Happening Now

Hotline #1,059

March 23, 2018

Omnibus Bill Provides $2.8 B For Rail; NJ Transit Working On PTC Implementation; Texas Central Responds to SNCF; Amtrak Revises Discounts and Refunds

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.

Under the new FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill passenger rail services in the U.S. received a major victory and recognition from Congress. Amtrak will receive nearly $2 billion in federal funding, including $1.3 billion for the National Network and $650 million for the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The bill also includes funding for other critical passenger rail projects: $593 million for the Consolidated Rail Improvement, which includes $250 million for PTC implementation; $250 million for the State of Good Repair program; and $20 million for the Rail Restoration program, which will provide support for restoring rail service to the Gulf Coast. Overall, the funding for intercity rail totals $2.813 billion, and represents an increase of $1.3 billion from last year.

"We'd like to thank all the advocates who joined us in working hard to advance the cause of passengers in this bill. It was no easy feat, but it looks like that hard work is about to pay off," said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. "Congress has shown real leadership, and now it's up to Amtrak and the states to take this funding and go to work immediately. That means purchasing new equipment for the National Network, addressing state of good repair, and addressing the critical chokepoints facing the Northeast Corridor and corridors across the US."

The omnibus bill, approved by the House on Thursday in a vote of 256-167, and passed by the Senate in a vote of 65-32, provides significantly more funding for Amtrak than the White House proposal that would have cut funding by $630 million. The bill also offers critical funding for the NEC, which is in dire need of new and rehabilitated Hudson River tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey. President Trump has threatened to veto the FY 2018 if it included grant funding that could be directed towards the Hudson River tunnels.

While the Hudson River tunnels were never explicitly mentioned, the bill includes an extra $328 million for Amtrak Northeast Corridor grants, which Amtrak is theoretically able to use towards Gateway projects. And since transit formula funding was increased, New York and New Jersey will have over $153 million to use towards the tunnels.

"Amtrak thanks Congress for recognizing the importance of intercity passenger rail and the Northeast Corridor," Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said in a statement. "The increased NEC capital funding will allow us to address many important needs along the corridor and we look forward to working closely with the Department of Transportation on investing these funds to advance the most critical projects."

The 2,232-page bill will provide funding for the government until September. It also includes increases in funding for the U.S. military and other domestic programs.

Take Action Now!

Our voices were heard -- the House and the Senate included key passenger rail funding in the FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Though we have passed two major hurdles, President Trump threatens to veto the bill in its current form so our work is not done yet. We must remain vigilant in our efforts, and continually remind our representatives, and the White House, that passenger rail funding is necessary for the growth and success of our economy.

Rail Passengers Association is asking its members to take action immediately to ensure that the White House’s infrastructure proposal does not move forward with cuts to critical passenger rail services. Rail Passengers Association has set up an online tool to permit riders and members alike to let the White House know directly that they disagree with these proposed cuts.

Visit www.railpassengers.org/whitehousebudget to take action NOW!

Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have introduced new legislation that would accelerate the permitting process for railroad and public utility infrastructure projects. The bipartisan proposal would grant the permanent ability to fund permitting reviews for some projects in an effort to fast-track the process. The legislation also comes after the White House’s proposed infrastructure plan, which included a focus on easing the permitting process, has not moved forward with Congress.

Donnelly said in a statement, “This legislation continues an available option for speeding up infrastructure permitting and provides the certainty that both private companies and the Army Corps of Engineers need to quickly review projects. I’m proud to work with Sen. Portman to keep red tape delays out of the way of these needed infrastructure projects.”

“There is bipartisan consensus that we must work together to rebuild our aging infrastructure” Portman said. “I’m pleased to work with Sen. Donnelly to introduce this commonsense bill that will provide certainty to infrastructure project sponsors and help speed the implementation of these projects. By making these cost-sharing provisions permanent, we will encourage more project sponsors and the Army Corps of Engineers to use this option and make the permitting process run more efficiently.”

Following comments by SNCF America Inc. that criticized plans for high-speed rail in Texas, Texas Central Partners fired back.

“Of course, SNCF, the state-owned and heavily subsidized (at more than $16 billion a year) French National Railway would declare they are against competition and block the world’s best high-speed train technology from coming to the U.S.,” Texas Central officials said in an email. “Contrary to the European model, railroads in Texas are privately owned and operated, and meet the needs of the market, not top-down government plans. Rather than spend the amount of time and resources that Texas Central has invested over many years, the French State Railway is one of many competitors that would prefer to skip to the front of the line and thwart Texas Central’s progress.”

