Happening Now

Hotline #832

October 11, 2013

Amtrak has reached agreement with agencies in 18 of the 19 states with service affected by the 2008 law’s Section 209. That provision requires most states to pay more than they have in the past.

This week, Californiareached a deal with Amtrak to provide an additional $19 million to maintain service, with Illinois close behind. New York came to an agreement with Amtrak last week.

Negotiations with Indiana are continuing and Amtrak is optimistic. Indiana earlier had been in doubt, but pressure from citizens and from the mayors of Crawfordsville and Lafayette has been very helpful.

As required by law, Amtrak had sent out service cut notices, showing October 16 as last day of operation; these notices can now be ignored.

With the shutdown of the federal government concluding its second week, Amtrak management is working hard to maximize ticket revenue to maintain operations across the entire national network.

Amtrak has worked since late spring to cut costs and conserve cash—including emphasis on collecting outstanding receivables—to boost the end-of-FY 2013 cash balance. Strong July and August passenger revenues helped.

Amtrak is running normally and believes it can weather the funding shortfall as it approaches the important Thanksgiving holiday season.

An absence of federal appropriations, however, will delay equipment procurement and defer more maintenance, ultimately reducing the reliability and attractiveness of Amtrak’s service and increasing operating costs.

Majorities of voters in eight Midwestern and Rocky Mountain congressional districts want Amtrak funding levels to stay the same or increase, according to a DFM Research poll commissioned by the United Transportation Union’s Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Association’s (SMART) Transportation Division (the union representing Amtrak conductors). Even among registered Republicans, only 33 percent of those polled (one in three) want Amtrak funding cut.

The districts chosen are located in a swath from Indiana through Missouri and into Colorado. Each has at least one Amtrak route running through the district. Only one is in an urban area (near Chicago), the others are fairly rural. Five of them are solidly Republican, two are traditional “swing” districts (both currently represented by Republicans), and one is solidly Democratic (Illinois’ 3rd, near Chicago). Across these districts, constituents aged 65 plus supported keeping or increasing Amtrak funding over eliminating it by a 4-to-1 margin (70% to 17%).

Other findings of interest: women are more likely to support Amtrak funding than men; support amongst registered Republicans exceeds 60% (71% amongst Democrats and a 3.5-to-1 margin amongst Independents); 69% of those who said they had not ridden an Amtrak train in the past two years still supported keeping or upping funding.

“We polled people who mostly do not live in large passenger rail regions and yet they overwhelmingly said they want the same level of or more federal funding for Amtrak,” said SMART—Transportation Division President John Previsich in a press release. “A majority of Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike all want to maintain or expand Amtrak service. It is now time for Congress to listen,” he added.

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind echoed Previsich’s conclusion: “While too many politicians in Washington are saber rattling about government spending, people across the nation, from conservatives to liberals, believe the federal government has a responsibility to play in supporting and funding Amtrak passenger rail service.”

Politico’s Morning Transportation report made special note of the results in Rep. Tom Latham’s (R-IA) district. Latham is the Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Amtrak’s budget. Only 20% of Latham’s constituents want to see Amtrak funding cut, while 51% want it to stay the same and 22% want an increase.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is inviting the public to see the state’s new passenger trains next, soon to join the Amtrak Cascades fleet operating from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C.

The event, which will take place next Saturday, October 19, will feature displays, speakers, giveaways and tours of the train. It will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Portland’s Union Station (800 NW 6th Ave.).

“Oregon’s new trains are Talgo Series 8 trains, and they are the only ones operating in the world,” said the department in a press release. “ODOT purchased the trains using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. To date Oregon has spent $38.4 million for the purchase of the trainsets and another $6 million for consultants, spare parts, testing and the addition of WiFi. Oregon purchased its own trains to preserve passenger rail service in the WillametteValley and to position the state for improved service in the future.”

In a presentation organized by the Japan International Transport Institute in Washington DC, Grady Cothen made an excellent presentation on Positive Train Control (PTC) on Thursday, October 10.

