Happening Now

Hotline #1,074

July 6, 2018

Rail Passengers Begins Campaign for SW Chief; AFL-CIO Opposed Recent Amtrak Decisions; FRA Warned On Issuing PTC Exemptions; CHSRA Plans Aggressive Schedule; Summer by Rail Wraps Up

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When we discuss the recent changes from Amtrak, we often look at it from the perspective of the customer or advocacy groups like the Rail Passengers Association. There are others out there though who have a voice in raising opposition to Amtrak’s decisions to eliminate hot meals on some routes, terminate station agents at communities nationwide, and potentially force Southwest Chief riders to utilize a bus. It can be easy to overlook who else is directly affected by Amtrak’s decisions - their employees.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), whose 32 unions represent transportation workers, including Amtrak employees, raised many of the same points we have in a new Op-Ed in The Hill. Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, said that “Americans across the country want passenger rail services, including more long-distance trains — and for good reason.” However, Amtrak is not giving the people what they want through its recent changes.

Instead, Willis writes, Amtrak’s “moves make long-distance routes less appealing to Amtrak’s customer base and call into question the company’s commitment to its national system. Further clouding the situation is the fact that Amtrak has made these drastic changes in the dark, without input from the public, stakeholders or lawmakers.”

The railroad’s proposed bus service for the Southwest Chief is the perfect example of acting without asking for input from passengers, elected officials or community members. Amtrak has proposed using charter buses between Garden City and Albuquerque, New Mexico instead of keeping passengers on the Southwest Chief. Amtrak said that the costs were too high in regards to maintaining the line and installing Positive Train Control (PTC), and it does not want to follow-through on a $3 million match toward a federal grant that it had previously agreed to.

Knowing that other groups like the AFL-CIO oppose these changes by Amtrak is important. The more we speak up together against these changes, the louder our voice is heard.

The Rail Passengers Association is also taking action now to oppose the Amtrak proposal to substitute bus service along the Southwest Chief route in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

Rail Passengers Association staff is working with Congress, and we are currently creating a corridor-wide campaign to activate mayors, local officials, and citizens in defense of this rail service.

We need you and others to add your voice to our campaign! Your voice will help us advocate for continued service of the Southwest Chief and other long-distance Amtrak routes. Let these Amtrak-served communities know you stand with them in the fight to save and expand train service across the U.S.!

Southwest Chief Bustitution: Chairman Peter LeCody's Take

By Peter LeCody

Chairman, Rail Passengers Board of Directors

In an unprecedented rebuff undoing years of work, Amtrak refused to live up to its prior agreement with Colorado, New Mexico,and BNSF Railway to contribute a third of the cost of the Raton Pass section of the Southwest Chief route. The Rail Passengers Association opposes the recently proposed bus bridge and has already begun a three-pronged action plan to ensure that train service continues along the ENTIRE route.

  1. Rail Passengers staff is working with Congressional delegations in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico and is in progress to add every other state along the Southwest Chief route. A meeting with six Senators and Amtrak's Anderson and Gardner last week turned into a shouting match. You really don't want to get into a pissing contest with a Senator that controls your funding or can hold up appointments to the Amtrak board. Legislators are upset and are on our side; this issue will be won on Capitol Hill by our elected officials.
  2. Rail Passengers staff has already started a coalition campaign of Council members and advocacy organizations along the Southwest Chief route to work together with one voice. Rail Passengers Association will be adding resources to this campaign. You remember how Rally4Trains was successful? Stand by for Rally re-deux.
  3. Rail Passengers staff has already started a corridor-wide campaign to activate mayors, local officials, and citizens in defense of this rail service.

“The failure to involve key stakeholders in developing alternatives to bus substitution is a failure on the part of Amtrak to meet its obligations to the taxpayer,” said Jim Mathews, President & CEO of Rail Passengers Association. “It also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Congressional mandate to run a national railroad by its Chief Executive Officer, Richard Anderson. Our association is committed to ensuring this proposal does not become reality.” Hotline #1,072 June 22, 2018.

