Happening Now

Hotline #1,070

June 8, 2018

Sen. Manchin Secures Language For Amtrak Agents; Amtrak Responds to Railroad Passenger Car Groups; Union Groups Condemn Amtrak Changes; Hartford Line To Open June 15

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Amtrak’s plan to remove ticket agents and staff at certain stations nationwide moved forward this week, despite strong push-back from Rail Passengers Association, members, and others. In total, 18 Amtrak stations agents will be replaced as the railroad encourages customers to move to purchasing tickets digitally. Anderson has said that Amtrak is looking to modernize its service and reduce costs. However, the change has left many communities uneasy.

For example, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin requested that Amtrak allow the state to keep its one and only ticket agent in Charleston. Manchin said in a press release that he spoke with Amtrak’s Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner and requested that Amtrak reverse its decision. Manchin stressed how difficult it will be for many community members to access tickets digitally.

“Nearly 30 percent of West Virginia is without internet access, and mobile broadband access is also difficult in my state’s rugged, mountainous terrain, making online ticket sales difficult,” Manchin said in the release. “Our population includes many working-class families and elderly residents who are less likely to have a credit card or another means to purchase tickets remotely but rely heavily on the train as an alternative to driving or flying. Removing the one and only ticket agent in the entire state will make it harder for Amtrak to attract new customers and retain the ones they already have. I have also heard from a number of West Virginians that they will no longer use Amtrak if they cannot buy their tickets from Matt Crouch. After serving West Virginians for more than 30 years, he is set to lose his job today. We deserve at least one manned ticket counter in the state and he does not deserve this and I will do whatever I can to fix it.”

To combat the elimination of the ticket agents, Manchin has now secured language in the FY19 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill that will ensure Amtrak has to employ one ticketing agent in every state - not just West Virginia.

“After weeks of speaking with Amtrak, I am glad to have secured language in this spending bill that will guarantee Amtrak employs at least one ticket agent in every state,” Manchin said in a press release. “When Amtrak announced it was terminating the only ticket agent position in West Virginia, I have been fighting to keep it. I know how important having a ticket agent in West Virginia is and removing the agent at the Charleston station will make it harder for Amtrak to attract new customers and retain the ones they already have.”

Among other issues addressed, Manchin also inserted language that will require Amtrak to justify its decisions to increase prices and stop accepting private trains in Huntington, which would potentially put the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society out of business and jeopardize the future of the annual New River Train.

Other cities that lost station employees this week include: Topeka, KS; Fort Madison, IA; Texarkana, TX; Cincinnati, OH and more.

Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said in a letter that the railroad, how it operates, and the services it provides are long overdue for review and modernization. This includes a closer look at the Southwest Chief and how Amtrak plans to move forward with recent policy changes, such as charter and private train services. In the letter, Anderson wrote that Amtrak passengers today do not have the same expectations of travel that people did nearly 50 years ago, nor can Amtrak continue to operate the way it did when it was first founded.

“Some parts of Amtrak’s business have operated in the same manner for 47 years, and the world is changing around us. For Amtrak to respond to these changes and remain relevant, we need to carefully review how we allocate our resources, deploy our assets, and positions our products,” Anderson wrote. Anderson also wrote that Amtrak officials are, “thinking carefully about how to attract the largest number of customers with an approach that is relevant, fresh, and financially sustainable.”

The new approach includes Amtrak’s controversial intention to reduce the use of charter and private rail cars. Anderson stood by this position, and further said that charter and private-car operations cannot go against Amtrak’s efforts to run a safe railroad that is effective and on time for passengers. Anderson wrote, “Amtrak supports the movement of private cars in regularly scheduled Amtrak trains provided that we have the capacity to provide reliable private car services and that no scheduled passenger trains ever suffer any delays due to this service.”

Anderson’s response pertained to inquires Amtrak received from the presidents of the American Association of Passenger Railroad Car Owners and the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance, Robert G. Donnelley and W. Roger Fuehring, respectively. In their letter, Donnelley and Fuehring called for a review of the new Amtrak policies and said that, “current Amtrak leadership does not support Amtrak’s mission to run the nationwide network,” and that, “recent, abrupt, negative changes in Amtrak’s policies toward special trains and private cars improve unreasonable economic costs on Amtrak, car owners, their employees and vendors, and the communities these cars and trains visit.”