SNCF, a global operator of high-speed rail, said in a press release that the Texas project would “doom Texas’ passenger-rail future” because it “has been designed around the best interest of a single company, not what is best for Texans or the state’s rail transportation future.” The comments were made in response to the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) draft environmental impact statement on Texas Central’s proposal.

Rail Passengers Association Chairman and Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody also had words for SNCF.

“Let’s see SNCF put their money where their mouth is. If they are actually interested in creating a high speed passenger rail network in Texas they would have already done their due diligence, laid the groundwork, lined up investors and moved ahead with a bold plan like Texas Central has between Dallas and Houston. Given that Texas Central has taken the idea of high speed rail further than any other entity in the history of Texas I say let them move forward. It’s private enterprise and not subsidized by the state of Texas.”

LeCody pointed to the recently released Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study for the creation of passenger rail in the I-35 corridor between Oklahoma, DFW, Austin, San Antonio and South Texas.

“Where is SNCF on this? Are they making any attempt to move forward on this market or just more interested in making noise?”

Only three weeks before the start of Rail Passengers Association’s Spring 2018 Advocacy Summit; ‘Day on The Hill’: Annual Congressional Reception and Meeting - Sunday, April 15 to Wednesday, April 18, 2018

  • Monday’s sessions will include presentations by Amtrak on PTC implementation and fleet strategy, and by FRA on the ongoing Southeast & Midwest planning studies.
  • Rail Passengers Association’s ‘Day on The Hill’ is Tuesday, April 17. The Annual Rail Passengers Association Congressional Reception will be held that evening from 5:30pm - 7:30pm in the Capitol Visitors Center.
  • Wednesday’s Council Business Session will include the election of Board Officers & Directors and ‘At-Large’ Council representatives.

This is THE opportunity of the year for rail passenger advocates to have their voices heard directly by the decision makers on Capitol Hill. With drastic cuts being proposed in 2019 for Amtrak and grant programs such as TIGER, it is VITAL that rail advocates make this year’s Summit and ‘Day on The Hill’ the largest event ever. We need to flood ‘The Hill’ with our message that passenger rail matters! Please join in this effort.

  • Event registration is now available! Registration rates Will increase on April 1st; don’t delay, sign-up today!

  • The host hotel is the Hilton Old Town Alexandria, located adjacent to the King Street Metro & Alexandria Amtrak Stations. Discounted group-rate rooms are now SOLD-OUT! Regular market rate rooms are available at the Hilton, and a list of other nearby hotels can be found on the Events Page.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York City will begin adjusting the agency’s train signals in an effort to speed up service for passengers. MTA officials have already identified 37 locations in which it plans to review speed restrictions that were put in place in 1995 following a deadly train crash.

“It is good practice periodically to review the impact of changes and I think we can do that safely,” MTA President Andy Byford said.

Due to reductions in train speeds and the agency’s subway schedule, the agency experienced a drop in on-time performance in January. The MTA’s OTP dropped from 64 percent to 58 percent, and has led to passengers waiting.

New Jersey Transit officials are pushing to meet the 2018 deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) implementation. Just this week, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett met with officials from the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak and Conrail to discuss how the agency plans to meet the mandated deadline, despite only having 11 percent of required hardware installed as of December 31, 2017.

"We went line by line and car by car and what we need to do," Corbett said in reference to the meeting.

“If NJ Transit is not able to meet the deadline, the agency risks not being able to provide the service its supposed to for passengers,” said Rail Passengers Association CEO Jim Mathews, who is referring to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson’s comments that Amtrak will not allow trains without PTC to operate. “NJ Transit, as well as other rail transit agencies that use Amtrak routes, are well aware that service could come to a halt if PTC is not implemented before the end of the year.”

As of now, NJ Transit has a $320 million contract with Parsons Transportation to design and install PTC technology, which can remotely monitor, slow and stop trains that are speeding. NJ Transit is set to begin testing PTC on a stretch of track between Morristown and Denville. NJ Transit also has a $10 million federal grant to help cover the cost of PTC installation.

