Happening Now

Hotline #1,069

June 1, 2018

Rail Passengers Back Texas Central At STB; Acela To Have Assigned Seats; PTC Installed on 30% of Commuter Rail Miles; Boca Raton Now Brightline Quiet Zone; FTA Issues New Procedures on PPPs

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The Rail Passengers Association yesterday filed a letter with the Surface Transportation Board supporting a Texas Central Railroad petition that would clear the way for STB to assume jurisdiction over the Texas high-speed rail project, citing a new TCR-Amtrak agreement that truly integrates the Texas project with Amtrak’s National Network.

TCR revealed in its new petition in early May that last Fall Amtrak signed a through-ticketing arrangement so that passengers traveling on either railroad can buy a single ticket for travel that starts on one railroad and ends on the other. This is true interlining, and it's a breakthrough. With the game now changed, TCR has gone back to STB to ask once more to bring their project under Federal jurisdiction.

STB said in 2016 that it wasn't clear that the Texas project would have much of an effect on national interstate travel, so the Board felt it didn't have jurisdiction. But the Board said at the time that if TCR were to stroke an agreement coordinating services with Amtrak, that might justify reconsideration.

In its STB letter, your Association highlights the truly national effect of this through-ticketing agreement--the direct link between Houston and Dallas would grant TCR passengers access to some 13,958 Amtrak route miles and create the opportunity for any one of 12,256 journeys combining TCR and Amtrak travel on a single ticket.

Passengers originating in Houston will be able to use TCR to connect to the Eagle or the Heartland Flyer via the Eagle. Dallas passengers could use it to connect to the Sunset or to the City or Crescent via the Sunset. That's 4,753 city-pair combinations for Houston passengers and 7,503 for Dallas passengers.

For many destinations it would also eliminate the need to go all the way to Chicago from points South or West just to return to a southern or western destination.

Rail Passengers Association Chairman and President of Texas Rail Advocates Peter LeCody also submitted a letter to the STB on this same topic. The letter is available online.

In line with the de-staffing of Amtrak stations on June 5, Ohio lawmakers have pushed back against Amtrak’s decision in a letter to Anderson. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rob Portman (R-OH), asked Anderson to reconsider the decision to eliminate the ticket agent at Cincinnati Union Terminal. The station sees Amtrak’s Cardinal stop every other day as the train travels between Chicago and New York City.

"We believe that destaffing Union Terminal now would be pennywise and pound-foolish, as the decision to cut services now would likely need to be reversed once the terminal is fully renovated and ridership increases," the senators wrote in the letter.

The senators also said that they were concerned that removing the ticket agent would leave passengers, especially the elderly and those with disabilities, without appropriate levels of service: baggage check, ticket purchasing, and general passenger assistance. Many local leaders and advocates echo those concerns, noting that traversing the station--especially now during renovations--can be treacherous for those with special needs.

In a letter to Amtrak President Richard Anderson, several lawmakers in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas demanded that Amtrak honor its prior commitments to supporting the Southwest Chief. The total amount that was previously allocated was a $3 million match as part of a $16 million grant. Amtrak said it would provide the route with various upgrades and improvements in infrastructure prior to Anderson taking the helm of Amtrak on January 1, 2018.

"The lack of transparency by Amtrak management about its changing position on the Southwest Chief is troubling, particularly for a government-sponsored enterprise entrusted with an important public transportation mission," the letter said, which included a total of 11 signatures from Senators and Representatives from the three states.

Combined, the three states have provided more than $71 million for track improvements on the Southwest route. In addition, the Colorado state Legislature allowed the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission to look at extending rail service north along the Front Range. Despite the level of support from the three states, Anderson told New Mexico officials that the latest $3 million grant would not be provided until the supporting states could show the Southwest Chief could sustain itself financially.

The letter requested that “Amtrak take the lead in developing cooperative plans to ensure the Southwest Chief’s successful operation, including seeking funding from the various federal grant programs established to address these specific issues.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M), Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.).

Amtrak customers who ride First Class on Acela trains will now be able to choose their seats ahead of time when they purchase a ticket - similar to many European and Asian passenger lines. Amtrak Acela trains will test the process, which will allow for passengers to choose between a single or double seat, a window or an aisle, or a two- or four-person conference table, the railroad said in a press release.

