Happening Now

Hotline #1,060

March 30, 2018

Amtrak To Ban Special Trains; Amtrak Grades Freight Railroads; SEPTA Releases Economic Report; Trump Says Infrastructure Plan To Be Issued After Midterms

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Amtrak will no longer support special trains or private charters except in very limited circumstances, according to a new alert that the company sent to employees. The internal notification, which was obtained by Trains magazine, said that effective “immediately” Amtrak would no longer operate charters or special trains because they “caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains.”

“We understand that Congress has directed Amtrak to look at every possible way to cut losses, but in many cases these charters and specials inject real economic benefit into the communities served, sometimes to the extent of millions of dollars,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “One reason taxpayers invest in a National Network of mainline trains is to foster economic growth in communities that aren’t otherwise profitable to serve. And abruptly dropping support to these operators will in some cases gut important revenue sources for smaller communities.”

Amtrak allowed customized private-train journeys for a variety of events, including corporate meetings, sports teams and train/railfan trips. The prices for such services started at $10,250, depending on the class of cars, the destination and the level of decorations and catering. However, Amtrak’s announcement said that the revenue was not worth the time, delays and overall cost of providing these services.

One historic tradition under threat includes the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society in Huntington, WV. Under the new Amtrak policy, the non-profit will not be able to operate its New River Train with Amtrak, which will end a 51-year tradition. This will result in a major loss for the local economy.

"The New River Train is one of the largest and most popular single events in Huntington," said Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau. "For the four days over two weekends that they operate the train, going from here to Hinton, there is an economic impact to our area of around $2.2 million. We average about 4,800 people each year, and they are staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and many stay for several days to enjoy other sites in the city. And that number only accounts for that one event. The society has many other trips throughout the year, including last year's very popular train ride with Santa, geared toward families."

The brief to employees did say that there could be “a few narrow exceptions” if they “support specific strategic initiatives, for example trial service in support of growing new scheduled service.” The notification did not specify Amtrak’s plans for privately owned railcars, but Trains has found that Amtrak is already denying some private car operators’ move requests. Owners of such rail cars pay Amtrak $2.90 per mile, plus additional fees for services. Add the expenses of crew and connection transportation, and a cross-country trip can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Storing the cars costs about $600 to $1,000 a month.

“I met this week with Amtrak officials and expressed concern about the potential unintended consequences of this decision. We are drafting a formal letter outlining those concerns and seeking a management response,” said Mathews. “The West Virginia situation highlights the many ways a seemingly simple decision--dropping special moves because of their complexity--can ripple through Amtrak’s stakeholder community, imposing millions of dollars of losses in local jobs and tourism.”

Canadian Pacific and BNSF were at the top of the class as Amtrak published its very first report card for its host railroads. Amtrak graded six Class I railroads based on scheduling and freight train interference-driven delays. CP came out on top, earning an “A,” followed closely behind by BNSF with a B+. At the other end of the scale, two railroads received failing grades: Norfolk Southern got an F for imposing more than 1,500 minutes of delays for every 10,000 train miles, as did Canadian National.

Some freight railroads have thumbed their noses for years at the federal law outlining passenger-dispatching preference. The preference law was part of the deal railroads made with taxpayers to rescue them in 1970 and relieve the hosts of their common-carrier responsibility of having to run passenger trains. The quid pro quo was the preference clause in the law (49 U.S.C. § 24308(C), which is still on the books), originally written so that host railroads had to give passenger trains preference unless they could win a DOT exemption by proving that preference would “materially lessen the quality of transportation provided to freight shippers.”

“It is outrageous that freight railroads regularly subject passengers to 90-minute delays,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “Freights have violated the preference requirement with impunity for decades. Only the U.S. Attorney General can bring a complaint on Amtrak's behalf, and in Amtrak's entire history the AG has only done it once, in 1979. We all hope this report card will highlight where freight railroads can improve their performance, as well as shining a spotlight on the stars who do a good job for America’s rail passengers.”

Other grades in the report card were Union Pacific, earning a B-, and CSX receiving a C grade for averaging over 40 minutes of delays for Amtrak trains.

Your Rail Passengers Association filed a letter to the Surface Transportation Board supporting Amtrak in a dispute with chronically late Canadian National over whether Amtrak can introduce a new incentive-payment regime designed to spur better on-time performance.

“Late trains remain the single most significant cause of passenger dissatisfaction,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews, “and CN is among the worst performers. Our members rely on--and pay for--timely and regular service.”

