Happening Now

Hotline #1,076

July 20, 2018

Rail Passengers Rally For SW Chief; Federal Court Gives Amtrak and FRA Power to Set Performance Metrics; Brightline To Increase Service; Views From A Train Photo Contest Launches; WMATA Avoids Strike; NJ Transit To Spend $320 Million on PTC

We Need Your ‘Nose For News’! When you see rail-related news stories, op-eds, editorials, or letters to the editor in your communities, send them along to us! We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Send your news items to Bob Brady, [email protected], and we will share it with members. Are you holding a rally, a community meeting, or another kind of rail-advocacy event? We can help spread the word if you send them to us. We can put them on the website, here. Please follow Rail Passengers Association on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on all things passenger rail.

Rail Passengers Rally to Defend Southwest Chief and National Network

The Rail Passengers Association is re-launching its “Rally For Trains” grassroots campaign this year with our “Southwest Chief +National Network Campaign” (SWC + NN) to fight back against the latest, serious threat to the integrity of the national passenger rail network: Amtrak proposed replacing trains with bus service on the portion of the Southwest Chief route that runs from Dodge City, Kansas to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are nine stations along that route and it would take 7.5 hours to drive from point to point. The proposal would leave a 500-mile gap in the rail network, it would displace thousands of riders from the train, and is projected to lose as much as 70% of current revenue generated.

The effect of cutting the Southwest Chief passenger rail service is not just limited to that region. The route connects Chicago to Los Angeles and serves more than 360,000 passengers per year. Passengers from all parts of the country feed into the Southwest Chief, and it connects passengers from a three-state region to the rest of America.

Rail Passengers Association supports all efforts aimed at “More and Better Rail.” However, Rail Passengers Association opposes any cuts to services on the national network - breaking up the National Network, reduction of daily service and standards, bus substitutions, and cost shifting to the states. As such, this campaign will directly challenge Amtrak’s plans that are not in line with our vision of A Connected America, in an effort to preserve the National Network and protect the Southwest Chief route.

The campaign is policy-based and will enable members to make their individual and collective voices heard. Raising awareness in traditional and social media, we’ll generate a firestorm of support for the Southwest Chief and the National Network and show Congress and Amtrak leadership just what losing train service would mean to real Americans. The campaign will rally U.S. Senators, Mayors, allies, friends and supporters to the cause. It will have targeted communications at all levels to engage each and every rail passenger to do their part, no matter how large or small the effort.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a critical junction concerning the fate of the National Network. Whether it is the federal budget that makes Amtrak possible, or this very new threat to a part of the system, we have to take action. We appreciate your full support as we move forward with our efforts to protect the Southwest Chief and preserve the National Network.

To get involved, please visit www.railpassengers.org/swc to view a host of materials and participate in the up-to-the-minute needs of the campaign.

Federal court ruled in favor of passenger rail service today by allowing Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to set their own standards for measuring passenger rail service on time performance.

The 2-1 ruling in DOT's favor revives the ability of Amtrak and FRA to co-write metrics and standards to measure the service quality of intercity passenger rail operations.

“Today's appellate decision vindicates the position our Association has taken in numerous court filings, briefs and letters to regulators over the years,” said Jim Mathews, Rail Passengers Association President. “This sets the stage for Amtrak and the FRA to work together to restore on time performance standards that were vacated by previous rulings. With on time performance today at record lows, American passengers have been waiting for years for the courts to step in and protect the rights of the traveling public.The Rail Passengers Association could not be happier with this decision.”

Attempts to set standards has been tied up in the court system for nearly a decade after the federal government’s and Amtrak’s efforts were challenged by the freight rail group at the Supreme Court, which found in 2015 that Amtrak was a governmental entity for purposes of co-authoring the rules, but threw other constitutional questions back to the lower courts, who ruled again that the section of the law was unconstitutional by giving a self-interested entity like Amtrak power to regulate its competitors, which the court said violated due process. DOT argued in March that removing the arbitration provision from the law would cure the constitutional issues judges had previously found and the court agreed.

