Hotline #1,010

Amtrak Takes Blame for Derailments; Infrastructure Plan Could be Released in May; TX Subcommittee Approves Job-Killing Regulations; MARTA Sees Surge After I-85 Collapse

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In a span of less than two weeks, two passenger trains were involved in minor derailments at New York’s Penn Station. While there were no serious injuries, both derailments resulted in delays for passengers, highlighting the critical need for additional investment in rail infrastructure, particularly in legacy systems facing massive state-of-good-repair backlogs.

Most recently, a NJ Transit train derailed on April 3 as it was pulling into the the station at a relatively low speed. The incident, which saw three cars go off the track, occurred on Monday. Although it is considered to be a minor accident, the impact of the derailment was felt immediately by commuters for several days. Inbound and outbound trains at Penn Station reduced and slowed their service as eight of 21 tracks that interlock at the station were knocked out of service. The commuter lines affected included NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road, and Amtrak. Delays resulted in even more than normal congestion on a rail network that is trying to keep up with demand. Amtrak announced that crews completed repair work and trains would resume regular service today.

In the second incident, an Amtrak Acela derailed on March 24. Both accidents are under internal investigation by their agencies, as well as the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Thursday, Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman revealed that officials at the railroad were aware of a defect in the tracks at Penn Station prior to the derailments. However, officials did not fully understand the immediate need for correcting the problem. Moorman stated, “Based on our recent investigations, we can confirm that problems with our tracks in Penn Station were a cause of both recent derailments.” The derailments were related to rails widening as a result of ties becoming weak, and wheels of the trains not being able to stay on.

“We had notations that these timbers needed to be replaced,” he said. “We clearly did not have the understanding that there was an imminent failure. But we did have that location identified with others, and we knew that at some point this year in our maintenance program, we would be getting to it. Clearly, that was something where we got it wrong.”

Moorman also stressed to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that cutting funding to Amtrak will not help solve any problems at Penn Station, or elsewhere throughout the NEC or the national rail network. Already under threat of losing federal funding through the proposed budget from the Trump Administration, Christie on Wednesday requested that NJ Transit stop paying Amtrak for use of both the Hudson River tunnels and the Northeast Corridor rail lines, which Amtrak owns. Payments to Amtrak, which involve $2.5 million to $5 million a month for operating expenses, would cease until a “thorough and independent examination of the tracks, signals, switches and other equipment maintained by Amtrak” has been conducted in the NEC. Christie also stated that he would “consider initiating appropriate legal action as necessary,” to recover $62 million that was paid to Amtrak for capital investments in the NEC.

According to Moorman, Amtrak and the FRA would conduct a thorough investigation of Penn Station’s rail infrastructure.

The statements by Governor Christie had a certain ironic bent, given his 2010 decision to kill new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, called Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project.

“Even if Monday’s incident had happened, eight of the nine tracks that were closed would have been used, would have been connected to the new tunnel,” explained Interim Executive Director Jon Porcari of the Gateway Program Development Corp. If additional tunnels were in operation “it would have been a minor blip as opposed to a major nightmare for commuters.”

It’s important to note, as NARP repeatedly warned at the time, that a late-stage decision by NJ Transit to eliminate a Penn Station connection from the ARC project greatly diminished its utility. Gov. Christie did cite the elimination of the Penn Station link, which would’ve prevented Amtrak from using the tunnels, in his decision to kill the project. However, even with a dead-end NJ Transit station, the ARC tunnels would have provided a critical layer of redundancy for commuters this week.

Following a concerted advocacy effort by a coalition of NARP and ColoRail advocates, Colorado’s senate delegation issued a bipartisan letter to appropriators supporting funding for Amtrak’s long distance services.

The letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, requested full funding for Amtrak in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. It was particularly noteworthy since it came from a bipartisan delegation, with Sen. Cory Gardner representing the GOP, and Sen. Michael Bennet representing Democrats.

The letter, dated April 6, noted that eliminating funding for the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr would cause, “harm to the Colorado communities with stops along their routes.” The Senators also expressed concern for the recently opened Winter Park Express ski train from Denver. They wrote, “We believe long distance Amtrak lines have proven to be a vital program for rural communities in Colorado and throughout the nation and therefore warrant continued support from Congress.”