Anderson also wrote about end-to-end ridership in disagreeance with the two organizations. Anderson said that end-to-end ridership, “points directly to the fact that the markets and customers that those trains attract should be better served by Amtrak. I see no reason not to be open to looking at our network and products from a fresh perspective. While change can be difficult and solutions to some of the objections you raise may not be immediately apparent, we have a responsibility to consider how to best serve our current customers and the future of the national railroad system.”

In regards to the Southwest Chief, Anderson said that a balance must be struck between the route’s cost and its future, and the rest of the National Network.

“Our goal with the Southwest Chief is to ensure the creation of a coherent, long-term funding plan that involves commitments from all the relevant stakeholders that addresses the viability of the route, and to see the performance of this route improve. However, we must also be mindful of this particular route’s unique costs and it is our obligation to find the appropriate balance between preservation of any one route versus the needs of the entire National Network,” Anderson wrote.

Many critics of the Southwest Chief decision pointed out that Amtrak has been more than willing to operate in a piecemeal fashion on the railroad’s Hudson River tunnels project, which has moved ahead without a comprehensive financing plan.

Three Ways To Support The National Network

In a recent meeting, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner assured Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews 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!

As a result of Amtrak’s recent policy changes involving de-staffing stations, and changes to sleeping cars and meal service, the Amtrak Service Workers Council (ASWC) of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), as well as Railroad Workers United (RWU), have pushed back against Amtrak by opposing the changes. Both organizations said that their members are not happy with Amtrak’s changes, demand the changes to be reversed, and vowed to fight against them.

Last week, the ASWC raised concerns that the changes will eliminate jobs throughout Amtrak, and denounced the implementation of cold meal service for the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited. The change took place on June 1, and ASWC said that seven TWU-represented chefs received furlough letters that gave them, “a little more than a week to make a major life decision. The move also threatens jobs and pensions from coast-to-coast.”

The ASWC also said, “Due to this sudden decision, our members will be forced out of work, and some will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to uproot their lives, to relocate and exercise their seniority to replace ASWC members working other routes. For example, there are ASWC members with 30 years of service living on the east coast who may be forced to move to Seattle or Chicago just to complete the career they started decades ago. Therefore, it is certain that closing dining cars on these routes will have immediate and ripple effects on Amtrak workers across the country, not only those employed on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited lines.”

In a statement to Railway Age in response to ASWC’s opposition, Amtrak provided little in terms of feedback to the immediate concerns raised by ASWC. Amtrak focused specifically on the food service changes and said that the company is making these changes “to provide higher quality food with a modern service pattern that allows people to order what they want and have it provided when they want,” and that “a hot meal option will be coming at a future date.”

In addition, RWU passed a resolution this week to oppose Amtrak’s changes and wants members “contacting elected representatives, the Amtrak CEO and Board of Directors, attending rallies, joining local and national rail advocacy groups, educating our passengers to the nature of the crisis, and otherwise engaging in defensive actions.”

In its resolution, RWU said that it condemns the actions of Amtrak to close small town stations, downgrade food service and amenities “while threatening to eliminate other trains completely.” The group also said that it will expand its outreach and alliance with other rail advocacy groups such as the Rail Passengers Association, as well as Rail Users Network (RUN), and the Railroad Passenger Association of California (RailPAC), and it encourages its members to join these groups, too.

RWU also called “on the rail unions across the country to likewise condemn any attempt to downgrade the national network and to urge their respective memberships to take defensive action.”

Amtrak is making efforts to improve and upgrade its fleet of locomotives, saying in a press release that it is working towards purchasing new locomotives or rebuilding its current fleet “to supplement and replace its aging National Network diesel locomotive fleet.” To get the work completed, Amtrak issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) that lays out the groundwork for the project, including the potential to purchase a minimum of 50 to 75 next-generation locomotives.

“Our diesel locomotive fleet is nearing the end of life expectancy and we must act now to modernize Amtrak for the future,” said Amtrak President & CEO Richard Anderson in the press release. “We expect that any new, state-of-the art locomotive will offer improved reliability, a smoother ride, improved safety features and make major contributions towards lowering emissions and we’ll also consider how rebuilding options of the current fleet could achieve these goals.”

