Hotline #951

NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews joined a group of elected officials, industry representatives, community leaders and federal stakeholders on the Gulf Coast Inspection Trip that Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission conducted on February18th and 19th. The train toured the potential rail route between New Orleans and Jacksonville to help local and federal officials get a deeper understanding of the benefits from reintroducing passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast.

Since 2005, NARP has steadfastly supported the return of passenger rail service along this route. Seven of the 12 communities between New Orleans and Jacksonville have no air service, and four have no intercity bus service, leaving these areas with no public transportation option.

Following the first day of the trip, Mathews shared his thoughts:

Shortly before 9 am on Thursday, February 18, I had the privilege to be aboard a train carrying passengers eastbound out of New Orleans headed ultimately for Jacksonville -- the first in a decade, since Katrina wiped out the tracks and forced Amtrak to suspend service.

The tracks have long since been restored, but the service has not. Thursday was a day spent rolling past enthusiastic crowds lining the route and stopping to say a few words to enormous rallies, whistle-stop style. In Gulfport, Miss., more than 1,000 people turned out midday, from all walks of life, to greet the train and wave signs and deliver a message to all the VIPs aboard that their communities wanted and needed that service restored.

Taking it in, Amtrak's top VP for government affairs, Joe McHugh, told an audience in Atmore, Ala., Thursday night that the outpouring of public support showed that these towns -- Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula, Mobile, Atmore -- "never left us. But we left you."

The message wasn't lost on Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who saw his constituents clamoring for the service we know they need, want and deserve. Smiling, laughing, shaking hands and stopping at each station along the way, the Governor showed leadership and commitment to that need.

It matches what I've seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears in the past year and a half. I’ve made seven trips to the Gulf Coast in just the past 14 months, and every official I met with at every level of government agreed that restoring this service was vital to the South’s economic competitiveness. The consensus was more than bipartisan, it was non-partisan. There are wonderful towns and cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, but those communities won't remain competitive if nobody can get to them on a national network. The officials I have visited with over the past few months, Republican and Democrat, are united in their unwillingness to be turned into second-class citizens and getting left behind when it comes to getting around their states and the Gulf Cost region.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), whose leadership in the Senate was critical this past legislative season to getting the strongest rail authorization in recent memory, was also one of the most important players in getting the Gulf Coast Working Group authorized, funded and operating. And this week the Working Group wasted no time in making a key decision, to focus its efforts on the Alternative A and A1 plans offered in the most recent Amtrak study. The group made that announcement Thursday night.

This would mean using a two-pronged approach to restore Gulf Coast service: extending the daily City of New Orleans all the way to Orlando, and launching a separate, state-supported daily service linking New Orleans and Mobile on a schedule roughly opposite to that of the daily City. Based on an assessment of existing performance, projected additional boardings, and a change from three-times-weekly to daily service, NARP believes a daily Gulf Coast service between New Orleans and Jacksonville alone could generate as much as $40 million to $50 million per year. Linking the tourist destinations of New Orleans and Orlando, and offering a one-seat ride from Chicago will be incredibly powerful.

It's so important for all of you as NARP members and advocates to realize and understand the role YOU have played in making this a reality, and the role YOU can continue to play as we keep the pressure on. If you live along the Gulf Coast, it's vital that you write to or visit with your Mayors, congressmen and Senators, often, and tell them that you want this service restored. Republican or Democrat, when elected officials hear a strong and consistent message from their voters they are compelled to act.

If you could have been standing five feet behind Gov. Bryant, Sen. Wicker and Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Sarah Feinberg, united and enthusiastic in their determination to bring this service back to the diverse groups of men and women, young and old who came out this week to cheer on the train you would have no doubt about the power of advocacy. Advocacy works. Keep on doing what you're doing!

Large crowds gathered at multiple stations as the first Amtrak train in 10 years rolled through stops along the Gulf Coast, including Mobile and New Orleans. The Amtrak inspection train was part of a two-day event that saw political figures and rail officials study the possibility of reintroducing a commuter line in the region. Notably, a working group, which met for the first time this week, is expected to provide additional insight into feasibility and the costs of the service.

Amtrak requested $1.8 billion for FY2017. The request included $1,205 million for the National Network and $613 million for the Northeast Corridor that was authorized by Congress in a transportation funding bill lawmakers approved last year. In his last grant request to Congress, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman said the funding is part of a five-year plan for the company that is necessary to grow service on the nation's passenger rail network. Amtrak usually receives about $1 billion per year from the government.

The California High Speed Rail Authority announced a significantly lowered price tag and a major shift in its strategy for launching operations on as part of its updated business plan.

The Authority announced that its estimate for the overall cost of the project has dropped from $68 billion to $64 billion. The Authority says it can achieve this cost reduction by shifting its attention north and launching construction on the segment between the Silicon Valley and the Central Valley. Prior plans had called for the initial operating segment in the Central Valley to be connected to Southern California. The new business plan projects construction of the high-speed rail line between Silicon Valley and Central Valley will be completed by 2024, with operations beginning in 2025.

While the announcement will disappoint many Southern Californians, the move seems to be a positive step for the project overall. Additionally, the Authority emphasized that it will still be making significant investments in Southern California’s passenger rail systems in the meantime, including the Burbank to Anaheim corridor and improvements at Los Angeles Union Station.

You can read the full business plan here. The Authority is accepting public comments over the next 60 days.

STB Public Comment On Definition of Preference

Through February 22, 2016, the rail-riding public has the opportunity to tell the U.S. Surface Transportation Board what you think regarding whether passenger trains can continue to be given preference in transit on host railroads. The STB is seeking comments from the rail-riding public about a “policy statement” on how it intends to treat the definition of preference.