“We understood that assigned seating was likely to come under Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “Yes, it will give Acela a more airline-type feel for purchasing tickets and boarding. But while some passengers don’t like that, others say it provides some customers a sense of relief for where they will sit on the train.”

Amtrak officials will review the implementation of assigned seating for Acela, and if it proves successful, Amtrak could begin adding it to other trains later this year. As part of the proces, Amtrak said that seats will automatically be assigned during reservation of a ticket, but customers can modify their assigned seat at any time prior to boarding, without having to pay a premium for the change.

Amtrak Chief Marketing Officer Tim Griffin also said, “Customers have long requested assigned seats on trains, allowing families, friends and colleagues to sit together.”

Since Richard Anderson, former CEO of Delta Air Lines, began his role as sole Amtrak CEO on January 1, the railroad has made multiple changes, including enhancing Wi-Fi services and adding outlets to every seat, but he also moved to eliminate Amtrak ticket agents at stations with relatively low ridership nationwide starting in June.

Three Ways To Support The National Network

In a recent meeting, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner emphasized that management is not moving towards abandoning service on large parts of the National Network in favor of corridor investments, particularly in the Northeast Corridor.

These followed similar assurances Gardner offered to Senators during public testimony last week that put Amtrak on record before Congress that it had no plans for permanent reductions in service through Amtrak’s next authorization in 2020.

That’s not to say that the nature of Amtrak service won’t evolve or change over time, but both executives said that they are pursuing a growth strategy for Amtrak aimed at serving more Americans rather than fewer.

As passenger rail advocates, we need to be observant of what Amtrak’s changes and new practices all mean -- while gearing up to fight for a national vision in the coming reauthorization with Congress.

As we move forward in support of Amtrak and long-distance trains, there are three ways in which you can support our advocacy work:

  1. Help us send a message to Congress that we want continued support for long-distance routes! Call your members of Congress today!
  2. Get your community involved in the fight to preserve the National Network. Members of Amtrak-served communities can sign on to a petition with the message that we support the railroad’s efforts to grow passenger rail service.
  3. You can also help Rail Passengers in our fight for America's trains through your generous contributions!

So don’t wait! Get involved today!

Commuter railroads have implemented Positive Train Control (PTC) on 30 percent of the 3,339 commuter rail miles in the U.S. In addition, 61 percent of 15,119 employees in the commuter rail industry have been trained in PTC, which can remotely monitor, slow and stop trains that are speeding.

These numbers are based off a new analysis from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) that looks at the first quarter of 2018 and the progress of commuter railroads for installing the life-saving technology.

“Safety is the commuter railroad industry’s number one priority,” APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said in a press release. “Implementing this complex communications technology will provide a critical safety overlay on top of already safe commuter rail systems. APTA members are working aggressively to implement this important safety system as soon as possible.”

In its analysis, APTA also found that:

  • 88% of spectrum has been acquired;
  • 81% of 15,192 pieces of onboard equipment have been installed on locomotives and cab cars etc.;
  • 79% of 9,772 wayside (on track equipment) installations have been completed;
  • 70% of back-office control systems are ready for operation;

“Despite the progress, many transit agencies continue to struggle to find the time and the funding to implement PTC before the December 31, 2018 deadline,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “It’s estimated that commuter railroads will spend more than $4 billion on installing PTC, with various federal agencies providing only a quarter of that amount in grants to assist agencies, it is easy to see why commuter railroads are struggling.”

APTA said in its press release that since mandating PTC in 2008, the federal government has provided $272 million in PTC grants to commuter railroads. In the recently enacted Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, Congress has appropriated $593 million for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants, which includes $250 million for PTC. In May, the Federal Railroad Administration made the $250 million available for PTC grants.

Two transit agencies making progress on PTC this summer are NJ Transit and PATH. As a result, passengers on both trains will experience service cuts as both agencies conduct summer work to install PTC.

As crews begin to implement the technology on June 4, NJ Transit will suspend or modify service for 18 trains, including the Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex and Pascack Valley Lines. NJ Transit said other trains could also have minor schedule adjustments.

Previous reports from NJ Transit have shown that the transit agency is significantly behind on installing PTC. It has been reported that the agency only has 25 percent of its tracks and equipment installed with PTC.