Here's my take and my views on the Southwest Chief issue and this does not reflect the view of staff or other board members…

Amtrak has a government mandate to run a national passenger rail network and not look for excuses to cut back on service for our members and the public. The Federal Railroad Administration decided that this BNSF rail line used by only two Amtrak trains a day (Southwest Chief) does not require Positive Train Control. Why doesn't Amtrak management follow FRA policy?

Taking passengers off a train and busing them to another train hundreds of miles away is NOT safe. Don't take my word for it. (“Trains safer than cars, buses for passengers, experts say” by Bart Jansen, USA Today, April 4, 2016). Busing passengers will dramatically cut revenue and ridership. This has happened in the past and is not a formula for success. It is a formula to decimate the national passenger rail network and must be stopped.

Amtrak management previously agreed to work with local, state and federal agencies to share part of the maintenance expenses on this line. Reneging on the agreement means Amtrak is a partner not to be trusted. This is very poor policy.

We all remember how what I call the "Mica-Burger" rantings that resulted in a mandate for Amtrak to cut food losses, don't we? I am very uncomfortable with Congress micro-managing Amtrak and telling them to run the Southwest Chief but if that's what it takes for management to understand we want daily national service, better service, newer and better trains than so be it. Amtrak management is not on the "right track" with their Southwest Chief initiatives.

Passenger rail development is still a major priority for the city of Mobile and its residents despite Governor Kay Ivey saying no to supporting the reintroduction of Amtrak service along the coast. Mayor Sandy Stimpson has co-sponsored a new resolution with Mobile City Council Vice-President Levon Manzie for the design of a new train station. The resolution supports the authorization of a contract with global engineering company Mott MacDonald to develop a station at a proposed site near the Cooper Riverside Park at the old CSX Terminal.

Although the state is not providing money to the project, the funding for the design contract is supported by a grant to Mobile from the Southern Rail Commission. City officials hope that once the design is complete, it will strengthen the cause for introducing service in the region, which was halted after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The contract for $233,000 would include creation of a station area master plan and architectural design.

Manzie said of the design and plans, “I believe it will only make our proposal that much stronger when we go before the governor next year for possible funding, because we'll have a shovel ready project. The station would have been designed. We've got the land ready to go."

Pending City Council approval, work on the station design will begin immediately upon issuance of a notice to proceed.

In a letter to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Ron Batory, House Democrats encouraged the federal agency not to issue exemptions to railroads that will not meet the 2018 deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) installation. The lawmakers believe that the FRA’s regulations regarding PTC are too broad and could allow passenger and freight railroads to continue without installing PTC by running reduced service. Instead, the lawmakers urged the FRA to tighten its regulations and move forward by helping railroads comply with the law as opposed to circumventing it.

"This end-run around the law is contrary to congressional intent in mandating implementation of PTC, the requirements of the 2008 [Railroad Safety] Act, and repeated [National Transportation Safety Board] recommendations, as they could lead to serious safety consequences for the traveling public," lawmakers wrote to Batory after the agency approved a permanent exemption from the PTC mandate for the Music City Star commuter railroad. The request was made by the Nashville Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Nashville & Eastern Railroad Corp.

To the point of helping railroads, including RTA and NERC, lawmakers said, “Congress has authorized and appropriated funding for PTC implementation. Additional funding is anticipated for fiscal year 2019. Prioritizing that funding should have been FRA’s first attempt at helping RTA and NECR implement this lifesaving technology.”

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Transportation Committee signed the letter, along with U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials; and U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).

Support The Southwest Chief and The National Network.

Do you support the work Rail Passengers Association does on behalf of riders?

Your generous donations help fund advocacy campaigns, such as the one we are launching in response to Amtrak’s unacceptable Southwest Chief proposal.

Please help us keep up the fight on behalf of America’s passengers.

Other ways in which you can support our advocacy work include:

After falling behind schedule over the past two years, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is planning to make up gains and accelerate construction for the high-speed rail line.

