Hotline #741 - January 13, 2012

Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman held a press conference on Wednesday to announce the company’s “aggressive agenda for 2012,” including a list of previously-announced capital investment projects that will move forward this year. NARP issued a statement of praise for the announcement, which signals Amtrak’s commitment to improvement of its services despite facing a perilously tight budget.

The list of projects Amtrak is working on includes the procurement of 130 new single-level railcars for eastern long-distance trains, 70 new electric locomotives for Northeast and Keystone Corridor service, and the rollout of electronic ticketing systemwide this summer. The company is spending $298 million from its capital budget on the new single-level cars; the $466 million cost of the locomotives is being funded by a loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. The first units from both orders will arrive in 2013.

“Amtrak is building the equipment, infrastructure and organization needed to ensure our strong growth continues into the future,” Boardman said in a statement.  “We are investing in projects critical for enhancing the passenger experience, essential for supporting our national network of services and vital for the future of America’s Railroad.”

“While some of our detractors expect us to fold our tent, we’re not going to do that,” Boardman added. “Uncertainty in federal funding and budget cuts are not new to Amtrak. Things are different now because of the financial difficulties and the pressures that are on absolutely everybody, from Amtrak all the way through every program. “

Other significant 2012 projects Amtrak listed include upgrading NEC tracks, bridges and other infrastructure (including new catenary between New Brunswick, NJ and Morrisville, PA); pursing efforts to expand Acela Express capacity; advancing initial planning work for the Gateway Program to provide additional capacity into Manhattan for intercity, commuter and NextGen HSR services; improving station accessibility under requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and continuing the development of a next-generation reservation system. Amtrak’s fiscal 2012 budget also contains $15 million towards building a second tunnel under the Hudson River to add capacity to a segment that is already at capacity during peak travel periods.

NARP’s response, issued today, says “these improvements will allow Amtrak to handle the record number of passengers across America who are increasingly relying on trains to get around the country.” NARP particularly praised the 130-car order for eastern long-distance trains, noting that they will improve service and reliability on trains that are “a transportation life-life to hundreds of rural and suburban communities stranded by the contracting airline industry.”

The release quoted NARP President Ross Capon saying “Amtrak has done an excellent job” in Performance Improvement Plans for other overnight trains, “in identifying achievable, common-sense service improvements during previous rounds, so we’re looking forward to the product of these new studies. However, these plans are too important to America’s passengers to sit on a shelf, and we will continue to press Congress, the Obama Administration, and Amtrak itself to make sure these Performance Improvement Plans are acted upon.”

In answering a reporter’s question, Boardman said that Amtrak will not push for negotiations with Union Pacific over the $700 million it wants Amtrak to pay to cover the expanded track capacity it said is necessary to make the tri-weekly New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited a daily train.

He later told NARP that it “is not financially or politically feasible” to expect Congress at this time to fund a large sum for UP infrastructure to add four round-trips a week. Boardman also said, “I believe that we are in for a rough time in keeping our Long Distance network together and my focus is on that and not on expansion. I support long distance trains, a coast to coast border to border service to maintain the mobility and connectivity our nation needs.”

Roelof van Ark resigned Thursday his post as CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) as the state’s plan to start construction of the initial segment of what is to become a San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail line faces mounting criticism based on its high price tag and the lack of certitude with regards to future funding to complete the line.

CHSRA Chairman Thomas Umberg made the announcement, and said that he, too, would step down as Chairman, but would remain on the Board of Directors. Dan Richard, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown (D), will become Chairman.

“With admiration, I would like to thank Mr. van Ark for his service to California and the high-speed rail project,” Umberg said in a statement. “The announcement of his resignation will resonate throughout the State. His energy, passion and dedication to this critically important project are a testament to his character and his professionalism. We are extremely lucky to have his continued counsel and advice as we move to implement high-speed rail in California. I remain grateful for his professionalism and friendship.”

