Happening Now

Hotline #831

October 4, 2013

The federal government shutdown is on Day Four with no apparent end in sight—other than veterans of previous shutdowns noting that the pressure intensifies daily and the pain usually becomes too great for politicians after about seven days. It is clear that a majority of House members would vote for the “clean” continuing resolution that the White House wants, but that Speaker Boehner so far is not willing to bring it to a vote. If your Representative is a Republican, please ask him or her to press the Speaker to allow a vote.

The message would be strongest if you cite more than one way (more than just Amtrak) in which the government shutdown is hurting you or your loved ones. Amtrak so far remains unaffected but potentially is the biggest victim – survival of the system is not assured if the shutdown runs for many weeks.

Many bona fide conservatives are outraged at the apparent “strategy” of the House leadership.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), to Associated Press: "I hate Obamacare. I don't blame anybody for doing what they can to try to kill it, but there should be an end game." Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, to The Washington Post: “[Cruz] said if you don’t agree with my tactic . . . you’re bad. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized: "The only real way to repeal the law is to win elections. Our strategy would be to conduct an island-hopping campaign that attacks the law's vulnerable parts to help win those elections, rather than invade the Japanese mainland."

The shutdown is hitting transportation in insidious ways. The Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed 3,000 safety inspectors nationwide – workers that “make sure the airlines are maintaining their planes safely and conduct inspections at the airports.”

NTSB won’t be able to send investigators to look into two fatal accidents this week: a small plane crash in California on Sunday, and a gruesome Tennessee crash of a church bus from North Carolina into a tractor-trailer truck that killed eight people on Wednesday. All of the Board’s investigators have been furloughed.

Employees who are working and deemed “essential” won’t be paid until the shutdown ends.

Also of note: tourist-oriented passenger trains that serve National Parks are not operating as long as the shutdown forces the closure of the parks. These include the Grand Canyon Railway and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Additionally, the Amtrak station buildings in Harpers Ferry and Thurmond, WV, which are owned by the National Park Service, are closed, though the platforms remain accessible and trains are still stopping at them.

The New York State Department of Transportation announced yesterday that it had finalized a contract with Amtrak, mandated by Section 209 of the 2008 passenger rail authorization law, to continue the operation of all short-distance Amtrak services in the state. The state will now cover the bulk of the operating grants for every Amtrak train operating in the state except the Lake Shore Limited and Northeast Corridor trains. Previously, only the Adirondack and Ethan Allen Express were state-supported (the latter being supported by both New York and Vermont).

New York will pay 35% of the Ethan Allen’s costs going forward, and will pay a total of $22 million to support Amtrak service in fiscal 2014. The money covers fuel, labor and other operating costs, plus the repair and maintenance of Amtrak’s equipment. Amtrak and NYSDOT have also formed a committee on how to share maintenance costs for the portion of the Empire Corridor between Poughkeepsie and Schenectady, which Amtrak leases from CSX.

Aside from Indiana (see next story), only two states still have yet to finalize Section 209-mandated contracts: California and Illinois. Amtrak has said that, without contracts in place, affected trains would be suspended effective October 16.

While negotiations between Amtrak and the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) continue behind closed doors, Amtrak placed the following bulletin in stations along the Hoosier State route this week:

While all indications are that negotiations are progressing positively, with one participant telling the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) that he feels them to be “very productive,” Amtrak is nevertheless preparing to suspend the Hoosier State beginning October 16—the same day that a special committee of the Indiana legislature will hold a rescheduled hearing regarding INDOT’s recommendations for the train’s future, revealed in a report last week. MHSRA is planning to hold another rally in support of the train on Oct. 15 at the State Capitol in Indianapolis.

Train advocates are asked to continue to apply positive, encouraging pressure on Gov. Mike Pence (R) and INDOT, reiterating how important train service on this key corridor is to the entire state’s economy and attractiveness to students and young professionals from around the world. Click here to take action.

With a press release yesterday, Amtrak announced its intention to make its on-board food and beverage (F&B) service break even within the next five years.

The railroad is pursuing opportunities to cut costs and increase revenues on F&B, starting with an improved management structure that consolidates operations and accountability for F&B in a single department. From the release:

Some of those opportunities include: aligning dining car staffing with seasonal changes in customer demand; establishing metrics to assess service attendants' onboard sales performance; reducing spoilage; closely tracking onboard stock levels; regularly refreshing menus; and exploring new pricing and revenue management options to align with customer needs and enhance cost recovery.

