Archive for July, 2018

RPA Starting Station Volunteer Program

July 30, 2018

The Rail Passengers Association is launching a program to provide volunteers to help passengers at Amtrak stations that have lost their ticket agent.

The program, known as the Station Volunteer Program, will provide information and directions for travelers, assist those who need help with luggage, and discuss train travel.

The first step will be to begin a pilot program at various stations to be named later. That is expected to get underway in August.

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Senate Prodding Amtrak on S.W. Chief Route

July 30, 2018

The U.S. Senate is turning up the heat on Amtrak to save the Southwest Chief in its current form.

The Senate approved by a 95-4 vote a “sense of Congress” amendment to a fiscal 2019 transportation funding bill that urges Amtrak to maintain its national route system.

Another group of 10 senators wrote to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to demand that the carrier make good on an earlier agreement to provide a $3 million match to an already-approved $16 million federal Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grant to Colfax County, New Mexico, that is to be used to rebuild the tracks used by the Chief.

The letter suggests that Amtrak also apply for capital funding to rebuild the route that could come from the $318 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement program.

“Replacing train service through rural communities with buses is troubling, particularly for a quasi-governmental entity entrusted with an important public transportation mission,” the letter said. “The suspension of service along the Southwest Chief route raises serious questions as to whether passenger rail service will be eliminated in rural communities across the country. The connectivity is vital to the people and communities” because it is “the only affordable alternative to highways for many of our citizens and is a critical link to public and private services in larger cities along the route for rural residents.”

The letter came in response to a meeting Anderson held with members of the congressional delegations of several states served by the Chief in which he said Amtrak is considering moving passenger by bus between Albuquerque and western Kansas.

Anderson said Amtrak can’t afford to use a portion of a BNSF route of which it is the sole user and which does not have positive train control.

The letter to Anderson called for him to take “prompt attention to this matter,” but did not say what would occur if Amtrak follows through on its bus bridge idea.

Money Pledged to Washington State High-Speed Rail Study

July 30, 2018

Three entities have pledged $750,000 toward paying for a study of high-speed rail service between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

They are the province of British Columbia, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Microsoft Corporation.

That funding would be in addition to $750,000 that the Washington State Department of Transportation is providing for the study, which seeks to expand upon a 2017 preliminary analysis of prospects for a 250 mph high-speed rail system in the Pacific Northwest.

The newest study will be an “in-depth business case evaluation that WSDOT will undertake over the next year,” the department officials said in a news release.

The goal of the service would be to provide one-hour trips between Seattle and Vancouver as well as promote economic growth in the region and encourage “greater collaboration, deeper economic ties and balanced growth for years to come.”

Senate Committee Hears from Amtrak Board Nominee

July 30, 2018

A nominee for a seat on the Amtrak board of directors was described as a lifelong “train freak” during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The label was placed on Rick A. Dearborn by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, who chaired most of the two-hour hearing.

During the hearing, Dearborn said Amtrak needs to make its long-distance trains more attractive but did not say that he supports government funding of them.

“Amtrak trains should be on time, clean, competitive, and a good option for travelers,” Dearborn said. “Long distance service is a critical part of the national passenger rail system. I am committed to it.”

“I get the impression that Amtrak is being reduced, not built, because it’s requiring taxpayer dollars,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told Dearborn. “Do you think taxpayer dollars are necessary to keep Amtrak going?”

“I can’t predict whether or not Amtrak could operate without financial assistance,” Dearborn said. “I would hope that if we focus on creating a good product, then revenues will rise and the dependency on federal dollars would be less.”

“If you had a choice between lowering operating losses and shutting down a long-distance line, what would you choose?” asked U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada.

“I hope I’m never faced with that decision,” Dearborn replied.

Dearborn also zeroed in on safety, saying it must be the passenger carrier’s highest priority.

Dearborn expressed optimism that Amtrak will meet the Dec. 31 deadline set by federal law to install positive train control.

In his opening statement Dearborn said he has a collection of O Scale models that includes 75 locomotives and 300 pieces of rolling stock.

He has worked for six senators since the mid-1970s, including 12 years as chief of staff for former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama

Dearborn was executive director of President Donald Trump’s transition team and White House deputy chief of staff until he resigned in March.

Also speaking to the committee was Martin J. Oberman, former chairman of Chicago’s Metra rail system, who has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

He said he was studying such issues facing the STB as the long-standing struggle between carriers and shippers over “captive switching,” and the board’s work on streamlining rate disputes.

“My four years at Metra required my total immersion and continuous education in the railroad industry,” Oberman said. “I quickly learned that all aspects of our national rail system are fundamentally interconnected and the rail system is central to the national economy.”

Oberman pledged to take a “fresh look” at those and other issues. “Honoring precedent and not changing systems that aren’t broken are important values,” he said. “It also critical to be willing to question practices if they appear to be archaic and ineffective in meeting the changing needs of consumers and businesses, or keeping pace with technological changes in the global economy.”

Oberman said he favors negotiation over litigation as a means to resolve issues within the railroad industry.

