Happening Now

Hotline #1,052

February 2, 2018

Amtrak Train With Congressional Members Onboard Hits Truck; CA HSR To Be Audited; Texas Central Selects Dallas Station Location; Rail Passengers Association Launches $10K Education Campaign

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An Amtrak train that was carrying several Republican members of Congress hit a garbage truck on the way to an annual retreat in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. There were several minor injuries reported by Congressional lawmakers and Amtrak staff, however there was one death and two injuries from the people in the truck. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a doctor, said he and other lawmakers who had medical training tended to the injured until emergency personnel arrived. The accident occured at a grade crossing outside Charlottesville, VA.

Following the accident, Amtrak representatives said the garbage truck, owned by Time Disposal, was on the tracks at the crossing during the accident. The company identified their employee who was killed as Christopher Foley.

Notably, the train was carrying a number of both supporters and critics of Amtrak from across the country - some who may have never been on Amtrak before. The train ride was an opportunity to show the latter how comfortable and easy it is to utilize Amtrak to carry a large number of people from one point to another, as opposed to driving or flying. It could have also garnered additional support from lawmakers for train service outside of the Northeast Corridor. That opportunity was spoiled because of human error and the failure to look in both directions before trying to cross the grade crossing.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent crews to examine the crash scene and found that the Amtrak train was traveling at 61 mph prior to the accident. Preliminary findings from the investigative team found that the speed limit at the grade crossing was 60 mph, and that the Amtrak engineer applied the emergency brake before the accident and came to a stop 20 seconds later.

Officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation said that the intersection where the crash occurred had flashing signals and gates to prevent motorists from getting on the tracks as trains approach, and witnesses onboard reported the lights were flashing and the gates were engaged. However, NTSB spoke with witnesses who said that the signal crossing may have had previous problems. The NTSB’s investigation is ongoing, and officials will look at footage from the train’s front-facing camera (if it was not damaged). Investigators hope that the footage will provide clarity on if the truck was moving at the time of the collision or if the signal system was malfunctioning.

It’s Time To Take Safety Seriously

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews shared his and the Association’s views on this Amtrak accident, as well as the recent Brightline accidents, in a new opinion editorial published by The Hill.

In the Op-Ed, Mathews says, “On Wednesday morning, I asked my staff to post a cautionary video of a truck driver in Florida ignoring flashing lights and lowered crossing gates to drive across the tracks, narrowly avoiding crashing into a Brightline train. Hours later, Republican members of the United States Congress were involved in an accident when the Amtrak train they were riding hit a garbage truck at a grade crossing outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The driver appears to have ignored flashing lights and lowered crossing gates in an attempt to beat the train across the tracks.

Was this a premonition? A spooky coincidence?

Sadly, neither. In the U.S., a person or vehicle gets hit by a train every three hours, accounting for 96 percent of rail industry fatalities; you don’t have to be a psychic to predict these accidents.”

To read more of Mathews’ Op-Ed, please visit The Hill online.

The Amtrak collision also comes shortly after a number of accidents and close calls in Florida, where many people continue to ignore the fact that a train is coming. Take for example this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwIFic35BQc&feature=youtu.be.

The gates are down. The lights are flashing. The train is coming.

Yet this person decides to go around stopped cars and through the Brightline rail crossing, and nearly misses getting hit and potentially losing his or her life. It’s just not worth it.

Brightline has safety features in place and is doing extra work to communicate to the public in Florida about the higher-speed rail line, with trains regularly traveling between 80 and 100 mph. But this person's actions fly in the face of the safety efforts being made by Brightline, rail advocates, and city officials.

In Boynton Beach, FL, where two deaths involving Brightline occurred, the city is planning to increase safety features at two crossing. This will include adding another layer of gates that won’t have a gap in the middle of them. The goal of the new gates is to prevent vehicles from driving through the crossing when gates are down. The new gates could also help deter cyclists from crossing when the gates are down. Jeff Livergood, director of public works and engineering for Boynton Beach, said people will have to dismount their bikes and carry them sideways to get across.

During his State of the Union address, President Trump encouraged Republican and Democratic members of Congress to approve his administration’s promised infrastructure proposal, which he claimed could incentivize $1.5 trillion in spending on the country’s road, bridges, railways and other public work projects. However, Trump Administration adviser DJ Gibbon speculated that cuts to existing programs, including Amtrak, could be utilized to pay for the infrastructure bill.

“We look forward to reviewing the administration’s infrastructure proposal once it is made available,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “We are concerned about comments from the White House that advocates cutting funding to Amtrak’s National Network. President Trump campaigned on closing the gap between US transportation and our global competitors, citing China’s impressive high-speed rail infrastructure. Any infrastructure program doesn’t include passenger rail is a bait-and-switch, and we won’t stand for it--and neither will our Congressional allies from both parties.”