Cothen retired from the Federal Railroad Administration in 2010 after over 36 years there working on safety and policy initiatives. He sees PTC as relevant to the Obama Administration’s higher-speed rail initiatives, as well as enabling railroads to make the most efficient use of their infrastructure. This is particularly true in light of the high cost of adding tracks and the difficulty or impossibility of doing so in many locations.

The general understanding is that the railroad industry will not make the 2008 law's December 31, 2015 deadline, a consensus Cothen agrees with, noting that one major railroad recently stated it will begin installing PTC in 2015. He recommended a three-year extension of the deadline, coupled with:

  • A clear requirement to prevent rear-end collisions involving restricted speed, something that PTC as currently designed will not do.
  • A requirement that FRA include additional lines with significant risk of PTC-preventable accidents, to be completed by around 2020.
  • Prohibiting “judicial review of implementing regulations based on cost/benefit theories and quibbles about risk estimates.”

It appears likely that a serious effort will be made in Congress to change the 2015 deadline next year. NARP has consistently argued that “doing it right” is more important than meeting the (impossible) 2015 deadline. However, we opposed a five-year extension of the deadline others have proposed.

The main objectives of Positive Train Control are to prevent train-to-train collisions and to prevent derailments that happen when locomotive engineers fail to observe speed limits (spurred by a Los Angeles Metrolink disaster killing 25 in 2008).

Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced that it, in conjunction with Amtrak, will invest millions of dollars in improving service on its Blue Water, Pere Marquette, and Wolverine services between Port Huron, Pontiac, Grand Rapids, and Chicago.

These investments include improvements to both track and rolling stock. Concerning track improvements, the state and Amtrak are to upgrade a section of state-owned track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn to allow for 110 mph operation. This track, acquired last fall by MDOT, will complement Amtrak’s already upgraded track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana. Once these upgrades are complete, it is believed that trip time between Chicago and Detroit will be cut by two hours, equating the same time that an average car trip takes. By shortening trip times, MDOT expects vastly increased patronage building on already great success.

[Read more on the NARP Blog]

Amtrak will conduct a trial run Tuesday for the carriage of unboxed bicycles in the currently unused (on all but two Superliner-equipped trains) lower level baggage area of Superliner coaches.

The trial will allow a selected group of cyclists to travel with their bikes on the eastbound Capitol Limited from Harpers Ferry, WV and Rockville, MD to Washington, DC. There will then be a press conference on the platform when the train arrives in Washington (scheduled for 1:10 PM) and some other cyclists will be able to try loading and unloading their bikes from the vertically-mounted bicycle holders. NARP Outreach Director Malcolm Kenton will be among those participating in the trial. He will ride with his bike from Rockville.

A successful rollout of walk-up bicycle carriage on the Capitol Limited, whose route parallels a nationally-known bike trail between Pittsburgh and Washington, should give Amtrak incentive to install bike racks in most Superliner baggage holds and allow roll-on bike service on more trains.

Amtrak pledged this week to eliminate food and beverage losses within five years.

Despite Congressional hectoring, Amtrak has already made significant progress on the issue, with the railroad’s food and beverage loss down $31 million over the past seven years—from $105 million in FY 2006 to a projected $74 million in FY 201. However, Amtrak has committed to go farther.

“While NARP applauds Amtrak’s commitment to efficiency, we will work with passengers to ensure these changes are implemented in such a way as to respect the rights and needs of the customer,” said NARP President Ross Capon.

“We have made steady and consistent progress, but it is time we commit ourselves to end food and beverage losses once and for all,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman. “Our plan will expand initiatives that have worked, add new elements and evolve as updated information and opportunities lead us to better solutions.”

Passengers can now use any home computer, laptop, or mobile device to access online Solari boards providing up-to-date information about every Amtrak station in the network.

Designed by NARP member John Bobinyec—who designed the Amtrak Status Maps that are linked to from our Website—designed a module that allows you to enter any Amtrak station code and see the virtual Solari board displaying the next several scheduled trains to depart that station and their status, straight from Amtrak’s system.

