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Hotline #985

October 14, 2016

OIG Reports Amtrak Needs to Budget for PTC; FTA Announces $14.7 Million in Grants; High-Speed Rail Updates in Fresno, CA

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for Amtrak released a new report that highlighted the Amtrak’s need to budget appropriately for live-saving technology throughout its rail network. The report found that Amtrak has made strides in implementing automated braking technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC), but that the passenger rail agency still has several tasks to complete before it reaches full implementation before the end of 2018 - the current deadline. As of now, the OIG stated that Amtrak still need to complete 33 percent of its planned trackside installations, submit a safety plan to the Federal Railroad Administration, resolve potential radio frequency spectrum issues and install onboard systems in its locomotives. The report also raised concern that Amtrak is not properly accounting for the full cost of the technology and that PTC may cost “millions more than is currently budgeted.” Amtrak has spent about $183 million on PTC implementation through June 30 and plans to spend about another $35 million through 2018. But those estimates are “incomplete” and don’t include other potential contingency costs, according to OIG.

The OIG is encouraging Amtrak to update its costs estimates in order to ensure that sufficient funds are available for the project. The report also recommends that Amtrak enhance project schedules to better track the completion of key events and remaining tasks and clarify the roles of managers who are responsible for PTC implementation. Amtrak agreed with all three recommendations, according to the report.

The report from OIG comes only a week after an NJ Transit crashed into Hoboken Terminal, resulting in the death of one person and more than 100 injuries. The accident has renewed calls for PTC and other potentially life-saving technology on passenger rail systems nationwide. Since the accident however, NJ Transit has reopened part of Hoboken Terminal this week, with commuters able to use tracks 10 through 17, while tracks 1 through 9 remained blocked off. Despite reopening the station, the National Safety Transportation Board is continuing its investigation into the specific cause of the train accident.

Additionally, the first lawsuit was filed against NJ Transit this week, by Sheldon Kest, who suffered a partially ripped off finger, as well as gashes on his head during the accident. The lawsuit is most likely the first of many to come against NJ Transit. Kest’s lawyer points out that the rail agency was slow to install PTC technology which could have helped slow the train and prevent the accident. So far, NJ Transit has not commented on the lawsuit, nor has the agency released any information on how any claims it has received from commuters present at the accident.

The End of the Year is Near!

The past year has been a productive one for advancing NARP’s goal of “A Connected America,” with excellent work being conducted on Capitol Hill and with state legislatures nationwide. Our work of course, is only made possible by our members and supporters. And together, we have seen progress on both long distance and corridor routes, delivery of new long distance equipment and electric power, and large equipment orders for Amtrak’s next generation Acela fleet.

We have been at the table helping to craft some of the most favorable legislative language passenger rail supporters have ever seen, and we have seen real progress on both public and privately funded high speed rail and transit lines.

In short, we’ve had a great year, but we couldn’t have done it without your ongoing, and generous, support. We have real challenges ahead, however, to ensure that passenger rail delivers on the promise of creating “A Connected America.” And we know you want more and better trains, as well as increased safety technology and regular maintenance of rail tracks and equipment.

So for the end of the year, would you please consider making a donation to our cause to help us achieve a truly national rail infrastructure.

Donations can be made online at: www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate/

Since the Hoboken accident, The New York Times took a close look at New Jersey Transit - from days in the 1990s when the agency was experiencing growth in ridership, to now when there is apparent mismanagement of the agency. In the 90s, NJ Transit was riding high, having won a coveted award for outstanding public transportation three times. In the years ahead, faster routes to Manhattan and double-decker trains would put it at the forefront of the nation’s commuter railroads. Even as recently as 2007, it won a leadership award from New York University. But today, New Jersey Transit is in crisis with aging tracks and trains that need billions of dollars in improvements. Delays and fares are rising along with ridership, with passenger cars packed to the breaking point. The century-old tunnel that carries its trains to New York is crumbling. And the agency has gone nearly a year without a permanent leader. As a result, the railroad has racked up at least 125 major train delays, about one every two days, so far this year. Its record for punctuality is declining, and its trains are breaking down more often — evidence that maintenance is suffering. In addition, funding of the agency has diminished, which puts the agency is a challenging situation on how to maintain equipment and service. Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.

A report that NARP discussed last week on autonomous vehicles and their potential to change the future of rail transit, has garnered significant attention from media and readers. We noted that the report, “Will Autonomous Vehicles Derail Trains?” ignores new trends in resettlement patterns that have seen young and educated professionals moving to cities and walkable communities that has led to steady growth in passenger rail service, with cities and states looking to develop new rail lines and multi-modal stations. In addition, rail transit is technology that that readily available for the development of passenger rail networks, and it is a mode of transportation that people are familiar with, and can rely on.