Amtrak said that the rebuilt or new locomotives will primarily replace Amtrak’s aging P40 and P42 locomotives, some of which have been in service for more than 25 years. The rebuilt or new locomotives are also part of “Amtrak’s long-term upgrades that include buying modern equipment, including new Acela trainsets; ongoing improvements at New York Penn Station and the new Moynihan Train Hall; and further development of stations in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.”

The Future of Rail May Have Already Begun in Florida

By Jacob Wallace, Summer by Rail Correspondent

In Florida, a brand-new passenger rail line shuttling people between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach that will eventually reach Orlando is changing perceptions of what’s possible. Though, not a true high-speed rail line like those in Europe, the train still operates faster than most Amtrak lines in between stops, and via a noticeably smoother ride. By offering premium service on new trainsets, Brightline is betting that lurking beneath the frustrating landscape of rail policy is a demand for efficient rail service just waiting to be tapped.

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

Summer by Rail correspondent Jacob Wallace has already made his way from Miami, FL to Savannah, GA;Washington, D.C.; and Charleston, WV. Soon he’ll be on his way to Cincinnati, OH, Milwaukee, WI and onward. During his journey he has been exploring how our nation’s public transportation network can connect people to events and activities across the country, while also bringing communities together. In his case, looking closely at how public transit can connect people to baseball.

In each of the cities he visits, Jacob is attending a home baseball game, such as the Savannah Bananas game last Friday. Once at Grayson Stadium, Wallace joined in the experience of the game and spoke with people about what the small-town team brings to the area. Check out some of the other great news stories Jacob has been a part of:

"I think it's important for every community to have something to root for, that everyone can get behind," he said. "I think baseball provides that for people. It's just there for everyone to have a good time."

The next stop on the Summer by Rail trip for Jacob is Cincinnati, in which he arrives today. He’ll be attending a Red’s game on Saturday at 4:30pm.

To keep up with Jacob’s journey, visit the Summer By Rail blog, or follow @RailPassengers on Twitter and Instagram.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has awarded a $132 million grant to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The grant money is set to assist the state in completing three aspects of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program's 75th Street corridor improvement project. CREATE is managed through a public-private partnership among Amtrak, the Association of American Railroads, the the Chicago and Illinois departments of transportation, and several freight railroads.

Under CREATE, the program is to help alleviate highly congested points in the U.S. rail network for both passenger and freight railroads. The three projects that the funding will support through CREATE are:

  • The Forest Hill flyover, which consists of a new north-south flyover structure that will eliminate conflicts between north-south and east-west train movements at the Forest Hill Junction;

  • The 71st Street grade separation that will separate the Western Avenue rail corridor from 71st street; and

  • The Argo and Canal junction improvements, which will address the 87th Street chokepoint and increase capacity at Argo yard.

The goal of the projects are to improve economic vitality through improving several high-priority chokepoints impacting the rail network in Chicago that will increase the movement of goods and people, the USDOT grant announcement said.

Make plans to attend Rail Passengers Association’s RailNation Miami 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 are now available via this on-line link. In addition, the preliminary agenda, program and event information is posted on the RailNation Miami 2018 Event Page!

This fall, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania will begin a rehabilitation project of its 55 light-rail vehicles manufactured by Siemens. Some of the vehicles have been in service since the 1980s when the Pittsburgh light-rail system first began operating. The rehab work is expected to extend the service of the vehicles by six years.

Due to the age of the vehicles, authority officials have said that the rehabilitation work is only a small step in its long-term plan for its vehicles and purchasing new ones.

Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said: “Soon [the vehicles] will be well beyond their years. We can’t wait too much longer until we decide which direction we want to go.”

To complete the project, which includes the evaluation of 28 CAF-built vehicles that are near their halfway point, the authority will now increase its maintenance budget by $2 million and hire several new employees.

In California voters defeated Proposition 70, which would have required a legislative supermajority 2/3 vote to spend cap-and-trade funds. The program generates billions of dollars each year by requiring polluters to buy permits to release greenhouse gases, and currently 25 percent goes to the high-speed rail project overseen by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). Overall, the vote was 36 percent “yes” to 64 percent “no.” Passage of the measure would have made it more difficult to fund high-speed rail.