As numerous rail and transit agencies and projects mull the potential loss of federal funding, many transportation officials at state and local levels are awaiting word on if, when, and how the Trump Administration will move forward with a promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Although no details of the plan have been given, the administration indicated this week the plan could be made available in May. Specifically, Trump stated at a town hall-like event at the White House: “We’re talking about a very major infrastructure bill for $1 trillion, perhaps even more.” Also, Trump reemphasized to 50 CEOs and other business leaders that the administration may give projects a 90-day deadline to get started in order to receive funding. Trump said he will be setting up a committee to vet and oversee federally funded projects.

At the same event, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao shared an accelerated timeline for the bill, noting that federal officials are, “working on a legislative package that will probably be in May, or late May.” She said the timing was partly due to Congress not being able to agree on a repeal of Obamacare. The bill will focus on investments for U.S. roads, bridges, airports and potentially broadband access, veteran hospitals, and improvements for the electrical grid and water systems, she said.

Worryingly, Secretary Chao said the bill will focus on reducing regulation, and may avoid the funding question. While NARP acknowledges that a streamlined permitting process could certainly be helpful, lack of money is, in fact, a significant problem for a huge number of transportation infrastructure projects. It’s particularly true for intercity passenger rail and rail transit, which lacks a dedicated source of funding. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s website provides ample evidence of this fact by detailing the massive oversubscription for its TIGER program, which targets rail and intermodal programs: “Demand for the 2016 TIGER grant program continued to far exceed available funds; the DOT received 585 eligible applications from all 50 States, and several U.S. territories, tribal communities, cities, and towns throughout the United States, collectively requesting over $9.3 billion in funding. During the previous seven rounds, the Department received more than 7,300 applications requesting more than $143 billion for transportation projects across the country.”

Although the Trump Administration is looking to eliminate funding for long distance Amtrak routes, states like West Virginia are forging ahead with plans to expand Amtrak. This week, the state’s Senate voted 32 to 1 in support of expanding the Amtrak Cardinal to daily service. The vote highlighted increased opposition to eliminating long-distance trains in states and cities around the country.

After the House of Delegates concurs in a title amendment to the bill, the next step is a review by Governor Jim Justice. Once final, the legislation authorizes the state’s Tourism Commissioner to enter into compact agreements with Amtrak--and other states served by the Cardinal--to increase service of the train. Currently, the Cardinal runs between Chicago and New York City, with eastbound and westbound trains crossing through south-central West Virginia on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Chuck Riecks, a NARP Vice-Chair, who lives in Charleston, WV, was a key advocate for the expansion of Amtrak’s long distance service in the state.

If you haven’t participated in NARP’s in-district campaign, NOW is the perfect time to get involved as decisions get made about rail budgets in Washington!

NARP is providing you with the tools, but we need your help doing these three things:

  1. Meet with your in-district staff contacts for all three congressional representatives (one representative, two senators), either in-person or over the phone, to ask them to support an infrastructure bill
  2. Importantly: communicate significant points of agreement, disagreement, and intelligence back to NARP staff
  3. Post a photo of yourself visiting + calling your Members of Congress, and post it online using the tag #MyTrainMyTown and #AConnectedAmerica (or email it to us at NARP[@], subject line "My Train, My Town")

To access more advocacy resources, including NARP’s Guide to Engagement, click here.

Peter LeCody, President of Texas Rail Advocates and Chairman of NARP, discussed the discriminatory practices taking place in Texas against passenger rail trains. LeCody notes that in the state legislature, “More than two dozen bills filed would not only marginalize trains for Texas but could kill off both private and public projects.” Specifically, two projects are under fire - the commuter rail project from TEXRail and the privately funded high-speed rail project from Texas Central Partners.

Sen. Konni Burton’s Senate Bill 385, if passed, would require approval from all towns along the TEXRail commuter rail line before trains could run. Burton’s objection stems from federal and local funding that is being used for the Tarrant County TEXRail project without a public vote.

Additionally, several bills were filed in an effort to stop the development of high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston. Opponents of Texas Central claim that the 100-foot-wide right-of-way, about the width of a two-lane country road with shoulders, would destroy the countryside. Additionally, the opposition expressed unvalidated concern that the company might fail, producing no evidence to support the claim.

Despite the benefits that each project would bring to Texas, including 10,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs for high-speed rail, the Texas Senate Transportation Committee approved five bills this week that could negatively impact Texas Central’s plans. The bills, which are portrayed as protections for taxpayers and landowners in the state, would:

  • Not allow state funds to be used on the project
  • Require construction of the line to allow for other trains
  • Force Texas Central to give back to previous owners if the project doesn’t come to fruition.

Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates said the bills unfairly target high-speed rail: “This is a belt that would bind the state in ways that I think would foreclose innovation and are not directed specifically at the Texas Central project.”

The five bills now await review by the full Texas Senate. NARP has provided a useful tool for Texas members and passengers to easily submit letters in opposition to the bills, and you can also call your Texas State Senator and ask them to oppose the following bills:

  • SB 977 - Relating to the use of state money for high-speed rail operated by a private entity.
  • SB 979 - Relating to the acquisition and disposition of real property intended for high-speed rail projects.
  • SB 980 - Relating to state money or credit or a state guarantee used or provided for high-speed rail owned by a private entity.
  • SB 981 - Relating to the compatibility of a high-speed rail facility with multiple types of train technology.

Following the fire that resulted in the collapse of a portion of I-85 in Atlanta, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority has increased train service, as well as assigning staff to assist passengers who may not normally take the train. With the Rapid as one of the best alternatives for travel in and out of the city, MARTA saw a significant bump in ridership and payments for fare cards. The transit agency saw a 25 percent increase in ridership on Friday, while MARTA also recorded an 80 percent increase in purchases of fare cards.

In addition, Georgia’s Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry set a target date for repairing the elevated portion of I-85. McMurry stated that the timeline of June 15 is, “very aggressive but attainable." To help with repairs of I-85, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao released $10 million for repair work, while the Federal Highway Administration would also release emergency repair funds. As work moves forward for the next two months, MARTA officials will continue to operate at a higher frequency to accommodate the expected increase in ridership. For example, MARTA trains last week shifted from every seven minutes to every five minutes on the Red line. To encourage people to take MARTA, Fulton County officials shared plans to fully subsidize MARTA and GRTA rides for county employees for two months, until the road is repaired.

The Kansas City Streetcar is a prime example of how transit development can create a booming downtown with people, and drive economic growth. Due to increased demand for service on the once-barren weekends, the Kansas City Streetcar Authority plans to expand its hours of service and purchase new cars to increase service frequency. Sunday, for example, has become the second busiest day for the streetcar, even though it has the least amount of available service of any day of the week. The streetcar currently runs on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and three cars run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Moving forward, the Authority plans to run service from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays, with three vehicles operating during the peak time from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. With the increased service, the Authority also plans to expand its fleet from four to six. Officials estimate it will take two years for the new cars to arrive in Kansas City. Since service began last May, the streetcar has provided nearly 1.8 million rides. The Streetcar Authority set a goal to reach two million rides in time for the system’s first birthday on May 6.

Last chance to take advantage of Early Bird Registration Rates is TODAY for NARP’s Spring 2017 Advocacy Summit, Action Day on The Hill & Meeting in Washington, DC - Sunday, April 23 through Wednesday, April 26, 2017. NARP’s 2017 ‘Action Day On The Hill’ & Congressional Reception will be held on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

HIGHER rates will be in effect after April 7 and for all at-the-door registrations! Visit the Event Page for complete registration information, the most current agenda and other details of this great advocacy opportunity.

With the release of President Trump’s budget, which would eliminate all national network train service to more than 220 cities and towns across the country, this year’s ‘Action Day On The Hill,’ will be of critical importance. The Advocacy Summit’s theme, ‘My Town, My Train,’ will serve to highlight the vital connection between grassroots advocacy and passenger rail service in communities across the country.

The Host Hotel is the Sheraton Silver Spring (MD), which is located just three blocks from Metro’s Red Line Silver Spring station. FYI...Discounted group rate rooms are now sold out! Regular rate rooms at the Sheraton are available on all nights. Information on other available nearby hotels in Silver Spring can be found on the Event Page.

And Save These Dates!

NARP’s 2017 Passenger Rail EXPO And 50th Anniversary Celebration - Chicago, IL

  • Thursday, November 2 to Sunday, November 5, 2017
  • Four days packed with an exciting array of presentations, speakers, exhibits, tours, and events
  • Celebrating NARP’s accomplishments over the past 50 years and looking ahead to the future of passenger rail in the United States
  • Host Hotel: Millennium Knickerbocker
  • Hotel Reservations and Event Registration Will Open In Early May

In its annual report, the Amtrak Office of Inspector General (OIG) provided insight into some positive steps that Amtrak has made recently, as well as a set of the challenges that Amtrak and its management continue to face.

