Happening Now

Hotline #988

November 4, 2016

Strong Support Shown for HSR in Texas; HSR Proposals Taking Shape In The South; New Amtrak Diner In Final Testing; SEPTA Experiences Strike; NYC Releases BQX Proposed Routes

Growing demand for high-speed rail throughout the U.S. is leading to stronger support from the general public for HSR projects nationwide. Multiple states and regions across the country are looking for HSR service and equipment upgrades, including California, Minnesota, the Northeast Corridor, and of course, Texas. A new poll in Texas by Survey USA highlights the trend, revealing that 76 percent of those surveyed support a privately built HSR system between Dallas and Houston. Fourteen percent were undecided, while only 10 percent opposed the project, which would be built by Texas Central Partners.

The Texas high-speed rail project is important for the country, and NARP has taken an active role in helping promote it and raise awareness of the project in the state. This past Saturday, for example, NARP members helped to organize a meeting in Houston with residents and David Hagy from Texas Central. During the meeting, Hagy noted five important features of the HSR project:

  1. The HSR project in Texas will be the first of its kind in the United States as no HSR currently exist within the country.

  2. As a private company, Texas Central will pay taxes to the communities in which the line runs through.

  3. The Dallas to Houston route was selected due to the areas projected growth.

  4. Following the completion of an environmental study, Texas Central will hear from the public on the HSR route.

  5. Once approved, construction will begin in 2018, with a completion of early 2023.

L.E.K Consulting conducted a study on HSR in Texas and noted several of the benefits that Texans would received from riding HSR. The most notable stat that the new study found was that 90 percent of the 16 million people that reside in service areas between Dallas and Houston, could save at least one hour of travel time by taking the trains as opposed to traveling by car or by plane. This is a remarkable statistic that highlights the true potential of HSR not only in Texas, but across the U.S.

Meanwhile, another step forward for High Speed Rail in the South: the Federal Railroad Administration and the Georgia and Tennessee transportation departments have released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for a proposed high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn and public hearings are slated for later this month to gather public feedback. The DEIS outlines three corridor alternatives to connect the two cities. One would follow Interstate-75; another begins following the same highway before heading east to stop in Chatsworth, Ga. A third includes a stop in Rome, Georgia. The study took years to complete, but found that the I-75 route would be the fastest and most cost-effective to build at $8.76 million. The route would get passengers from city to city in just under 90 minutes at speeds up to 180 mph, or 30 minutes faster than driving without traffic.Capital costs for all the routes range from $8.7 billion to $10.4 billion, according to an October newsletter from the Georgia Department of Transportation. Officials expect that the new HSR line will help meet the growing population between the two cities, which has strained I-75’s capacity. Currently, congestion on I-75 is expected to be above capacity by 2030.

End of the Year Donations for a Connected America

As we enter the last few weeks of 2016, we have been looking back at NARP’s accomplishments this past year. The big programs that stand out are Gulf Coast Rail Restoration, engaging the Surface Transportation Board’s ruling on On Time Performance, and ramping up the grassroots efforts for a Daily Cardinal.

Needless to say, we have been busy! But we cannot accomplish these goals and many others around the US and take them to the finish line without your continued support. NARP wants to make sure that your legacy of “A Connected America” becomes reality.

You can help by making your year-end donation today! It’s easy to do – just log on to your NARP Account and click “Get Involved” then “Donate.”

Does your company match donations? If you’re not sure, check with your Human Resources Department. Once you make your donation, all you have to do is fill out a form and NARP will receive matching funds from 2-4 times your donation amount depending on your company’s policy.

You can also make the ultimate symbolic donation to NARP: consider donating your old car, RV, or boat! It’s easy and a great way to give! Just go to www.narprail.org/vehicle. All the information you need is right there.

Thank you for your support!

Amtrak’s long-awaited CAF-built Viewliner II Dining Cars and Sleepers are one step closer to seeing revenue service. The first diner – #68001, the “Annapolis” – shipped from CAF’s Elmira, N.Y., plant on Tuesday and was moved to Hialeah, Fla., on the southbound Meteor the following day. Given the many issues brought up on previous inspections of the new design, Amtrak plans to take an extended period of time to test the car and be sure CAF has resolved any lingering issues. However, Amtrak management tells NARP they’re confident the problems are behind them. Sometime after the first of the year CAF will begin rolling out cars at a rate of two or three per month, Amtrak tells us, with all 25 diners delivered in the first half of 2017. The new Viewliner sleepers are next and Amtrak expects to get a final schedule for the production rollout of these cars within days.

Commuters in Philadelphia, whether they take trains or buses to travel, are feeling the effects of a strike by transit employees for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) which started November 1st and has now entered its 4th day. The strike between SEPTA and the Transit Workers Union 234 has forced commuters to improvise on how they get around the city, or in and out of the city for that matter. On a daily basis, SEPTA buses and trains carry approximately 800,000 people, but with services available people have turned to walking, driving, and even bikes. As a result, Philadelphia streets, highways and parking lots have been packed with cars. While some people have experienced congestion on the roads, other commuters have turned to Indego, the city’s bike-share program, which saw an increase of 1,100 rides on day two of the strike.

