Archive for March, 2015

INDOT, FRA Reportedly Reach Agreement

March 16, 2015

Trains magazine columnist Fred Frailey reported that the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration have reached an agreement that will end the standoff over whether the state should be treated as a “railroad” that must ensure adherence to federal passenger safety standards.

Frailey wrote that the two sides have agreed to create a memorandum of understanding that will spell out each party’s role in safely operating the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

The FRA wants an impermeable chain of responsibility for its rail-safety regulations — someone to ultimately answer for all the bits and pieces of a train’s operation. INDOT doesn’t want to be ruled to be a railroad.

The dispute has threatened to derail the quad-weekly Hoosier State, which INDOT and several communities served by the train have been funding since Oct. 1, 2013.

The Hoosier State operates on days that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate and has intermediate stops in Indiana at Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer.

News reports have indicated that Amtrak will continue to provide operating personnel for the Hoosier State, but Iowa Pacific Holdings will provide equipment and marketing support.

INDOT had earlier said the Hoosier State would makes its last trips on April 1, then extended that to April 30, saying that the FRA would review its regulations and how they affect the state.

Ex-MKE Road Cars to Operate on Empire Builder

March 15, 2015

Two former Milwaukee Road passenger cars will operate in May in a charter trip sponsored by Friends of the 261 on the rear of an Amtrak train

The “Windy City Express” from St. Paul to Chicago will depart St. Paul, Minn., on May 21 on the eastbound Empire Builder en route to Chicago.

The consist will include former Milwaukee Road Skytop parlor lounge observation Cedar Rapids, Milwaukee Road Super Dome No. 53, and ex-Union Pacific baggage car No. 2450.

All three cars are painted in Milwaukee Road’s original orange and maroon passenger car colors.

It will be the first trip to Chicago for the Cedar Rapids since it was restored in 2014 to its as-built appearance.

The equipment will return to St. Paul on May 24, giving passengers the opportunity to ride the Milwaukee Road cars on their original route.

Both the Skytop and Super Dome were part of the consist of the Twin Cities Hiawathas, which operated between Chicago and Minneapolis.

Restoration work of the Cedar Rapids included new wood, carpeting, reupholstered seats, and new linoleum to bring the car back to its original appearance. The car was built in 1948 by the Milwaukee Road at its Milwaukee Shops.

Round trip tickets are $359 with one-way fares available at $189. The group, which operates Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, is also offering ticket/hotel options available. Fares include food and drinks on the train. For more information go to www.261.com.

Hoosier State to Continue Through April 30

March 14, 2015

The beleaguered Hoosier State, the quad-weekly Amtrak train between Chicago and Indianapolis, has survived yet another brush with the grim reaper for another 30 days.

The Indiana Department of Transportation said on Friday that the train will continue operating through April 30 while the Federal Railroad Administration reviews a policy that it had said it would impose on Indiana that would have made the state a “railroad.”

A week earlier, INDOT Commission Karl Browning had issued a news release saying the Hoosier State would make its last trips on April 1. He cited an FRA policy that an entity funding rail passenger service would be responsible for the FRA passenger safety standards.

INDOT said that acting FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg told Browning during a telephone call that her agency would reconsider that policy.

“It is not clear that the FRA will change its mind,” Browning says. “Because Ms. Feinberg committed to reviewing this, we want to give the FRA another opportunity to consider the problems Indiana has been airing.”

INDOT doesn’t own any tracks or railroad equipment and Browning said the FRA’s position would increase costs and paperwork for INDOT.

The department along with most of the communities served by the train have funded it during the past year. INDOT had been negotiating with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings on a long-term contract to operate the train.

In the meantime, Indiana U.S. Sen. Dan Coats has written to the FRA asking it to reconsider its position that if INDOT continues to fund the Hoosier State that that would make it a “railroad.”

Coats wrote that “INDOT does not fit any common-sense definition of a ‘railroad,’ so the communities along the HSL are rightly puzzled by the FRA’s decision.”

INDOT was close to a deal in which Amtrak would operate the trains and Iowa Pacific would supply the cars. But INDOT officials said if the state has to act as the railroad, it would have to carry expensive liability insurance and hire new staff.

“INDOT is not in a position to assume either the additional liability or the regulatory burdens that a designation of ‘railroad carrier’ would impose,” Coats wrote.

In 2008, Congress voted to end funding for Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles. That left states to fund intercity rail on their own.

The FRA has said that states that oversee rail passenger service are required to act as rail carriers to ensure that safety standards are followed.

Another public official who has also assailed the FRA position is State Rep. Randy Truitt of West Lafayette, who represents several portions of Tippecanoe County.

