Amtrak Derailment Renews Calls for Safety; FTA Announces Transit-Oriented Development Support
April 8, 2016
Operation of the nation's rail network is and will continue to be an important safety issue that is heavily debated on Capitol Hill. The country’s rail infrastructure needs appropriate levels of funding and support to ensure that all railroads operate safely, and last week's derailment involving an Amtrak train and two deaths renewed these safety and infrastructure discussions.
Following the derailment of Amtrak Train 89, which struck a backhoe south of Philadelphia at 106 MPH, the Federal Railroad Administration directed Amtrak to conduct immediate safety reviews and perform a “safety stand-down” with its track workers and train dispatchers. In addition, many politicians have come forward to voice their concerns about the accident, as well as preventing future incidents:
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, stated that “(The) tragedy demonstrates the urgent need to rebuild our crumbling rail infrastructure and ensure safe operations nationwide. We need answers immediately.”
U.S. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. said “Our country, and the Northeast in particular, cannot allow this type of preventable tragedy to become the new normal. We need to find out how something like this could happen and take immediate steps to ensure it never happens again.”
Funding and support to improve rail safety and prevent future accidents are part of the FAST Act, and several measures were included by Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Maloney has pushed for investing in Positive Train Control, a Wi-Fi and GPS technology that can stop or slow trains remotely. In December, Maloney’s Passenger Train Derailment Prevention Act of 2015 was signed into law, and requires passenger railroads and freight lines on which passenger trains travel to identify high-hazard curves, like those involved in the fatal 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx and in Philadelphia last year, and take actions to enhance safety.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is moving forward with providing technical support to communities that will be investing in transit-oriented development, which includes passenger rail systems. The support will help local areas tailor their commuting needs with a focus on developing new economic opportunities, especially in disadvantaged areas. The support will be provided to nine different cities across the U.S., including Stamford, CT; Honolulu, HI; Moline, IL; Louisville, KY; Kansas City, MO; Oklahoma City, OK; San Antonio, TX; Lynnwood, WA; and Richmond, VA.
European countries often provide great examples of what passenger rail could be in the United States, if only U.S. officials were to make a strategic approach to providing funding for rail. The FAST Act is the first Surface Transportation Bill to ever include investment for passenger rail--but if the U.S. is to truly compete on a global level, a national rail network needs consistent planning and management. For comparison, take a look at how the United Kingdom is looking to meet growing demand for rail transit. According to Britain’s Rolling Stock Strategy Steering Group, which combines rolling stock leasing companies and the Rail Delivery Group, the national train fleet could double in size by 2045. The fleet, which currently consists of 12,968 passenger coaches, is forecast to grow by between 51 and 99 percent during the next 30 years.
This type of foresight is critical to providing communities throughout the U.S. with a rail infrastructure that can meet the growing demand for passenger rail service, which is increasing according to a new report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). In the organization’s year-end ridership report, APTA found that despite U.S. public transit ridership falling 1.3 percent in 2015, light- and heavy-rail ridership increased - up 0.4 percent and 0.2 percent respectively. Though some areas saw decreases in ridership, other transit agencies reported record ridership systemwide, including Caltrain, the Chicago Transit Authority, MTA Metro-North Railroad and Minneapolis' Metro Transit.
Funding and support will also be critical for preventing acts of terror on the country’s commuter trains and roadways. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing with officials of the Transportation Security Administration to discuss protection of subways, railroads and roadways from terrorism, but it must be noted that more than three-quarters of the agency's budget and 93 percent of its roughly 50,000 employees are devoted to aviation security. When it comes to protecting passenger rail, the TSA relies mainly on voluntary actions by local authorities as it tries to prevent attacks like the ones that struck Brussels on March 22. To increase security provisions, Senator John Thune of South Dakota stated that security measures should be attached to the latest bill setting Federal Aviation Administration policy.
Join NARP on Capitol Hill!
NARP members and Council Representatives are preparing for “Day on the Hill” which will take place on Tuesday, April 12 in Washington, D.C. Throughout the day, NARP will meet with our elected officials on Capitol Hill to share our thoughts on passenger rail and urge them to support balanced transportation policies and funding.
Following the “Day on the Hill” NARP will honor Senator John Thune (SD) and Senator Roger Wicker (MS) for their leadership in passing the bipartisan FAST Act, the first surface transportation authorization to include passenger rail. The FAST Act has also provided a way forward towards restoration of passenger rail along the Gulf Coast, which has been without service since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Additional information about the day, as well as the NARP Congressional Reception that evening, is available here. Advance registration to attend the Congressional Reception is required by April 6.
After employees of NJ Transit agreed not to strike on March 11, members of the International Association of Machinists District 19, Local 1041 are the first to ratify a new contract with the transportation agency. After all 11 unions involved with the new contract agree to ratify, NJ Transit's Board of Directors will vote on it. Ultimately, Gov. Chris Christie has the final say, depending on whether he accepts or rejects the board’s meeting minutes. Christie called the settlement "a fair accommodation of the union and the taxpayer" after announcing it on March 12.