The OIG noted that Amtrak has seen significant progress in several key areas:

  • Improving its financial and operating performance over the last five years—its FY 2016 operating loss of $230 million represented a $143 million improvement over the company’s reported operating loss of $373 million in FY 2012.
  • In FY 2016 Amtrak set new records for revenue and ridership, and its customer service scores improved four percentage points over FY 2015.
  • Amtrak is modernizing its aging rail fleet and is working with states to improve the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure, which includes new Acela high-speed trainsets and movement on the $24 billion Gateway Program.

Despite these achievements, the OIG provided a list of eight issues that Amtrak has made progress in, but still needs to continue working towards improving. Challenges include:

  1. Governance,
  2. Financial excellence,
  3. Asset management,
  4. Acquisition and procurement,
  5. Safety and security,
  6. Human resource issues,
  7. Customer service, and
  8. Information technology.

In a memo to Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman, Inspector General Tom Howard noted that, “In deciding whether to identify an issue as a top management and performance challenge, we considered its significance in relation to the company’s mission and strategic goals; its susceptibility to fraud, waste, and abuse; whether the underlying causes are systemic in nature; and the company’s progress in addressing the challenge.”

According to the OIG, three specific issues have prevented Amtrak from making additional progress in these areas. These issues include:

  1. Inconsistent use of the company’s strategic goals to drive budget and operating decisions;
  2. Governance structure that does not hold managers accountable for achieving program results; and,
  3. A workforce culture that is at odds with the company’s stated goals and mission. Until these underlying factors are addressed, the company’s efforts to remediate the top management and performance challenges will continue to face obstacles.

The report notes that further success, “will depend upon the company’s leadership and top management sustaining its focus on them, providing the necessary resources for implementation, and reinforcing that every employee is responsible for embracing and promoting the company’s values of safety, service, and financial excellence.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority continues to look to the future for the continued development of the high-speed rail line in the state. To ensure the project moves forward smoothly prior to and leading up to initial operations, the agency is looking closely at five international firms, several with U.S. based subsidiaries that have experience in running established passenger rail lines. Each of the companies have submitted their qualifications for providing consulting and early operation service for the rail line. Once operations are set to begin, a long-term contract for operating the line will be developed.

The Authority is currently reviewing qualifications for the estimated $30 million contract from:

  • China HSR ETO Consortium, a team of engineering and operating companies from China.
  • DB International US, a team that includes Germany’s Deutsche Bahn AG and American subsidiary DB International USA Inc.
  • FS First Rail Group, which includes several Italian firms and Britain’s FirstGroup plc and New York-based McKinsey & Company Inc.
  • RENFE, a team that includes Spanish companies Renfe, Adif, and Operadora Globalvia Inversiones S.A.U.
  • Stagecoach Group plc, which operates trains and buses in Britain, and its American subsidiary Coach USA Administration Inc.

Upcoming Regional NARP and State Passengers Association Member Meetings

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

While speaking to the Florida Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council, Brightline official Rusty Roberts discussed significant milestones that the private passenger rail company has or will hit in 2017. Roberts noted that stations in West Palm Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are planned to open in July 2017, along with the start of limited service. He stated that the stations at West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale are, “pretty much finished, except the interiors." But, the station in Miami is not as far along and will not open until the fall.

Roberts also spoke about how construction for Phase 2, which includes development of the line through the Treasure and Space coasts and onto Orlando International Airport, is to begin in 2017. This goal is in spite of opposition and two lawsuits that look to hinder development. Roberts noted that after the project reaches Orlando, the vision is to continue to expand and further develop the line. He stated, “we’re not going to sit down, relax and say, 'That was fun.’ We have longer range plans to expand, and Tampa would be a logical place to go.”

In addition to upcoming milestones, Brightline reached a significant step in its efforts to continue the line between Miami and Orlando. This past week, administrative Law Judge Bram Canter upheld the St. Johns River Water Management District’s August decision to approve an environmental permit for construction of bridges. The Indian River Farms Water Control District argued that the planned new bridges have low clearances and could cause flooding during a 100-year storm event.

Myles Tobin, General Counsel for Brightline said, “As Treasure Coast taxpayers continue to spend millions on legal challenges fighting Brightline, we continue to invest more than $1.3 billion to connect the state’s most populated centers, creating jobs and spurring economic opportunities.”

With positive momentum in Florida around Brightline, NARP’s Floridian members can still voice their support on the project, as well as their concerns on SB 386, and help see that the Brightline rail project continues to move forward.

