Archive for December, 2015

Federal Spending Bill Contains Rail-Related Items

December 22, 2015

A $1.1 trillion federal spending bill approved last week by Congress and President Barack Obama contains a number of railroad-related items, including a permanent extension of the transit commuter benefit, an increase in funding for the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, and funding of Amtrak and various transit-rail and port projects.

Also included in the bill was an extension to the 45G short line tax credit, funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program and increases in the New Starts funding.

The spending bill will keep federal agencies funded through the end of September 2016.

The American Public Transportation Association said the commuter benefit will rise from $130 to $250 and increase to $255 in calendar year 2016.

APTA has long advocated for a permanent extension of the transit commuter benefit. The new funding legislation increases the amount that an employer can offer to employees either as a tax-free fringe benefit or as a pre-tax option in order to pay for their transit commuter costs to and from work.

The public transportation advocacy group said that changes combined with a cost-of-living adjustment under an IRS code will equalize commuting costs between car commuters and transit commuters, marking an “end to the annual fight to restore parity to transit commuter tax benefits,” APTA said in a statement.

The spending bill increases the funding for the FTA by $870 million to $11.8 billion. FRA’s funding will increase by $52 million to $1.7 billion.

Of the money appropriated for the FTA, $9.34 billion will be allocated from the Mass Transit Account and $2.177 billion will be allocated to the New Starts Program.

The Railroad Track Maintenance Tax Credit, also known as the 45G short line tax credit, was extended to Jan. 1, 2017, allowing short line railroads created after 2005 to claim the credit.

An eighth round of TIGER grants received $500 million, the same amount that was awarded last October for the seventh round of TIGER funding.

Amtrak will be funded at $1.39 billion, but there is no allocation for high-speed rail.

The bill provides $350 million for Section 130 grade-crossing funds and $50 million for railroad safety grants split between the railroad safety infrastructure improvement grant program and railroad safety technology grants for positive train control implementation.

Texas Eagle Gets New Dallas-Fort Worth Route

December 19, 2015

The Texas Eagle has a new route between Dallas and Fort Worth.

The Chicago-San Antonio train now uses former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific tracks used by Trinity Rail Express commuter trains.

The new route “avoids the freight train operations that were challenging our trains every day on the previous routing,” said Mark Murphy, Amtrak senior vice president and general manager of the business line that includes the Eagle. “This route simplifies our movements through the Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center and will improve reliability for more than 100,000 Amtrak passengers who use our Fort Worth gateway every year.”

Amtrak said no current stations are being bypassed on the new routing. The former route of Nos. 21 and 22 used Union Pacific tracks.

It took five years of negotiations and $7.2 million dollars in federal funding to bring the new route to fruition. Much of the delay was due to contract issues, primarily regarding liability insurance.

Funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that was granted in 2009 was used to double-track a portion of the route in Tarrant County.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit board in December 2014 approved the agreement to allow the Eagle to TRE tracks.

Amtrak will pay a monthly fee to the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.
The tracks used by TRE were purchased in 1983 by the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth for $34 million from a Rock Island trustee.

Senate Confirms 2 for Amtrak Board

December 19, 2015

The Senate has confirmed the appointments of Tony Coscia and Derek Kan to the Amtrak board of directors.

Coscia is currently chairman of the Amtrak board and received another five-year term.

“I thank the administration and Senate for the nomination and confirmation to continue to help guide the future of America’s Railroad,” he said in a statement. “We have made significant progress during my five years on the board, and I look forward to working with the other board members, executive leadership and the employees to continue to grow ridership, increase operational efficiencies and improve the company’s financial position.”

Kan is new to the Amtrak board and is a California resident who is director of strategy at Genapsys. Previously, he served as a management consultant at Bain & Company and as an adviser at Elliott Management.

Coscia has served on the Amtrak board since June 2010. He is a partner at Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf LLP. Between 2003 and 2011, Coscia was chairman of the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Illinois Amtrak Ridership Fell 4% in FY 2015

December 17, 2015

Ridership on Amtrak trains and routes serving Illinois and funded by the state fell by 4 percent in the past federal fiscal year, which Amtrak said was due to more driving and service interruptions.

Amtrak carried nearly 1.3 million passengers in Illinois for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2015.

Most of the service disruptions occurred on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor where Amtrak, Union Pacific and the Illinois Department of Transportation have been working on a $1.8 billion high-speed rail project.

At various times, Amtrak’s Lincoln Service trains were canceled in favor of buses. The Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle detoured on those days on another UP route.

Amtrak has also cited weather-related delays and service suspensions for resulting in revenues and ridership being relatively flat during FY 2015.

“We had plenty of construction improvements,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in reference to the Illinois high-speed rail work of which the federal government is contributing $1.6 billion toward the goal of operating trains at 110 mph between Chicago and St. Louis.

Magliari said the buses have lower capacity and do not travel as fast as the trains.