CEO Brian Kelly said in an interview with The Fresno Bee, “We've got a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. I'm not intentionally being critical of predecessors, but a lot of time went by without fundamental decisions being made (and) key actions being taken so we can get over the hump on things and keep moving."

Kelly believes that the newly adopted plan and budget will help get the project moving faster towards completion. One way the Authority plans to do this is by only focusing on issues that directly advance work in the Valley and on the San Francisco Peninsula.

For construction in 2018-2019, the new budgets allocated more than $1.4 billion. If the Authority is able to move at a pace that allows them to spend the full budget, it will be a first. In 2016-17, the authority had more than $1.8 billion budgeted for project construction, but managed to spend less than $1.1 billion. For the current fiscal year which ended last Saturday, CHSRA had spent less than 64 percent of the $1.2 billion budget.

Summer by Rail wrapped up last weekend after correspondent Jacob Wallace traveled to his 19th baseball game in Seattle. Using only Amtrak and other public transit services, Jacob traveled to MLB, MiLB and independent league games in major cities like, Toronto and Chicago, as well as small towns like Durham,NC, LaCrosse, WI, and Wenatchee, WA.

In the end, he traveled more than 6,000 miles and was able to tell his story, focusing on the importance of developing and maintaining a strong and robust transportation infrastructure in the U.S., as well as Canada.

Jacob’s most recent interviews in which he was able to share his experience and highlights of traveling cross country by rail include:

To catch up on the journey or to read any of Jacob’s blog posts about the trip, please visit www.summerbyrail.com.

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

Friday will feature a series of local tours & activities, including an exclusive opportunity to ride a chartered trip on Brightline. Saturday will include a full day of advocacy presentations, speakers and panels, followed by an evening networking event & fundraiser with entertainment. Sunday will cap off the weekend with additional presentations in the morning and a closing lunch with a keynote speaker.

Discounted group-rate room reservations are now available via this link. In addition, the preliminary agenda, program, tour and event information is posted on the RailNation Miami 2018 Event Page!

In a settlement with the First Free Baptist Church of Bakersfield, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has agreed to pay for church improvements to limit construction noise. The church has agreed to drop a lawsuit against the state building the high-speed rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield.

"This agreement demonstrates the high-speed rail program's continued commitment to working with our partners to work through potential issues and develop solutions that will allow us to bring high-speed rail to the Bakersfield region," Central Valley Regional Director Diana Gomez said in a press release.

The church had sought California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) litigation over the Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) for the Fresno to Bakersfield section of the HSR. The final environmental impact report and statement for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project was adopted in 2014.

Development of transit services and their respective stations often spur additional development from new businesses, restaurants, apartments and more. Brightline in Florida is no different since it began service in January and most recently opened its downtown Miami station.

Sun Sentinel provides a look at current and upcoming projects that are forming in the cities in which Brightline is servicing, including Miami, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

A small sample of new developments centered around Brightline stations include:

  • Miami is now home to MiamiCentral station, which includes a 12-floor office and retail building that is open, and another office building to be completed this summer. In addition, construction on two residential towers, with a combined 816 rental units, will be finished in 2020.
  • West Palm Beach station has a connecting road with sidewalks to Clematis Street, which allows people direct access to a popular area. The walkway is set to open this summer, followed by a 24-story apartment complex with retail space this fall.
  • Fort Lauderdale development is still to be determined, but Mayor Dean Trantalis said he expects Brightline will build residential and office space. He is scheduled to meet with Brightline and city staff at the end of July.

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.

Member Benefit: Newsletter Archives Complete

A new feature for Members: every monthly Newsletter this organization has produced since the beginning of publication in 1969, can be accessed by logging in here. If you have trouble logging in, or cannot reset your password, please contact membership services.

Sound Transit’s East Link light rail tunnel in Bellevue, WA is 90 percent complete and is set to be finished by mid July. Although the tunnel will be complete this year, the 14-mile light rail line won’t begin passenger service until 2023. Once it does, it will connect downtown Seattle to downtown Bellevue. It will include 10 stations.

