the passenger rail service is indeed a government entity. But the details of how it will be allowed to manage its on-time performance could take years to resolve.
Amtrak has technically won its Supreme Court case against freight railroads, but it's not yet clear if train travelers will win in the end as a result, and it may be some time before we know for sure.
A quick review on a complicated case: In 2008, Congress gave Amtrak the power to establish new, strong on-time standards for passenger trips. The rules gave Amtrak significant leverage over the freight operators who share (and often own) railroad tracks across the country—freight operators who were responsible for causing excessive delays for Amtrak trains could be penalized accordingly.
The case largely rested on whether Amtrak was part of the government (and thus could have this type of strong regulatory power) or a private corporation (and thus shouldn't). On that point the Supreme Court was quite clear, ruling 9-0 (with two concurring opinions) that Amtrak is "a government entity." The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, leaves no room for doubt:
Amtrak was created by the Government, is controlled by the Government, and operates for the Government’s benefit.
But the decision isn't as straightforward as Kennedy's concise words might make it seem. As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog explains, the court didn't actually settle which government powers Amtrak "will be allowed to use." So the case now goes back to the Court of Appeals—the same one that originally ruled Amtrak was not a government entity, back in July 2013—which will issue a new ruling that Denniston expects to end up back in the Supreme Court. The process could take years:
Because the case raises very high stakes for both sides in this legal struggle — and, also, for the millions of Americans who travel on Amtrak’s passenger trains — it seems almost certain that the case will not end with the next round at the D.C. Circuit, but will return eventually to the Supreme Court’s docket for a final ruling.
Depending on how the two parties present their case this time around, the courts will now have to deal with what Justice Samuel Alito described in his concurring opinion as a "host of constitutional questions." Justice Clarence Thomas, in his own concurring opinion, also noted the "serious constitutional questions" that arise from Amtrak having the power to regulate private infrastructure while also having "limited" public accountability. He concludes with a dig (spotted by the New York Times):
The end result may be trains that run on time (although I doubt it), but the cost is to our Constitution and the individual liberty it protects.
(Sounds like someone's upset about the lines at Union Station.)
The truth is Amtrak's recent on-time performance has been closely tied to the court rulings. Back in fiscal 2013, before the appeals court decision, Amtrak's on-time rate was well over 80 percent. Around the time of the ruling against Amtrak in July, on-time performance fell below 80 percent, then spent much of fiscal 2014 below 75 percent—dipping as low as 67 percent at one point. It's climbed a bit since but still remains well below the 85 percent rate Amtrak would prefer:
Amtrak's latest performance report shows that freight train interference remains a huge cause of passenger delay—the biggest single factor between February 2014 and January 2015 (below). It accounted for nearly 75,000 minutes of delay in January 2015 alone. That's about 17 percent of all Amtrak delay for the month.
So there's a lot at stake. Denniston writes that it's possible for Congress to step in and clarify the law, rather than letting it run the legal course, though frankly swift Congressional action is more deserving of a judicial dig than Amtrak on-time performance. There's also the chance that the latest ruling provides Amtrak some additional leeway—perhaps enabling a return to pre-July 2013 performance.
Asked by CityLab how the ruling might impact on-time arrivals, an Amtrak spokesperson offered little insight beyond that it was "pleased" with the ruling. Here's the rest of the emailed statement:
The metrics and standards involved in the case are important to Amtrak as we continue working to improve the on-time performance of our trains. Because the court has remanded this case back for possible further deliberation, we will refrain from any further public comment at this time.
And so we wait.