“The Hoosier State Line provides a vital service for Hoosiers in the Greater Lafayette area and across Indiana. I was disheartened to learn about the new rules imposed by the Federal Railway Administration that could potentially end this service in April, which would be devastating to our local economy,” Truitt said in a statement.

Truitt has been an active supporter of the Hoosier State and has sponsored House Bill 1217, which would appropriate $3 million annually to fund the train.

Truitt hopes that INDOT, by working with the Federal Railway Administration, will eventually be able to find a solution that allows the Hoosier State to continue running.

“The preservation of Indiana’s transportation infrastructure is vital to economic growth, and I will continue to work with state and local leaders as well as INDOT to find ways to keep the Hoosier State Line functioning,” Truitt said.

The Hoosier State makes intermediate stops in Indiana in Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer. The route is served by the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal on days that the Hoosier State does not operate.

Amtrak Names Chicago Control Center for Szabo

March 12, 2015

Amtrak has named its Chicago Operations Center after former Federal Railroad Administration head Joseph C. Szabo. The renaming occurred at a ceremony held on March 10.

The Szabo Chicago Control Center oversees operations of switches and signals used by Amtrak intercity and Metra regional trains moving through Chicago Union Station along with Amtrak lines in Michigan, Indiana, and Louisiana,

The center was named for Szabo, “in recognition of Szabo’s contributions to the advancement of intercity passenger rail travel and railroad safety in the United States.”

Szabo served as head of the FRA for six years in the Obama administration. That position gave him a seat on the Amtrak Board of Directors.

A resolution adopted by the Amtrak Board cited Szabo’s support for the national intercity passenger rail system.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman praised the “essential counsel, direction, and perspective” that Szabo provided to the Amtrak board and staff.

“In recognition of Joe’s contributions — past and those yet to come — to Amtrak, to the railroad industry, and to the Chicago metro area, we could think of no more appropriate place to honor him than our Chicago Control Center,” Boardman said at the dedication ceremony.

“I am deeply touched by the Amtrak Board’s recognition,” Szabo said. “Chicago is my home and where I began my railroad career. Having worked with and represented the railroad workforce in Illinois, it is very special to be associated with the facility that dispatches train operations in and out of Union Station — it’s where the work gets done.”

INDOT Open to Continued Operation of Hoosier State

March 12, 2015

The Hoosier State may not be doomed after all. An Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman told Trains magazine that the state would consider continuing its support of the Chicago-Indianapolis train provided that Indiana gets relief from a Federal Railroad Administration decree that in supporting the train the state is a new railroad.

“The state would consider another short-term extension of the existing service if the FRA changed its position,” INDOT spokesman Will Winfield told the magazine. “The state and local communities are working together to get the maximum value for the taxpayer dollars being invested.” INDOT had been negotiating with Amtrak to continue operating the train and with Iowa Pacific Holdings to provide equipment and marketing support.

Then last week INDOT said that Hoosier State would makes its last trips on April 1, citing what INDOT termed the imposition of “burdensome” FRA regulations.

INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning has written to Federal DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx to protest the FRA regulations.

In his letter, Browing said the insistence by the FRA that INDOT serve as the principal entity of record for the purposes of ensuring compliance with federal railroad safety requirements had prompted Indiana’s termination notice for the quad-weekly Hoosier State.

“INDOT cannot agree to become a railroad or a railroad carrier as that would require a significantly higher commitment of resources, the assumption of additional liability, and uncertainty over employment practices,” Browning wrote.

Trains noted that Foxx was mayor of Charlotte, N.C., when the FRA tried to impose similar regulations on the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which funds Amtrak service between Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C. After North Carolina threatened to sue, the FRA backed off.

“We are experiencing the same regulatory impediments that the North Carolina Department of Transportation faced in 2008 in its discussions with the FRA,” Browning wrote to Foxx. “As you may recall, the FRA insisted that NCDOT serve as the railroad carrier. That matter was ultimately resolved when NCDOT contested that FRA determination.”

Some observers have described the FRA’s latest ploy to make Indiana a “railroad” because it funds Amtrak service as the opening act in decreeing that all states that fund rail passenger service are “railroads.”

In response to INDOT’s Hoosier State termination notice, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman issued a statement saying that continued operation of the Hoosier State can be done on a month by month basis.

Wingfield told Trains that Amtrak, FRA, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials made an initial inspection of Iowa Pacific equipment on Jan. 27 in Chicago with additional inspections scheduled this month.