Faced with CN’s chronic underachievement, Amtrak proposed an arrangement with CN that balances the incentives so that the host railroad is no longer rewarded for stranding passengers for hours on end, as it is today, but is paid handsomely for superior performance. CN’s response--which is why the case is at the STB now--was instead to demand millions of dollars of additional compensation from Amtrak.

So far, CN’s record of host-railroad delay (HRD) minutes is 42% worse than the average of all other Amtrak host railroads.

Mathews filed the letter late last week to ensure that the passengers’ voices are heard during this proceeding at the STB.

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Andy Byford, President of the New York City Transit Authority, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he has plans to help modernize the city’s subway system decades ahead of its current timeline. Byford said that there are a number of challenges that he wants to address to help ease and speed up the commute for riders, but the biggest challenge will be upgrading the subway’s signaling system, which was installed more than 40 years ago. The outdated system has led to regular delays for trains, and has also restricted how many trains can run at a given time. Byford said that current estimates for updating the signal system will take 40 years, but said that it’s possible to complete the work in 10 to 15.

A problem that lays before Byford and the agency, however, is acquiring appropriate levels of funding with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is already projecting a $400-million deficit by 2020.

“This plan will need money, it will need time, it will need political will, and it will need the forbearance of New Yorkers,” Byford said.

The current system used in the subway is a block-signaling system that breaks up track into sections. Only one train at a time is allowed in a section, until the front of the first train has left the section.

A newer system, based on communication, allows trains to run closer together. Byford estimates that a modern system could increase capacity by 20 percent or more, which would mean an additional five or six trains an hour on some lines.

To read the full interview between Byford and The Wall Street Journal, please visit the paper online (registration required).

The Lakes and Parks Alliance, which opposes the Southwest Corridor light-rail line in Minnesota, has appealed Judge John Tunheim’s decision to throw out their lawsuit challenging the project. The group filed its lawsuit three years ago, and claimed that the Metropolitan Council violated federal law when it picked the current route before it had completed the required environmental studies. Judge Tunheim ruled in favor of the Council, and said that it, “did not irreversibly and irretrievably commit itself to a specific light-rail route, despite the appearance that it did.”

The alliance, in its appeal, said that the Metropolitan Council limited itself to the current route by entering into agreements with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, as well as with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. Judge Tunheim already focused on this issue however in his original decision. The judge wrote that the pacts were, “promises that could be broken,” for the 14.5-mile route.

Despite the appeal, Council members are confident that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm Tunheim’s decision.

Construction on the $1.9-billion line is set to begin this fall, with a completion date of 2023.

Only two 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 open! FYI...Reduced advance registration rates are available through Saturday, March 31. Higher rates will apply for all registrations made starting April 1 and at the door.
  • 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.

Brightline crews have completed a series of safety upgrades that will reduce the sound of train horns for the passenger rail line, as well as freight trains. The upgrades were made at about 30 rail crossing on the the Florida East Coast Railroad corridor in West Palm Beach, which will be the first of six cities to have completed quiet zones. Before the quiet zone can be made official, the city has to inspect the safety upgrades.

A spokeswoman for West Palm Beach did not provide a timeline on when inspections will be completed, but said, “the City is expeditiously moving forward with its inspection.”

Quiet zones are also under development in Lake Worth, Lantana, Delray and Boca, with work expected to be completed within the next week. Upgrades in Boynton Beach will take a little longer due to the type of upgrades that are planned.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) demonstrated the value of its public transit services to the state and economy in a new report, before it requested $6 billion over 15 years for major upgrades. In the new report, “SEPTA Drives the Economy of Pennsylvania,” the Authority offers multiple values to the state including, increased home values near service routes; reduced traffic congestion; reduced need for parking; and, a boost for the state’s economy.

“We’re handling 53 percent more riders than we did in the ’90s, without adding tracks or cars,” said SEPTA general manager Jeff Knueppel during a news conference on the report. “We’re constantly running near capacity, and that’s tough on equipment. We’re worried about being able to keep supporting the economic activity in the region.”

The release of the report also led to SEPTA officials requesting funding to support major transit initiatives. SEPTA said some of its major priorities for the next decade include:

  • Expanding Market-Frankford Line trains from six cars to eight;
  • Modernizing trolleys to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and able to carry more passengers;
  • Updating Regional Rail lines to replace 231 cars, “dating from the Nixon era”;
  • Adding a second set of tracks north of Ardsley on the Warminster Line; and
  • Extending the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia.

