Happening Now

Hotline #992

December 2, 2016

Long-Awaited Station Opens in Niagara Falls; FRA Provides Update on PTC Implementation; Sources Confirm Gateway Project Board; Cuomo Announces $30M Investment in Alstom

After nearly two decades of planning and construction, the International Train Station and Intermodal Transportation Center in Niagara Falls, NY will enter service on Tuesday, December 7, 2016. The first train to use the new facility will be Amtrak’s #64, the eastbound Maple Leaf, on route from Toronto to New York City. While no official opening ceremony is currently scheduled, Niagara Falls, NY Mayor, Paul Dyster, has stated that the city is working on such an event. While some minor work still needs to be completed on the $42 million station complex, the City’s Senior Planner, Thomas DeSantis, said Amtrak and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency "were in agreement" they could meet the Tuesday opening deadline.

The new station complex was specifically designed to accommodate the processing of U.S. bound cross-border travelers, who will all now exit the train with their luggage onto a high-level platform and then enter the secure processing area via ramped interior walkways. Following clearance, international travelers will wait in the Amtrak area of the new station for the train to be inspected & cleared, before joining with new passengers who are heading east, for reboarding. It is hoped that the current 2-hour eastbound inspection dwell time can be reduced in the future.

The new station complex is located adjacent to the Whirlpool Bridge over the Niagara River and is closer to the actual Niagara Falls tourist area (~2 miles) than the previous station which was located on the eastern fringe of the city in an industrial area. In addition to the Maple Leaf, Niagara Falls is served by two daily Empire Corridor trains.

In a review of railroads and Positive Train Control (PTC), the Federal Railroad Administration revealed that the implementation process has been uneven throughout the country. Data for the third quarter of 2016 showed that passenger railroads have implemented the life-saving technology on 23 percent of their tracks, up from 22 percent in the second quarter of 2016. In addition, freight railroads have increased implementation from nine percent last quarter, to 12 percent. The FRA noted that “the measurable progress made by passenger railroads has been predominantly on the West Coast, while East Coast railroads, other than SEPTA and Amtrak, have remained relatively stagnant.”

For example, the FRA’s data shows that NJ Transit has not updated any of its trains with the technology that may have been able to remotely stop the commuter train that crashed in Hoboken in September. Despite the FRA’s findings, several passenger and freight railroads have come forth to state that they have been working diligently on PTC. In response to the FRA finding that MTA has only three percent of its Long Island Railroad trains using PTC and none on its Metro-North trains, MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast stated “Metro North and LIRR have aggressively and diligently moved forward to fully implement PTC on both railroads before the Congressionally-mandated deadline of 2018.”

Chao Nominated as Transportation Secretary; Rail Passengers Look to Partner on Building A Connected America

Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao will be nominated to serve as Secretary of Transportation, President-elect Donald Trump's transition team announced today. The National Association of Railroad Passengers will work with the incoming administration to ensure that we build a national transportation network that gives travel choices to urban and rural communities alike, and gives local officials flexibility in allocating limited resources to meet critical transit objectives.

Secretary Chao headed the Labor Department during President George W. Bush’s administration, and also served as deputy secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush. During a 2002 funding crisis, when Amtrak CEO David Gunn warned that an immediate infusion of federal funding was needed to prevent a total shutdown of the network, a coalition of labor representatives had emergency meetings with President Bush, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, and Labor Secretary Chao. NARP joined with the coalition—which included the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO—and was able to persuade the Bush Administration to join Congress in coming up with a funding solution to keep Amtrak operating.

“With decades serving in government, Secretary Chao will bring administrative experience to the rail and transit programs that have been enacted—with broad, bipartisan support—by the current Congress,” said Jim Mathews, NARP President & CEO. “Given her frontline experience with Amtrak in 2002, we have confidence she understands how important these trains are to the millions of people they serve, in both rural towns and big cities.”

NARP welcomed the bipartisan reaction that followed the announcement.

“I want to congratulate Secretary Chao on her nomination to lead the Transportation Department,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “[I hope she shares President-Elect Trump’s goal of a] major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits and without cutting other programs like health care and education.”

NARP will continue to work with all stakeholders to enact the rail and transit programs authorized by the most recent surface transportation act and ensure that passengers are represented in the promised infrastructure bill.

Important decisions were made this week regarding Amtrak’s Gateway project in New York and New Jersey. Notably, the board that will governor the $24 billion rail infrastructure project has been selected, and includes U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia. As part of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, the board will oversee the development and progress of the Gateway project, which will include the construction of a new train tunnel and the repair of the existing tunnel between New York and New Jersey. Once the project begins and the tunnel is closed, tens of thousands of NJ Transit rail commuters and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor passengers will be affected. Also serving on the corporation’s board will be two Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board members: Vice Chairman Steven Cohen and Richard Bagger, respectively. The corporation is led by director John Porcari, an executive at the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

It was only a couple months ago that Amtrak and Alstom agreed to a $2.5 billion contract for new high-speed trains - a deal that will bring economic growth to Hornell, NY. Now, in addition to that deal, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new $30 million investment by the state to support expansion and modifications at Alstom’s train facility. Cuomo noted that the investment is an example of the administration’s commitment to Upstate New York and providing communities with economic support through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. According to state officials, Alstom has committed to create at least 193 new jobs over the next five years and retain 1,025 existing jobs in Hornell and West Henrietta, while investing more than $66 million in the renovation project.

Following the hacking of its computer system that took ticket-vending machines offline, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency provided free rides to passengers on its light-rail system. The hacker’s attack, known as ransomware, disrupted 900 of the agency’s workstations and prevented employees from accessing email and the transit authority’s payroll system. The hack did not impact transit service, nor was customer information compromised, but as a precaution, SFMTA took their ticket machines offline. Experts note that ransomware is a growing problem, in which software is installed on computers after someone inside an organization clicks on a malicious email message. Hackers then demand between $500 and several thousand dollars in the bitcoin digital currency to unencrypt the data.