Indiana’s fight with the FRA has also begun to attract support from officials with other agencies that fund rail passenger service. Among them is Patricia Quinn, chair of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition Inc., and Executive Director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority,  sponsors Amtrak’s Downeaster between Boston and Maine

“It is a sad day when the federal agency which administers federal funding for Amtrak, and who has played such a critical role in providing grants to states to develop and improve intercity passenger rail services, also is determined to require states and intercity service sponsors who contract with Amtrak to become railroads,” Quinn said in a statement. “We trust that this conflict between federal and state governments can be worked out.”

 

Public Transit Use Rose to 58-Year High in 2014

March 10, 2015

The 10.8 billion trips taken on public transit in 2014 was the highest ridership level in 58 years, the American Public Transportation Association said on Monday. The figures included ridership on rail systems.

“Some public transit systems experienced all-time record high ridership last year,” said APTA Chair Phillip Washington. “This record ridership didn’t just happen in large cities. It also happened in small and medium size communities.”

APTA said that the gains came despite a decline of the price of gasoline of 42.9 cents in the fourth quarter.

“Despite the steep decline in gas prices at the end of last year, public transit ridership increased. This shows that once people start riding public transit, they discover that there are additional benefits besides saving money,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

“People are changing their travel behavior and want more travel options,” Melaniphy said. “In the past people had a binary choice. You either took public transit, most likely a bus, or you drove a car. Now there are multiple options with subways, light rail, streetcars, commuter trains, buses, ferries, cars, and shared use vehicles.”

APTA said that from 1995 to 2014, public transit ridership increased by 39 percent, almost double the population growth, which was up 21 percent. The estimated growth of vehicle miles traveled was 25 percent.

Light rail (modern light rail, streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys) ridership increased 3.6 percent in 2014, with 16 out of 28 public transit systems reporting increases.

Heavy rail (subways and elevated trains) ridership increased by 3.3 percent with eight out of 15 public transit systems reported increases.

Overall regional rail (termed by APTA as “commuter rail”) ridership rose 2.9 percent in 2014, as 22 out of 28 public transit systems recorded gains.

Bus ridership decreased nationally by 1.1 percent. However, in small and medium size population groups, bus ridership saw percentage increases of 2.0 and 0.5, respectively.

Demand (paratransit) ridership increased in 2014 by 0.2 percent while trolleybus ridership declined by 2.8 percent.

U.S. Supreme Court Sides With Amtrak in Case

March 10, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with Amtrak in a dispute with its host railroads over on-time standards.

The court unanimously found that Amtrak is a government entity and it directed the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to reconsider the case in light of the high court’s ruling.

That court had ruled in a case brought by the Association of American Railroads that Amtrak was a private company and therefore could not participate in setting standards with the FRA in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008’s Section 207, which sets measurable thresholds of on-time performance, because one private entity (Amtrak), would be regulating others (host railroads).

The district court had also expressed reservations about the constitutionality of Amtrak’s structure.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited a 1995 Supreme Court case in which Amtrak had tried to argue it was private, but lost.

In the AAR case, Kennedy wrote, “The political branches created Amtrak, control its Board, define its mission, specify many of its day-to-day operations, have imposed transparency and accountability mechanisms, and for all practical purposes set and supervise its annual budget.”

Kennedy also said the District Court will still need to deal with the issue of whether the delegation of powers to Amtrak violates the Due Process or Appointments clauses of the Constitution.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr., wrote separate concurring opinions in which each expressed reservations about Amtrak’s structure.

Alito argued that Section 207’s arbitration provision “is fair game for challenge,” because if a private arbitrator were chosen to decide a dispute over metrics between the FRA and Amtrak (which didn’t happen), that person would be “making law without supervision” and that would be illegal.

Alito also said that since Amtrak’s president is appointed by the board of directors but not the President of the United States, “it does not necessarily follow that the present structure of Amtrak is consistent with the Constitution.”

INDOT May Sue FRA over ‘New Railroad’ Ruling

March 7, 2015

Despite announcing that Amtrak’s Hoosier State would make its final trips on April 1, the Indiana Department of Transportation is saying that it hasn’t given up on the train.

INDOT may take the Federal Railroad Administration to court to prevent it from enforcing demands that the state act as a “new start” railroad because it funds the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

INDOT has been negotiating with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings to operate the service. Those entities plus CSX, over whose tracks the Hoosier State operates for much of its route, are railroads certified by the FRA and perform the functions that the FRA is seeking to force INDOT to perform.

“We’re not going to close off any options (for continuing the service), INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning told Trains magazine. But “the notion of the state having to become a railroad (to operate the Hoosier State) is insane.” The state’s correspondence is available online at www.in.gov/indot.

