Happening Now

Hotline #828

September 13, 2013

NARP President Ross Capon is scheduled to speak tomorrow at a summit on preserving the Southwest Chief’s current route in Pueblo, Colorado.

All rail advocates in the region are invited to attend the Pueblo summit—more information at the NARP Event Calendar. Among the other speakers: public officials and Amtrak’s Ray Lang.

With the deadline for a Federal law requiring states to pay most of the operating costs of Amtrak routes under 750 miles in length looming, only seven of 19 states have signed contracts with Amtrak to continue service past the September 31 cutoff date.

Amtrak has reached final agreements with Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington. Based on conversations with stakeholders, NARP has good reason to believe most of the 12 states currently negotiating with Amtrak will reach an agreement to keep the trains running.

However, NARP has known Indiana’s Hoosier State is in trouble for many months, and has been organizing and aiding a grassroots campaign to save the train. We’ve asked passengers in the region to speak to their local mayors, state legislators, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence. NARP members Bill Malcolm and Doug Yerkeson will pass out “Save the Hoosier State” leaflets at the annual Beech Grove City Festival parade tomorrow. The parade starts at 11:00 AM at the corner of 17th & Main Streets in Beech Grove, and goes till 1:00 PM.

NARP is joined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in calling on all parties to come to a negotiated settlement that will preserve passenger rail service. AASHTO’s Executive Director Bud Wright issued a statement underlining what is at stake:

“The states recognize the importance of intercity passenger rail service to the people and businesses that depend on the routes, as well as our overall economy. We will see a significant disruption in travel and mobility if these agreements are not in place soon. And we know states want to ensure uninterrupted passenger rail service.

“State supported corridors account for approximately 50 percent of Amtrak’s annual ridership. Any disruption to continuing service to the state supported corridors goes against AASHTO’s support for an integrated, comprehensive national transportation system.”

Amtrak will begin sending letters to state transportation departments and communities along the routes without agreements within a week or two, so a more complete picture of negotiations will be publicly available shortly. Amtrak would stop running trains mid-October and stop taking reservations for travel later than that on those routes on Oct. 2—this threat is sure to spur political action along the affected routes, though it is hard to say what kind of remedial action could be taken that late in the process.

Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) alerted Pennsylvania’s State Senate that it has drafted a “doomsday” plan to eliminate nine of its 13 commuter rail lines, condense service to two commuter rail lines, shut down a subway line, and convert all streetcar routes to buses. SEPTA is warning that it will have to enact this extreme plan if more funding is not secured for the transit system.

Divided between battling transportation funding proposals put forth by Governor Tom Corbett, the State Senate, and the State House, lawmakers adjourned on July 1 without passing a bill. But SEPTA’s maintenance backlog is the product of years of mismanagement, brought to a crisis point by the summer’s gridlock in Harrisburg.

“I'm just laying out reality,” said John Casey, SEPTA general manager, at a hearing convened by a state Senate committee. “We can't maintain the infrastructure we have out there forever… this is the consequence of years of underfunding transit.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Paul Nussbaum has laid out the disastrous consequences of this proposed radical contraction:

The "service realignment plan" would begin next year and continue slashing service until 2023, when the SEPTA system would be a shadow of its current self.

SEPTA estimates the plan would cost it at least 40 million passengers a year, about 12 percent of its ridership.

Currently, SEPTA is enjoying its highest ridership in a quarter-century and its highest Regional Rail ridership ever.

SEPTA’s general manager stressed that the looming fiscal cliff represented a clear and present threat to the integrity of public transit in the Philadelphia metropolitan region.

"We're not saying the sky is falling. This is real stuff," Casey said. "This is a rational assessment of where we are."

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to rehear Association of American Railroads vs. U.S. DOT before the full court.

In the July 2 decision signed by three judges, the court ruled Section 207 of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA) unconstitutional because it granted regulatory power to a private company, Amtrak.

DOJ’s August 16 petition notes that “the Supreme Court has… sustained the validity of statutes that assign important roles to private parties as long as there is sufficient governmental oversight and involvement. … The metrics and standards (that Amtrak and the US DOT co-authored) are designed not to regulate freight railroads, but rather to measure Amtrak’s own performance. A freight railroad faces liability only if the [federal Surface Transportation Board]… determines that Amtrak’s performance deficiencies are attributable to the freight railroad’s failure to [give Amtrak priority] as required under 49 U.S.C. 24308(c), the longstanding statutory preference requirement.”

Southern California’s North County Transit District (NCTD) announced that six of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner trains will stop daily at all of the eight San Diego County Coaster stations starting October 7.

This will allow passengers to connect between four cities previously only served by Coaster trains and points north of Oceanside, including Los Angeles, without having to change trains in Oceanside. It will also provide more frequent, convenient service to these communities.

“We’re plugging in a need for more local trains,” Frances Schnall, spokesperson for NCTD, told the Coast News.