This familiarity with rail its technology is something that autonomous vehicles don’t have with the majority of the American public yet. The technology is not fully developed, and this poses a challenge for many developers as studies have indicated mixed feelings from consumers about self-driving cars. A report from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) found that 70 percent of respondents were ready to test a self-driving car, but a survey released by the Altman Vilandrie and Company last month shows that 64 percent of people indicated they would not buy an automated vehicle because they believe the technology is dangerous. In addition, a University of Michigan survey earlier this year found less than 16 percent of consumers were totally OK with having fully autonomous cars.

The mixed-bag of results could stem from inexperience with autonomous cars, but the technology could also face a series of regulatory hurdles before they are available for purchase by the masses. Currently, a patchwork of state regulations exist throughout the country. Guidelines for driverless cars unveiled by the White House last month sought to establish a uniform framework and clarify the state versus federal role, although it’s a legally non-binding document. The guidance suggests that states be responsible for licensing human drivers, enforcing traffic laws and establishing testing requirement, while the policy plan envisions the federal government as having primary control over the actual automation software and recalls.

There are still openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives in several states, including one each in Alabama; Arizona; Delaware; Hawaii; Idaho; Louisiana; Missouri; Nebraska; Nevada; New Jersey; North Carolina; North Dakota: Ohio (2 Seats) and Wyoming. Check out the full, up-to-date, list of current vacancies here.

If you live in these states and want to become more active in NARP’s work, this is your opportunity to become involved. 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.

This past Saturday, a Long Island Rail Road train derailed and injured dozens of people. The derailment was most likely caused by a work train that got in the way of a passenger train filled with 600 passengers, according to early investigation reports. New York Gov. Cuomo stated, “It appears that the work train was violating the space from the revenue train, that the work train was overlapping into the clearance area of that train and that’s what caused the side swap and that’s what caused the derailment,” said Cuomo, who visited the Nassau County site of the accident with MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast and other officials.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will award $14.7 million in grants to 16 U.S. metropolitan areas to improve access to public transit, including several passenger rail lines throughout the country. The funding will be released through the FTA’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Pilot Program for communities that are developing new or expanded mass transit systems. The projects and associated grant awards include:

  • the city of Phoenix and Valley Metro for additional development in the South Central Light Rail Extension corridor,

  • $2 million; the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for economic development in the proposed West Santa Ana Branch light-rail corridor,

  • $2 million; the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's BART Silicon Valley Phase II corridor,

  • $1.52 million; and the city of Milwaukee for TOD planning along streetcar extensions, $750,000.

Passenger rail and public transit advocates recently formed the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition in an effort to raise attention for the Baltimore Red Line light-rail project. The advocacy group called on Gov. Larry Hogan to redirect $8 bilion for a proposed highway widening project to a statewide rail network that would run from Delaware to Southern Maryland to West Virginia. The line would also connect Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Overall, Governor Hogan has supported the Purple Line that would connect to the Washington Metro system, but he has previously withdrawn state funding for the Red Line to connect East and West Baltimore. The coalition is made up of the Action Committee for Transit, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, the Prince George's Advocates for Community-based Transit and the Southern Maryland Alliance for Rapid Transit. Ben Ross, who's chairing the new coalition, said its members had been working separately to promote local transit projects for years — but now want to work together on a statewide approach.

At Penn Station New York, Amtrak is making a significant update to help riders stay on top of their trains and schedules. Amtrak has launched a new state-of-the-art Passenger Information Display System (PIDS) that communicates train status, origin and destination stations, boarding gate and other information and features bright, new LCD displays which are easier to read and synchronize audio and visual messaging in the station. Strategic placement of the new displays, along with modification and eventual removal of some existing monitors – including the large train status board in the center of the concourse – provides customers access to the same information in various locations, allowing more efficient use of space in the main hall. At either end of the main train hall, large video walls featuring departure information, visual messaging and synchronized station announcements are intended to draw waiting customers away from the center of the room, easing congestion and improving pedestrian circulation. The displays are also capable of broadcasting emergency communications and other customized messages. An additional 38 monitor sets displaying boarding information and station announcements have been or will be installed above the boarding gates on the main concourse, in ClubAcela, the Rotunda and Amtrak waiting areas.

You Win! And So Do We! Benefits Enhance Your Membership And Support Our Work!

