Happening Now

Hotline #1,061

April 6, 2018

Gateway Review Delayed; SNCF America Touts T-Bone For Texas; Brightline Train Enters MiamiCentral; Rail Passengers Association’s Mayor Campaign Shows Influence

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.

In Needles, CA, the City Council approved a letter requesting assistance from federal elected officials with the goal of keeping Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operating through the city.

“We were recently notified that the current federal budget includes eliminating all long distance Amtrak service including the Southwest Chief which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles,” said Rick Daniels, city manager. “Discontinuing this service will further isolate Needles and other rural communities and create hardships on people. This letter expresses the city council’s concern about the termination and requests that the position be changed. It’s directed as Congressman Paul Cook and our two senators (Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris).”

The decision by the City Council to move forward with retaining Amtrak service was in large part influenced by Rail Passengers member Doug Kerr. Kerr wrote to Mayor Edward Paget and Daniels in March and encouraged them to support passenger rail in light of the White House’s proposed cuts to Amtrak.

“It’s very gratifying to see these results and to see Rail Passengers provided ridership data used in the city’s response,” Kerr said. “It also shows how important these trains are to small cities when you consider the Chief serves Needles, both east and west, between midnight and 1AM.”

According to background information provided by city staff, 9,176 boardings occurred in Needles’ El Garces Amtrak station by residents of Needles and the greater Tri-state region in 2017, with their primary destination being Los Angeles.

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 environmental review process for the Gateway Program, which includes a new Hudson River tunnel between New York and New Jersey, has been delayed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The Gateway Program Development Corporation set a deadline of March 30 to have the review completed, but the FRA said the application required a detailed review by multiple federal agencies to resolve legal requirements under environmental laws and to address concerns raised by local communities. The new tunnel is a major part of the program, and would involve building a new tunnel between the two states for Amtrak and NJ Transit trains. It would also entail repair work to the current tunnel, which suffered severe structural damage during Hurricane Sandy.

“The delay in the environmental review process for the Gateway Program is unfortunate, but understandable considering the complex nature of the projects involved,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “But the faster the review can be completed, the better. The new Hudson tunnel and other Gateway projects are vital to the future of the NEC and the rest of the country.”

Once the FRA completes the review, it will allow the corporation to continue to seek federal grant support for the project. The states of New York and New Jersey have pledged $5.5 billion for construction of the new tunnel, which the corporation hopes to begin in the fall of 2019.

This week, SNCF America, a branch of France’s national state-owned railway company, has pushed its proposal and comments that its higher-speed rail network would benefit the state of Texas more than the planned Dallas-to-Houston train. The company filed an eight-page commentary to the Federal Draft Environmental Statement for the Dallas-to-Houston line, which proposes a network of rail lines that connect multiple cities including Dallas, Austin and Waco.

"Look at the state as a whole. Instead of creating a link, create a network," said SNCF America president Alain Leray, who visited the above Texas cities to advocate for its proposed rail lines.

SNCF America has attempted to insert itself into the Texas high-speed picture. Back in 2008 and 2016 the company proposed its ideas for 125 MPH trains to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The company said that its proposed line would cost about half as much per mile to build. The firm says its entire, 480-mile T-bone network could be built at a cost just slightly higher than a single leg of the 763-mile, Dallas-Houston-San Antonio "Texas Triangle" that Texas Central proposed and federal officials first envisioned.

"Of course, SNCF, the state-owned and highly-subsidized 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 previously in a statement on SNCF’s comments. The line proposed by Texas Central will feature high speed trains that travel up to 210 MPH.

Rail Passengers Association Chairman and Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody also previously spoke on SNCF’s comments about high-speed rail in Texas.

“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?”

Better Rail NOW! Only ONE week 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; by FRA on the ongoing Southeast & Midwest planning studies and the lunch will feature a keynote address by Kristopher Takacs - Director of the Washington, DC office of the International Urban Planning & Design Firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
  • 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. Over a hundred Congressional Office appointments have already been made, with more to come!
  • 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 call for ‘Better Rail Now’! Please join in this effort.

  • Online Event Registration is open with rates to meet your needs through April 13. Register now for the full slate of events, or just part of it. Students get a special rate too! Higher rates will apply after April 13 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.

Whether New York City moves forward with the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector, known as the BQX, will be determined if upcoming studies find it feasible. The BQX is one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transportation projects, but the administration is not sure if it can pay for itself. The proposed route of the $2.5-billion streetcar is 16 miles and will run from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to Astoria, Queens along the waterfront.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration proposed that the streetcar could thrive on increased property values, but the study from consultant KPMG that would help determine extra property tax revenue has not been completed yet.

Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said the studies on the project are underway, and "assuming that it does not pay for itself... then we have to decide whether or not this is the right use of capital money for a transportation project."

Glen said that the study from KPMG should be finished soon, and that it will provide “block-by-block” analysis of the streetcar. If funding for the project is still uncertain, Glen said that “the federal government could come up with additional money to do exactly these kinds of cool urban projects that really enhance our mass transit network. That’s the kind of thing the federal government should be doing.”