In the Bay Area, voters supported Regional Measure 3 by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent. The measure will increase state-owned Bay Area bridge tolls by $3 over several years, and index future tolls to inflation, with automatic toll increases. It contains $325 million to help bring Caltrain and high-speed rail tracks to the new Transbay Transit Terminal in San Francisco, partly funded with federal high-speed rail funds, from the current station at 3rd and King. RM 3 also contains $90 million for Amtrak Capitol Corridor improvements.

A final measure, Proposition 69, dedicates all unrestricted revenues in the state gas tax/vehicle fee increase (SB 1, 2017) to transportation improvements. This passed statewide by a margin of 80 percent to 20 percent.

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.

The new CTRail Hartford Line will open to the public on Saturday, June 16 (following VIP events on Friday, June 15) and it will offer free trips throughout the entire weekend between New Haven, CT and Springfield, MA. CTrail or Amtrak trains (both of which run on the Hartford Line) will also travel at faster speeds than before. Trains will travel as fast as 110 mph and a trip from New Haven to Springfield will take 81 minutes. Perhaps even more meaningfully for ridership, frequency of service is slated to nearly triple, from 12 to 34 trains each day.

“It puts more trains through the high-speed rail program than any other high-speed rail corridor in the country,” said state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker.

Following the opening weekend, passengers can ride either CTrail or Amtrak trains for $16 round-trip between New Haven and Hartford and $25.50 to Springfield. Monthly passes will be $210 and $267.75, respectively.

“The opening of the Hartford Line is a remarkable moment for passenger rail in the U.S.,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “The Hartford Line provides travelers with a unique chance to use either CTrail or Amtrak, but the line has truly been supported by local communities on the line. Hartford, Meridian, and other intermediate stops have been planning around the line, reorienting their downtowns, and developing infill sites nearby. It's perhaps an unprecedented level of cooperation.”

Prior to opening, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) will begin test runs of CTrail trains along the 62-mile route on June 9. The testing will involve running trains at the full schedule of 16 weekday round trips. Also on June 9, Amtrak's portion of Hartford Line service will begin and the new service will increase daily Amtrak trains to 18, up from 12. This brings the total to 34 daily trips on weekdays, 12 trips on Saturdays and 13 trips on Sundays and holidays.

Once up and running, trains will run about every 45 minutes during morning and evening peak periods. Fares will be the same at all hours.

More than 2,000 construction jobs have been created during the development of the high-speed rail line in California. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) said the jobs have been created since work started on the project in 2015 and that thousands of more jobs will be created as construction advances north and south.

“This project milestone represents significant progress on the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” said Joe Hedges, chief operating officer. “The workers we are recognizing today are the ones that are going out every day to work on more than two dozen active construction sites in the Central Valley.”

CHSRA said that the new jobs were attributed to partnerships between the State Building and Construction Trades Council, the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board and many other groups. These organizations helped train workers so they could be hired to help build the high-speed rail line. These workers also live in the areas in which they are building the line. CHSRA said that of the 2,000 workers dispatched to work on the project, 145 reported living in Madera County, with 954 living in Fresno County and 172 living in Kern County.

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

  • Saturday, June 9 - Delaware, New Jersey & Pennsylvania Regional Meeting - Philadelphia, PA - Rail Passengers Association’s Bruce Becker Is A Speaker!

  • Thursday, June 21 - North-South Rail Link Feasibility Reassessment Study Public Meeting - Boston, MA

  • Saturday, August 11 - Empire State Passengers Association - Utica, NY

  • Saturday, August 18 - Tennessee Association of Railroad Passengers Meeting- Jackson, TN

  • Saturday, September 26 - RailPac California 2018 'Steel Wheels' Conference - Sacramento, CA

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

The Massachusetts state legislature approved a bond bill that includes $10 million for an environmental study for linking the North Station and South Station via a tunnel below downtown Boston. The link has been an important issue in Boston for years, and though the bill would allow the $10 million to be borrowed specifically for the costs of environmental permitting work. It is up to Governor Charlie Baker to determine if the money will be spent for the study.