Surfliners will now stop at Encinitas, Carlsbad Poinsettia, CarlsbadVillage, and SorrentoValley. The NCTD believes it will be a cost effective way to increase ridership and public utility for the service—a study commissioned by the agency predicts that an extra 1,700 passengers will ride the train each week as a result of the additional stops.

Texas Rail Advocates is reporting that Erik Steavens has been selected to be Director of the Rail Division at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Steavens formerly served as the official in charge of non-road projects at the Georgia Department of Transportation. TRA outlined Steaven’s new duties, along with his qualifications:

Steavens will be responsible for coordinating and overseeing statewide implementation of federal and state funded programs, public/private partnership programs for rail projects, activities for highway/rail grade crossing programs, management of state owned rail facilities and right-of-way and railroad related joint operations.

Steavens has over 20 years experience in transportation infrastructure development for federal, state and local governments. He was in charge of managing Georgia's transit, aviation, waterway and rail programs from 2008 to 2011.

From Around the NARP Blog

Station to Station: Coined by Bowie, Seized by a Generation

The late summer of 2013 may mark the beginning of a new era that could see American transcontinental journeys used as vehicles for encouraging expression, generating ideas, and making statements. And this can only be a good thing for our cause as it raises broader awareness about passenger trains, long-distance ones in particular, both as a smart way to travel and as vehicles of discovery that connect America’s past with its future.

First came the Millennial Trains Project’s mid-August crowd-funded journey from San Francisco to Washington, DC, about which I wrote here as a participant. The Project’s goal is to turn these journeys, which give civic-minded young people a chance to pursue their passion for a positive change-making endeavor on a national scale, into a regular occurrence – the “road trip of our generation,” as founder Patrick Dowd puts it. Closely on its heels comes Station to Station, which bills itself as a nationwide “art and music happening,” taking the form of a private train going from New York to San Francisco via Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

[Read More]

Bottlenecked: Amtrak Cannot Become a Victim of Its Own Success

Amtrak has a habit of basing what long-term planning it does on very conservative estimates of ridership growth. This is done to prevent Amtrak’s critics from accusing the railroad of overestimating the number of people who will turn to trains for their travel needs. But it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For medium-term budgeting purposes, Amtrak seems to assume ridership increases of 1.5%/yr on most routes. For fleet planning purposes (i.e. in the Fleet Strategy Plan), they assume 2% per year. Even trotting out these relatively lowball numbers (I will explain why I find them to be low momentarily), a capacity crunch seems to be on the horizon for the the Northeast Corridor (NEC) in the next few years. Given the lack of support on Capitol Hill for doing much beyond maintaining existing service levels, Amtrak sets itself up for a situation of perpetually lacking enough seats on the Corridor for the number who want to ride. This leads it to turn away hundreds of potential riders in the nation’s busiest travel market either through sold-out trains or the high fares that accompany them. This trend may worsen

[Read More]

Travelers Advisory

Extensive flooding in Colorado has forced Amtrak to divert the eastbound and westbound sections of Amtrak’s California Zephyr between Salt Lake City and Denver.

Trains is reporting that Amtrak is detouring the Zephyr over Union Pacific’s Overland Route through southern Wyoming.

Severe damage to electric catenary in Maryland caused a two-hour suspension of service on the Northeast Corridor between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. on September 11.

Trains were halted around noon, with Amtrak crews able to restore service at roughly 2:00 p.m. The exact cause remains uncertain, but the catenary at the particular point where it sagged and broke (just northeast of Perryville, MD) dates to the late 1930s. Newer catenary is built to withstand greater pressure, including expansion caused by heat.

Amtrak’s Adirondack service is offering its annual chance to enjoy the Great Dome Car on trains traveling north of Albany, New York, through October 29.

The dome car will operate northbound from Albany to Montreal on Thursdays, Saturdays and Mondays. It returns south from Montreal on Fridays, Sundays, and Tuesdays. No dome car trips are made on Wednesdays.

The car offers unique panoramic views of upstate New York and southern Quebec, featuring stunning fall foliage and beautiful views of Lake Champlain. You can find out more at Amtrak.com.

—Amtrak announced it will begin offering limited baggage service at the following stations:

Effective August 26, 2013, Fort Madison, IA, Mount Pleasant, IA, Newton KS, and Topeka, KS: Starting August 26, baggage service will be available at these stations, as follows:

  • On Mondays through Fridays, passengers can check and retrieve their baggage with an employee at the station. Express Service will not be available.
  • On Saturdays and Sundays, passengers must check and retrieve their baggage at trainside with an employee at the baggage car. Express Service will not be available.

Effective September 2, 2013

  • Joliet, IL: Starting September 2, daily baggage service will be available for Texas Eagle Trains 21, 22, 321, 322, 421, and 422 only. Passengers can check their baggage with an employee at the station. Express Service will not be available.
  • Galesburg, IL: Starting September 2, limited baggage service will be available daily for California Zephyr Trains 5 and 6 and Southwest Chief Trains 3 and 4 only. Passengers at Galesburg must check and retrieve their baggage at trainside with an employee at the baggage car. Express Service will not be available.