Amtrak operates eight Lincoln Service trains plus the Texas Eagle in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

Ridership between Chicago and St. Louis was 682,296, a decline of 5 percent from the previous year.

Patronage fell 4 percent on the Chicago-Carbondale route to 358,578 while the Chicago-Quincy route carried 244,444 passengers for a decline of 2 percent.

Illinois funds four trains in the Carbondale and Quincy corridors. The Carbondale corridor is also served by the City of New Orleans which operates between Chicago and New Orleans.

Although the administration of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed cutting the amount of state support for Amtrak operations, the state still plans to carry out the final phase of the high-speed rail work in 2016.

IDOT’s Brian Williamsen said work in 2016 will include crossing improvements, station and siding construction, and added bridge and structure upgrades. Positive train control systems will also be installed.

Amtrak trains began operating at speeds of up to 110 mph between Pontiac and Dwight in 2012, but Williamsen said the focus now is on completion of track and network upgrades in 2017.

“We don’t have 110-mph projections to pass along at this time,” he said.

Magliari said Amtrak expects to take possession of new locomotives next year that will allow for 110-mph speeds, but it has not yet been determined how many could be assigned to Illinois routes.

Carper Expresses Interest in Heading Amtrak

December 16, 2015

Speculation as to who will replace Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has begun with some industry analysts seeing the passenger railroad reaching out to the business world for a new chief.

Another possibility might be former Amtrak board member Tom Carper, who is now a U.S. senator from Delaware.

“I would like to be president of Amtrak,” he said. “I’ve wanted to have that job ever since I stepped down as governor in 1999. I was on the Amtrak board. I love trains. I have all my life. So I’m announcing my candidacy, not for president or vice president, not for anything else. I’m announcing my candidacy for Amtrak.”

The desire to see someone from the business sector appears to be rooted in a desire by some in Congress to see more competition to Amtrak from private companies.

A clause of the recently passed federal transportation bill would allow competition on certain long-distance routes.

Boardman Sees Possibility of Funds Coming to Bolster Amtrak’s Aging Long-Distance Fleet

December 11, 2015

Although he didn’t make any promises, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman sees a glimmer of hope that the railroad’s aging Amfleet and Superliner equipment might be replaced or at least supplemented.

In an interview with Trains magazine held a week before he announced that he will retire from Amtrak in September 2016, Boardman said he didn’t expect any difference in the annual appropriations but that the transportation legislation authorizes money for the “Gateway” Hudson River tunnel project might free up funds that can be used to buy equipment for long-distance trains.

Boardman said that means “that there’s going to be capital money that needs to be made available for our national system and to replace and improve the equipment we have out there.”

Much of Amtrak’s current fleet was built in the 1970s or 1980s and is now older than the streamliner era equipment that it inherited when it began operations in 1971.

In the meantime, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles continues to build new Viewliner equipment at its plant in Elmira, New York.

“We’re really working hard to make sure we get the CAF deliveries for long-distance equipment,” Boardman said. “We have all the baggage cars now, the dining cars are in the climate chamber, and then we move on to (the baggage dorms and sleepers).”

Boardman doesn’t expect to see equipment arrive for the Northeast Corridor during his remaining time with Amtrak although he does expect to announce the details about an equipment order within the next three months.

“I don’t expect to be here when they get here, but I want to make sure they get ordered and that gets done before I leave,” he said.

At present, Amtrak doesn’t have “a final figure from the vendor and we don’t yet have approval on a Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan but we are doing all the due diligence that we are supposed to do to make that happen.”

During Boardman’s watch, Amtrak began taking delivery of new Siemens electric locomotives with 56 of the 70 ordered having been delivered thus far.

Boardman said he wants to get Amtrak’s Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System version of positive train control installed on all sections of the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015.

When he steps down next year, Boardman will have served as Amtrak’s president for eight years, which will be the second-longest tenure among Amtrak presidents. Only W. Graham Claytor Jr. at 11 years served in the post longer.

The announcement that Boardman would retire came in a letter to employees that was sent a month after the Amtrak board of directors had voted to extend Boardman’s tenure for another two years.

“When I look back at this time I see so many accomplishments and so many changes we made to make America’s Railroad a stronger, safer and a more important part of our nation’s transportation system,” Boardman said.

“Our debt is lower, our revenues are up, our ridership is up, our labor efficiencies have improved. There’s no question that we’ve got more to do — I think we’re more incremental (recently) because we have so many things to move forward, like Americans with Disabilities Act improvements and implementation of all of the ideas and concepts that came out of the PRIIA legislation. I think we’ve gotten a lot done.”

Boardman to Retire in 2016 as Amtrak Head

December 9, 2015

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman told the railroad’s employees on Wednesday in a letter that he plans to retire in September 2016.

Boardman wrote in the letter that he informed Amtrak’s board of directors of his decision earlier this week after serving eight years as the railroad’s chief executive officer.