City officials in Bristol, VA and contractor AECOM, are looking into the positive and far-reaching economic effects of extending Amtrak service from Roanoke to Bristol. AECOM, a consulting firm, is now developing an economic impact study and looking at what possibilities exist if Bristol were to become a transit and travel hub for the area. If Bristol is able to obtain Amtrak service, it would mean that nearly all Virginia residents would live within an hour’s drive of an Amtrak station.

“We’re talking with as many people as we can in the greater Bristol area to ask these questions about economics and what the train would allow you to do that you can’t do now,” said Jill Cahoon, an AECOM transit planner, during a meeting with stakeholders. “We’re trying to get an idea of what economic development would be possible and ... information about economic benefit because of the train.”

AECOM’s study will cost about $160,000 and is expected to be completed by August 31. In addition to AECOM collecting economic and anecdotal data, the consultants plan to survey NASCAR race fans and riders at both Lynchburg and Roanoke to learn about spending and travel patterns and prepare ridership models.

A Brightline train, BrightPink, arrived at the new transit and living hub MiamiCentral for the first time this week in preparation of new service that is set to begin in the next few weeks. The first segment of Brightline opened earlier this year, and service between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami is soon to arrive after the company completes testing. Testing is set to begin next week, but Brightline does not yet have an official opening date.

“BrightPink climbed the newly constructed viaduct and pulled into the 50’ elevated station, overlooking downtown Miami and the expansive multi-modal hub,” Brightline officials said regarding arrival of the train.

The station is still under construction, but it has entered the final stages of development. Once completed, MiamiCentral will include two residential towers with 800 apartments, as well as a third tower with 190,000 square feet of office space. A fourth building will include 125,000 square feet of retail and office space and 1,100 parking spaces to serve the station. In addition, a second construction phase will involve a “super tower” with 600,000 square feet of office space, 280 residences, and 250 hotel rooms.

Join The Transportation for Massachusetts Petition

Passenger rail works best when we have good connections to other modes of travel. And public transit needs champions right now.

Four years of level-funding regional bus networks in Massachusetts have led to service cuts and sharp fare hikes that hit transit-dependent riders the hardest.

So we are proud to be one of 40 organizations and over 1,000 people who have signed the Transportation for Massachusetts petition to properly fund Regional Transit Authorities.

Please join us by signing on today!

Due to increases in demand for service around special events, Brightline will add a late train on Friday nights. Brightline officials said that the last train of the day will now depart West Palm Beach at 9 p.m. and arrive in Fort Lauderdale at 9:40 p.m. The last train will leave Fort Lauderdale at 10:55 p.m., and arrive in West Palm Beach at 11:35 p.m.

Officials said that events like the Tortuga Music Festival and the Palm Beach International Boat Show have attracted business and leisure passengers to use the service.

Ticket prices remain the same. Fares are $10 one-way in the Smart coach and $15 one-way in the Select coach.

Bryan M. Sastokas has been appointed the new Chief Information Officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro). Sastokas currently holds the position of CIO and Head of Technology and Innovation for the City of Long Beach. Prior positions he has held include CIO for the cities of Oakland and Modesto, as well as Coral Springs, Florida.

“Bryan brings a decade of experience in the public sector with work that has been recognized with a Malcolm Baldridge Award and the Center of Digital Governments Award, among others,” Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington said in a press release. “He brings a demonstrated track record of harnessing innovation while building and deploying products, services and infrastructure that support our business needs. He is a perfect fit for Metro.”

Sastokas will head the agency’s Information and Technology Unit with a budget of $65.2 million annually and a staff of 147 full time employees. His first day at Metro will be April 9.

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.

Sound Transit construction crews have started building the foundation for the East Link light-rail extension in the Bel-Red area of Bellevue, WA. Crews have begun setting girders that will support light-rail tracks near the forthcoming Bel-Red station. Once the crews finish setting the girders, crews will then build a bridge deck for the light-rail line.

The East Link line is set to open in 2023, and it will extend 14 miles from downtown Seattle to downtown Bellevue and the Overlake area of Redmond via Interstate 90. The following year Sound Transit will open a 3.7-mile extension further east to new stations in Southeast Redmond and downtown Redmond.

As Sound Transit moves forward with the East Link extension, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has halted further development of the cities’ other transportation project, the downtown streetcar expansion, due to cost overruns. During a preliminary review of the project, estimated costs for the streetcar expansion have jumped from $150 million to more than $200 million. Part of the increase is due to public utility work for the expansion, which cost $25 million.

“The City of Seattle has a critical obligation to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and an equal obligation to transparency,” Mayor Durkan said in a press release. “There are too many questions about the true costs of this project and the risks to taxpayers, which is why we must put the brakes on this project. As your new Mayor, I will continue to scrub our budgets and act to protect taxpayers.”