While some have begun to speculate what will happen to the $3.7 billion the federal government has so far invested in the project should it be canceled, NARP remains committed to seeing the first segment’s construction through. Its failure would make it very difficult to win support and funding for future major passenger train projects, even improvements to existing conventional service.

In a separate Thursday announcement, CHSRA said the high-speed line’s route between Bakersfield and Los Angeles would use the originally-planned Antelope Valley route via Palmdale, instead of an alternate proposed route paralleling Interstate 5 via the Grapevine.

The 8-member CHSRA Board of Directors voted unanimously to stick with the original route, which represents a victory for Antelope Valley cities which see the high-speed route as critical to developing their economies. A study of the Grapevine route concluded that the Antelope Valley corridor would have fewer environmental impact and higher ridership, according to the CHSRA staff.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, whose district includes part of the Antelope Valley, said sticking with the original route creates “a vital transportation crossroads for the southern portion of the state.” Antonovich is pushing for upgrades to the existing Metrolink Antelope Valley line to allow trains to travel up to 110 MPH and extend them to Bakersfield to connect with the initial high-speed rail segment.

The British government approved the construction of a controversial new $50 billion high-speed rail line from London north to Birmingham on Thursday, connecting the United Kingdom’s two biggest cities, despite opposition from residents along the route.

British Transport Secretary Justine Greening said the 140-mile line, known as High-Speed 2 or HS2, would be “the backbone of a new transport system for the 21st century,” adding that the UK can no longer “rely on the patch and mend approach” to its aging infrastructure. “No matter how hard times are, we cannot stop investing for the future,” she added.

The Conservative government’s commitment to HS2 comes in contrast to its cutting of 80 billion pounds in public spending to address its deficit. The project would transfer about 4.5 million trips each year to rail from air and roads, according to Greening. A London to Birmingham trip, currently 90 minutes by rail, would take 49 minutes at a top speed of 225 mph.

In contrast to the political dynamics of most rail projects in the U.S., HS2 enjoys the support of most of the UK’s business groups, while many environmentalists oppose it because they say the line would ruin some of England’s most picturesque countryside.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which runs commuter trains, subways, streetcars and buses serving the Boston area, has decided not to take over direct operation of its commuter lines, but will put the contract to operate them out to bid.

MBTA’s current contract with the independent operator Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR) expires in June 2013. MBCR and other companies will soon have the chance to bid to take over the contract from that point forward.

“In order to achieve our objectives of better service quality and cost efficiency, the preferred option is to continue to outsource both operations and maintenance of the commuter rail system,’’ MBTA Acting General Manager Jonathan Davis wrote in a memo to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and MBTA board. Two reports on the pros and cons of in-sourcing commuter operations both concluded that outsourcing is still the best option.

Amtrak Guest Rewards changes:

  • For point redemption reservations booked on or after April 1, 2012, a higher number of points will be required for most types of award travel—but you can book before April 1 for travel after that date and still pay the current (lower) point rates. Coach reservations will generally cost 1,000 more points; Bedroom reservations will generally cost 10,000 more points, and Acela Express First Class will cost 2,500 more points. Significantly, though, the number of points required for a roomette reservation will not change. For full details, see this page. Remember: you can bring a companion with you in your reward Roomette or Bedroom for no additional points, and dining car meals are included for both travelers.
  • Through at least Feb. 28. 2013, Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Plus members (those earning 10,000 or more rail points within the previous calendar year) and one guest will have unlimited free access to all United Airlines Clubs (both ex-United Red Carpet Clubs and ex-Continental Presidents’ Clubs) at airports worldwide, so long as the member’s Select Plus card is presented to the Club attendant. A list of United Club locations is here.
  • As of January 1, 2012, Amtrak Guest Rewards points can no longer be converted into Continental OnePass miles nor vice versa. Stay tuned for future details regarding Amtrak Guest Rewards’ partnership with the new merged United/Continental.