VSP Individual Vision Care now offers specially discounted individual and family insurance plans exclusively for NARP members that typically save hundreds of dollars on your exams, glasses and contacts. In addition, as a VSP member you -- or any family member you designate -- can also enjoy savings of up to $1,200 per hearing aid through VSP’s TruHearing plan. When you sign up for a VSP plan through our website, you not only help yourself and your family with significant savings and great benefits, but you help support NARP’s work as well! Click here to enroll today!

If you buy anything from online retailer Amazon.com, sign up for Amazon Smile so that a portion of your purchase price is donated to support NARP! The price you pay for your items does not change, but every purchase helps your Association as we do the work you want done for A Connected America! Visit http://www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate to learn more.

Travelers United, the only non-profit membership organization that acts as a watchdog for traveler rights, now offers free reciprocal membership to all NARP members! To check out benefits and get the low-down on your passenger rights, visit https://TravelersUnited.org/welcome-narp/

Amtrak Vacations, a premier tour operator offering first-rate travel packages combining great destinations and train travel, is now offering all NARP members a 10% discount on the rail travel portion of any package booked, along with a 5% discount on parent company Yankee Leisure Group’s Unique Rail Journeys packages across Europe! Better yet, go watch a recorded webinar co-hosted by Amtrak Vacations and NARP to learn about a special offer worth up to an additional $400 off certain rail-travel packages! Click here to watch the recorded webinar, or copy and paste this URL into your web browser: https://youtu.be/uiETYMKziWA, and to learn more about Amtrak Vacations please visit http://www.amtrakvacations.com.

If you buy anything from online retailer Amazon.com, sign up for Amazon Smile so that a portion of your purchase price is donated to support NARP! The price you pay for your items does not change, but every purchase helps your Association as we do the work you want done for A Connected America! Visit http://www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate to learn more.

Throughout several weekends in October, the Pacific Surfliner and the Southwest Chief will experience track work that could impact passenger travel plans between Los Angeles and San Diego. This weekend, along with the 21-23, trak work performed by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority and North County Transit District will result in:

  • Southwest Chief Trains 3 and 4 will not stop at Riverside and Fullerton.

  • Pacific Surfliner Train 595, on Fridays, October 14 and 21, 2016, which normally operates between San Diego and Los Angeles will operate between San Diego and Fullerton.

  • Pacific Surfliner Service, on Saturdays and Sundays, October 15 - 16 and 22 - 23, 2016, there will be no train service between Los Angeles and San Diego.

A new poll by The Virginian-Pilot and WVEC partnered with Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, revealed that voters in Virginia Beach are virtually evenly split on light rail. A poll of 706 likely Virginia Beach voters showed that 49 percent are against light rail, while 48 percent voted yes. The referendum on Nov. 8 that voters can decide on will ask: “Should City Council of Virginia Beach spend local funds to extend Light Rail from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach?” And the results of the poll highlight that it’s an issue divided along generational, racial, urban-rural and party lines, according to the data:

  • 53 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 34) said they’d vote yes. Nearly 56 percent of voters older than 55 said they’d vote against light rail.

  • 75 percent of black voters said they would vote yes; 41 percent of whites would vote yes.

  • 72 percent of rural voters below the Green Line, the city’s southern urban-growth boundary, would vote no.

  • 63 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of Republicans said they’d vote yes.

  • 64 percent of Clinton supporters would vote yes and 67 percent of Trump supporters would vote no.

In Fresno, CA, a lot of development and planning is in the works regarding high-speed rail. First, to continue construction of the high-speed rail line in the area, several road and shoulder closures are planned in Fresno and Madera by contractors for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, including one street west of downtown Fresno that will be closed until early January.

Additionally, CHSRA is continuing to evaluate sites for a heavy maintenance facility that would be the primary statewide site for major service on its trains – and Fresno wants to do whatever it can to encourage the state to select a site at the southern edge of the city. Currently, the Fresno City Council will consider authorizing negotiations with the owners of 16 pieces of property adding up to about 166 acres.

Lastly, a decision on consultants to design a high-speed rail passenger station in Fresno, as well as a statewide operations center in the San Joaquin Valley, is being pushed off by CHSRA. The agency’s board had been slated to consider issuing a request for qualifications from architectural and engineering firms to compete for a six-year contract for up to $11 million to the winning team later this year. But the issue was removed from the agenda because “some board members have questions and (our) staff will work with them to further elucidate on them,” according to board chairman Dan Richard. For the site itself, the Fresno station will straddle the existing Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks at Mariposa Street, on a block bounded by G, H, Tulare and Fresno streets – an area for which the city is developing a master plan to make the most of a station in the heart of downtown.

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 Bob Brady, [email protected], 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.