Happening Now

Hotline #829

September 20, 2013

NARP’s Chairman Stewart and President Capon have both been on the ground in the fight to save the Southwest Chief. Ross Capon spoke at a well-attended save-the-Chief meeting in Pueblo, Colorado on September 14. NARP Council Member James Souby played a lead role in organizing the ColoRail/NARP-sponsored meeting. A good portion of the attendees were public officials, both Republican and Democrat, from Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. The goal is to get those three states to contribute funds to maintain tracks that no longer support heavy freight traffic.

The Pueblo Chieftain editorialized in favor of state funding to save the train.

Photo by Ross Capon

NARP Chairman Bob Stewart was working the same cause on a different front at a meeting held yesterday in Garden City, Kansas. The meeting was extensively covered by The Garden City Telegram:

Bob Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that speaks for users of passenger trains around the country, spoke Thursday afternoon about the importance of rail transportation and the future of the Amtrak's Southwest Chief passenger service that runs through Kansas on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Passenger rail service through western Kansas, eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico has been threatened because Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the railroad company that owns the track on that route, no longer requires that the track be maintained to the standard needed to run competitive passenger train speeds.

"The key date for the Southwest Chief is Jan. 20, 2016, because that is the day that the contract between BNSF and Amtrak expires," Stewart said. "BNSF is proposing that they'll need $200 million over 10 years for upgrading the line and maintenance over three states — Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, each of which would have to put up $4 million per year for 10 years," Stewart said.

Stewart went on to explain the many benefits that long distance trains bring to medium-sized and rural communities:

According to Stewart, the Southwest Chief route currently has just one train a day in each direction, yet it attracts 355,000 passengers per year, or 350 million passenger miles. The route offers not only a chance for passengers to save money, but also an option that is, for some, more easily accessible, he said.

"We have a mobility crisis in this country, especially when you get outside of the major cities. The airlines are cutting back service," Stewart said. "We see this problem around the country, where medium-sized cities have lost airline service, bus service and where Amtrak is their one connection, their one link to the rest of the country. We're going to have 100 million more people between now and 2050. How are we going to move them around? We have an aging population, too, that doesn't want to go through all the hassle of the airport, or the cost."

He said that airlines and highways receive much higher government subsidies than the rails do.

"We're all for good airlines and highways. Don't misunderstand me. But we think the rails need to get their fair share of the support that they need," he said. "Your state (legislators) and your federal congressman should know how important this train is. Think about it, if you guys happen to lose that American Airlines flight, this train is going to become even more important to the citizens of Garden City as a means of connecting with other cities."

NARP’s Chairman is quoted further in the piece, which is well worth the read.

Stewart’s also was interviewed for local television news. He was in Dodge City today.

Amtrak posted a photo of the Amtrak mileage sign on the side of the Elks Lodge in downtown La Junta on its Facebook page yesterday and is trying to get 1,000 or more “Likes.” If you use Facebook, please click here and Like the photo.

An OC Transpo bus collided with a VIA Rail Canada train at a grade crossing near Fallowfield, Ontario (outside Ottawa) on the morning of September 18. VIA Rail reports that none of the 100 passengers on board the train were injured. Tragically, six passengers onboard the OC Transpo bus were killed.

“On behalf of everyone at VIA Rail, we extend our thoughts and prayers to all those affected by today’s tragic event. We are deeply saddened by this collision and we express our sincere appreciation for the dedication and work of first responders on the scene”, said Marc Laliberté, President and CEO of VIA Rail.

Safety officials are still investigating the cause of the accident. Early results of the inquiry indicate that the crossing has been previously identified as a “severe” public safety issue.

VIA Rail Canada criticized. Former Amtrak President David Gunn was quoted this week saying, “My sense of what's happening to Via is it's dying, to be blunt… All of the actions from Via have been basically reducing service sinceit was set up.” While acknowledging Amtrak has problems, he said, “Amtrakhad been struggling in the U.S., but it had a lot of support congressionally and it's actually prospered, amazinglyenough. Ridership is setting new records every year, they have been able to build a northeast corridor into arespectable operation, it's high speed and it's actually a very good operation.” This report is from the Miramichi (NB) Leader, Sept. 18.

Amtrak unveiled a redesign of the reservations booking engine at its website, www.amtrak.com, on Sunday.

All discount options, including NARP, are now selected up-front. The Senior passenger type (eligible for a 15% discount; not combinable with the NARP member discount) is now available on the main screen. For NARP and other discounts, select the “Other Discounts” tab. Then select the number of passengers in each age range, then select “NARP” instead of the default “Adult” for each passenger who is a NARP member beneath the “Promotion Code” box (which must be left blank if you wish to use the NARP discount). Then, after selecting “Find Trains,” the appropriate discount will be automatically applied to all visible, eligible fares (as long as you are booking three days or more in advance of departure).

Fare options for each trip are now divided into the following “Fare Families,” and you may select any available fare (previously, you could only book at the lowest available fare for your desired accommodation by default):

Saver: Deeply discounted, non-refundable coach fare available 14 days or more in advance on certain routes (primarily Northeast Regional).

Value: Best available coach or Acela Business Class in all markets (refundable minus a 10% fee) or Unreserved coach fare (non-refundable).