The White House says it will deliver a fleshed out proposal before the end of February, and early reports say the plan relies heavily on funding from city and state governments and the private sector, with only $200 billion coming from federal sources.

Make Plans NOW To Attend Rail Passengers Association’s Spring 2018 Advocacy Summit and ‘Day on The Hill’: Annual Congressional Reception and Meeting - Sunday, April 15 to Wednesday, April 18, 2018

This is THE opportunity of the year for rail passenger advocates to have their voices heard directly by the decision makers on Capitol Hill.

  • Event registration is now available!
  • The host hotel is the Hilton Old Town Alexandria, located adjacent to the King Street Metro & Alexandria Amtrak Stations. Discounted group rate room reservations are now available!
  • 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

Texas Central Partners has selected a 60-acre piece of land that will be the site of the company’s high-speed rail station in Dallas. Texas Central officials released draft designs and maps of the station, which will be multilevel and built between South Riverfront Boulevard and Austin Street. It will easily link with nearby roadways and proposed traveler-friendly connections to Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail and buses.

“This station will be a magnet for economic activity in an area ripe for development. And it will connect seamlessly with local roads and public transit,” said Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar.

Dallas city officials support the plans for the station, and the $15-billion HSR line that will connect their city to Houston.

"The city is obviously more than supportive. We're completely behind this project," said Lee Kleinman, a Dallas City Council member and chair of the council's mobility committee. "We're excited about the economy for both Dallas and Houston and the congestion it's going to relieve."

The specific location of the proposed station is south of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, near the interchange of Interstate 30 and Interstate 35. The surrounding neighborhood, known as Cedars, has been in redevelopment for some time, transitioning from manufacturing facilities to a walkable neighborhood, featuring repurposed and new-build, mixed-use developments.

California’s new State Rail Assistance Grant program will award $2.5 million to Caltrain for various projects the transit agency is planning. The grants have been made possible under California’s new transportation funding legislation, Senate Bill 1, which was signed into law last year. The $2.5-million grant will be divided up by Caltrain as follows:

  • $500,000 for the agency’s bike parking management plan;
  • $1 million for the maintenance and rehabilitation of rail cars;
  • $1 million for new crossover tracks near the middle of the corridor.

SB 1 also increases funding that Caltrain receives through the State Transit Assistance program to support the system’s operating and capital needs. For the next year, Caltrain is expected to receive an additional $5 million in State Transit Assistance.

Caltrain officials said in a press release that the agency has applied for an additional $630 million from the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) for the Caltrain Electrification project. If the TIRCP grant request is successful, the investment will maximize the electrification project's benefits by speeding up the fleet's full conversion to electric trains and making Wi-Fi available to riders.

The $2.5 million awarded to Caltrain, overall, is only a small portion of funding that has been awarded by the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) for passenger rail projects. CalSTA has awarded $51.9 million to seven different transit agencies under SB 1, which will provide $7.6 billion in new transit funding over the next 10 years. The breakdown of awarded funding includes:

  • North County Transit District will receive $10.5 million to acquire seven new environmentally friendly locomotives.
  • Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit will receive $10.5 million to increase weekday and weekend service.
  • Southern California's Metrolink will receive $10.5 million, which will be put toward a $16.3 million signal modernization project.
  • The Altamont Corridor Express will receive $2.5 million to initiate weekend service.
  • The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority was awarded more than $13 million for safety, station and signal upgrades.
  • The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency will receive more than $2 million for infrastructure improvements.

Rail Passengers Association Launches $10,000 Sweepstakes for Education

The Rail Passengers Association launched a new educational program for college students, with the chance to win $10,000 for higher education. A goal of Rail Passengers Association is to ensure that people across America, young and old, have access to passenger rail and other transit services. In doing so, Rail Passengers Association recognizes that many college students rely on having reliable and quality public transit to commute to and from class.

With this in mind, Rail Passengers Association wants to support college students in their education and is offering $10,000 to help pay for higher education during the 2018-2019 school year. Students can nominate themselves for the chance to win, or a student can be nominated by you. The main criteria is that the winning student must be enrolled in a U.S. accredited college, university 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 scholarship program, please visit: www.crowdrise.com/rpascholarship.

The expansion of MBTA commuter rail service from Boston to Manchester, NH is becoming a strong possibility as New Hampshire legislators held a hearing this week to discuss the proposed line. The hearing, which included public comments, focused on a $4-million proposal for an impact study of the rail line in New Hampshire.

"Bringing commuter rail to Manchester is an essential step in supporting and strengthening our community," said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig as she encouraged public support of the rail line. "I urge you to include this vital federal funding in the 10 year plan."