As Philadelphians make their way in the city without their regular public transit services, SEPTA and the union are negotiating several issues, including pensions, healthcare and salaries. Both SEPTA and union representatives have stated that they are open to talks, but that each party has walked away from the table. In preparation for the strike however, SEPTA issued a plan that would provide service through extra Regional Rail trains, but only covers a small portion of the Philadelphia area.

Should the strike last into next week, state and federal officials have raised concern that the lack of transit services could limit vote turnout on November 8th. Philadelphia city council president Darrell Clarke noted that the city has “always had difficulty, on a good day, to be able to have enough support to move people to polling places. So if there is not public transport we will clearly have a problem." If an agreement is not reached by next week, SEPTA has proposed requesting an injunction from a US District Court to get union employees back to work by the time the polls open on Tuesday, November 8th.

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; Missouri; Nebraska; Nevada; 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.

With Washington, D.C.’s Metro system facing continual financial, management and maintenance issues for its network, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans encouraged the idea that the federal government should take control of the agency. Though Congress is unlikely to support this takeover as it would entail additional federal funding, the proposal did receive positive support from local political leaders, including D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). Federal lawmakers left the possibility of a takeover on the table, but most don’t consider it an option. This was emphasized by Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on transportation and public assets, who noted that Metro would “absolutely not” get any operating funds from Congress and that “local governments can certainly help.” Currently, Metro has seen a six percent decline in ridership following the implementation of “SafeTrack,” the agency’s heightened maintenance program, which has led to fewer frequencies and longer wait times. As the agency struggles financially and ridership dropping, it’s estimated that Metro could experience a financial debt of $1.1 billion by 2020.

In addition to commuters, Metro officials and the U.S. Congress, President Obama also wants Metro to get up and running effectively as soon as possible. Obama noted that he and his family plan to remain in D.C. after he leaves the White House in January, and wouldn’t mind taking the Metro as a customer. In regards to the President’s view on Metro, White House spokesman Eric Schultz stated, “The President believes that a well-functioning transportation infrastructure is important for the capital region. There's no question we need real solutions here. This is a transit system that needs to get its house in order, but it doesn't help that Congress has stalled funding for what has traditionally been a bipartisan priority."

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) pressed Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg this week to re-examine how FRA grants waivers to PTC installation requirements in the wake of the fatal NJ Transit incident at the Hoboken station in September. Congress in 2008 specified that PTC was only required on mainlines, and left it to FRA to determine whether terminal areas fell under that umbrella. Recognizing the mismatch between technology imperatives and available funding, FRA granted NJ Transit a waiver with the requirement that speeds nonetheless be limited in the terminal area. Blumenthal wrote to Feinberg this week that the Hoboken incident shows “this reasoning warrants re-examination.” NJ Transit was among the agencies that have made the least amount of progress on PTC anywhere in the U.S. FRA’s response to Blumenthal’s letter made it clear that freeing more funds for strapped commuter systems is the key to improving PTC compliance: “Many commuter railroads continue to struggle to meet Congress’ original PTC requirement due to a lack of funding,” FRA’s Matthew Lehner wrote in reply. “As Congress completes legislation that funds the government in the coming weeks, we hope that it funds the President’s $1.25 billion request to help commuter railroads implement PTC.”

With NJ Transit still in the spotlight following the Hoboken accident in September, new evidence is coming forward that the agency’s system and equipment are underfunded and regularly experience delays and breakdowns. Most recently, data compiled from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) revealed that NJ Transit has experienced more breakdowns with trains in 2015 than any other passenger railroad in the country. For that year, NJ Transit had 540 instances of mechanical breakdowns that did not allow a train to complete a trip or start a new one. Sitting in second was the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority with a 356 mechanical failures, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation's commuter rail service was third with 158 breakdowns. Additionally, FTA's data showed that NJ Transit trains were third in miles trains traveled for the same year - 63 million total miles. Only Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road fleets traveled more miles.

Save These Dates!

Spring 2017 Advocacy Summit & Meeting - Washington, DC

  • Sunday, April 23 to Wednesday, April 26, 2017

  • NARP’s ‘Action Day On The Hill’ & Congressional Reception – Tuesday, April 25, 2017

  • Host Hotel: Sheraton Silver Spring (MD)

NARP’s 50th Anniversary Celebration – Chicago, IL

  • Thursday, November 2 to Sunday, November 5, 2017

  • Four days packed with an exciting array of presentations, speakers, exhibits, tours, and events

  • Celebrating NARP’s accomplishments over the past 50 years and looking ahead to the future of passenger rail in the United States

  • Host Hotel: Millennium Knickerbocker

After several months of research and feasibility studies, transit officials in New York City released a report on where and how the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar might operate in the city. The report highlights several different routes in which the BQX could take, and proposed routes look closely at proximity to subway transfers, width of roads, and traffic patterns on streets. Options included a route down Atlantic Avenue or Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn, one down Columbia Street in Red Hook and Cobble Hill, and several options for Astoria and Long Island City. The report also notes that the 16-mile streetcar would have about 30 stops, and during peak hours it would run every five to 10 minutes. City officials will now have to meet with Brooklyn and Queens community boards to discuss the proposed routes. Once approved, an environmental review process could begin next year, with groundbreaking taking place 2019 for the $2.5 billion project.