NARP contends that the STB overreached their administrative powers by issuing a “Policy Statement” on how it will view the need for a right to preference without any input from any outside parties – even though “preference” has already been defined, and periodically reaffirmed, by elected legislators who make the law on behalf of the voting public. The Dept. of Justice and the Dept. of Transportation have also addressed preference on numerous occasions.

This “statement,” which would have effects every bit as binding and far-reaching as an actual rule, was issued without hearing any evidence, without taking any public testimony, and without even undergoing any kind of formal rulemaking procedure. Behind closed doors, regulators are trying to fundamentally change the rules of the game for how Amtrak can press host railroads to honor their legal obligations…going around the intent of Congress as expressed some 30 years ago and consistently reaffirmed in law and court rulings.

Your comments are incredibly important to this rule-making process since regulators will be watching the total number of comments coming in. Generally the STB limits comments to those directly related to the industry, and you can be sure that industry has already weighed in – and continues to weigh in – on these very important points.

Comment now!

U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., issued a letter to Anthony M. Coscia, Chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors. In the letter, the senators requested that the next Amtrak President and CEO be commitmented to a national rail network. The letter notes, “With the announcement of Boardman’s retirement, it is important that the Board of Directors makes certain that his successor possesses a deep understanding of and support for all three of Amtrak’s lines of service – state-supported, long-distance, and the Northeast Corridor.”

In an effort to increase safety, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requested that state departments of transportation verify that railroad crossing warning systems interconnected to traffic lights work appropriately. The FRA also recommend the use of event recorders to traffic lights connected to railroad crossing systems in order to collected information that can be used to avoid future accidents. The FRA awarded $10 million in grants to eight states to assist in safety upgrades at grade crossings, with a focus on corridors where freight trains carry coal and crude oil.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the South Shore commuter rail line, approved $9 million in infrastructure work, including bridge rehabilitation projects and three new track crossovers. The bridge work will cost $5.2 million and the crossovers another $1.7 million.

In the past two years, passengers on Texas Eagle trains have experienced delays or been forced to ride on buses due to construction of a third north-south mainline track in the Fort Worth, Texas, Tower 55 project, the higher speed rail construction between Chicago and St. Louis and significant weather events on the route.

So to celebrate the completion of track upgrades and anticipated reduction in track delays in 2016, the Texas Eagle Local Revenue Management team, in conjunction with the Texas Eagle Route Director and Amtrak Central Division Marketing, will begin a special promotion for passengers between January and March 2016.

Passengers will receive a free companion rail fare when they buy one regular (adult) fare. The ticket must be purchased at least one day in advance of travel between January 5 and March 15, 2016, for travel between January 6 and March 20, 2016.

These fares may be upgraded to a sleeper after paying for an accommodation charge. The promotion is valid for travel only on the Texas Eagle. It is not valid for local travel between Chicago and St. Louis, or for local travel between San Antonio and Los Angeles. Fares are subject to availability, and seating is limited. Please use discount code V344 when booking the fare.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is picking up a 1990s rail project that was first proposed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mayor Emanuel proposed an express high-speed rail service to connected commuters between Chicago's downtown to O'Hare International Airport. If the city moved forward with its plan, bids for the project will be issued next year.

Registration for the Spring Council and Membership Meeting being held Sunday, April 10 through Wednesday, April 13 at the Sheraton Silver Spring Hotel is now available on the event webpage. The draft agenda is now posted and information on NARP’s ‘Day on The Hill’ can be found here.

Group rate hotel room reservations are still available at the Sheraton. Click here to make your room reservations. The deadline to make reservations is March 10th.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the DC Streetcar line will begin taking passengers on February 27. Following a brief ceremony, passengers will be able to ride for free during an “introductory period.” The DC Streetcar cost about $200 million since it was first conceived more than ten years ago.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority will receive $300 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation for two rail projects. Overall, $100 million will support the Regional Connector project and $200 million will be designated for the Westside Purple Line Extension.

In addition, the Federal Transit Administration announced that more than $72 million will be designated to Caltrain's Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project. The project also received support from President Obama’s recent annual budget proposal, which recommended $125 million to move the project forward.

Matt Marchand, president and CEO of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, is pushing to link any potential high-speed rail in Ontario, Canada to cities in the Midwest United States, including Chicago and Detroit. High-speed rail would use existing tracks between Windsor and Toronto.

NARP is inviting members in good standing to consider running for 10 open seats on the Council of Representatives, the association’s volunteer governing body, for two-year terms. The next election for seats is for the term starting March 1, 2016.

Any 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 run. The Council consists of 112 elected state representatives. The Council of Representatives represents the overall NARP membership in setting and approving the overall policy and direction for the association. For more information, click here. For an 'At-Large' Representative Candidate Information Statement form, go here.

In addition, nominations are now being sought from those members interested and qualified in being elected as an Association Officer (Chair; 4 Vice-Chairs; Treasurer & Secretary) and for the 8 Director positions. The Officers and Directors are elected by the Council of Representatives at the April meeting. For more information on these positions including duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, go here. For an Officer & Director Candidate Information Statement form, go here.

The deadline for all submissions is 11:59 p.m. (local time) on March 31, 2016. It must be postmarked no later than March 31, 2016.

NARP thanks those members who have sent in industry-related news stories, op-eds, editorials or letters to the editor from your communities. We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Please send your news items to Will Hubbard,, and we will continue to share it with the membership. We also ask members to send events that we can put on the website, here. And please follow NARP on Facebook and Twitter.