U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins (R-WV) has asked Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson to restore full Cardinal service as soon as possible. The request was made in a letter from Jenkins to Anderson that reiterated the importance of the Cardinal to West Virginia and asked for service between Washington, D.C., and New York City be restored as soon as possible. Amtrak suspended service until mid-November due to track work outside New York City.

Jenkins wrote in his letter, “It is my understanding that Washington-New York Penn Station Cardinal line service will be halted until mid-November to allow for track work outside Penn Station. This means that West Virginians using the Cardinal line will be forced to transfer to continue their journey, adding time and inconvenience. The additional transfer may also discourage residents in the New York area from using the Cardinal and experiencing West Virginia for themselves.”

A PDF of the letter is available here.

Is Your Mayor Onboard?

As Congress finishes last year's budget process and plans ahead for next year's spending, it's critical that local cities play an active part in the process.

Contact your Mayor today!

Just last year, we saw efforts in both Congress and the White House to kill Amtrak's National Network. With a concerted campaign of station rallies, calls, and meetings, passenger advocates were able to turn back these efforts, and secure additional funding for passenger rail in both the House and Senate. Now we need to move these bills across the finish line.

That's why Rail Passengers Association is asking you to write your local Mayor's office and recruit them in the campaign for better train service for all Americans!

Rail Passengers is providing you with materials to help make your argument. Joining our campaign is as easy as clicking a button, so take action today!

Passenger Resources:

Amtrak surpassed several of its environmental, social and financial goals for 2016 and 2017, including the conservation of diesel fuel and energy. Amtrak highlighted its efforts to be more sustainable in a new report that shows the company surpassed its diesel fuel conservation goal by more than 2.4 million gallons, and saved 3 billion kWh of energy thanks to the new ACS-64 locomotives that were added to Amtrak’s fleet.

“Our stakeholders are counting on us to be good stewards of the environment while also creating economic and social value for our communities,” Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said in a press release from the company. “We also understand that keeping our customers and employees safe is integral to sustainability.”

Other highlights from Amtrak’s FY2016-17 sustainability report, which captures the railroad’s performance between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2017, include:

  • Amtrak customers offset their train travel carbon emissions equal to 7.8 million train miles and 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide
  • Customers brought more than 99,000 bikes and more than 45,000 pets along with them since those programs launched in 2015
  • Amtrak’s partnership with Operation Lifesaver reduced highway crossing incidents by 10 percent over FY16 figures.
  • Amtrak hired U.S. veterans to fill more than 20 percent of all open positions
  • Amtrak allocated 11.6 percent of annual spend with diverse suppliers

All Aboard Minnesota and Amtrak are set for March 27 to present the benefits of adding a second train service between the Twin Cities and Chicago along Amtrak’s Empire Builder route. The event will take place at 6:30 p.m at the Winona County History Center.

The proposed train would run exclusively between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago on the same route used by Amtrak’s current train. It’s estimated that the additional service will bring in 155,000 additional trips, while helping local communities boost their economies through rail investments. It’s also expected that the additional service will support other forms of travel by including connections to airports, intercity bus stations and other transit.

“Rail transport could be a very significant benefit in a balanced transportation system,” Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, said.

Music of Bakersfield, a nonprofit organization in California, will play classical music this Sunday at the Bakersfield Amtrak station. The group is participating in an international effort called Bach in the Subways. In honor of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday on March 25, musicians will be performing selections of his music in subways, parks and other public places.

The performance will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on this effort, visit bachinthesubways.org.

$10,000 Sweepstakes for Education Continues Through April 26

Rail Passengers Association kicked-off a new sweepstakes in February for college students who can use assistance paying for higher education. Rail Passengers Association understands that paying for college is not easy, and this is why the Association is offering one lucky student a chance to win $10,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

To be eligible to win the sweepstakes, students can nominate themselves, or a student can be nominated by someone else - a friend or a parent, for example. The only criteria is that the winning student must be enrolled in a U.S. accredited college or graduate program for the 2018-2019 school year.

For details on how to enter or nominate a student, as well as rules for the sweepstakes, please visit: www.crowdrise.com/rpascholarship. Nominations will close on April 26 at 11:59:59.

In honor of New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, Amtrak will rename the new Rochester Intermodal Station. Slaughter passed away on March 16 after suffering a concussion from a fall the previous week. Following her death, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent letters to Amtrak requesting that the company rename that station since it was Slaughter who helped lead the efforts to build it.

