Happening Now

Taking Action Against Onboard Assaults

July 21, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

During this week’s regular meeting of the Passenger Safety Working Group, your Association collaborated with labor leaders to once again raise the issue of passenger and crew safety aboard trains during “unruly passenger” incidents.

We’ve all seen social-media videos of airline flight attendants duct-taping an out-of-hand passenger to a seat, but what’s not fully appreciated is that a small but troubling number of incidents have also been happening on Amtrak trains.

What’s worse is that while assaulting airline cabin crew is a Federal offense, when it comes to passenger trains the Amtrak crew member is at the mercy of whatever jurisdiction the train happens to be rolling through when that incident occurs. The jurisdiction is local, not Federal.

Conductors have the right to call ahead and get police officers to meet the train at the next stop and help, but what happens next is very dependent on local laws and the capacity of local law enforcement. We think that’s a gap that creates risk for crews and bystander passengers alike.

There’s some language floating around in congressional offices that would bring parity to the way train crews are treated in these incidents, and that’s something we support – for everyone’s sake.

It was roughly a year ago when the Working Group – part of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee run by the Federal Railroad Administration – first started talking about this issue. We got a briefing then from the Amtrak Police Chief, who noted a troubling increase in on-board incidents as well as the patchwork of responses available.

There are a lot of questions that still have to be addressed. Will the penalties be criminal or civil? If criminal, felony or misdemeanor? Will the cases be handled the way the FAA handles airline cases today? Or will there be a separate, newly created system? If a particular offender is barred from travel, how would that be enforced? Is it even possible? (Spoiler alert, we think it would be somewhere between hard and impossible.)

Working with rail labor, we drafted a first take on some potential regulatory language aimed at addressing the issues, and I presented our version during this week’s Working Group meeting. Depending on how and whether Congress takes action, we may have to go back to square one or we may be able to use the language we shared with our colleagues on the Working Group.

There are a few people who point to an existing statute addressing attacks on trains and systems as a good vehicle for this enforcement, 18 US Code 1992. But in our view at the Association, that law is more about terrorism and, crucially, is a "specific intent" crime: the elements needed to prevail include proving the intent to disrupt or destroy or harm, and so forth.

By contrast, the law underpinning FAA authorities on air cabin crew interference, 49 USC 46504, reads very differently:

"One who assaults, threatens, or intimidates a flight crew member or attendant while aboard an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, and thereby interferes with the performance of that crew member's duties or lessens the ability of that crew member to perform his/her duties is punishable under this subsection."

Precedent surrounding the airline cabin crew interference provisions shows that you can violate 49 USC 46504 without meeting the specific intent requirement. And that makes it easier to bring a case and to win.

There’s a whole slew of court rulings here on airline incidents which remain good law, which means if we in rail were to adopt the airline model we would be on solid ground when the time comes to protect passengers and crews from violent on-board incidents. If you’re interested, look up U.S. v Grossman, 131 F.3d 1449, 1451-52 (11th Cir. 1997); United States v. Compton, 5 F.3d 358, 360 (9th Cir. 1993); United States v. Hicks, 980 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 941, 507 U.S. 998 (1993); and United States v. Meeker, supra, 527 F.2d at 14.

From our point of view, we would want a train crew assault law to mirror 49 USC 46504, and then by extension the Code of Federal Regulations to implement it could mirror the existing authorities already in place. Amtrak made a similar suggestion in its Fiscal 2023 Grant and Legislative Request to Congress in March, and we strongly support that approach.

We know there’s a lot of work yet to be done, but that’s not a reason to do nothing. We’re continuing to press this issue and we’ll let you know when we’ve made more progress.