Flexible: Fully refundable coach.

Premium: Shows total rail fare plus accommodation charge for sleeper, Business Class and Acela First Class. You can use the “change” arrow buttons to toggle between different accommodation types, but it will default to the lowest available Premium fare (even in the sometimes-experienced cases where a Bedroom is going for less than a Roomette). Non-Acela Business Class and Acela First Class are fully refundable prior to departure; sleepers are refundable minus a 10% fee up to 15 days prior to departure and not refundable afterwards.

The website explains the terms and conditions of each Fare Family.

The NARP member discount cannot be applied to Saver fares and only applies to the “rail fare” portion of Premium fares.

No changes to telephone, at station, QuikTrak or mobile app booking. NARP members can view detailed instructions for making reservations using the NARP discount by clicking here (member login required).

The Federal Railroad Administration issued the final State Rail Plan Guidance on September 17, detailing the process to be followed in developing state rail plans, including minimum content requirements, a standardized format, and FRA’s review and acceptance process.

“Already, states have a growing pipeline of rail projects that—if funded—would develop or improve 9,000 miles of rail corridors in 33 states,” wrote FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo. “A state rail plan would allow that pipeline to expand even further… Rail needs to play a growing role in moving 100 million additional people and four billion more tons of freight annually in the next few decades. And State rail plans will help define this role, assisting our efforts to build a more integrated transportation system.”

With the guideline issued, states have five years to come up with a completed rail plan that will detail how rail will help meet regional transportation challenges. States are required to update the plans every five years.

The Charleston (SC) Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) announced Wednesday that it will purchase the North Charleston Amtrak station to facilitate construction there of a new $14.3 intermodal transportation facility.

The city is looking to replace the existing aging Amtrak station and a shabby intercity bus station with a new 32,000 square foot facility that will house intercity passenger trains, intercity buses, local transit buses, and taxis. The board has yet to decide whether the current Amtrak station—owned by CSX Railroad—will be torn down, or incorporated into the new design.

CARTA will have to reimburse the Federal Transit Authority for $3 million in grants that were used to develop a 36-acre passenger facility on West Montague Avenue—$1 million of which will come from an unused grant for new busses, with the rest coming in future years in the form of foregone federal transit grants. The post-renovation property has been valued at $4.7 million, and the sale of the land will be used to defray the loss.

Local officials are banking on the power of rail and transit to revive Charleston’s Liberty Hill neighborhood. The new intermodal center will include 6,600 square feet of retail space, which will spark economic development in the area.

The Purdue Student Government unanimously passed a resolution supporting the continuance of Amtrak’s Hoosier Statetrain.

The task force will share the Student Senate resolution at the House meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Assessment and Solutions next Thursday morning.

“It’s not speed we’re talking about, but basic service,” said Joe Krause, a volunteer at the Amtrak depot in Lafayette, who addressed the Purdue Student Senate to solicit their help in preserving the line. “Not just for students like you, but minorities, senior citizens who don’t want to drive anymore and handicapped people. They need that train and we’re looking for (PSG) to help us.”

“We’re getting some more interest and people are understanding it’s important to this sector of the state,” said West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who also addressed the Purdue Student Senate. “I think we’re playing cards. I think (the Indiana Department of Transportation) was bluffing and we called their bluff. They know we’re sincere about this. Now it’s up to INDOT.”

Amtrak participated in a “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair yesterday at Los Angeles Union Station.

The railroad partnered with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and a number of other organizations. These events will be essential to meeting Amtrak’s goal of ensuring that 25 percent of new hires are military veterans by 2015. Amtrak expects to hire more than 3,000 employees over the next year. Already in FY2012, more than 14 percent of new hires were veterans.

From the NARP Blog

Flashback Friday: The more things change: We introduced Flashback Friday, a periodic look back at NARP's archives for pieces that bear some relevance today. In the inaugural installment: the inspiring words of Mayor John Robert Smith and a telling chart. [Read More]

New Territory: It wasn’t publicized widely. And yet, Amtrak’s first special excursion train sold out in five days, even with capacity expanded from about 600 seats to 800. So Amtrak offered a second train, also 800 seats, and it sold out in less than 10 minutes on Sept. 18. [Read More]

Transit agency tells its own story: The task of clearly illustrating and promoting the vital role that passenger train and rail transit services play in the communities they serve is often left to advocacy groups like NARP. Rarely do you see railroads or transit agencies take advantage of the resources at their disposal to tell their own stories. [Read More]

The rail solution to Chinese airport congestion: Next time you feel frustrated while stranded in an airport—an all too common experience these days—pull up this Los Angeles Times story to help yourself feel a little better. [Read More]

Travelers Advisory

—Due to extensive flooding in Colorado, Amtrak will be rerouting the California Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City through at least the beginning of October.

A severely eroded 20-mile stretch of track in Jefferson County has blocked access to the Union Pacific-owned Moffat line, one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the U.S. Amtrak has been forced to reroute the train over Union Pacific’s Overland Route through southern Wyoming, making no stops between Denver and Salt Lake City. Chartered motorcoaches are serving all missed stops in between except for Granby and Fraser/Winter Park, and connecting with the train.