Many believe the link is critical for Boston’s transit future, including Democratic Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who secured the funding. Eldridge said that the long-proposed tunnel between North and South stations would “allow for easier movement across the region’s 138 stations and link lines north of Boston to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor… with the potential to reduce the amount of cars driving into Boston by as much as 55,000 vehicles a day."

Eldridge also said that the $10 million in the bond bill “sends a strong message to Governor Baker of the growing support the North-South Rail Link has in the legislature, and amongst the public at large.” Baker has not always been receptive of the link between the two stations.

In addition to the bill, the results of a year-long study of the North South Rail Link are expected to be released in a few days. The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is expected to receive a copy of the results by June 18.

Rudy Wetzel was a passenger on the Amtrak Cascades train 501 when it derailed last December, and he is now suing Amtrak for negligence in operating the train the morning of December 17. His lawsuit is not the first to come forward against the railroad, but his lawsuit claims that Amtrak went forward with the trip despite knowing that an electrical system failure was detected the day of the crash, and that the rear locomotive was not properly electronically linked to the front, disabling its braking abilities. In the derailment, Wetzel suffered two broken vertebrae, "severe" lower stomach trauma, difficulty breathing, leg injuries and the cartilage in his nose was pushed to the side.

Wetzel’s lawyer, Jim Vucinovich, said that "Amtrak knew that train was not fit for service that day.”

The train derailed around a 30 mph curve at 80 mph. In addition, Positive Train Control, which can remotely monitor and stop speeding trains, was installed on the train but it was not running. Three people, including two Rail Passengers members - Jim Hamre and Zach Willhoite - lost their lives that morning.

“This was a truly sad and unfortunate accident that could have been prevented,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “The Association lost not only two members, but two close friends and loved ones.”

Under a new record of decision by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) Silicon Valley extension has met National Environmental Policy Act requirements. By meeting the requirements, BART officials can move forward with securing federal funding for the $4.7 billion project, which is being overseen by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). The VTA is applying for $1.5 billion in FTA New Starts funding.

“This Record of Decision by the FTA puts us in a strong position to secure the final federal funding necessary to extend BART all the way to Downtown San Jose and Santa Clara,” VTA Board Chair Sam Liccardo. “As we come one step closer in our two-decade campaign to complete a ring of rail around the Bay, I’d also like to thank my predecessors – Mayors Ron Gonzales and Chuck Reed – as well as leaders like Carl Guardino at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group who’ve played instrumental roles in advancing this transformative project for our residents.”

The VTA previously secured 70 percent of the required funding through two local sales tax measures and a $750 million grant from California's Senate Bill 1 transportation funding legislation.

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.

North Carolina officials welcomed two additional Amtrak trains to daily service for passengers traveling to and from Charlotte and Raleigh. The trains are Piedmont Train Number’s 77 and 78 and they will allow for another departure in Charlotte in the afternoon and evening service to Raleigh. The addition of the two trains now sees four daily round trips between the two cities.

"This new trip allows passengers to customize their travel with a schedule that works best for them," Nina Szlosberg-Landis, vice chairwoman of the state Board of Transportation said during a christening ceremony for Piedmont Train 77.

Details of service include:

  • The No. 77 arrives in Charlotte daily at 6:10 p.m., after starting in Raleigh at 3 p.m and departing Greensboro at 4:33 p.m. and High Point at 4:49 p.m.

  • No. 78 leaves Charlotte at 7 p.m., and arrives in Raleigh at 10:10 each night with stops in High Point at 8:14 p.m. and Greensboro at 8:33 p.m.

  • Each train also makes stops in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Salisbury and Kannapolis.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will assume control of the Atlanta streetcar on July 1. The streetcar will be integrated into MARTA’s new light-rail operations office and it will assume responsibility of the system’s operations, maintenance and technical inspections. Communications, human resources, policing and other support services will be provided by staff in other MARTA departments.

In addition, MARTA’s executive board has several items to decide once it takes over service of the streetcar. The board must determine if it will eliminate the $1 fee for riding, and how frequently the streetcar system's four cars will run.

MARTA and the city of Atlanta agreed that the transit agency would take ownership of the 2.7-mile service. The city-owned streetcar has failed to live up to its promise since it debuted in December 2014. Ridership failed to meet initial projections and fell significantly when Atlanta began charging $1 to ride in 2016.