The proposal would be supported by federal funds, and it would also be included in the state’s 10-year transit plan under House Bill 2018. If passed, the study will provide a detailed analysis of engineering, environmental, and geotechnical aspects, along with a firm financial plan for expanding passenger rail from Boston to Manchester.

California lawmakers are moving forward with an audit of the state’s high-speed rail line. The audit, which will take between six and nine months to complete, is to determine if the the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be able to complete the project on time and without any additional cost overruns. The audit will also look at the projected economic benefits of the rail line to the communities that surround it. The audit was first requested by Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno and Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose due to the project’s delays and rising costs. Despite supporting the audit, Democrats have voiced their support for the HSR line and its benefits to the state, including providing 1,500 construction jobs in the Central Valley.

"What we are all trying to do is to get past all of the noise, to get past all of the politics, to get down into a thorough audit that is going to give us a very good heads up as to what is coming and what has happened," said Patterson.

Dan Richard, chairman of CHSRA’s board of directors, said he supports the audit and the valuable information it will bring, including the transparency of the project. Richard also said that the Authority will implement the recommendations provided by the audit.

Rail Passengers Association Hires Joseph Aiello as Northeast Field Coordinator

Rail Passengers Association is pleased to announce the recent hire of Joseph Aiello as the Northeast Field Coordinator, helping expand the organization's organizational capacity in the northeast U.S. The Rail Passengers Association's Northeast Region includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York.

Most recently, Aiello has been working as the Outreach Coordinator for the North-South Rail Link Working Group, led by Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, in an effort to help create a series of successful public "town hall" events. He has testified on behalf of the proposed Boston to Springfield higher speed route as well as worked on development issues related to the MBTA's Green Line Extension.

Aiello is looking forward to building on his accomplishments in Massachusetts by helping build out Rail Passengers Association's relationships and partnerships throughout the region with local advocacy groups, as well as facilitating the engagement of Rail Passengers Association members in the Northeast region.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said that it’s not up to the state legislature to determine if the rail study will move forward, but a group of more than 50 businesses, organizations and individuals in the state have come together to advocate for the expansion with voters. Known as the New Hampshire Business for Rail Expansion, the new advocacy group launched a new website, www.NHBiz4Rail.com, and social media presence to raise awareness of the proposal.

“New Hampshire’s economy is strong, but a well-documented lack of in-migration and aging population is hurting businesses that need to fill jobs, which is detrimental to the state’s future,” said New Hampshire Business for Rail Expansion spokesman E.J. Powers. “For companies to grow and prosper right here in New Hampshire, they need access to a younger, highly-educated workforce. That means the state needs to be able retain its homegrown talent, while at the same time draw on Boston’s vast talent pool. An expanded rail system can play a key role in this effort.”

President Trump will nominate Sarasota, FL state Rep. Joe Gruters to serve on Amtrak’s board of directors. Gruters’ nomination must first be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before he can be appointed to the board. If confirmed to the board by the Senate, he would serve a five-year term. Gruters was the co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida. In addition to his duties for Florida’s Republican Party, he works as a Certified Public Accountant at Paoli & Gruters.

Gruters said he is excited for the opportunity, and added, “I think a lot of younger people and millennials are interested in alternative transportation. With President Trump’s emphasis on infrastructure, I look forward to helping him achieve some of those goals as a member of the Amtrak board.”

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

  • Saturday, March 10 - Empire State Passengers Association & Rail Passengers Association Annual New York State Meeting & Lunch - Schenectady, NY
  • Saturday, March 10 - Galveston Railroad Day - Galveston, TX
  • Saturday, March 24 - Rail Passengers Association New England Regional Meeting - Boston, MA
  • 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!

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy named Kevin Corbett as the new executive director of NJ Transit. If his appointment is approved by the transit agency’s board, he will replace Kevin Santoro and become NJ Transit’s fifth director in four years. Santoro announced earlier this year that he will be retiring in April.

During the announcement from Gov. Murphy, he said Corbett, a transportation veteran, would provide the right leadership at NJ Transit and help, "yank it back from the brink." The agency has faced severe safety and reliability issues, as well as compounding funding cuts over the past few years.

Throughout his career, Corbett has been part of major renovation, economic redevelopment, and transit projects for New York City. This includes: serving as a vice president at AECOM, whose portfolio includes the expansion of Penn Station into the Farley Post Office building; leading efforts for the economic redevelopment of lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; and serving on the board of the Regional Plan Association, a think tank focusing on transportation in the New York region.