“As a trial lawyer for 49 years, I know litigation is the worst way to settle a dispute,” Oberman said.

Amendment Seeks Amtrak OT Study

July 30, 2018

An amendment directing Amtrak’s inspector general to update an earlier audit of Amtrak’s on-time performance has been approved by the U.S. Senate.

The amendment was sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and approved as part of appropriations legislation being considered by the Senate.

In a news release, Durbin said the audit’s objective is to assess the financial impact of Amtrak’s on-time performance.

Durbin noted that during 2017 Amtrak’s long-distance trains were on time at stations just 45 percent of the time. Amtrak trains incurred more than 17,000 hours of delay due to freight trains on host railroads, which was a 35 percent increase over 2016.

“On-time performance has a direct impact on the number of people who ride Amtrak trains, how frequently they use them and how much they use them,” Durbin said on the Senate floor.

Amtrak said in a statement that it appreciates the bipartisan effort to bring more transparency to this topic.

“On-time performance is one of the biggest factors in Amtrak customer satisfaction and has been an ongoing challenge,” the Amtrak statement said. “We look forward to the report from the inspector general.”

Major NEC Upgrade Planned

July 30, 2018

Amtrak is planning a major upgrade of its Northeast Corridor that the carrier said will double its engineering efforts and result in the purchase of $370 million of new equipment over a three-year period for maintenance work.

The result, Amtrak officials said, will be a smoother ride and improve on-time performance for the more than 890,000 passengers who ride in the NEC on weekdays.

Amtrak is buying two undercutters, five high-speed surfacing machines, heavy lift cranes for New York Penn Station and freight cars and locomotives to bring the NEC to a state of good repair.

Flooding Disrupts S.W. Chief in New Mexico

July 30, 2018

Flooding caused by heavy rain washed out tracks used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in New Mexico last weekend.

The flooding also disrupted operations of the RailRunner Express commuter trains serving Albuquerque.

Both railroads operated bus bridges with commuters riding buses between Bernalillo and Santa Fe while Southwest Chief rode between Albuquerque and Lamy.

The storms dumped 1.24 inches of rain, causing the washout on San Felipe Pueblo near a bridge at milepost 874.

The flooding caused misaligned rails, roadbed erosion and left debris on the tracks for nearly a mile.

Amendment Would Restore Ticket Agents

July 30, 2018

An Amendment introduced by two Ohio U.S. Senators would direct Amtrak to restore a ticket agent in Cincinnati.

The amendment to the transportation appropriations bill that would require Amtrak to staff stations that averaged 25 passengers a day over the last five years

Introduced on July 26 by Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Rob Portman, the measure would also affect the following stations that lost their ticket agents earlier this year: Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Ottumwa, Iowa; Topeka, Kansas; Hammond, Louisiana; Meridian, Mississippi; Havre, Montana; Shelby, Montona; Lamy, New Mexico; Marshall, Texas; and Charleston, West Virginia.

The amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill is under consideration.

Cincinnati is served by Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-Washington Cardinal.

RPA Launches S.W. Chief Campaign

July 25, 2018

The Rail Passengers Association is launching a campaign to seek to pressure Amtrak into keeping the Southwest Chief intact.

The campaign comes in the wake of news that Amtrak is planning to bus passengers rather than transport them by rail between western Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

RPA noted that the bus bridge would affect nine stations, leave a 500-mile gap in Amtrak’s rail network and take 7.5 hours to traverse point to point.

The rail passenger advocacy group argues that as much as 70 percent of the Chief’s revenue will be lost.

However, RPA sees the battle to save the Chief as part of a larger effort to save Amtrak’s national network generally.

“The campaign is policy-based and will enable members to make their individual and collective voices heard,” RPA wrote on its website. “Raising awareness in traditional and social media, we’ll generate a firestorm of support for the Southwest Chief and the National Network and show Congress and Amtrak leadership just what losing train service would mean to real Americans.

As part of the campaign, RPA plans to reach out to U.S. senators,mayors, allies, friends and supporters of rail passenger service.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a critical junction concerning the fate of the National Network. Whether it is the federal budget that makes Amtrak possible, or this very new threat to a part of the system, we have to take action. We appreciate your full support as we move forward with our efforts to protect the Southwest Chief and preserve the National Network,” RPA wrote.

More information about the campaign is available at www.railpassengers.org/swc

Charlotte Station Groundbreaking Held

July 25, 2018

Ground breaking ceremonies were held this week in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Charlotte Gateway Station project.

In the project’s initial phase, workers will build 2,000 feet of track, install signals, and create five new bridges and a rail platform

When completed, the station will provide intercity passenger-rail service to downtown Charlotte for the first time in several decades.

Funding for the initial phase of the project is being provided by a $30 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery along with state and local funds.

The first phase is projected to be completed by 2022.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation, city officials and other local stakeholders are seeking a private partner for the development of the full station district.

A formal request for proposals process is expected to launch later this summer with a private partner chosen as early as December.

Charlotte is served by Amtrak’s New York-Charlotte Carolinian, the Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmonts and the New York-New Orleans Crescent.