The report cost $120,000, was paid for by SEPTA, and prepared by Econsult Solutions.

Is Your Mayor Onboard?

As Congress 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:

The East San Fernando Valley in California is set to receive $202 million for transit development, including a potential light-rail line or a rapid bus system. Overall, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) approved $482 million for Metro from the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to be used for transportation projects in the Los Angeles area. Should the light-rail project be in the future for the East San Fernando Valley, the line would connect Metro's Orange Line bus stop on Van Nuys Boulevard to the Metrolink's Sylmar/San Fernando Station. The project will also be funded through Metro's Measure M sales-tax, which was approved in 2016.

“Our transportation network is the engine that powers our economy forward — and a catalyst that drives us toward a more sustainable and interconnected future,” Los Angeles Mayor and Metro Board Chair Eric Garcetti said in a press release. “This new funding will ensure Metro can continue to deliver Measure M projects on time and on budget.”

The projects are also part of the city’s Twenty-Eight by 2028 initiative. The goal is to build 28 major projects in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, which will be held in Los Angeles.

Do you live in Maryland? There’s a new chapter of Rail Passengers especially for you, and they need your help! As early steps, Rail Passengers Maryland was out leafleting to save MARC train service into West Virginia, an effort that succeeded and proved the value of getting involved! Get in on the ground floor, Join today, and help them take the message that Marylanders want more rail options to Annapolis! Contact them with direct questions and comments here.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has requested public comments regarding automation in the railroad industry. The FRA is seeking input from industry stakeholders, the public, local and state governments, and other interested parties on the potential benefits, costs, risks and challenges to implementing automated railroad operations.

The goal of the solicitation is to help the agency determine how it, "can best support the railroad industry's development and implementation of new and emerging technologies in automation that could lead to safety improvements or increased efficiencies in railroad operations.”

The deadline for submitting a response is May 7.

$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.

Amtrak has taken Track 18 at New York’s Penn Station out of service as part of its renewal effort which first began last summer. The track was taken out of service on Monday after Amtrak crews completed work on Track 15 last month. The work for Track 18 will include, “localized concrete demolition,” as well as a replacement of track ties and rails.

Also, Amtrak has continued its work on Penn Station’s, “C Interlocking.” Amtrak crews have been renewing and replacing three turnouts that controls the trains entering and exiting the east end of the station. Work began March 2, and is on schedule to be completed by the end of May.

The Seattle Mariners are providing a new perk for fans who purchase tickets for their baseball games - free Link Light Rail rides with Sound Transit. As of Opening Night at Safeco Field on March 29 and through June 3, game tickets will be valid to ride the light rail on game days starting three-hours before the first pitch through the end of Sound Transit's regular daily schedule.

"We know from surveys that traffic and parking are two of the biggest frustrations our fans face. This partnership is a great way to utilize an existing public asset to help fans get to and from Safeco Field in a fast, convenient way," Seattle Mariners President and CEO Kevin Mather said in a press release.

"What could be easier?," said Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Peter Rogoff. "You buy your game ticket and automatically buy your trip home and back. Sound Transit is thrilled that the Mariners are sponsoring such an easy way for fans to reach opening season games."

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

  • Saturday, April 14 - Delaware, Pennsylvania & New Jersey Rail Passengers Association Regional Meeting - Philadelphia, PA
  • Saturday, April 21 - Louisiana ARP Meeting - New Orleans, LA Union Passenger Terminal
  • Saturday, April 28 - Rail Passengers Association Northwest Regional Meeting - Portland, OR

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

During an infrastructure speech to union workers in Ohio, President Trump said that an infrastructure plan can be expected after the 2018 midterm elections in November. If Trump’s comments hold true, the White House continues to delay a promise to rebuild the country’s infrastructure that Trump made during his election campaign and it leaves a lot of uncertainty for passenger rail.

This was Trump’s first public speech to promote the White House’s infrastructure initiative, which pushes $200 billion of federal seed money with the goal of generating a $1.5 trillion package. The plan has stalled in Congress and rightfully so, as the White House proposes gutting Amtrak’s budget in half. The plan would virtually eliminate long-distance passenger rail.

Still, both the White House and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have said infrastructure rebuilding plans will be passed in multiple pieces of legislation, including last week’s omnibus spending package, a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), for example.