PATH riders have already started to experience schedule changes, and will continue to do so through the fall. Work began the weekend of May 19, and plans to restart July 14 at the Exchange Place and World Trade Center stations and will continue every weekend through October 29. This means that all New York PATH stations from Hoboken to 33rd Street will be closed starting the weekend of July 14.

“The Port Authority and PATH are working diligently to ensure we maintain the highest level of customer service during this period of system and safety improvements,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said in a press release. “What this will mean in the long term is a far safer, more convenient and highly efficient system for all of our customers.”

Both agencies must complete installation of PTC before the Congressionally mandated deadline of December 31, 2018.

How To Actually Boost Ballpark Attendance

By Jacob Wallace, Summer by Rail Correspondent

Marlins Park has an attendance problem, to put it mildly. Attendance is averaging around Triple-A level numbers, if that, and has been for years if you don’t fall for the inflated numbers former owner Jeffrey Loria posted (which you shouldn’t.) Although you can certainly argue that the Marlins’ struggling roster has a hand in the depressing numbers, there might be at least one tangible way Derek Jeter can get more people to his stadium: public transportation.

Case in point: During my visit to Marlins Park on Sunday, I took the free Miami Metromover from the Knight Center to Government Center, transferring onto the Miami Metrorail there, which is a serviceable line, if in need of some maintenance.

To read more of the blog, and to follow Jacob’s Summer by Rail journey through July 1, please visit www.summerbyrail.com.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in an attempt to encourage investment from the private sector, has issued its final rule on private participation and investment in public transit projects. The FTA’s new Private Investment Project Procedures (PIPP) is designed to help the federal government develop more effective approaches to spurring private participation, while also helping grantees identify FTA regulations, practices, and procedures. The goal of the PIPP is to assist both sides in order to develop and advance public-private partnerships or private investments in a transit project.

"This final rule allows the public transportation industry to identify where there may be barriers to developing projects in concert with capable private partners," FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a press release. "FTA is committed to encouraging innovation and streamlining project delivery while protecting the public interest."

The FTA also said that agency’s Administrator would have discretion to grant a modification or waiver of a requirement if certain criteria are met. PIPP could not be used to waive any requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or any other provision of Federal statute.

Boca Raton is the latest city on Brightline’s route on the Florida East Coast Railway train tracks to implement a quiet zone. The city now joins West Palm Beach and Lake Worth as the three cities to have the train’s horns silenced since Brightline began service in January. Since then, Brightline has run as many as 22 trains a day between downtown West Palm Beach and downtown Fort Lauderdale with horns sounding at each crossing - 10 in Boca Raton alone.

With the quiet zones however, comes an emphasis on safety. Boca Raton officials held a news conference Wednesday and encouraged local residents to follow the signage and gate-closures at train crossings. The press conference was the first in a series of safety outreach efforts by city officials.

“You can’t outrun the train. Don’t try,” interim Mayor Scott Singer said. “That should be our mantra.”

Singer also said that people should avoid distractions that have created accidents in the past, such as wearing headphones while crossing, texting or cutting across the tracks while warning lights flash or gates are down. Brightline officials have also implemented various community safety programs, urging drivers and pedestrians to cross the tracks safely.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Brightline a seven-month extension to issue more than $1 billion in tax-exempt bonds to pay for its expansion to Orlando. Brightline was originally allowed to issue private activity bonds worth $1.15 billion through May 31. However, the private railroad requested more time since it had not been able to find enough investors.

“We appreciate the leadership of the U.S. Department of Transportation in extending our private activity bond allocation,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said in a statement. “This propels our project as we extend Brightline to Orlando, developing a transportation network that will benefit the entire state.”

Brightline now has until December 31, 2018 to sell the bonds.

Make plans to attend Rail Passengers Association’s Fall 2018 Advocacy Summit & Meeting in Miami, FL, Friday, October 19 through Sunday, October 21. The host hotel will be the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami.

Discounted group-rate room reservations can be found online and are available now. In addition, preliminary agenda, program and event information are posted on the RailNation Miami 2018 Event Page!

The 15th Anniversary 2018 Edition of 'New York by Rail', the on-board magazine focused on travel destinations served by the Maple Leaf, Adirondack, Ethan Allen Express and Empire Service trains, has been released and is now available on board these trains and at the stations they serve.