“When I look back at this time I see so many accomplishments and so many changes we made to make America’s Railroad a stronger, safer and a more important part of our nation’s transportation system,” Boardman said in the letter.

2 Sites Eyed for Oxford Amtrak Station

December 9, 2015

Amtrak is eying two locations in Oxford for a station to serve the Chicago-New York Cardinal.

The sites include former BP Oil property at 719 S. Main St. and the area south of Chestnut Street adjacent to the city garage.

Railroad officials have indicated they favor the Chestnut Street site because the BP property does not have room for a 400-foot station platform.

“We are looking at a Category 4 station, just a platform with a canopy,” said City Manager Doug Elliot. “They gave us information on which site they prefer. We need to get approval, not only from Amtrak, but also CSX. Next, we have to talk about who owns the site.”

The Chestnut Street location not only would allow for a 400-foot platform but also has the advantage of having adjacent land that is publicly owned.

City officials said a category 4 station would be “a minimalist stop” and “basically a bus stop.”

Oxford Amtrak Committee member Alan Kyger said the platform design would need approval of CSX, which owns the tracks used by the Cardinal through Oxford, a southwestern Ohio city that is the home of Miami University.

CSX also owns the property on which the platform would be constructed, but the shelter at the site would be off railroad property.

“CSX owns the track and they are all about freight trains. Amtrak can interfere with freight travel,” Kyger said. “From what we hear, that can take a long time. CSX oversees all work on this project. It adds a layer of cost. It adds a layer of time.”

Kyger said having government entities owning much of the space to be used for the station helps the process.

“We’re at a point where we need to figure out where to put this and how much it will cost and who will pay for this,” Kyger said, adding that estimates may range from $500,000 to more than $1 million.

“Everybody agrees it’s a great thing but who’s going to pay for it?” he said.

Kyger said Amtrak and city officials are open to other possible locations for an Oxford station.

“It’s not moving as fast as I would like,” he said. “No doubt, everyone would like to see it moving faster than it is. The good news is that Amtrak is on board.”

Amtrak rejected making Oxford a stop for the tri-weekly Cardinal in 2009 but has been receptive to recent efforts to revive the idea.

Miami University has been supportive of the campaign to establish an Amtrak station in Oxford, which despite having been on the Cardinal route for several years has not had intercity rail passenger service since the early 1950s.

If the Oxford stop is established, the Cardinal, would serve the city in the dead of night. It would be the second stop on the route between Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

Website Promotes Amtrak Travel in Pennsylvania

December 9, 2015

A new website has been created by Amtrak and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to promote intercity rail travel in the state.

The site is http://www.patripsbytrain.com/ and is designed to provide  discounts on travel, excursion packages to popular events and destinations in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, New York City and other destinations.

“The Keystone and Pennsylvanian services offer family friendly, convenient transportation options to our residents,” PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said. “These excursions are a great way to experience the culture and events our state has to offer while trying a different way to get there.”

Pennsylvania helps make up the operating losses of the Pittsburgh-New York Pennsylvanian and the New York-Philadelphia-Harrisburg Keystone Service.

Groups Want Double Track Chicago-Detroit Route

December 4, 2015

Two passenger rail advocacy groups are calling for the installation of a second track to the Chicago-Detroit route used by Amtrak.

The Midwest Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said double-tracking the line would help Amtrak offer more service that operates more reliably and at higher speeds on the 300-mile route.

The Michigan Department of Transportation said it is in the process of studying the route with the purpose of making improvements that will allow for faster and more frequent service.

Bu MDOT said it is not considering double-tracking the entire route, which is used by six daily Amtrak Wolverine Service trains.

Once MDOT finishes its study and route changes are made, the Chicago-Detroit corridor will have about 160 miles of single track.

“We think the state should be planning for a lot of growth on the corridor,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “That means you have to have two tracks, an east track and a west track, the whole way.”

MDOT officials said they considered double-tracking the Chicago-Detroit route in Michigan but decided against it.

“A capacity analysis concluded that double-tracking the entire corridor in Michigan was not necessary to accommodate full build-out service,” said MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell.

Full build-out refers to the goal of having 10 daily Chicago-Detroit roundtrips with trains traveling at an average speed of 58 miles per hour.

MDOT’s objective is to reduce the Chicago-Pontiac travel time to 5 hours, 16 minutes compared with today’s 6 hours, 40 minutes.

Frezell said such things as cab signals, GPS and other technological improvements would be able to reduce the running time without the need for continuous double track.

“MDOT is being fiscally responsible by not double-tracking the entire railroad now,” Frezell said. “If conditions change in the future there is always the opportunity to expand capacity in the existing right of way because the railroad was once double-tracked and the rail bed remains.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilara said that in fiscal year 2014 the Wolverines carried 477,157 passengers.

However, ridership in FY 2015 fell to 465,627. The fiscal year runs from October to September.