Archive for June, 2019

States to Form Gateway Commission

June 24, 2019

New Jersey and New York are expected to approve legislation setting up a body that would oversee passenger rail projects affect the two states.

The proposed Gateway Development Commission would be similar in structure and purpose as the existing Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which is the agency currently overseeing planning, financing, and construction of the critical pieces of the Gateway Project.

This included the proposed new Hudson River rail tunnels and the Portal Bridge.

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said the new agency will serve as a vehicle to to receive federal funding for the Gateway tunnel.

In the meantime, Federal Railroad Administration head Ronald Batory told a Congressional committee that his agency is continuing its environmental review of the Gateway project.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Batory said the FRA has finished 95 environmental review steps but has 27 yet to be completed.

“Does that mean another year? I don’t know,” Batory said.

Critic have accused the Trump Administration of slow walking the funding proposals for the Gateway project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has called for the state and local governments to pay more for it because it is largely a “local project.”

Some observers have noted that the Gateway project has become a pawn in a feud between Trump and Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York)

Members of Congress from New York and New Jersey have described Gateway as a critical transportation corridor, saying that if existing antiquated tunnels fail that the reduced rail traffic would have negative repercussions for the U.S. economy.

SW Chief Funding Request Tabled

June 24, 2019

Commissioners of Bent County Colorado had tabled for now consideration of a request from La Junta City Manager Rick Klein for a matching funding commitment needed to land a federal grant to continue rebuilding the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Klein told the commissioners that the grant is needed to finish rebuilding the route, a process that began in 2011 when Amtrak threatened to remove the train from its current route through western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico after BNSF said it would not longer maintain the tracks to passenger train speeds.

Local government interests supporting the route rebuilding have won federal grants in recent years that have gone toward track rehabilitation.

Klein said Amtrak has informed the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail Commission that the numbers for a through-train from La Junta to Pueblo, Colorado, are feasible.

“We are hoping to have a ballot question for Front Range rail from Cheyenne to Trinidad in 2020,” he said.

But Does It Really Matter?

June 24, 2019

When reading essays and op ed columns about intercity rail passengers service generally and Amtrak in particular, I often find myself thinking that the author has a good point but wondering whether it really matters all that much if at all.

Such was the case when I read a well-written argument by Jim Mathews, the president of the Rail Passengers Association, that it is simply wrong to say that Amtrak must make a profit.

Mathews acknowledged that the 1970 law that established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation as Amtrak is formally known did set it up to operate as a for-profit entity.

But Mathews cited language from a 1978 change as stated in H.R. Rep. No. 1182, 95thCongress, Second Session, 15): “Section 9 amends section 301 of the RPSA that Amtrak shall be ‘operated and managed as’ a for-profit corporation. This amendment recognizes that Amtrak is not a for-profit corporation.”

Mathews’ essay also quoted A. Daniel O’Neal, then the majority counsel for the Senate Transportation Subcommittee as saying, “We added the ‘for-profit’ clause because we thought this new entity should have high aspirations.” That came from a 2002 Congressional Research Service report that can be viewed at http://research.policyarchive.org/1446.pdf)

It is not difficult to understand why Mathews is seeking to knock down what he terms the myth that Amtrak must be profitable.

Amtrak’s critics have long framed the carrier as a “money loser.” That term in particular is used to describe Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

It’s a powerful argument for those seeking to end public funding of Amtrak. The power of the argument is its simplicity.

If Amtrak trains don’t earn enough revenue to cover their expenses then why have them? If there was a market for intercity rail passenger service then for-profit companies would be clamoring to exploit that. If a product or service can’t make a profit then it is economic waste.

You’ll find that in your day one lecture notes for American Capitalism 101.

Of course the American economy is far more complex than it is made out to be in American Capitalism 101. You will learn that in Political Economy 101.

As a policy wonk I enjoy reading a good argument such as the one that Mathews made. I even enjoy reading those arcane and obscure reports that largely go unread except by a handful of scholars and policy making staff.

Most policymakers and most Americans don’t have a deep level of interest in the nuts and bolts of the legislative and policy making system.

They have general beliefs. That’s not to be critical, merely to make a point about the reality that leaders such as Martin are up against.

Martin’s argument is that rail passenger advocates and those who have the authority to decide how public money is spent should focus on the value that Amtrak service provides and not the financial losses or lack of a profit that it incurs.

“We as advocates need to stop talking about profits, and instead start talking – shouting, really – about value (emphasis in original). Amtrak’s routes create value in every community they serve,” Mathews wrote.

The challenge is that whether Amtrak made or didn’t make a profit is easier to quantify and express in a sound bite than the value that it provided.

Profit and loss is well understood and agreed upon by most everyone but value is a more subjective term that lacks widespread agreement.

Of course advocates such as Martin have sought to quantify value. In his essay, Martin argued that the Empire Builder contributed a $326.7 million in economic activity to the states that it served at a cost of $57 million.

Critics will note that Martin conveniently overlooking the fact the Empire Builder did not earn enough revenue to cover its operating costs.

It needed public funding to pay for crew salaries, locomotive fuel, track rental fees to the host railroads and other expenses.

The critics might also challenge the validity of that $326.7 million in economic activity that the train is said to have generated. That number was derived from a study that like all studies is based on assumptions.