"One of Louise’s most significant accomplishments was delivering the federal funding that made the Rochester Train Station a reality," Schumer said in a statement. "Louise fought for years to secure over $15 million in federal funding, so it was only logical and necessary for Amtrak to rename the train station after Louise, a legend in her own right and a fierce advocate for her constituents.”

Amtrak Board Chair Anthony R. Coscia said in a press release, “Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter was an incredible public servant, and Amtrak and rail supporter, who was instrumental in leading numerous rail improvement projects across New York, including the development and funding of our new Rochester Station. To celebrate her legacy and impact on the station, City of Rochester, and State of New York, we are pleased to announce that we will be naming Rochester Station in her honor through a commemorative plaque at the station or other appropriate means.”

The Rail Passengers Association and Slaughter have a long history together in advocating for passenger rail services during her 30 years in office. In 2011, Slaughter founded the 'Bi-Cameral High Speed and Intercity Rail Caucus' which brought together passenger rail advocates in both the House and Senate. Slaughter received the Association's highest honor, the Golden Spike, for her efforts and support of rail transit that year.

“Slaughter was a true partner, supporter and advocate for passenger rail, and we were fortunate to be able to work alongside her to advance rail services in New York and beyond,” said Bruce Becker, Rail Passengers Association Vice-President of Operations and former President of the Empire State Passengers Association. “We are happy to see that her name and legacy will be memorialized by Amtrak on the beautiful new facility in Rochester.”

Passenger rail service between west-central Wisconsin to the Twin Cities received support from the Dunn County Board in Wisconsin. The support is important for the region, as the area has experienced significant growth over the past few years, and that growth is expected to continue. Due to the booming area, board members are looking at passenger rail as an alternative mode of transportation.

Supervisor James Tripp said it would be beneficial for the county to look at alternative forms of transportation, and that new rail service would be great for education, the economy and the quality of life in Dunn County.

Despite the support, the Dunn County resolution offers no funding for the project and will have no impact on the 2018 county budget. There is also no timetable for the establishment of regional passenger rail service. However, West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition is spearheading advocacy efforts to advance the initiative in the region.

Centennial Station on Olympia, WA, which serves Amtrak Cascades, will mark its 25th anniversary this year. To commemorate the milestone and to honor the many volunteers who have helped passengers at the station, an anniversary celebration will be held at the station on May 5. The volunteers at the Centennial Station have helped bring the station to life and sustained that life since the station opened in May of 1993.

The celebration will start at 10:00 a.m. and will run till 1:00 p.m.

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

  • Saturday, March 24 - Rail Passengers Association New England Regional Meeting - Boston, MA
    • This meeting will be followed by a “Beer & Transit” get-together with Transit Matters at the at Beacon Street Locale from 5-8pm.
  • Saturday, March 24 - Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers - Grinnell, IA
  • Saturday, April 14 - Delaware, Pennsylvania & New Jersey Rail Passengers Association 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!

In a strategic move to increase revenue, Amtrak has ended discounts for students and members of AAA. The railroad has also raised the age of senior citizen discounts from 62 to 65.

“With the long-term direction that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson is looking to take Amtrak, one that mirrors an airline’s strategy, we are not surprised that student and AAA discounts were eliminated,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “For people still looking to get discounts however,Amtrak still provides discounts to passengers that are members of the Rail Passengers Association.”

Amtrak also said that there are still ways for customers to save, just not specific consumer groups. Amtrak will still offer a bi-weekly sale program and flash sales, as well as opportunities to save on tickets that are booked at least 14 days in advance. In addition, passengers who are enrolled in Amtrak's Guest Rewards account can receive fare sale notifications by receiving Amtrak emails or by following Amtrak on social media.

Despite AAA members losing discounts on tickets, the insurance company said that AAA will continue to work with Amtrak Vacations to provide member benefits.

Amtrak has also changed the company’s refund and cancellation policy, which will place new restrictions on customers. For tickets purchased on March 20, 2018 or later, most customers will have to pay a 25 percent cancellation fee, and the chances for a full refund will now vary from ticket to ticket.

Prior to the change, customers were entitled to a full refund of their tickets if the ticket was canceled prior to departure. In addition, the refund voucher could be used at any time within the year. Amtrak was even known to issue full or 90 percent refunds in the original form of payment, depending on the ticket and time of cancellation.