This year's edition features a story on Rail Passengers Association's 2017 Summer by Rail journey which utilized the Adirondack to travel from Port Kent to Montreal and which also stopped in Niagara Falls, ONT & NY. In addition, there is an article on the 50th Anniversary of the introduction of the Empire Service by the New York Central Railroad in 1967, written by Rail Passengers Association member Benjamin Turon.

The 'New York by Rail' website has a wealth of additional information on events and destinations of interest across New York State. A series of NYS travel packages are also being offered on the website, all of which are reachable by Amtrak trains.

Cincinnati Councilman Greg Landsman has been given the challenge of turning the problem-prone Cincinnati Bell Connector around and getting people to ride it. The city’s streetcar was built for $148 million, opened less than two years ago and runs on a 3.6-mile loop between downtown Cincinnati and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, truncated before it reached its planned terminus at the University due to budget cuts and city council infighting. The Connector has had a rough start. It has struggled with lower-than-projected ridership, slower service than expected, and issues with ticket machines.

As part of Landsman’s proposal to get people riding the streetcar, he will:

  • Hire a new director for cohesive leadership,
  • Create a nonprofit to oversee the project,
  • Complete a traffic study,
  • Develop a marketing campaign, and
  • Resolve issues that continue to block streetcars from moving.

Landsman’s motion will be reviewed and discussed over the next few weeks. The city council is set to begin the 2019 budget process, which must be complete by June 30, and the streetcar budget is part of that.

In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Council approved $200,000 for businesses along the Purple Line corridor, and the Montgomery County Council granted $300,000 for businesses along the route in the Long Branch area of Silver Spring. The funding is to support businesses that could see a drop in customers and revenue as construction of the light-rail project moves forward. For example, a bar owner in downtown Bethesda said business has dropped 20 percent since his street closed for construction, which started last fall.

To enhance customer retention, the funds will be specifically geared towards new marketing campaigns, signs directing customers to temporary parking, and technical help for businesses that want to expand their social media presence.

“At the end of the day, we want a diverse set of businesses along the corridor,” said Prince George’s Council Chair Dannielle M. Glaros (D), whose district includes much of the Purple Line alignment through the Riverdale area. “We want our Mom and Pop businesses to not only survive construction but to thrive when the Purple Line opens.”

Purple Line project officials have told some business owners along the 16-mile route that they will lose most of their parking during construction. Businesses could even lose water and power.

Member Forum Now Open

Rail Passengers Association has opened a new forum for members on Google Groups. Members can discuss and follow the latest passenger rail-related issues.

Click THIS LINK to sign up. It's free and open to the public, but users must join the group before they are able to post messages.

Connecting the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail systems is moving one step closer to reality following the approval of a $750,000 grant from the state of California. The grant will specifically help fund planning for the ACE-BART connection, which requires a new rail line from River Islands, Tracy, Mountain House and Livermore in Northern California to connect with a BART terminus. The new route would would run along former Transcontinental Railroad right-of-way.

“The I-580 freeway serves the Altamont Corridor and ranks as one of the most congested freeways in the Northern California Megaregion due to high volume commuter, freight and other traffic,” Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty said in a press release. “With traffic on the I-580 expected to increase 60 percent in the near future, this is a very important rail connection that will not only improve our quality of life, but will also have a positive impact on our economy and the environment.”

The segment from West Tracy to Greenville Road in Livermore is expected to cost about $400 million, according to the Tri-Valley—San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority. Additional phases for the line include stops at Lathrop/Manteca and Stockton before connecting with the first phase terminus of River Islands.

Minor-League Teams Are an Extension of their Communities

By Jacob Wallace, Summer by Rail Correspondent

On a rainy Wednesday in Jacksonville, game attendance was low for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, but that didn’t appear to bother General Manager Harold Craw. Although today might be an off day, he knows he has successful outreach efforts for every game to fill seats at the stadium.

Jacob’s visit to Jacksonville was featured on local television news. To see the television coverage, follow this link. To read more of this story, and to follow Jacob’s Summer by Rail journey through July 1, please visit www.summerbyrail.com.

North Carolina has released a revised state budget that could put light rail projects across the state at risk, and some say the move was intentional by the state Republicans that drafted the budget. The new state budget outlines: "Additional Requirement for High-Cost Projects. – A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided to the Department establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured." The revised language will now require cities and counties to obtain all funding, including federal, before state officials will even consider providing financial support. This poses a direct problem for acquiring federal grants, which require agencies to obtain local and state funding first.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told the Charlotte Observer editorial board. "It's impossible to get federal funding if the local funding package is incomplete."