Rail Passengers Association has played an active role in this long-running battle, including filing an amicus curiae brief along with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in a case that was ultimately decided in Amtrak’s favor.

“We will continue to fight for passengers’ rights in the courts, in Congress, and in the sphere of public opinion,” said Mathews.

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 to protect the Southwest Chief, as well as the National Network as a whole.

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

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

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has issued two more regulations for increasing safety on public transit systems. The rules are known as the Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan and the Safety Certification Training Program.

"FTA has worked diligently to reach this important stage of completing the final regulatory framework of our National Public Transportation Safety Program," FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a press release. "Through these rules, FTA will enter a new era of safety and we will continue to work with our state and industry partners to enhance public transit’s safety record."

The first regulation will require transit agencies to implement safety management system (SMS) policies and procedures into their safety plans. This rule will go into effect on July 19, 2019 and agencies are required to meet the regulation within one year. FTA officials said since no two transit systems are alike, the requirements for each will be “scalable and flexible."

The other regulation will require transit agencies to create a basic training course to improve the technical competencies and capabilities of the individuals responsible for the safety oversight of transit-rail systems. The training will be required for personnel at state safety oversight agencies and their contractors. The rule will be made effective on August 20, 2018.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is providing passenger rail services, as well as freight, with opportunities to receive federal funding through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program. Through CRISI, the FRA has made available $318 million in grant funding from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao. said in a press release that the FRA “seeks to collaborate with private, state and local investments to boost much-needed rail projects across the country, and we hope interested parties will apply by the stated deadline.”

The FRA made the announcement through a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) and the grant will help fund projects that improve intercity passenger and freight rail transportation safety, efficiency, and reliability.

The FRA also said in its announcement that selection preference will be given to projects with a 50-percent non-federal funding match from any combination of private, state, or local funds. The Department will also consider how well the project aligns with key Departmental objectives including supporting economic vitality; leveraging federal funding; preparing for life-cycle costs; using innovative approaches to improve safety and expedite project delivery; and holding grant recipients accountable for achieving specific, measurable outcomes.

How Minnesota Is Transforming Itself Into A Rail Star

By Jacob Wallace

Rafael Ortega is not the sort of man you’d expect to meet in the Ramsey County offices in St Paul, Minnesota. As a product of the Lower East Side with a degree from Fordham, he’s brought a brand new perspective to transportation since taking office in 1995.

“Nothing’s going to be on the scale of New York but look, for us to be competitive as a region we gotta invest more in transit,” said Ortega. “I got into this because my first year in office I went up to the capital [and] nobody on the board gave a hoot about transit, to be honest with you.”

Ortega has a friendly, easy-going conversational style that occasionally causes meetings to run long. That’s no problem, since he retains a high level of respect within the region for the light rail, streetcar and bus systems he has helped create.

As Ramsey County commissioner and chairman of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, Ortega is the individual with the most power to affect transportation policy in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he represents one half of the Twin Cities.

Up until a year ago, Ramsey was in fact the second largest county in a broad coalition of seven counties in the Twin Cities metro area that instituted a quarter cent sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements. On top of disagreements about how transportation resources should be distributed, certain counties in the metro area prioritized buses over trains while others did the opposite.

“As you’re building out a system, you have to put your money in different pieces first, otherwise it’s not the kind of thing that you could evenly distribute,” Ortega told me. He jokingly added, “We’ll buy ten buses and we’ll give everybody 2.2 buses, y’know?”

Once the coalition disbanded, many counties discarded the sales tax they were using to fund the regional bus network, leaving Ramsey and Hennepin counties (where Minneapolis is located) to double their own sales tax carve-outs in order to fund their expanding networks. The two counties already see funding issues on the horizon.

“It’s always a struggle to fund these projects, especially if you’re trying to do it yourself because they’re so big,” Ortega mused. “So I think down the road we’re gonna have to be creative about how we adjust this.”