It is also important to know that with a Saver fare tickets are still eligible for a full refund or full value eVoucher if the ticket is canceled within 24 hours of purchase.

Additional details on Amtrak's new refund and cancellation policy is available online.

Support Rail Passengers Through Amazon Smile

In the mood to shop and make your purchase support our advocacy efforts?

The Amazon Smile triple donation promotion kicked off last week, and that means Amazon.com is tripling the donation amount to 1.5% when customers make their FIRST eligible smile.amazon.com purchase.

The promotion runs from March 12 - 31, and this is a great opportunity to increase the Rail Passengers Association's AmazonSmile donations.

Visit: smile.amazon.com/ch/36-2615221

Massachusetts and Hawaii have received certification from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for their transit-rail state safety oversight (SSO) programs. To receive FTA certification, an SSO program must meet several statutory requirements, including establishing an SSO agency that is financially and legally independent from the transit-rail agencies it oversees. In Massachusetts, the state's Department of Public Utilities is responsible for safety oversight of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. In Hawaii, the state's Department of Transportation is responsible for providing safety oversight for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is building a 20-mile passenger-rail in Oahu.

"FTA has been helping states develop safety oversight programs that meet federal certification requirements so transit agencies can continue to receive federal funding for the safe movement of millions of people everyday," FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a press release.

Thirty states must obtain FTA certification of their SSO programs by April 2019. Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and the District of Columbia have already met the deadline.

2018 ‘At-Large’ And Board Nominations Open

Rail Passengers Association/NARP is inviting members in good-standing to consider running for one of the up-to 10 available ‘At-Large’ positions on the Council of Representatives. These positions are for two-year terms. Elections will be held at the Council's Annual Business Meeting on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 in Alexandria, VA. For more information on the ‘At-Large’ positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, and to submit a self-nomination, go to: http://ow.ly/Yxzs30hxl4P.

Self-nominations are also now being sought from qualified members interested in being elected by the Council of Representatives to an Association officer position (Chair of the Board; one of four Vice-Chairs; Treasurer or Secretary) or to one of three available Board Director positions. Board officer positions are for a two-year term and the Board director positions are for a three-year term. For information on Board Officer & Director positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, and to submit a self-nomination, go to: http://ow.ly/LGSj30hxlaf.

NOTE: The deadline to submit Candidate Information Statements is Saturday, March 31, 2018!

The 2018 - 2020 State Representatives on the Rail Passengers Association Council of Representatives have now been announced. There are still a number of state representative openings available (as noted in the listing) and qualified Rail Passengers Association members in the applicable states are encouraged to consider seeking appointment to these positions. Please contact Bruce Becker for more information if you are would like to be considered.

Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) will perform about 60 actions as part of the agency’s effort to enhance reliability, seasonal preparedness and customer communications.

"This plan lays out the steps toward doing everything we can to prevent incidents that can impact service and when incidents do occur, to recover service faster by improving our response times to the issues impacting us and our customers," said LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski in a press release.

The steps LIRR will take to improve service reliability include upgrading its overall infrastructure by increasing frequency of rail flaw detections, implementing enhanced monitoring of railroad conditions, adding mobile response crews to address equipment issues and more.

To improve seasonal preparedness, the agency said it will increase vegetation management in the spring and summer, acquire switch snow covers, add more snow fighters and additional third-rail heaters.

LIRR plans to hire a "chief customer advocate" to assist with communications. The railroad will also conduct market research and hold focus groups to enable staff to better understand rider expectations and perceptions about existing customer communications.

O'Hare Xpress LLC and Elon Musk's infrastructure firm The Boring Co., have been identified as the two teams that have qualified to bid on the development and operation of an express rail system between downtown Chicago and O'Hare International Airport. The request for proposals (RFP) was issued this week by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT), and it asked that teams bid on all aspects of the project - design, build, finance, operate and maintain.

"Strengthening connections between Chicago's economic engines will drive our economy into the future, build on the city's legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a press release.

The RFP calls for a downtown Chicago Station, an airport station and maintenance facilities. Although cost estimates for the project are not yet known, the RFQ and RFP clearly stipulate that the O'Hare Express Service will be funded solely by project-specific revenues (like fares or advertising) and financed entirely by the developer.