Fortunately, the federal government approved $2.813 billion for intercity rail, which includes:

  • $2 billion in federal funding for Amtrak, including $1.3 billion for the National Network and $650 million for the Northeast Corridor.
  • $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.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) has canceled its plans to run passenger rail service from Brunswick, ME to Rockland over the summer. The group was looking into running service over three weekends as part of a pilot program to bring the Amtrak Downeaster service to the area, with stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland.

Due to other priorities Amtrak is facing, the passenger railroad will not be able to conduct the trial service.

NNEPRA executive director Patricia Quinn, however, said this is not the end of the organization’s efforts to bring service to the region. The rail authority plans to come up with a schedule for summer 2019 that, “hopefully can be more robust than three round trips,” Quinn said. “We’re committed to trying to make this happen.”

Take Action Now!

Our voices were heard -- the FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill included key passenger rail funding. Though we have passed a major hurdle, we must remain vigilant in our efforts, and continually remind our representatives, and the White House, that passenger rail funding in an infrastructure bill is necessary for the growth and success of our economy.

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 any cuts to passenger rail funding.

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

The Minnesota Department of Transportation's Rail Office is ready to move from the planning phase of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) line to the design and construction phase of the project. The government agency has already been in talks with Amtrak and BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks that run between Duluth and Minneapolis, to bring higher-frequency passenger rail to the region.

"There is no more planning that needs to be done. Now we are ready to build," said Frank Loetterle, project manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Rail Office. Loetterle also said that he expects that the line could open two and a half years after the final design process begins.

In addition to moving to the design phase, the agency will need to focus on securing the funds for the project. MnDOT officials estimates that it will cost between $500 million and $600 million to get the proposed line up and running.

Once the line is operational, officials plan to operate four daily trips, with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior. The NLX would also connect to the Midwest rail system and national Amtrak system, and operate at top speeds of 90 MPH.

Orange County, CA and Milwaukee, WI both took major steps forward in their streetcar programs this week. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board of directors approved the purchase of new streetcars from Siemens. The deal is for eight vehicles, along with spare parts and tools, and will cost up to $51.5 million. At any given time, the OC Streetcar will have six vehicles running, with two cars acting as spares.

“This is an important and exciting milestone for the OC Streetcar project as we have decided upon the vehicles that will provide Orange County residents another public transit option,” said OCTA Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett. “We’re looking forward to making the vision for a modern electric streetcar here in Orange County a reality.”

The OC Streetcar project is estimated to cost $299 million, with funding coming from Measure M, Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, and a mix of state and federal funding.

Downtown Milwaukee received its first streetcar, which is expected to begin service this fall as The Hop. Before service begins, testing will commence with empty streetcars in about a month. The new streetcar is the first of five to arrive, with the other cars arriving at a rate of one per month.

"It's here!" Mayor Tom Barrett said. "This is a significant step forward, and you can sense the excitement growing as we get closer and closer."

The planned route will span 2.5 miles, and connect the Milwaukee Intermodal Station with the city's lower east side. The downtown route will open later this year, while the lakefront line is expected to start operating in 2019.

Nominations for 2018 ‘At-Large’ And Board Positions CLOSE TOMORROW, March 31

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 TOMORROW, 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 or if you would like to be considered.

In the wake of Amtrak’s efforts to streamline its business strategy and improve its revenue, the passenger railroad has now cut military veteran discounts. The steps come shortly after Amtrak eliminated student and AAA member discounts. The discount had been in place for veterans since 2001, and provided a 15 percent discount for Amtrak and Acela trains nationwide.

The recent cuts have been part of new Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson’s plan to set up Amtrak with similar business practices to those he initiated at Delta Airlines.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has called out Amtrak’s actions as “outrageous and unconscionable” and has urged Anderson to reinstate the veteran discount in a letter. In it, Blumenthal said:

“I urge you to cease these efforts and reaffirm that veterans will always be welcomed and encouraged to use the nation’s railroad with a discount program that recognizes and rewards their service to our country. I urge you to continue to honor veterans with discounts, and reinstate your partnership with an organization like Veterans Advantage to ensure veterans and their families have access to all the discounts they are due. These benefits are a small token of appreciation to veterans who have committed their lives to protecting our nation and help preserve a strong customer base for Amtrak.”

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said in response to the change in discounts that: “Amtrak has eliminated its involvement with private company membership clubs which charge fees to obtain discounts for their members, such as AAA and the Veterans Advantage Plan. The goal is also to improve overall revenue performance by expanding the use of tactical fare sales to generate ridership growth versus the everyday discounts provided by membership groups.”