Due to the increase in cost, the City also has initiated an independent investigation with the City Attorney of the project’s management to date. Work on the project will remain in hiatus until the investigation is complete and officials can determine if the streetcar is still a viable option.

Prior to the stoppage, city officials signed contracts worth at least $90 million that include the option to cancel work not already performed. The city had also signed a $52-million contract last fall for 10 new streetcar vehicles. The project has also received $50 million in federal funding, and the city had been expecting an additional $25 million. The rest of the cost is funded with local taxes and utility bills.

$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.

The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) is making $125 million in grants available for railroad safety projects. The funding is provided through INDOT’s new Local Trax Rail Overpass Program matching grant program and it will allow various cities, towns and counties to pursue grade separations, crossing closures and other safety enhancements at railroad intersections with local roads to increase mobility and residential living.

“Much like Community Crossings, Local Trax is an innovative approach to infrastructure funding that creates a partnership between the state and communities willing to put skin in the game toward improving their local roads," said Gov. Eric Holcomb in an announcement of the grant program. "Eliminating at-grade rail crossings on local roads makes our transportation network safer, reduces congestion, and better connects our communities."

INDOT will accept local agencies' project proposals from May through August, but INDOT officials will host meetings throughout Indiana to answer questions about the new program.

New York’s new 2018-2019 state budget will provide $9 million for upgrades to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s (NFTA) Metro Rail line. The transit agency will focus the money on supporting the current rail line, which currently has maintenance needs of up to $45 million a year. NFTA officials also said they want to make safety upgrades to Metro Rail, as well as basic fixes such as a broken escalator.

"We have these capital needs more akin to the MTA than the Rochester or Syracuse or Albany transit authorities," Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan said. "With capital, these things set you up for 20 more years, 30 more years of service.”

Overall, the funding is just a small portion of the amount that is required by NFTA. Ryan has previously requested a five-year, $100 million capital plan to meet the needs of Metro Rail.

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

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

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) awarded Barletta Heavy Division a $102.7-million contract to rebuild the Wellington rail yard in Medford, MA. The contract includes work for replacing and modernizing track, traction power, signal and communication systems, as well as improving existing drainage. The work is part of a larger effort by MBTA to upgrade the agency’s Orange Line signal system, as well as prepare for 152 new Orange Line rail cars.

"At a total capital investment of $1.98 billion, we are not only purchasing a new fleet of Orange and Red Line vehicles, but our Red and Orange Line Infrastructure Improvements Program also covers infrastructure upgrades to track, power, signals, and facilities like Wellington Yard," said MBTA General Manager Luis Manuel Ramírez in a press release. "Although customers might not feel the immediate impact of these upgrades, they are just as necessary to providing a more reliable, dependable service that our customers deserve."

The South Shore Line, which runs between South Bend, IN and Chicago, IL, will commence testing of Positive Train Control (PTC) next week. As the line begins testing the technology, which can remotely slow and stop trains, some trains may operate with fewer cars.

“While we are very proud of our safety record, there is always an opportunity for improvement, and this system allows us to reduce the potential for human error. The new PTC technology utilizes a complex computerized set of checks and balances that will take over the operation of a train should an engineer fail to take proper action. Safety is at the forefront of everything we do, so we are looking forward to implementing this new technology,” said Mike Noland, South Shore Line/Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District President, in a press release.

Noland also said that PTC equipment will be installed on all 72 of the railroad's motorized cars and on all 75 miles of track it owns in Indiana.

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 Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum has purchased a historic locomotive from 1941, train No. 1849. The locomotive is one of three from the Boston & Maine Railroad that are still in existence. Despite its age, museum officials plan to use the locomotive for its passenger Hoosac Valley rides. The train carried 8,000 passengers between Adams and North Adams during the 2017 season.

"Providing another historic opportunity for interested riders is the organization's goal with the acquisition of No. 1849," said the museum’s president, Jay Green, referring to the locomotive's number." Adding conventional coaches will increase available seating as well as offer premium, first-class amenities and diversify the experiences offered to our guests."

The locomotive was purchased for $20,000, but requires $30,000 worth of cosmetic restoration and mechanical renovations. The museum will launch its 2018 season on Memorial Day weekend with departures from downtown Adams.

Potential alignments of the Main Street extension of the Kansas City Streetcar were revealed this week. The extension was showcased by the Kansas City Streetcar Authority Inc. and it would run 3.5 miles to the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Volker Campus. It will also include eight stops along the route, and the agency is hoping the extension will provide an economic boost to the city.

"We're wanting this to be the spine of the transit service," said Chuck Ferguson, chief planning officer for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

The project, currently being developed by Omaha-based HDR Engineering Inc., is in the early stages. The design phase -- which includes finalizing track and station locations, procuring vehicles and coordinating with local utilities -- is expected to continue until 2020. Construction is slated for 2020 to 2022, which would allow the streetcar to begin operating along the extended route in 2023.