End of the Year Donations Support 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 hard work for “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!

Since 2011, NJ Transit has conducted more than 20 customer surveys to determine what areas the agency can improve upon. And since 2011, customers have voiced several of the same issues over and over again regarding NJ Transit’s commuter trains, buses, and light rail trains. Overall, fares is the top issue that customers say needs to be improved, and Len Resto, New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers president, is not surprised. Resto stated that "Of course riders picked fares as the Number 1 issue, because NJ Transit has the highest fares in the nation and people believe they are overpaying for the service they're getting." Regarding NJ Transit’s light rail - riders said the same four issues have needed improvement since the 2011 survey: fares, safety, security, and a place to sit down. One notable result of the survey was the fact that this was the first survey ever that mechanical reliability of trains was not on the list. This happened despite federal reports and NJ Transit's own data that said trains were breaking down more often than in past years.

One can imagine that after 91 years of being open and hosting millions of people riding passenger trains in and out of Chicago, that Chicago Union Station could use some updating and renovation. Most recently, the station celebrated the reopening of the former Women's Lounge that has been turned into a new event space (named The Burlington Room), but The Chicago Tribune highlights that this is just “one small step on the long and painfully slow road of bringing the 91-year-old station into the 21st century.” Overall, renovation of the station could face a challenging future if Amtrak, the station’s owner, wants to move forward with development plans. For example, concerns have been raised about federal funding for new renovations, as officials are unsure what will happen once President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Nevertheless, Amtrak has been moving forward with its efforts to revitalize Union Station. Efforts include the expansion of the Metropolitan Lounge for first-class passengers into the headhouse which will allow Amtrak to carve out room in the concourse to widen corridors, sightlines can be opened up, and street-level entrances can be made more spacious. In addition, Amtrak wants to provide better ventilation and wider passenger platforms, which would be done through getting rid of baggage platforms.

The U.S. Department of Transportation provided the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a $1.4 million grant to study the design and development of high-speed rail projects. Through the grant, UNLV will be able to partner with the University of Delaware and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on a rail infrastructure study. Overall, the new partnership, known as the University Transportation Centers program, will see students studying and understanding how rail systems can operate more efficiently and safely throughout the U.S. The announcement of the grant was made by U.S. Sen Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, and Reid noted that “Improving transportation infrastructure is essential to boosting our economy, protecting the environment, and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.” In addition, state officials in Nevada hope the new grant will increase opportunities for the state to receive a high-speed rail system after plans fell through between XpressWest and the Chinese company that was supposed to help finance the project.

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)

  • Room reservations will be available starting in early January 2017

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

If you own a pet and plan to travel between December 9, 2016 and March 31, 2017 on Amtrak, you now have an opportunity to travel with your pet for free. In a partnership to promote the release of The Secret Life of Pets from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Amtrak will let pets travel for free if tickets are purchased between December 6th and December 11th. The promotion also follows popularity Amtrak has seen letting pets travel on its trains, with the service first test in 2014 in Illinois. Since that time, Amtrak has expanded the program and the promotion will cover 40 Amtrak markets, including major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Miami, and San Francisco.

Light rail ridership for Sound Transit’s Link system hit new highs for the third quarter in 2016 with 5.6 million riders, or nearly 68,000 per day. This mark is up 71 percent from July through September of last year thanks to the new extensions of University of Washington and Angle Lake. Following the demand, as well as the voter approved 25-year rail-expansion program, the transit agency is moving quickly to acquire $2.9 billion in bond sales, federal grants, and credit. Through quick approval and acquisition of the funding, the agency hopes to be able to reduce any long-term interest rates on loans, as well as keeping the program, known as ST3, financially secure over the next 25 years. This is based on past experience when in 2008, the economic recession forced Sound Transit to postpone indefinitely an extension to Star Lake.

Significant progress is being made at Florida Brightline’s West Palm Beach train station, which will soon connect higher-speed rail riders to Miami. Overall, the station is 70 percent complete and according to Brightline officials, only the interior of the building and installation of track through the stations remains to be finished. With a deadline of summer 2017, Brightline has 150 construction workers finishing the project. As of now, it is expected that track installation for the West Palm Beach to Miami route will be completed next month, and locomotives and train cars will arrive by the end of the year for testing. Follow the link for a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the station.

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.

Significant progress has been made for the QLine in Detroit as M-1 Rail officials and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) held a celebration for the completion of construction on Woodward Avenue. With an opening date in spring 2017, city officials expect the 6.6 mile QLine to bring connectivity and economic development to areas throughout Detroit. The QLine is projected to generate $3 billion in development, involving 10,000 new housing units and 5 million square-feet of commercial space. The QLine streetcar will have 12 location stops on Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit through Midtown, New Center, and North End.

In a major effort to improve safety for passenger rail and buses, the Department of Transportation highlighted a new partnership between the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). For future FTA projects, the two agencies will utilize the Safety Management System (SMS), which will build upon the FTA’s current safety practices and allow for a better determination of risk and detection of problems earlier. Overall, the system will use FTA data to mitigate risks to transit safety in the U.S. SMS has been used in aviation safety for years by the FAA, but recently it has been tested in pilot projects with the Chicago Transit Authority and the Maryland Transit Administration. Acting Administrator for the FTA, Carolyn Flowers, notes that “Through these pilot programs, the FTA provides technical assistance to transit agencies on developing and operating an SMS, while transit agencies provide opportunities for the FTA to test the effectiveness of SMS implementation tools in diverse transit operating environments.”

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.