Further, Amtrak is using technology onboard trains aimed at improving customer service, automating financial and other reporting, and eliminating the error prone and time consuming method of manual data entry. Just this week, for example, Amtrak began a pilot on the Silver Meteor (New York-Miami) long-distance train to test a new touch-screen tablet-based solution that dining car service attendants use to take passenger orders and print customer receipts.

In 2014 Amtrak will roll out its Point of Sale (POS) system across its national network. Currently in operation on Acela Express and California trains, POS technology improves the customer experience by streamlining the check-out and receipt printing process in café and lounge cars, and allows onboard employees more time to focus on sales and customer service. It also provides real-time inventory status, better decision support and more flexibility to introduce targeted pricing and discounts, including value and combo meals.

Also in 2014 Amtrak plans to test "cashless" sales for food and beverage on certain routes. The elimination of cash reduces transaction time and significantly reduces accounting expenses and the risk of fraud or abuse. In addition, many venues that have pursued similar initiatives have seen increased sales. This model is very popular in the airline industry and has been seen as a favorable change by travelers.

The release noted that eliminating F&B service altogether would achieve the opposite effect from saving money. “The railroad would actually lose more money [in the absence of on-board F&B] because of the loss in associated ridership and ticket revenue, and thereby increase its dependence on federal support,” Boardman stated.

In the release, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman attributed 99% of the cost of F&B service that is not covered by passenger revenues to dining cars on the long-distance trains, saying that café car service across the system “essentially [breaks] even or [makes] a positive contribution to the bottom line.”

All Aboard Florida (AAF), the private subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries that aims to launch a passenger train corridor between Miami and Orlando, signed what it calls “an historic agreement”with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, owner of Orlando International Airport, on Wednesday. The agreement allows a multi-modal facility to be built at the airport with a direct connection to a new 35-mile rail line that will bring AAF trains in from Cocoa Beach, where they will join the Florida East Coast Railroad’s existing north-south line, which AAF trains will use for 200 miles.

The agreement includes a 99-year easement for the railroad corridor through airport property, AAF’s use of premises at the planned South Airport Intermodal Station for 50 years, and lease of a rail maintenance yard located south of the City Conserv 1 facility for 50 years.

“This is a major component of the airport’s vision to provide interconnectivity to multiple modes of transportation,” Airport Authority Executive Director Phil Brown said in an Authority press release. “This rail service will offer a viable alternative to busy highways, along with direct access to one of the state’s premier global gateways.” Authority Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher added that no Authority funds will be used for construction of the station or the AAF rail line.

“This agreement solidifies a strong partnership with GOAA and allows All Aboard Florida to deliver the nation’s first privately owned, operated and maintained intercity passenger rail system by the end of 2015,” said AAF President & COO P. Michael Reininger.

The South Airport Intermodal Station will serve as AAF’s initial northern terminus. Future extensions of AAF service west to Tampa and north to Jacksonville are planned.

A high-speed rail line in Illinois would not require operating subsidies and would produce substantial economic benefits for the Midwest region after an initial investment of $20 billion, according to a study conducted by the University of Illinois and funded by the state.

The $1.2 million report analyzed a route that would connect Chicago's O'Hare International Airport through downtown Chicago to St. Louis via Champaign-Urbana and Springfield.

Such a study had long been sought by NARP's allies at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. The advocacy group's Executive Director, Rick Harnish, felt vindicated by the findings and said the price tag is quite low compared to the host of benefits the system would bring.

"This [estimated cost] is not a lot in terms of what we're going to get out of it," Harnish told Crain's Chicago Business. "It's absolutely essential if we're going to remain a strong economic region."

The report said the cost could be mitigated by using a "blended" approach: using some existing track at lower speeds, mainly in urban areas, as is done in much of Europe.

Illinois' existing Amtrak services have seen record ridership after state investments have brought about five daily Chicago-St. Louis trains which, by the end of 2014, will be hitting top speeds of 110 mph over most of the route.

Working with Google, Amtrak on Sept. 29 launched an interactive map, based on the familiar Google Maps interface, that lets visitors to the railroad’s Website track the live locations of each of the over 300 daily trains on the Amtrak system, using GPS technology built in to Amtrak locomotives.

Screenshot of the new Amtrak.com status map taken at 3:20 PM Friday.

Checking the status of a train is the second most popular way that people use Amtrak.com, after purchasing tickets. The new map tool is excellent for planning the arrival and departure of family and friends.

Currently, one can click on the icon representing any train and see its current estimated speed, estimated time of arrival at the next station on the line. One can then click on “Detailed Train Status” and see the train’s scheduled or estimated arrival time at each of the following stations. One can also click on a station’s point and see its address.