In a statement, the FRA said that is merely seeking to ensure the safety of passengers.

“As states assume a more active role in the management of these services, including in some instances contracting with multiple service providers, they must more closely ensure their services are safe for the passengers, train crews, and communities in which they serve,” the FRA said in the statement. “States ultimately have oversight responsibility for their contractors and service providers. We are fully supportive of states finding the best, most cost-effective way to safely deliver their intercity passenger rail services and will continue to work with INDOT to keep the Hoosier[State] service running safely.”

The FRA statement noted that state-supported trains carry nearly half of Amtrak’s 31 million passengers.

Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, told Trains that if the Chicago-Indianapolis service does continue it will use former Santa Fe dome car Summit View, providing sit-down meals in Indiana’s version of business class, along with two lightweight coaches.

The locomotives tentatively chosen for the service are three GP40FH-2s, which formerly ran on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor for New Jersey Transit.

INDOT said that the FRA has “partially inspected” the equipment and another inspection is scheduled.

“Our goal is to handle more people, selling the fact that you can increase ridership with better service. Because business class passengers will pay more for the service, we can increase the Hoosier State’s financial performance,” Ellis said. “We hope the FRA issue can be resolved to INDOT’s satisfaction.”

In a related development, the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance reported that legislation in the Indiana legislature designed to ensure funding for the Hoosier State has been attracting support.

“All those interested in seeing a modern passenger rail system in our state are smiling a bit more, after learning that the Indiana House of Representatives has included an annual appropriation, which can be used for the Hoosier State, in House Bill 1001, the budget bill,” the Alliance wrote in its newsletter.

House Bill 1001 will now be considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“If this committee holds to form, it will invite budget presentations from various state agencies, including the Indiana Department of Transportation, before it adopts its own version of the budget,” said Tim Maloney, a board member of the Alliance.

Hoosier State Will Make Final Trips on April 1

March 6, 2015

Faced with a decree from the Federal Railroad Administration that supporting an Amtrak train makes the state a railroad, the Indiana Department of Transportation has decided to get out of the passenger train business.

The department said Friday that it will end its support of the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State and the train will be discontinued. The last day of operation will be Wednesday, April 1.

Discontinuance of the Hoosier State will leave only the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal left on the route.

INDOT said in a news release that the FRA is using Indiana as a test of its policy that an entity involved with a rail operation is a railroad despite the fact that it owns no tracks or passenger equipment.

“Passenger rail providers and the host railroads are already required to comply with FRA rules,” INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning says. “Requiring a redundant layer of bureaucracy would not create improvements in passenger rail service or safety, it would only increase taxpayer costs.”

INDOT had been working with Amtrak and at least two private service providers during the past year to save the Hoosier State service.

The news release said the agency had been making progress in negotiating long-term agreements with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings.

Amtrak would have served as the primary operator of the train and worked with the host railroads as well as provided train and engine crews, and managed reservation and ticketing.

Iowa Pacific would have provided the train equipment, train maintenance, on-board services and marketing.

INDOT said it was modeling its vision for the Hoosier State after Amtrak’s Piedmont service, which operates between Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation owns the track over which the Piedmont operates and contracted with Amtrak and private contractors.

NCDOT sued the FRA in 2008 when it attempted to place the same impediments on the Piedmont service.

INDOT said it was unsuccessful in convincing the FRA to formally reconsider its decision. Copies of INDOT’s correspondence with FRA and letter of intent with Iowa Pacific are available at http://www.in.gov/indot/3200.htm.

Until fall 2013, the Hoosier State had been part of Amtrak’s basic route network. However, Congress voted in 2008 to end federal funding for certain Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles.

Local governments in most communities served by the Hoosier State in tandem with INDOT agreed to fund the Hoosier State for a year.

That agreement was later extended until April to give the parties time to negotiate a longer-term contract.

Six years later, the FRA is developing rules governing states that now support the cost of passenger rail services.

Under new rules that the FRA sought to test with Indiana, all states that support passenger rail services would be considered railroad carriers.

Calling this a “burdensome interpretation,” INDOT said it will exposes states to significant increases in cost, paperwork and liability, including:

• Liability for the actions of passenger rail providers up to $200 million for each occurrence of injury, death or property damage,

• Hiring new staff to monitor plans and programs in compliance with federal rules, and

• Interpretation that state employees are rail employees, subject to retirement and employer liability rules and limits.

In Indiana, the Hoosier State as well as the Cardinal serve Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer. The Cardinal also serves Connorsville, Ind.