The upside is that the Twin Cities are quickly realizing the benefits of a robust transportation network. The green and blue line light rail lines that connect the two cities have already drastically outperformed expectations, meeting 20-year ridership goals in about a quarter of that time.

“For a while we were tracking [ridership statistics] like baseball scores,” Ortega said. “It has to do with dependability – you go there and you know the train is coming more or less within twenty seconds of the time, if not right on time.”

Because of these successes, Ortega now has a slate of new projects to consider, including a new streetcar connecting the Riverview corridor between Minneapolis and St Paul.

Ortega’s strong track record with transit might influence how lawmakers view other transit projects in the state and region. The Passenger Rail Office of Minnesota’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is on life support as it struggles to collect consistent funding from the state general fund. In fact, Minnesota’s contribution to a study connecting St Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago via a second daily train was funded by Ramsey County because MnDOT couldn’t come up with the funds.

Two out of the two employees working out of the Passenger Rail Office, Director Dan Krom and Project Manager Frank Loetterle, expressed concern over future funding for rail.

“We’ve been fighting an uphill battle ever since [it was founded] just to maintain the office and maintain funding,” Krom said. “We have severe budget constraints.”

Yet even with its limited budget, the Passenger Rail Office is working hard to continue to expand rail transportation connecting the Twin Cities to areas as far as Duluth.

“We’re looking down the road to see where we can invest with the limited resources there we’ll need in the future.” Loetterle told me. He was positive that new projects such as the Northern Lights Express connecting Minneapolis and Duluth would bring in more first-time consumers who will begin to see the importance of a transportation network in their state.

To those working in passenger rail, robust and comprehensive transportation systems are the ultimate greater good, and it’s worth dragging along stubborn counties or states into their vision in order to make that happen. When a new commuter climbs aboard and starts using public transportation, they’re converted into rail advocates by simple nature of wanting their commute to be as painless as possible. The challenge for policymakers, then, is convincing other politicians how essential rail travel is to so many people.

“I mean, the ability of people to move from east to west [during Westward Expansion] is what gave people a lot of opportunities,” Ortega said. “To achieve the American dream, you gotta be mobile. That’s part of this country too, right?”

A deal has been struck between the Metropolitan Council and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad (TC&W) for the development of the Southwest light-rail system between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The agreement has also been approved by the Hennepin County Board and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, and it is a major step for advancing the 14.5-mile light-rail project. With the approval of the agreement, project planners can now apply for nearly $1 billion from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to help pay for the $2 billion project.

Advancement of the project was slowed due to the parties inability to agree on “the colocation of freight rail and light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor and Bass Lake Spur," Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff and TC&W President Mark Wegner said in a joint statement.

“This region expects almost a million more people between 2010 and 2040. To accommodate such growth, we must build Southwest LRT, which is critical to the economic health and mobility of our region,” Tchourumoff said in the statement. The continued ability of this project to overcome significant challenges, including reaching agreements to share rail corridors with three different freight rail companies, is no small feat. This important project continues to move forward because of our partnership with Hennepin County and the commitment of so many local officials, project staff, and residents to see it become a reality.”

Following the approval of the deal, the Surface Transportation Board is expected to issue a "favorable ruling" on the agreement and allow the council to move forward with selecting a developer for the project. However, current proposals are set to expire on August 1, but the council has asked bidders to extend their bid validity another 60 days. Bidders are given 10 business days to respond to the Met Council's request.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) published a notice in the Federal Register regarding the agency’s effort to define what a “federal” project is, as well as details on its FY 2018 apportionments. To define a federal project, the FTA opened an online dialogue on July 16 and it is seeking input from state departments of transportation, transit agencies, transit operators and other interested parties on how a federal definition affects project delivery. The FTA will collect input through August. 17.