“We are on the verge of a breakthrough in many senses of the word,” Sound Transit Board Member Claudia Balducci said in a press release. “As the tunnel nears completion, we are moving ever closer to seeing light rail fully constructed, connecting the eastside to the rest of the region and giving our residents and visitors a fast, reliable, traffic-free way to get around.”

Crews began work on the tunnel in February 2017, and it was estimated to take 20 months to complete. Completing the tunnel in July puts it five months ahead of schedule.

On Sunday, July 1, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) officially took over responsibility for the struggling Atlanta Streetcar in hopes of giving the service new life. The streetcar first opened in 2014, but it has seen low ridership numbers with providing limited access to neighborhoods around Atlanta.

With MARTA taking control, the city plans to utilize $2.6 billion from a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) that will help expand the streetcar’s service. Expansion goals include linking the existing light rail lines to the Beltline and adding 21 miles of additional light rail service. Currently, the streetcar only has 12 stops. MARTA is also responsible for fixing 60 problems with the streetcar, including safety and staffing.

To celebrate the change in management, MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey A. Parker and MARTA Chief of Police Wanda Y. Dunham took an inaugural ride on the streetcar on July 2.

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

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

In May, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s (CATS) Lynx Blue Line Extension carried 211 more passengers (24,544 vs. 24,333) on an average weekday than it did in April. Despite the growth, ridership for the extension is below the agency’s first-year projections. CATS officials estimated that line would carry 33,500 passengers on an average weekday in the first full year of the extension. Even though the 20-mile line is running low on ridership, CATS officials say they are not concerned and that the line is on track to meet its numbers.

Assistant director of public transit for CATS, Olaf Kinard, said the May ridership is stronger than it looks because the line connects to UNC Charlotte but classes had ended, hindering overall ridership.

"I think it's fantastic and I'll tell you why," Kinard said. "(May) is when our major ridership source left for the summer. You go from a 28,000- or 29,000-student campus down to 4,000. And for us to have over 24,500 riders — that's strong."

Kinard also said he believe the system is attracting new riders and that when August rolls around, ridership numbers will begin to increase as students come back to campus.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) received a new price estimate of $8.3 billion for the city’s rail line. The cost was provided by independent oversight consultant Jacobs Engineering Group and is a $100 million above the previous estimate for the 20-mile rail line. The consultant was hired by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to monitor the project and review issues that could develop after the original costs of the line increased 55 percent - the original cost was $5.3 billion. The FTA required that the project’s cost get under control before it would release $744 million as part of a $1.55 billion Full Funding Agreement with the transit agency.

Despite the increase, HART chairman Damien Kim said that the new estimate “shows HART has gained control of the projects costs. Kim also said that “HART has already implemented several of the report’s recommendations and has plans to address the others.”

The line is estimated to begin full operations in December 2025.

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); 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); 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.

For anyone who drives to take the Brightline train in Florida, parking at station garages is no longer free. On July 1, the private railroad began charging hourly and daily parking fees. The rates for each station include:

  • Miami garage: $4 an hour or $6 a day.
  • Fort Lauderdale garage.: $1 for the first hour, $2 for each additional hour or $6 for the day.
  • West Palm Beach garage: $1 for the first hour, $2 for each extra hour or $6 for the day.

Maple Leaf & Empire Service to & from the Rome, NY station has been temporarily suspended after a portion of the plaster ceiling fell down on July 4th in the corridor connecting the historic New York Central station and the stairs/elevator leading to the platform. Amtrak has blocked new reservations to & from Rome through July 13 as repairs are being made and currently booked passengers are being directed to use the staffed Utica, NY station instead (only 12 miles away); alternate transportation is not being provided.

Cats and dogs are now able to travel with their owners on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor. Amtrak said in a press release that this “is the final addition to the pet-friendly policy following substantial completion of the major track improvements on that route.” The corridor is served by Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle, and in order to bring a pet on the train, a $25 surcharge is required.

For more information on traveling with a pet, visit Amtrak.com/pets.