The application comes in the same month that Google announced a partnership with Amtrak to provide real time tracking of trains across the national network.

You can access the boards through the NARP website.

Amtrak announced this week that Mark Murphy will assume the role of General Manager of Long Distance Services.

In his new role, Murphy will be accountable for “safety, customer satisfaction, ridership, on-time performance and financial results for the long-distance business line.”

With over three decades at Amtrak, Murphy will bring a wealth of experience to the position. He has served in a number of roles within the railroad, mostly recently as the deputy chief mechanical officer for terminal operations.

An Oct. 10 Financial Times story on reasons for the projection that net US oil imports will be few or none by the end of this decade mentioned both increased domestic supply and decreased demand.

As an example, it cited James Llamas, a transportation consultant advising the City of Houston, known as a sprawling, car-dependent city that owes much of its prosperity to the petroleum industry. Unlike most of his co-workers, Llamas lives without a car and admits that his commute by bus takes longer than those of his peers who drive. But, he says he’s happy: “My commute is longer than it would be if I drove but I prefer it. It’s my time to read the Internet on my phone and do things I wouldn’t otherwise have time to do,” he told the FT.

It is a common perception that travelers will choose the mode that gets them to their destination the fastest within their budget. But, especially in this age where the desire to remain digitally connected and also to take more time to unplug and relax, there are surely more and more people who are choosing to take the slower route, even if they can afford the quicker one, so that they can get value from the time they spend traveling. This is part of what’s driving the record ridership of both Amtrak—particularly the long-distance trains—and transit systems nationwide. Passenger trains and transit, which offer these benefits of “time well spent” while getting from A to B, also happen to be much more energy-efficient than the alternatives. So the continuation of the current trend will mean an even less oil-consuming, and thereby healthier and more secure, nation.

Passenger Advisory

Amtrak’s California Zephyr will resume normal west of Denver starting this Saturday.

Severe flooding in late September had forced Amtrak to reroute between Denver and Salt Lake City, bypassing some of the most scenic route miles in the U.S

—Amtrak and Norfolk Southern are teaming up this Saturday for “All Aboard Altoona” at Norfolk Southern’s Rose Yard (200 N. 4th Ave.) in Pennsylvania.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, October 12, Amtrak’s custom-painted Veterans Locomotive will be open to the public. NS will also be featuring special rolling stock, including its Veterans Locomotive, an F-Unit locomotive, Exhibit Car, and historic office cars.

From the NARP Blog

More and more are climbing aboard: Every time I travel Amtrak, I continue to be struck by how crowded the trains are these days. Just this past weekend, I traveled from Washington, DC to Rhinebeck, NY to visit my father and stepmother. I took the 4:02 PM Northeast Regional from DC to New York. On this train, I had been accustomed to grabbing a seat in the middle of the last Amfleet coach on the 8-car train and having the two seats to myself in an uncrowded car. On previous trips, many of my fellow riders in the rear car had been Amtrak employees. However, this past Friday, the rear car quickly filled up as others boarding in DC moved back as cars farther ahead filled up. I then had a seatmate from Baltimore to New York as there were only a handful of empty seats for that part of the trip, though many seats changed hands at Philadelphia. [Read More]

Amtrak's New Great American Stations Could Help Transform Your Train Station: Amtrak launched a revamped website for its Great American Stations project, providing communities with new tools, resources, and information to help develop the economic power of America's train stations. [Read More]

Union Station: Formerly Uniting Railroads, Now Uniting Stakeholders: Intercity railroads have always been about property development. This is the reason why historic downtown cores across the nation are usually within remarkably close proximity to train stations. This has held true for towns and cities of all sizes. Earlier this year, Washington D.C. and the mess of stakeholders involved with its secular cathedral also known as Union Station unveiled a plan to expand the passenger concourse in a transformative move by developing the air rights above the tracks, therefore seamlessly introducing a massive and grandiose segue between five neighborhoods where there is now a rail yard and a looming pair of retaining walls. [Read More]