WASHINGTON (AP) — A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday that Amtrak is more like a part of the government than a private corporation when it helps federal agencies craft rules to keep trains running on time.
But the justices said it's up to lower courts to decide whether Congress gave the passenger rail company too much power to develop standards that other private railroads must follow.
A 2008 law directs Amtrak to work with the Federal Railroad Administration to create standards that let Amtrak keep priority over freight trains along common railroad tracks. That upset the freight railroad industry, which argues that Amtrak is a private organization that could not regulate competitor's actions.
A federal appeals court sided with the freight railroads, ruling that Congress unconstitutionally gave regulatory power to a private company.
The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that even though Amtrak is subject to government oversight, it is like a government entity. While Congress created Amtrak in 1970 as a for-profit corporation, Amtrak is subject to government oversight, receives billions of dollars in federal subsidies and its board is nominated by the president.
The justices left broader constitutional questions unresolved, leaving that for the appeals court to decide.
Under the regulations, if on-time passenger train performance averages less than 80 percent for two consecutive quarters, the federal Surface Transportation Board may investigate whether freight railroads caused the delays. Freight railroads could have to pay damages to Amtrak.
The government said the regulation simply helped to enforce existing law, which already guarantees passenger trains a preference over freight trains on shared tracks.