Corbett said during his naming, that one of his priorities is to rebuild NJ Transit’s relationships with its regional partners: Amtrak, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

NJ Transit is unlikely to meet the year-end mandate to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on its rail network. The statement, given the same day Corbett was named executive director of the agency, came from the state’s new acting commissioner of transportation, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. The news counters what Governor Chris Christie’s administration and NJ Transit officials said previously regarding the agency’s ability to implement the braking technology, which can remotely monitor, slow and stop trains that are speeding.

“NJ Transit’s inability to implement PTC on its trains and rail network is a financial issue that is a part of a larger problem nationwide for transit agencies that need to install the technology,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “The agency has seen major budget cuts and revenue shortfalls, and does not have the federal support required to increase safety for its riders with PTC.”

NJ Transit, like other passenger and freight railroads, are required by federal mandate to install PTC by December 31, 2018. However, a report to federal officials in September showed that the agency has only installed the technology on 25 of 440 locomotives and on none its 11 track segments.

Nominations Now Open For 2018 ‘At-Large’ Rail Passengers Association Council of Representative Seats And Rail Passengers Association Officer & Director Positions

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 (the Association’s volunteer governing body). These positions are for a two-year term commencing immediately upon election by the State Representatives at the Council of Representatives Annual Business Meeting held on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in Alexandria, VA.

Any Rail Passengers Association/NARP member who has paid dues for at least one year, is at least 18 years of age and is a U.S. resident is eligible to self-nominate and seek a seat to be elected at the April meeting. The Council consists of 112 elected state representatives, up-to 10 elected ‘At-Large’ representatives and up-to 15 elected Board Officers and Directors.

The Council of Representatives assists the Rail Passengers Association/NARP membership by setting and approving the overall policy and direction for the Association. For more information on these ‘At-Large’ positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, please visit: http://ow.ly/Yxzs30hxl4P.

In addition, self-nominations are now being sought from qualified members interested in being elected 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, both commencing at the conclusion of April’s Annual Business Meeting. For complete information on these Board, Officer & Director positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, please visit: http://ow.ly/LGSj30hxlaf.

To complete and submit the required ‘At-Large’ Representative and Board Officer & Director Candidate Information Statement form, go to: http://ow.ly/VZvW30hxl7h.

The deadline to submit a Candidate Information Statement for any position is March 31, 2018.

As part of a pilot program Amtrak now offering seat assignments on select trains. On a trial basis, Amtrak is providing First Class passengers with specific seat assignments on two New York to Boston northbound Acelas. The seat assignments will be available for Acela Express train 2290 starting February 3 and for train 2190 on February 5, for travel from New York Penn Station to Boston South Station. Passengers will automatically be assigned a seat when making their reservation, but they will be able to change this seat selection after the reservation has been completed.

“We are interested in seeing how passengers respond to the rollout of seat assignments,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “There are benefits for people who prefer to know where they are sitting before they board, but we aren’t sure people will want to pay for seat assignments or the opportunity to change seats if riding Amtrak begins to feel like just another airline.”

Amtrak also said that customers “will not incur an additional charge to book or change an assignment at this time.”

Amtrak said the change is to help “improve the customer experience” and “reduce the anxiety and stress of boarding.” Amtrak also said that the seat assignments process is part of a larger rollout that will include adding seat assignments to First class on additional Acela Express trains, then later adding it to Business class on select Northeast Regional and long-distance trains.

Amtrak moved into the new Birmingham, Al Intermodal Facility this week. Served by the daily New York - Atlanta - New Orleans ‘Crescent’, passengers will enjoy dramatically improved services and waiting areas in the new structure. Work will continue during 2018 to complete renovations to the passage and tunnels which connects the new facility with the boarding platform. Megabus has already joined with Amtrak in the new facility and Greyhound is expected to start service there on February 21. A Grand Opening ceremony is scheduled on Friday, February 23. Local transit services started using the adjacent new central terminal in June 2017.

Additional pictures and commentary on the bright and modern new facility are courtesy of the Tennessee Association of Railroad Passengers.

Plans for the landscaping that will run along Maryland’s forthcoming Purple Line light-rail system will include a wide variety of trees, evergreens, shrubs, grasses and vines - many of which will be native to the mid-atlantic region. This could comes as a bit of a relief for some residents along the route who were concerned that the native plant life would be cleared out and left as an eyesore. The plans for the landscaping were shared by landscape architect Andrea Lake, who is part of the development team Purple Line Transit Partners. Lake also shared a detailed map with markers to highlight where landscape work will be completed. The map also showed the new walking and biking trail that will be built along the light-rail line between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The information was provided to the Community Advisory Team, which consists of local residents, community association leaders and others who receive regular updates on the transit project. Crews are continuing to clear trees for construction of the Purple Line, which has an estimated opening slated for 2022.