In a blog post on the dialogue, the agency said, “Over the last year, FTA staff reviewed regulations and guidance documents to ensure they are straightforward, clear and designed to minimize burden on grant applicants. In a continued effort to review its processes, FTA is hosting an online dialogue to collect public input on the current definition of a “federal project” and how that may impact the timely and effective implementation of transit projects. A federal project typically requires grant applicants to complete many phases or elements for capital projects with requirements ranging from those enacted under the National Environmental Policy Act to regulations for Metropolitan and Statewide Transportation Planning, Procurement and Buy America.”

The notice also includes details on the FTA’s formula for and competitive funding for 2,000 public transportation grant recipients, which are eligible for $13.4 billion through September 30, 2018.

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 is the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Miami.

RailNation Miami Registration Is NOW Open! Don’t delay...space is limited...register today!

Friday will feature a series of local tours & activities, including an exclusive opportunity to ride a chartered trip on Brightline. Complete information & registration for this these fantastic tours and trips will be available by August 9th.

Saturday will include a full day of advocacy presentations, speakers and panels, followed by an evening reception at the MiamiCentral Station complex benefiting The Jim Hamre Scholarship Fund. A separate, Saturday evening concert with live entertainment will also benefit the Hamre Scholarship Fund.

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 and event information is posted on the RailNation Miami 2018 Event Page!

Brightline service in Florida is expanding the number of weekday round trips for Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. On August 6, the company will begin offering 16 daily round trips in order to provide passengers with more flexibility in their travel options. The earliest train will depart from West Palm Beach at 5:30 a.m. and the last train will leave Miami at 11:10 p.m. weekdays.

Brightline officials had planned 16 trains each weekday with 3 million annual passengers by 2020. Other plans include extending the service to Orlando by 2021, with an eventual connection to Tampa.

Although the weekday schedule is expanding, the weekend schedule for Brightline trains will remain unchanged.

As Brightline officials look to expand service to Orlando and Tampa, opponents of the higher-speed service filed a motion to stop further development. Martin County, Indian River County and the citizens group CARE FL claim that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) did not sufficiently review Brightline’s potential effects on surrounding communities and freight rail when preparing environmental reports. The lawsuit claims that the FRA instead relied mostly on data and research provided by Brightline.

“The consequence of this failure is that affected local governments and the public have been kept in the dark about critically important public safety issues and have been deprived of a voice in how to address them," the counties and CARE said in the documents.

With the motion, the opponents are seeking to prevent Brightline from receiving private-activity bond financing and rescind $1.15 billion of tax-exempt bonds, which were previously approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

#ViewsFromATrain Social Media Contest Kicks Off

We had so many great submissions for our social media branding contest last year, we decided to open a second round for the summer. The Rail Passengers Association is asking members, friends and family, and the general train-riding public, to share their #ViewsFromATrain on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #RailPassengers and @RailPassengers.

The pictures should be your own, and should depict what you see outside your train window, whether it’s a photo of countryside, oceans, forests or cities. People who submit photos will have an opportunity to win a variety of great prizes, including 10,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards® Points.

So if you’re taking a train this summer, take a look out the window and snap a pic or two. We would love to see them!

On Sunday, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 voted to authorize a strike against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in D.C. Since that time however, union leaders have said progress has been made with WMATA officials to meet union concerns and avoid a strike.

Members from both sides met on Wednesday to resolve the many issues that the union wants to address, which include but are not limited to: quicker resolutions of grievances and more strict compliance with the collective bargaining agreement; an end to job cuts when positions are vacant; and addressing problems tied to a change with Metro’s privatizing of certain medical oversight and checks.

The union highlighted its grievances in a letter to elected officials in D.C., Maryland and Virginia and asked for their support addressing them.

“Our demand is simple: get [General Manager Paul] Wiedefeld to follow the law, abide by the collective bargaining agreement, and bargain in good faith on all matters under his obligation,” the letter said. “We are well aware of the legality of a strike, and the consequences of such an action. Our willingness to strike should demonstrate to you how terrible the morale is for workers at Metro and the lengths we are willing to go to restore the integrity of this system and our work.”