If the budget provision is approved, projects that would be put in jeopardy include the Durham-Orange light rail, the proposed Silver Line in Charlotte, and a much-discussed rapid transit line through west Charlotte to the airport.

Republican State Senator Jim Davis who heads the Senate Standing Committee that oversees appropriations for North Carolina's Department of Transportation, said that it is not the intention of state Republicans to kill the transit projects.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. This provision ensures that State transportation dollars are not encumbered before the project is ready," Davis said, "There is no formal federal requirement for state funds to be allocated first."

The Senate voted 36-14 to support the budget, but it still needs to clear a second Senate vote and two House votes before the budget goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Upcoming Regional Rail Passenger & State Association Member Meetings and Other Events:

  • Saturday, June 2 - Empire State Passengers Association Working Group Meeting - Schenectady, NY
  • Saturday, June 9 - Delaware, New Jersey & Pennsylvania Regional Meeting - Philadelphia, PA

Please contact Bruce Becker to have a local, state or regional event or meeting added to the Rail Passengers Association calendar of upcoming events!

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's (SEPTA) board of directors has approved a critical $749.62 million Capital Budget for FY 2019, as well as a $1.45 billion Operating Budget. The FY 2019 Capital Budget is a small increase over FY18's $727.2 million capital budget.

Under the capital budget, funding will help SEPTA upgrade and modernize its infrastructure and vehicles as part of the agency’s "Rebuilding the System" initiative. The program includes $42 million to improve signals, interlockings, dispatching and operations management systems, and other technologies. In addition, the budget will provide $30.6 million to upgrade 1920s-era rail substations and replace catenary wires. The agency also has allocated $35.2 million to restore commuter-rail service between Elwyn and Wawa, Pennsylvania, according to the budget proposal.

For the Operating Budget, SEPTA is maintaining current service levels without increasing fares for riders.

The new budget will kick in on July 1.

Openings Available For Rail Passengers Association State Council Representatives

The following vacancies now exist for state representatives on the Rail Passengers Association Council of Representatives: Alabama (1 opening); California (7 openings); Delaware (1 opening); Florida (1 opening); Idaho (1 opening); Illinois (1 opening); Louisiana (1 opening); Massachusetts (1 opening); Minnesota (1 opening); North Dakota (1 opening); Ohio (2 openings); Pennsylvania (1 opening); Vermont (1 opening); Washington State (1 opening); Wyoming (1 opening)

If you are interested in becoming more involved in passenger rail advocacy and serving in a Rail Passengers Association leadership role, this is your opportunity to be considered for an appointment by the Board of Directors to an open state representative seat. There is no deadline to apply and submissions will be considered on a rolling basis as they are received.

Please review the position responsibilities & required qualifications and complete & submit a Candidate Information Statement if you would like to seek a position.

The Los Angeles Metro will continue the study of two northern alignments for the proposed West Santa Ana Branch light-rail line. The agency’s board of directors approved the study, which will closely look at the 20-mile line that will run from downtown Los Angeles to Artesia, CA - known as the West Santa Ana Branch Transit Corridor.

Of the two alignments being looked at:

  • One line's northern segment would connect to Los Angeles Union Station,
  • The other line would transfer to other Metro rail lines that travel to Union Station.

Following approval, Metro will now continue to analyze the two potential routes as part of the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Report. A final decision on the project’s route will be forthcoming after the conclusion of the study.

In Minnesota, the Metropolitan Council and the Hennepin County Board have both approved an additional $204 million for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project’s new budget. Due to a variety of factors, including costs associated with labor and materials, the total cost for the project has risen to more than $2 billion. As it stands now, Hennepin County will contribute $801 million for the 14.5-mile line that will run from downtown Minneapolis through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie starting in 2023.

The Federal Transit Administration has pledged $929 million to the project and will contribute the funding once the agency is assured that local partners are on board financially. The Metropolitan Council, which will build and operate the Southwest project, is expected to apply for the federal grant in September and hopes it will be awarded in the first quarter of 2019. Hennepin County said it will pay for part of the project through a half-cent sales tax and a $20 car excise tax earmarked for transportation.