Officials in both Virginia and Oregon are discussing the possibilities of developing light rail networks. Discussions from Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia center around extending light rail to Naval Station Norfolk, in order to cut down congestion to the largest naval base in the world. Despite early discussions, development of the line to the naval base could be 5 to 10 years away. Meanwhile, in Oregon, Metro planners have stated that a light rail train would be the optimal choice for commuters between downtown Portland and Bridgeport Village. The new line would likely operate as an extension of the existing Green Line, with an expected price tag of $2 billion.
The bipartisan FAST Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress. Now, as Congressional appropriators consider the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, they need to hear from all Americans to make sure this bold vision for passenger trains is funded!
A new report from the Pew Research Center revealed that one-in-ten Americans rely on public transportation on a daily or weekly basis. This includes bus, train or subway services for commuters. In addition to the overall percentage of commuters, the survey also highlighted which groups of people are most likely public transportation. Overall, the Northeast has the largest share of adults by region (25%) who use public transportation on a regular basis. City dwellers are also more frequent users of mass transit. Some 21% of urban residents use public transit on a regular basis, compared with 6% of suburban residents and just 3% of rural residents. In addition, Pew data also showed that Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or under the age of 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis.
Southeastern Minnesota is one step closer to developing plans for high-speed rail after a bill introduced by State Sen. Matt Schmit to form an advisory group for high-speed rail advanced last week. The bill would form a 15-member advisory working group to “observe and report” on the plan’s development.The passage of the bill came a day after a private rail developer, North American High Speed Rail Group, opened the public comment period for a proposed Twin Cities-to-Rochester line. North American High Speed Rail Group will accept comments through April 29.
A list of the newly elected state representatives serving on the NARP Council of Representatives for the two-year term starting March 1, 2016 is available here.
There are still openings for state representatives in some states. Check-out the full list of current vacancies here. If you are interested in being considered for an appointment to an open state seat by the Board of Directors please complete this Candidate Information Statement.
The former chief operating officer at Amtrak, William Crosbie, was appointed executive director of New Jersey Transit this week. Crosbie will arrive at a critical time for the state-run commuter agency, which has been struggling with financial problems and is starting work on an environmental review for the Gateway program, a $20 billion tunneling project. The tunnel would be used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains, but would be overseen by a development corporation with representatives from Amtrak, the federal Transportation Department, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Many view the Gateway Project as much more than simply a new commuter tunnel between New York and New Jersey, adding to the importance of the tunnel being being completed successfully. What’s at stake for the largest infrastructure project in the country is the keystone of a network that has been one of the country’s great train travel success stories. In the past 30 years, the percentage of New Jersey-to-New York commuters using transit has risen from 39 to 52 percent, while trans-Hudson River auto travel has fallen by 11 percent in the past eight years — traffic is the same as it was in 1986, though the region is 14 percent larger and more people than ever before are commuting to jobs across the region.
Registration for NARP’s Annual Spring Conference and Council Meeting being held next week (Sunday, April 10 through Wednesday, April 13) at the Sheraton Silver Spring Hotel is now available on the event webpage.
The current agenda for the meeting is now posted and information on NARP’s ‘Day on The Hill’ can be found here. Of special note on the agenda is that retiring Amtrak President/CEO Joseph Boardman will be address the group at lunch on Monday, April 11
Group-rate hotel room reservations at the Sheraton are now closed. Near-by hotel options with available rooms are listed on the event webpage.
This past week, officials in Illinois discussed the possibility of expanding Amtrak service to the Quad Cities and Peoria, neither of which has had direct passenger rail service since the early 1980s, when the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific R.R. collapsed. Discussions of expansion have come a long way since last year, when Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner discussed the possibility of cutting support for Amtrak, as well as reducing service by half. As part of the meeting, Amtrak also discussed how the agency plans to transform Chicago Union Station into a multi-level shopping arcade while moving its ticketing and passenger lounge to the station’s Great Hall, in an attempt to eliminate crowding at Amtrak and Metra gates.
The greater Washington D.C. area is now one step closer to developing a new light-rail line, and will be the first major light-rail line in the nation’s capital in years. This week, a Maryland board approved a $5.6 billion contract for a team of companies to build and operate a light-rail Purple Line that state officials say will rejuvenate older communities and transform a 16-mile swath of the Washington suburbs. The Purple Line also will be the first direct suburb-to-suburb link in a regional rail system built 40 years ago.
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 May 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 May 15, 2016, for travel between January 6 and May 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.
Officials at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit say that service will have significant impact for local economies and present new opportunities for employers in the area. SMART service will see around 30 train trips per day, with schedules coordinated around peak commuter hours and with other transit operators like City Bus in Santa Rosa, Petaluma Transit, and Marin Transit. The project is also poised to bring an influx of tourists to the region, as funding has been secured for a 2.2-mile link from downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal, a critical component of the rail service. Construction is hoped to begin summer 2017, with operations starting in 2018.
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