“Amtrak will continue to add helpful layers onto this map such as local travel and tourist information to provide passengers a one-stop location for all their travel needs,” said Amtrak Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Matt Hardison in a Sept. 30 press release. “This map joins several recent technology-related offerings that have improved the customer experience and changed how Amtrak does business, ultimately changing and enhancing the way customers travel with us.”

Amtrak and the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) have completed ahead of schedule a joint $1 million project to renovate the restrooms at Baltimore Penn Station. The restrooms there are now more spacious and meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements. An additional $3.2 million in upgrades to the station are planned over the next 18 months, and build upon $8.5 million in Amtrak and state-funded investments in the historic station over the past three years. The next phases include an ADA-compliant passenger information display system, expanded community programming on the plaza in front of the station, and launching a “multimedia experience” for visitors arriving by rail.

Rail Transit Briefs

  • Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line, the country’s busiest single commuter rail line, may return to full normal operation on Monday (Oct. 7) for the first time since a Con Edison power cable from a substation in Harrison, NY, failed during regular maintenance on Sept. 25 and cut electric power to the line. The resulting need to run all trains with diesel locomotives resulted in Metro-North train frequencies being cut back to once hourly and both Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains being delayed up to an hour (and Acela Express service being suspended north of New York). The New Haven Line was running at 65% of regular capacity on Wednesday, and work will be done over the weekend to make sure the power restoration has succeeded. Metro-North has offered refunds to passengers with weekly or monthly tickets who were affected. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) and other officials have criticized Con Edison for not having sufficient backups in place.
  • New York City’s subway aims to become the first North American subway system to have wireless Internet connectivity in all underground stations. Transit Wireless awarded a contract to Radio Frequency Systems to supply architecture for Phase 2 of the extensive project. Phase 2 is expected to be completed in mid-2014. It involves installing a distributed antenna system in 40 stations. Phase 1, already complete, brought 30 stations in Midtown Manhattan online. Upon full completion, 277 stations will be wired with 120 miles of fiber optic cable connecting 5,000 WiFi hotspots. The system will bring cellular and WiFi service through a variety of providers to most mobile devices.
  • Phase 2 of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Expo Line project, which will extend light rail service from downtown Los Angeles and Culver City all the way to downtown Santa Monica, has reached its halfway point of construction. Since the start of the 6.6-mile extension project, not a single worker has missed a shift due to injury, a remarkable safety milestone representing 1 million safe person-hours. Much of the line will run on elevated rights-of-way paralleling a freight railroad spur line. Construction of Phase 2 is expected to be complete in 2015.
  • The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metro Transit Police Department has unveiled “MyMTPD Text Tips,” allowing Metrorail and Metrobus passengers to text information about suspicious activity, unattended bags, panhandling and other non-emergencies to the police. Simply text the information and photos (if your phone has a camera) to “MYMTPD” from a smartphone or to 696873 from a standard cell phone.

Travelers’ Advisory

  • Amtrak eVouchers (issued to passengers when a reservation is canceled and all or part of the fare paid is non-refundable) can now be redeemed over the phone by speaking to a reservations sales agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL. Simply provide the agent with the eVoucher number and your phone number and email address (which should match the ones printed on the eVoucher). Previously, eVouchers could only be redeemed by ticket agents at staffed Amtrak stations. Passengers should soon also be able to use eVouchers as a form of payment online at Amtrak.com and by using “Julie,” the automated agent, at 1-800-USA-RAIL. Amtrak is still performing testing on the latter capabilities.
  • Amtrak is offering a special deal for those traveling to see the Hollywood Costume exhibit, “featuring the most iconic costumes from a century of cinema,” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond Nov. 9 through Feb. 17, 2014 (this exhibit’s only East Coast venue). If you book between now and Feb. 13, 2014 and travel between Nov. 7, 2013 and Feb. 16, 2014, you will receive 40% off a companion’s rail fare when you pay the full adult fare for Coach class travel. This offer is valid only on Northeast Regional, Palmetto, Silver Meteor and Silver Star for travel to or from Richmond Staples Mill Road or Richmond Main Street station. Note that the Museum is not walking distance from either Staples Mill Road or Richmond Main Street Station.
  • VIA Rail Canada is having another 50% off sale, but this one applies only to Economy Class travel. Book between now and October 9 and travel in Economy Class on any VIA train between October 16 and December 12 for half off the regular fare (not combinable with the NARP 10% discount). Click here to book.