A light-rail project in Miami Beach will see its size and cost cut back. The project was originally slated to run $360 million, but funding, costs, logistics and community pushback have caused the city’s management to reconsider the project’s scope. Currently, the new plans call for construction to cost approximately $244 million, and the saving in costs comes from reducing a full loop around South Beach to a track that would run along Fifth Street and up Washington Avenue to Miami Beach Senior High School. Despite the new plan for the project, funding is still an issue. City officials hope that the light-rail line will get help from the state and county to cover construction costs.

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.

Bracing for the traditional Thanksgiving crush, Amtrak is adding trains and seats during the holiday week in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast. Riders will see extra trains and added capacity on Acela Express and Northeast Regional services in the Northeast Corridor, with additional frequencies on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 22 and 23) plus the Sunday after the holiday, on Nov. 27. Amtrak also plans to lease equipment from commuter “partners” to run what the railroad is calling “Holiday Extra” trains between New York City and Washington D.C. on Sunday, Nov. 27. Amtrak is adding extra trains between Chicago and downstate Illinois and Michigan, and boosting frequencies in California, Oregon and Washington state. Riders will see more capacity on the Capitol Corridor (Auburn-San Jose) and San Joaquins (Oakland/Sacramento – Bakersfield), as well as additional seating on Pacific Surfliner trains between Los Angeles and San Diego, with one additional round trip operating between Los Angeles-San Diego during the busiest travel days. Unusually, you’ll need reservations on the Surfliner during the holiday peak. In the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak is adding two round trips between Seattle and Portland on the Cascades service.

As a three-week extension was set to expire, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) granted Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) a new 90-day waiver extension to continue running trains to the airport as the agency works to fix crossing gates. The agency has been working to correct crossing that have been coming down too early or staying down too long on the A line, which runs from Denver Union Station to the airport. The new extension, which runs to February 4, 2017, also allows RTD to keep operating its new B Line to Westminster, which uses the same crossing-gate technology as the A Line at one crossing. Without the extension, RTD would have had to shuttle passengers by bus to their destinations. Currently, flaggers have been placed at each crossing to monitor and control traffic in case gates stay down too long.

Amtrak announced this week that it has installed upgraded technology on all 20 Acela trainsets which will provide vastly improved on board wi-fi service. Amtrak states that bandwidth capabilities have been greatly increased, with speeds up to six times faster. This is the first step towards providing improved wi-fi to all Northeast Corridor riders and plans are underway to equip the Amfleet One cars with the upgraded technology over the next two years. In addition, Amtrak continues to progress the construction of a dedicated trackside wireless network along the Corridor.

In South Carolina, government officials on the Central Midlands Council are looking closely at developing a multimodal transit hub that would include not only trains, but also buses, light-rail, walkways, bike trails and more. The Regional Intermodal Transportation Center would be located in Columbia, and is expected to take a minimum of five years to complete. Currently, the Council is preparing a selection study to determine the specific location of the transit hub. The study is a first step in the process set out by the Federal Transit Administration for advancing public transportation facility projects.

Washington Union Station in DC is undergoing big changes in its near future, and you can be part of the process! Large expansions of the passenger concourse, as well as moves to parking, taxi, bike, and retail amenities are all being planned and considered. Have a look at the materials presented to the public during the open house on October 19th, and submit your comments as passengers before the deadline on November 9th!

Several cities across the country had notable celebrations and experienced new rail service for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.

  • In Connecticut, state officials held a ribbon cutting for the opening of a new platform at the Branford station on Shore Line East. Trains, which run between New Haven and New London, will begin using the platform on November 5th.

  • This past weekend, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley welcomed its first Amtrak train since the 1980s. The train was Amtrak’s special fall excursion run which operated from New York’s Penn Station through the Lehigh Valley on route to Harrisburg, PA, then returning though Lancaster & Philadelphia. The train used existing Norfolk Southern freight tracks through the scenic Pennsylvania countryside.

  • In Rhode Island, Director Peter Alviti of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation announced a new $40 million passenger rail station for Pawtucket and Central Falls. The state has a preliminary design, and expects to be able to put out a bid for design in December. Officials expect construction to start in the spring of 2017 with completion by 2020.

  • On Thursday, November 17 at 2:00 p.m., a Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony will be held for the Arcadia Valley Historic Platform in Missouri. A ceremonial Texas Eagle Amtrak train will arrive at approximately 10:30 p.m. Interested parties can RSVP at [email protected].

  • Cincinnati’s temporary Amtrak Station at Union Terminal will be up and running next month. Parking for passengers will be available on Kenner Street, while access to the boarding platform is through the temporary structure, which will lead to the current Amtrak platform. Arrangements will be made to assist handicapped passengers up the ramp.

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.