Everyone should have the right to use the courts. Even Amtrak. We know that U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) shares this sentiment.This week, he introduced a bill called the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, which would give Amtrak the right to “sue freight railroads if it believes that they are failing to give preference to passenger rail operating on their rail lines.”
Senator Durbin’s move apparently follows a recent report from Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General, finding that when Amtrak trains are late (27% of time), freight interference is to blame nearly 60% of the time. Amtrak President & CEO Richard Anderson called Durbin’s bill a “critical piece of legislation” that puts people first.
Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth a little bit.
This is the same Richard Anderson who had just testified at a House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials hearing on Amtrak’s reauthorization, during which he strongly and arrogantly defending Amtrak’s decision this year to strip every single one of its passengers of their right to go to court.
As Politico wrote earlier this month, in January, Amtrak “quietly added to its ticket purchases” a new provision that forces any kind of dispute with Amtrak – even mass casualty accidents - into arbitration "with no right to go before a judge or jury.” Writes Politico,
The change is bringing objections from consumer advocates, who note that it covers scenarios ranging from ordinary ticketing complaints up to wrongful death, and even includes minors who had the tickets purchased for them. And it could soon get Congress' attention.
Similarly, Ed Perkins wrote in the Chicago Tribune this week,
Say you've been hurt in a serious train accident and you want to sue Amtrak for damages. You go to a lawyer, and the lawyer tells you, "Sorry, I can't take the case. You signed away your rights to sue when you bought your ticket." .…
Why arbitration? Simple: Corporate lawyers know that arbitrators are a lot stingier with monetary damages than juries are.
Several House members spoke up against this policy at the November hearing. Congressman Stephen Lynch (D- MA) observed that this outrageously broad provision even blocks claims when someone is grossly disfigured in a crash, or killed. He also noted that forcing cases into secret, rigged arbitration following crashes creates disincentives for safety. Anderson pushed back, defending what he’s doing by essentially arguing that everyone’s doing it (not true at all for injury and death claims) and passengers just love arbitration (wildly untrue by huge numbers). Congressman Lynch asked Jack Dinsdale, National Vice President of the Transportation Communications Union, what he thought of the idea. Dinsdale responded that all it will do is “make passengers question whether they want to board the train.” It is “telling me right away you don’t have my safety as a concern.”
In other words, by refusing to allow people into court when Amtrak harms them and forcing people to resolve cases in company-controlled secret systems, it’s telegraphing to the public that Amtrak simply can’t stand behind the safety of its trains. This is perhaps no wonder considering Amtrak's ongoing safety problems.
Congress has already limited Amtrak’s liability in mass casualty accidents. Now the company wants to completely pull the “legal rug” out from under every single passenger. Neither taxpayers nor passengers deserve treatment like this. (In case you didn’t know, Amtrak gets $2 billion a year from U.S. taxpayers). Congressman Lynch said forced arbitration is a “disservice to the passengers we care about and reflects a downward spiral.” Putting it mildly.