Although no resolution was reached this week, an immediate strike has been avoided. The next meeting between WMATA management and the unions is set for Monday.

Member Forum Now Open

Rail Passengers Association has opened a new forum for members on Google Groups. Members can share their gripes and their applause, and trade information on 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.

NJ Transit will now spend $320 million on implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) on its trains, but it will still miss the December 31, 2018 deadline mandated by Congress.

The new price tag marks a $24 million increase following approval from agency officials to amend contracts with Parsons Transportation Group Inc. and HNTB Corporation. Each contract amendment was for $12 million, while the Parsons contract amendment includes increased penalties if the December 31 installation deadline is not met.

Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit executive director said that the agency is “hitting major milestones” and that “in a few weeks, the second quarter (of 2018 report) will show dramatic progress."

Despite the optimism, the transit agency has struggled with funding and to keep pace with installing the life-saving technology on its system before the 2018 deadline. Corbett confirmed in a letter to the NJ Transit board that it will miss the implementation deadline but meet the FRA’s regulations for an extension.

“We expect to meet the FRA’s statutory requirements by the end of 2018 and receive federal approval to have PTC fully implemented on our rail system by Dec. 31, 2020,” Corbett said in the letter.

However, transit advocates are not convinced NJ Transit will qualify for the extension.

"All we know is NJ Transit is far behind," said Orrin Getz, a New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers representative. "I'm not even sure if you'll have enough done to qualify for an extension to 2020."

To date the agency has installed required equipment on 83 locomotives and 75 communications towers. In addition, 900 staff members have been trained on PTC.

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!

Amtrak will bring back its “Great Dome” car for train rides between Albany and Montreal, running through the Adirondack Mountains this fall. From September 27 to November 2, passengers can enjoy the changing fall scenery as the train has an upper level glass-roofed dome with windows on every side. The dome car is from 1955 and is only in service for a limited time. One-way tickets from Albany to Montreal start at $53.

Bob O’Malley has officially joined Brightline as the company’s new VP of government affairs. O’Malley previously held the same positions with CSX for 10 years. In his new role with the private passenger railroad, O’Malley will oversee government affairs and community outreach for the company’s Orlando to Tampa expansion efforts.

“We are excited to grow our executive team as Brightline eyes expansion in central Florida,” Ben Porritt, Brightline’s senior vice president of corporate affairs said in a press release. “O’Malley is a proven leader with an extensive background that will help Brightline build a strong coalition of support in future markets.”

O’Malley has also worked as director of central Florida operations for Tallahassee-based Sachs Media Group, and has served as director of public affairs and strategic planning for MetroPlan Orlando, the regional transportation planning organization for the state’s Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties.

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.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will need to spend more than $7 billion in additional funds in order to upgrade the agency’s subway fleet and improve service for passengers. That number comes from a new report from the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan group that works to “achieve constructive change in the finances and services of New York City and New York State.” The report said that the MTA’s subway cars have been breaking down more frequently, while the agency has replaced and upgraded cars at a slower rate.

“From 2010 to 2016 NYCT stretched inspection and maintenance cycles to meet savings targets and the MTA capital program replaced fewer cars at a slower pace than was necessary to replace all cars reaching the end of their useful life. The result was a significant drop in reliability contributing to the steady drumbeat of complaints that led Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency at the transit system in 2017,” the report said.

The $7 billion the commission proposed is in addition to the MTA’s current capital budget through 2019 and allocates $1.4 billion for new and rehabbed cars. Combined, the commission said the total project cost for upgrading the MTA’s subway system and improving reliability is nearly $9 billion. This would cover purchasing 3,650 new subway cars and retrofitting an additional 1,200 existing cars, which were included in the MTA’s Fast Forward plan. The Citizens Budget Commission recommends spending $8.3 billion on buying new cars and allocating $710 million to upgrade existing cars over the next 10 years.