National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Boston & Maine Corporation

PETITIONER:National Railroad Passenger Corporation
RESPONDENT:Boston & Maine Corporation
LOCATION:Etowah County Commission

DOCKET NO.: 90-1419
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 503 US 407 (1992)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1992
DECIDED: Mar 25, 1992

John G. Roberts, Jr. – for petitioners
Irwin Goldbloom – Argued the case for the respondents

Facts of the case

Under the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 (RPSA), the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) may enter into “trackage rights” agreements to use tracks owned and used by freight railroads. Section 562(d) of the act also states that Amtrak may buy tracks from private railroads, and may ask the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to condemn tracks owned by those railroads if they cannot agree on sale terms, provided that the tracks in question are “required for intercity rail passenger service.” Amtrak’s need for the tracks is established unless the private railroad can show either that its ability to carry out its obligations as a common carrier (that is, a transporter of public goods) will be seriously hampered or that Amtrak’s needs can be met by the purchase of alternative property.

Amtrak had a “trackage rights” agreement with Boston and Maine Railroad (B & M). Amtrak claimed that it was forced to discontinue this agreement because B & M did not properly maintain its tracks. Amtrak then entered into an agreement with the Central Vermont Railroad (CV), under which it would acquire the B & M track and sell it to CV, which would take over maintenance of the track but grant “trackage rights” to Amtrak and usage rights to B & M. When B & M declined Amtrak’s offer to purchase the track, Amtrak asked the ICC to condemn the track (thus allowing Amtrak to seize it). The ICC granted Amtrak’s request. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, sent the case back to the ICC for reconsideration, because Amtrak had not demonstrated the need for ownership, just for use (demonstrated by its intent to convey the property to CV). Amtrak petitioned the appeals court to rehear the case, and while the petition was pending Congress amended the RPSA to explicitly allow Amtrak to seize property with the ICC’s permission and then convey it to another party if that would further its mission. The appeals court denied rehearing, however, holding that the condemnation had been invalid because it was not “required for intercity rail passenger service.”


Was the Interstate Commerce Commission’s decision to permit Amtrak to seize the property of B & M Railroad under the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 reasonable?

Media for National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Boston & Maine Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 13, 1992 in National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Boston & Maine Corporation

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 25, 1992 in National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Boston & Maine Corporation

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-1419, National Railroad Passenger Corporation versus Boston and Maine Corporation and a companion case will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

These cases involve the Railroad Passenger Service Act of 1970 and that Act created a corporation called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation but it is better known as Amtrak.

Amtrak’s purpose is to provide inner city rail passenger service and it, along with the Interstate Commerce Commission are the petitioners in these consolidated cases.

The case has raised questions regarding the proper interpretation of an imminent domain provision in the Act.

Amtrak’s Montrealer train service operates between Washington D.C. and Montreal.

For part of the way, the train at one time operated on railroad tracks owned by the Boston and Maine Corporation, and Boston and Maine as a respondent in these cases.

In the early 1980s, Amtrak ran into difficulties with the Montrealer service which eventually forced it to cancel the service and Amtrak claims that poor maintenance of its tracks by Boston and Maine was the cause of the problem.

Amtrak then reached an agreement with Central Vermont Railroad, another petitioner here and a competitor of Boston and Maine.

Under that agreement, Amtrak was to acquire Boston and Maine’s tracks and transfer them to Central Vermont in exchange for the use of the track and a promise from Central Vermont to properly maintain them.

Amtrak requested and received a condemnation order from the ICC pursuant to an imminent domain provision in the Act.

We granted certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after that court held that the relevant section of the Act does not permit condemnation of the property which Amtrak intends to convey to a third party following condemnation.

And the court held that rejecting a contra-interpretation of the ICC.

After the Court of Appeals’ decision, Congress amended the statute to add a sentence stating that Amtrak was authorized to re-convey condemned property.

The Court of Appeals, nonetheless, denied rehearing holding that the amendment did not affect its reasoning.

The ICC’s condemnation order was based on the agency’s interpretation of the controlling statute.

The agency relied on the statutory presumption of need to conclude that Amtrak had established its entitlement to the order.

In so doing the ICC implicitly adapted an interpretation of the statute and that which Amtrak was permitted to make a judgment regarding its need for the property sought so long as the property would be used in Amtrak’s rail operations.

We hold today that the ICC’s was a reasonable interpretation of the condemnation provision in the statute and therefore, the Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the ICC order.

The ICC is the agency charged with the administration of the statute and under our well-settled doctrine, the ICC’s interpretation of that provision is entitled to great deference from the reviewing court’s.

The judgment of he Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Blackmun and Thomas join.