Discussing such studies, including those that argue against the value of intercity rail passenger service gets into wonk territory, a place that few people wish to visit for long.

No small part of Martin’s job is to bolster the morale of his members and motivate them to get involved in the political process.

There wouldn’t continue to be an Empire Builder were it not for their advocacy.

If they stop advocating, then the political support for continuing to fund trains such as the Empire Builder will erode and its funding might vanish along with it.

Martin knows well the future of Amtrak’s national network is never assured. Every year there will be those pushing to end public funding of the “money losing” passenger carrier.

The belief that Amtrak was created to be a for-profit entity and the fact that it has never turned a profit is well entrenched in the psyche of the political economy.

Rail passenger advocate may be able to prevail for another year in the perpetual struggle to keep Amtrak’s skeletal national network rolling because there are just enough members of Congress who agree that Amtrak provide a value worth funding.

Yet it will be a very tall order to get policy makers to see the value of funding for intercity rail passenger service as just as essential and unquestioned as that of the military, police department, fire department, parks department and even the local library.

Here Comes Amtrak No. 48

June 22, 2019

Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited passes BE Tower in Berea, Ohio, in the Cleveland suburbs on a late spring morning.

The train was operating just over two hours behind schedule at the time.

BE Tower was closed several years ago by Conrail but the building continues to stand.

NS Track Work in Indiana to Delay Amtrak Trains

June 22, 2019

Veto Threatened Over Transportation Funding

June 22, 2019

The Trump administration is threatening to veto a spending bill that contains an increase in Amtrak funding.

The Rail Passengers Association said the administration cited many disappointments about the bill, including its failure to eliminate Amtrak’s national network as the administration had proposed earlier this year.

The bill in question would fund programs for federal fiscal year 2020 which begins Oct. 1.

It increased funding for other transportation programs as well as Amtrak.

The administration also expressed displeasure with the funding bill for continuing to fund the California high-speed rail project and the Essential Air Service program.

RPA said the House is likely to approve the bill anyway because Democrats are in control.

The rail passenger advocacy group said that before a final House vote on the funding bill, a number of amendments are likely to be taken up including some that would slash transportation funding generally and Amtrak funding in particular.

More than 500 amendments have been submitted to the funding package.

Among them is a bid to cut transportation funding across the board by 14 percent, while another would direct U.S. DOT to adhere to a Congressional mandates that the federal government pay for 50 percent of costs in rail transit projects (compared to the 80 percent share it pays on highway projects).

The latter amendment was introduced after the administration began seeking to pay less than 50 percent on rail transit projects funded by the Capital Investment Grant program.

Another amendment would require Amtrak to follow the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act by giving advance notice when it intends to lay off employees.

Some Republican House members fell short in their effort to remove language preventing DOT from seeking to claw back federal funding from the California high-speed rail project when their amendments were ruled out of order.

Pa. Amtrak Funding May be Threatened

June 22, 2019

Funding of rail passenger service in Pennsylvania may be in jeopardy due to a law that will cut funding for the Pennsylvania Turnpike three years from now.

The law currently requires the Turnpike to set aside $450 million annually to convey to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for use by public transit.

But that law dictates that that funding drop to $50 million in 2022.

“Amtrak service is in jeopardy, as we know it today,” even without the pending funding crisis, Jennie Granger, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation said during a speech to business and government officials at the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Westmoreland Country Club in Penn Township.

Parade to Affect Thruway Service in California

June 22, 2019

The parade route will affect Thruway buses at the Lompoc stop due to road closures.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said Thruway bus 4762 will not stop at Lompac on June 29. Thruway service will still be available at Buellton.

The parade is scheduled to operate from 10 a.m. to noon.

 

Amtrak Completes Acela Interior Overhaul

June 22, 2019

Amtrak said it has completed work on refurbishing the interiors of the equipment used in its Acela Express fleet.

The project took 15 months complete and involved installation of new cushions and covers for all business- and first-class seats, new carpet runners along the aisles and giving each of the 100 cars a deep cleaning.

Amtrak said in a news release that the work occurred in advance of the debut of the next generation of Acela trainsets now being built in Hornell, New York.

 

Morning Contrasts

June 16, 2019

The eastbound Lake Shore Limited was running more than two hours late.

By the time it reached Berea, Ohio, in suburban Cleveland the sun had been up for more than an hour but shadows from bridges and building still enveloped the tracks of Norfolk Southern used by Train No. 48.

But much of the rails themselves were in sunlight and that created an interesting effect that I had not planned.

The image shown above was an afterthought. My plan was to use my longest telephoto lens to shoot through the chain link fence of the Front Street overpass to capture the Lake Shore passing the former BE Tower.

I did get that image and it turned out well. But as the train got closer I decided to make one more image just to see how it would turn out.

What I got was a nice contrast between the sunlight illuminating the nose and flanks of lead P42DC No. 129 and the shadows on both sides of the tracks.

I was fortunate that the encroaching shadows did not creep up the side of the train.

There is also some contrast between the silver and blue of the locomotives and the green leaves on the trees on the north side of the tracks.

A two-hour late train is not good news for its passengers and crew, but it worked out well for me.