Archive for March, 2017

Court Sides With Freight Railroads in Amtrak Dispute

March 25, 2017

In the end Amtrak’s freight railroads prevailed in court.

A federal judge ruled in their favor by ruling that Section 207 of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act is unconstitutional and thus the metrics and standards that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued in 2011 in terms of evaluating on-time performance have now been struck down.

The ruling was made by Judge James E. Boasberg based on the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution against the taking of life, libery or property without due process of law.

The Association of American Railroads had filed suit challenging the legality of Section 207.

Boasberg’s ruling was made after the case had been remanded court by the U.S. Supreme Court with instructions as to how to proceed in the case.

Therefore, observers say, it is unlikely that the U.S. Department of Transportation will appeal the ruling.

In his ruling, the judge relied on a precedent set in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling involving Southern Pacific that found that rights granted to people by the Constitution are also granted to corporations.

The court ruled that the regulatory authority of the federal government rests only with individuals appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which is also known as the appointments clause.

The AAR had challenged Section 207, in part, because it allowed Amtrak to have some regulatory power even it is a part of the industry that is being regulated.

In July 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that Amtrak is a private company that may not be granted regulatory powers, overturning a May 2012 ruling by the District Court that Amtrak is a governmental entity.

A unanimous Supreme Court in March 2015 ruled that for the purposes of the constitutional clauses in question, Amtrak is a part of the government.

In sending the case back to the district court, the Supreme Court instructed it to rule further on the questions of due process and appointments.

The latest court ruling means that although Congress may lawfully create companies that act commercially within an industry and may also create regulatory bodies, it cannot create entities that do both at the same time.

AAR had asserted that Section 207 allowed Amtrak to do that.

Amtrak, Winter Park Call Ski Train a Success

March 25, 2017

Winter Park, Colorado, officials have been pleased with the public response to the revived Denver ski train this year, noting that more than 18,000 tickets have been sold.

The train, operated by Amtrak, operated between January and the last weekend in March.

“It totally exceeded our expectations,” said Winter Park Resort spokesman Steve Hurlbert. “We’ve established that there’s a demand, and the potential for this is through the roof.”

Officials expect the train to return next year.

Many trips sold out and more than a quarter of the tickets were purchased months before service began.

“It was like selling water in the desert,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

With a capacity of 540 passengers, the train carried a small number of the visitors that Winter Park attracts on a given weekend.

But some say the ski train took about 500 vehicles off Interstate 70 every weekend that it ran.

Although ski trains were a staple of Winter Park since 1940 when development of the resort began, no ski trains operated between 2009 and this year.

Officials cited insurance costs and other obstacles for sidetracking the train.

Winter Park head Gary DeFrange worked for tirelessly to get the service re-established. This included a $3 million investment in a platform and siding to serve the train.

Magliari said Amtrak employee Brad Swartzelter approved DeFrange with a proposal for Amtrak to provide the service.

“Brad and his union know how important this train is,” Magliari said.

The resort and Amtrak officials are exploring additional sponsorship possibilities and plan to add food and beverage service aboard the train next year.

 

Alton Amtrak Outings Set for April 22, 23

March 25, 2017

Two excursions are being planned by the American Association of Railroaders to celebrate the end of Amtrak service to the railroad station in Alton, Illinois, on April 22 and 23.

Passengers will board a Lincoln Service Amtrak train at the Alton depot on both days and spend two hours at a yet to be named site in Missouri for about two hours before turning to Alton late that afternoon.

Capacity is limited and passengers will receive a boxed lunch and beverage. During the trips Rich Eichhorst of the St. Louis-based non-profit educational and historical organization will provide commentary about the railroad and sights along the way.

Ticket are $29 for adults and $24 for children age 11 or younger and can be ordered from AAR, 9600 Tesson Ferry Road, St. Louis MO 63123.

All requests must include the legal name and age of each passenger; choice of travel date; home address and telephone number; and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. For more information, go to: http://www.aarstl.org.

The Alton station, located at 3400 College Ave., was built about 1928 by the Alton Road, later the Gulf Mobile & Ohio.

It is set to be replaced in late June or early July when the Alton Regional Multi-Modal Transportation Center opens.

Depot owner Union Pacific Railroad has indicated the station will be razed unless a non-profit agency takes possession of the station and move it to another location.

FRA Not Expected to Complete Review of Ann Arbor Station Site Assessment Until Summer

March 25, 2017

The Federal Railroad administration has acknowledged that it is likely to be summer before it completes a review of a draft environmental assessment report pertaining to a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Once that is completed, there will be a 30-day public comment period.

Only then will the design and engineering work for the new station begin. That’s a problem for Ann Arbor because the city is set to lose a federal grant if it isn’t used by Sept. 30.

The question city officials are grappling with is whether there will be enough time to use the federal funds for station design.