There are openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives, including one each in Alabama; Arizona; Florida, Hawaii; Idaho; Missouri; Pennsylvania, Nevada; North Carolina; North Dakota: Ohio, Virginia (2 openings) and Wyoming. Check out the full, up-to-date, list of current vacancies here.

If you live in one of these states and want to become more active in NARP’s leadership and work, this is your opportunity to become involved. If you are interested in being considered for an appointment to an open state seat by the Board of Directors please complete this Candidate Information Statement.

At the end of last week, state officials in Maryland requested that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon release a decision regarding a lawsuit against the Purple Line light rail. Construction on the suburban line outside DC, has been delayed since the end of 2016. Judge Leon, four months ago, vacated the light-rail’s federal approval after Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail filed a lawsuit. The basis for the lawsuit claimed that development of the line needed to be reevaluated because plans did not take into account safety concerns and decreased ridership on D.C.’s Metro system. Federal and Maryland transit officials responded that Metro’s issues wouldn’t impact the goal of the Purple Line—to provide a reliable east-west transit line between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

As it stands now, the lawsuit has prevented Maryland from securing the $900 million in federal funds that was set to be allocated for development of the 16.2-mile Purple Line. As part of the state’s request, officials asked that Judge Leon restore the federal approval for the project so the state can work on obtaining the full $900 million in federal funds and begin construction.

The plaintiffs this week asked that Judge Leon ignore the request from the state to release an expedited decision by the end of April. The plaintiffs called the state’s request “baseless” and noted that the court should set a schedule for releasing a decision based on the court’s workload.

Following a bombing on a Russian subway line, killing 14 people and leaving dozens more injured, 84 representatives looked to safeguard funding for the Transit Security Grant Program (TSGP). With a potential risk of losing funding under the Trump Administration’s budget plans, it was requested that House appropriators secure “robust funding” for the program, which provides owners and operators of transit systems with funds to protects their transit systems against terrorist attacks. Possible uses for TSGP grants include:

  • surveillance training,
  • public awareness campaigns,
  • detection equipment,
  • security cameras,
  • the hardening of infrastructure.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, stated in a press release, “Americans made more than 10.6 billion mass-transit trips in 2015, and those systems’ open nature makes them especially vulnerable — a fact not lost on terrorists in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Brussels in 2016. We must maintain robust, separate funding for these systems’ security.”

Empire Corridor service between Albany and Niagara Falls will be reduced for five weeks from April 9 through May 10 to accommodate CSX track work on this busy freight route. Other schedule adjustments are expected to occur over the coming summer months. This is the second year in a row that CSX has required such service cutbacks.

In Honolulu, the House Finance Committee approved $1.2 billion in additional funding for the city’s light-rail project, which has seen a significant budget shortfall that put the project at risk of losing $1.55 billion in federal grant funding. Though the committee was reluctant to make the decision, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell hoped the amount of support would have been higher since the cost of the project has continued to exceed estimates. Costs have grown from more than $5.2 billion in 2014 to as much as $10 billion with interest, according to more recent figures. Additionally, the House committee agreed to extend the current half percent General Excise Tax surcharge for an additional two years, which means it will now run through December of 2029. The increase is expected to generate another $792 million for the project.

Northern Louisiana might have access to a highly anticipated passenger rail-line, one that bridges a gap on interstate I-20, connecting Atlanta to Dallas. Amtrak expressed considerable interest in bringing service to Arklamiss and city officials are thrilled. Rod Washington, Monroe’s Public Relations official said, “This would be a tremendous addition to our local economy, we're talking about business growth, economic development, community growth and improving our overall quality of life.” Bringing Amtrak to Arklamiss will create economic opportunities for those without easy access to public transportation. It will also incentivise travel to and through Arklamiss, and potentially alleviate heavy congestion along the interstate. “It's a pretty big deal to happen for a town this size and the economic impact would be huge," said Washington. While there is no guarantee that Amtrak will bring its service to Arklamiss, the town will remain hopeful and excited about the possibility of access to their very own passenger-rail line.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad is fighting to keep the rail line to Lake Placid, NY from being torn up by New York State. A small group of anti-rail activists hope to turn 34 miles of the line between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid into a bike and hiking trail. The plan has not gone well so far and is currently being challenged by a lawsuit. Importantly, the State lacks title to certain parts of the line if the rails are removed and the lawsuit contends that the State has not complied with historic preservation laws. It is currently unclear when the Judge hearing the case will issue a final ruling, but the Judge has barred the State from removing any of the rail infrastructure at this time.