An FRA spokeswoman, Desiree French, told the Ann Arbor News/Mlive.com that the federal grant will be available for use after its expiration date.

It will be the city’s responsibility to complete preliminary engineering and National Environmental Policy Act compliance work. That will mean paying for it out the city’s own pocket.

“We’re working very closely with them to help them meet that sunset date,” French said.

The Ann Arbor City Council in January approved a contract with Neumann/Smith Architecture to conduct the design and engineering work once the environmental assessment has cleared all of its hurdles.

Officials estimate that the preliminary design and engineering is $2.37 million with another unallocated contingency of $101,131 making the total cost nearly $2.5 million.

Ann Arbor had expected $2 million of that to be covered by federal funding awarded to the city in 2011 and accepted in 2012.

The city had hoped to have the preliminary design and engineering work completed by May 31, which it figured to be enough time for the FRA to review it before the grant expires.

French said the Sept. 30 expiration date is part of the authorizing legislation that approved the funding and the FRA has no authority to extend it.

Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, said he was expecting the FRA review of the environmental assessment to be completed much sooner.

“Summer sure sounds like a lot more time than what information I’m working on,” he said. “The implications on the schedule, as it relates to the grant, is also something that is of interest to me and the city.”

French said the FRA is working with the city and the Michigan Department of Transportation to prepare a draft environmental assessment that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although Ann Arbor had submitted a draft  environmental assessment to the FRA in December, it sent a revised and more complete document to the agency in February.

At the time, the city expected the FRA would complete its review of it in 30 days. But that now appears unlikely to occur absent some change of heart at the FRA.

The FRA awarded MDOT a $2.8 million grant 2011 that was originally expected to help Ann Arbor plan for a new Amtrak station on Fuller Road in a city-owned parking lot near the University of Michigan Hospital.

But planning for that site was disrupted in 2012 when the FRA asked the city to consider other potential station sites and funding assumptions for the project changed.

The Fuller Road site is still under consideration, but city officials have said they also are looking at sites on Depot Street, where the current Amtrak station is located.

French said the FRA has encouraged the city to advance the preliminary engineering and NEPA compliance tasks simultaneously.

“It was the city’s decision to wait until NEPA and an alternative is selected to complete preliminary engineering,” she said.

Ann Arbor officials have declined thus far to say which site they prefer and the FRA won’t comment on sites, either.

“It would be premature for the FRA to comment on a preferred location for the station until completion of the NEPA process,” French said.

W.Va. Legislature Moves Toward Daily Cardinal

March 24, 2017

One half of the West Virginia legislature is supporting legislation that would permit the state tourism commissioner to work with Amtrak and other states to make the Chicago-New York Cardinal a daily operation.

The House of Delegates approved the bill on a 95-5 vote and it now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The bill would establish a special revenue account that could be used by the state to help fund the outreach effort, but it does not appropriate any funding to help pay the operating costs of the Cardinal.

The Cardinal currently operates tri-weekly, passing through West Virginia westbound on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, and eastbound on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Buffalo Mulls Pros, Cons of New Station Sites

March 23, 2017

The debate over where to place a new Amtrak station in Buffalo continued this week with public hearing held by the committee appointed by the governor to consider a station site.

Brian Higgins, a western New York congressman, has been pushing hard for the choice of Buffalo Central Terminal.

But others favor a downtown location either near the site of the current Exchange Street station or at the site of the former Memorial Auditorium.

Supporters of a downtown site say it would be closer to Metro Rail, bus routes, hotels and other amenities.

“When you invest in the future, the action is always going to be downtown, adjacent to Canalside and the transit system,” said Robert Dingman, president of the New York and Lake Erie Railroad.

But supporters of Central Terminal say that reviving it as a train station would could be the last opportunity to restore the endangered art deco structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in danger of continuing a life of decay.

Placing Amtrak into Central Terminal, they say, could help boost a neighborhood that hasn’t seen significant investment in decades.

“If we can follow through and restore this great historic structure, and give it back to the people of Buffalo and to future generations, we will have done a great public service,” Higgins said.

A 17-member committee established by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and chaired by Mayor Byron W. Brown will decide next month the location of the new station.

Transportation officials have indicated that it is not an either-or situation. Both sites could be tapped to become Amtrak stops with one designated as the main station and the other as a secondary stop.

The committee will also weigh the view of Amtrak and CSX, which owns the tracks used by Amtrak trains.

A desire to link the new train station with city bus service and possibly bus service between cities could also be a factor.

Officials say that Central Terminal, which opened in 1929, would be the best location to serve east-west Amtrak trains, including the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

Central Terminal has the infrastructure to handle buses and taxis and offers more than 1,000 parking spaces.

It is not expected that all of Central Terminal would be used by Amtrak, which last stopped there in 1979.

Working against Central Terminal is its location a mile well away downtown Buffalo and a neighborhood filled with abandoned and vacant housing.

Critics also say the structure is too large for eight trains a day and that commercial development of it is not necessarily tied to its being used again as a train station.

“The train station is not the silver bullet for the East Side,” said architect Paul Battaglia. “Amtrak is not big enough, or have enough ridership.”

One drawback of the downtown site is that although it could be served by the Lake Shore Limited, Nos. 48 and 49 would need to make a backup move.

Neither Amtrak nor CSX might be willing to allow that.

Ann Arbor Station Project Delayed by FRA

March 22, 2017

The clock is starting to tick louder in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the city is racing against a deadline to spend a federal grant to develop a new Amtrak station.

But the city has yet to get the Federal Railroad Administration to approve a draft environmental assessment, which it needs to get done before preliminary station design can begin.

The draft has been at the FRA since December but the agency has yet to act on it.

The Ann Arbor City Council in January approved a $2.14 million contract with Neumann/Smith Architecture for preliminary design and engineering services.

But the consultants can’t do much until the FRA signs off on the draft.

The draft report identifies a preferred location for the new station and a 30-day public review period is expected to follow the release of the report.

City officials have declined for months to say what site they prefer for the station.

One proposal is to build the station in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital while other sites are being considered along Depot Street, where the current station is located.

City officials told the city council this week that they are working with several parties to try to prod the FRA to move along its review process due to the looming deadline to spend the grant money.

One of those parties is U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents Ann Arbor.

Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, said a revised draft was sent to the FRA in early February when the FRA said the review would be completed in 30 days.

But last week, the FRA told the city the review has been delayed and did not indicate for how long although Cooper said, “I would expect their review comments, if any, imminently.”

Cooper said the city will release to the public the environmental assessment identifying the preferred station location once the FRA authorizes its release.

Macomb Approves Contract for Station Work

March 22, 2017

The City of Macomb, Illinois, has agreed to a sublease and reimbursement agreement with Amtrak for handicapped accessibility improvements at the Macomb depot. The city council has authorized solicitation of construction bids.

In response to a question from an alderman as to why a $4,500 design contract was necessary if Amtrak had provided construction specifications, a city official said that the federal plans were too detailed for local work.

“This is a pilot project to see if costs can be reduced,” said a representative of the consulting firm doing the work. “The front-end documents are very complicated and geared toward projects in large cities.”

Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said that former mayor and current Amtrak board member Tom Carper sold the passenger carrier on Macomb as the pilot project site with the idea to reduce costs.

“He knew we could probably simplify the process,” Inman said.

One Morning in Grand Rapids

March 21, 2017

It is a Saturday morning in June 1995 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A crowd has gathered on the platform of the Amtrak station to await the arrival of the Pere Maquette, which originates here and travels to Chicago.

The equipment had laid overnight in a nearby CSX yard and is shown deadheading into the station.

The train is led by an F40PH, which will not be working much longer at Amtrak in providing motive power.

This moment came amid Amtrak’s last major route restructuring era. In April 1995 some trains, including the Detroit-Toledo, Ohio, leg of the Lake Cities had been discontinued. Amtrak wanted to terminate its Chicago-Detroit trains in Detroit rather than Pontiac, but the cost of that proved to be too high.

More cuts and route changes would follow in September. At the time, the Pere Marquette did not offer food and beverage service.

Since this image was made, Amtrak has begun using a new station in Grand Rapids.

Minnesota Trial Rail Service Proposed

March 20, 2017

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $3 million trial rail passenger service between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The service was part of his supplemental budget proposal submitted last week to the state legislature.

The rail service would operate for six months for the purpose of assessing whether existing service would be expanded to St. Cloud from downtown Minneapolis.

If the trial service become permanent, it would mean that the Northstar commuter rail service would serve St. Cloud.

At present, the service operates between Target Field in Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minnesota.

The trial service would involve one trip from St. Cloud to Target Field in the morning and a return trip in the evening. Passengers could connect at the Target Field station to the Green and Blue light-rail lines.

Amtrak is expected to provide the St. Cloud service. The national rail passenger carrier currently operates on the route with its daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The tracks on the line are owned by BNSF.

In a statement, Amtrak thanked Dayton “for recognizing the importance of passenger rail, and exploring how Amtrak can further connect St. Cloud with the Twin Cities.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the trial commuter service would not affect the Empire Builder.

The Northstar system was originally intended to serve St. Cloud. But the service now ends at Big Lake because of a lack of federal funding to help pay to develop the Big Leg-St. Cloud segment.

Since Northstar service began in 2009, Big Lake and St. Cloud have been connected by bus service.

Dayton’s budget proposal also includes $850,000 for an engineering study to update a 2010 study of engineering costs and projected ridership between Big Lake and St. Cloud.

The Northstar service would end in St. Cloud at the existing Amtrak station.