Archive for December, 2019

Maine State Employees To Get Downeaster Discounts

December 24, 2019

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is giving a 15 percent discount to Maine state employees who use Amtrak’s Downeaster for travel within or outside the state.

The discount is available on all Downeaster trains. State employees must purchase tickets three days in advance of travel and reference promotion code v503.

A state identification card is required for travel.

The Downeaster operates five round-trips daily between Brunswick, Maine, and Boston.

More information is available at AmtrakDowneaster.com.

“We hope this discount will encourage state employees to choose a cleaner method of travel for both work-related and personal travel,” said Natalie Bogart, marketing director at NNEPRA. “It also makes travel time more productive and less stressful than driving.”

Mobile Resolution To Come With Contingencies

December 24, 2019

The resolution that the city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to consider on Dec. 31 contains a clause that would revoke the city’s financial support of a proposed expansion of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast if certain issues are to arise.

The city will consider committing $3 million toward the operating cost of the service, which is envisioned to begin in 2023 between New Orleans and Mobile.

The action comes as local and state governments along the proposed route face a Jan. 6 deadline to commit matching funds to a federal grant awarded earlier this year to get the service started.

The states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding but Alabama has balked.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has raised concerns that the Amtrak route would adversely affect rail operations at the Port of Mobile.

Mobile city council members will vote on a letter of intent, but one council member has asked what happens after the first three years of the city’s commitment to fund operations of the route.

Other questions that have arisen include the cost of building a station in Mobile and how infrastructure improvements from the Mississippi border to Mobile will be handled.

Most of the operating costs of the route are expected to be paid for by a federal Restoration and Enhancement grant.

The concerns of Gov. Ivey have also been echoed by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons.

Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership and a member of the Southern Rail Commission  said the location of the Mobile station at the Brookley Aeroplex, instead of downtown would harm commercial activity at the port.

“The Port is a priority for me above passenger rail, ”he said. “If I felt that operating the train at Brookley would jeopardize the Port, I would not be standing here today. I would ask the governor to remove me from the office, and that I cannot serve.”

FRA Again Seeking to Block California High-Speed Work

December 24, 2019

The Federal Railroad Administration is seeking to block efforts by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to reach an agreement that that would allow for construction of tracks and infrastructure of it 119-mile line between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley.

The FRA wrote to the Authority on Dec. 9 to express its disapproval of a request for proposals.

“It is premature for CHSRA to undertake another major design-build contract,” wrote FRA project manager Juliana Shu Barnes. “The current (construction contracts) continue to face significant and continuing delays building the necessary civil infrastructure.”

The Trump Administration had earlier withheld $929 million in federal grant funding for the high-speed project. That funding had earlier been approved by the FRA.

The administration is also seeking to claw back $2.6 billion in federal funding that has already been distributed for work on the high-speed project.

In response, CAHSRA CEO Brian Kelly blasted the FRA for a faulty analysis and saying it has failed to review materials California has already provided.

“[Your objection] is based on misunderstandings and your agency’s own inaction, which does not provide a good faith basis for interfering in this authority’s efforts to meet the timelines in our federal grant agreements,” Kelly wrote to the FRA. “As you know, or should know, the installation of track on the 119-mile segment is a deliverable under our federal funding agreements with your agency.”

Kelly’s letter said construction agreements need to be completed by Dec. 31, 2022, and the Authuority does not “have the luxury of inaction on this issue.”

The dispute is seen as likely to wind up being resolved in court.

FY2020 Budget Boosts Amtrak, Cuts Public Transit Grants

December 22, 2019

The $1.4 trillion federal fiscal year 2020 spending bill contains a boost in Amtrak funding, but also slashes some spending for public transit and railroad grant programs.

President Donald J. Trump signed the two budget bills late Friday that were adopted by Congress earlier in the week.

The budget appropriates $2 billion for Amtrak, an increase of $58 million over the FY2019 budget.

However, the budget cut rail and transit programs by 3.6 percent, a drop of $586 million, below FY2019 levels.

The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Grants received $325 million, an increase of $70 million over FY2019.

However, the Federal State of Good Repair program was cut in half compared to FY2019 levels to $200 million for FY2020. It had received $400 million last year.

Public transportation received $12.9 billion in total. Although the transit formula grants increased from $9.9 billion in FY2019 to $10.1 billion in FY2020, the Capital Investment Grants program saw its funding plunge from $2.5 billion in FY2019 to $1.9 billion in FY2020.

The investment grants program is used to launch new rail services.

Amtrak funding will be broken down to $1.2 billion for the national network and $650 million for the Northeast Corridor.

The bill earmarks $100 million for help pay for the acquisition of new single-level passenger equipment to replace aging Amfleet equipment used in Amtrak’s NEC, state-supported and long-distance services.

The Rail Passengers Associated noted in an analysis posted on its website that the budget bill contains a number of policy statements favorable to intercity passenger rail.

That includes a statement of the sense of Congress that long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network.

The bill also directed the Federal Railroad Administration to count state acquisition costs and ongoing capital charges related to Amtrak’s new fleet to as a local match for any future applications to the CRISI or SOGR grant programs.

Amtrak was directed to provide a station agent in each Amtrak station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018 and was told to provide a report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, no later than 120 days after enactment of the budget describing the changes initiated or implemented to Food and Beverage services in FY2019 and comparing those savings with Amtrak projections.

The spending bill directed Amtrak to submit a comprehensive workforce analysis for the Amtrak Police Department.

The passenger carrier was prohibited from using funds from the bill to reduce the total number of Amtrak Police Department uniformed officers patrolling on board passenger trains or at stations, facilities or rights-of-way below the staffing level on May 1, 2019.

Levin Wants Pennsylvania to Divorce Amtrak

December 22, 2019

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives Transportation Committee held a hearing last week that drew one witness and he suggested the state take over from Amtrak operation of the passenger service in the Keystone Corridor.

Bennett Levin, who oversees the short line Juniata Terminal in Philadelphia and is the owner of private railroad cars, suggested the Philadelphia commuter operator SEPTA operate Amtrak’s Keystone Service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

He contended that this would lower the state’s costs of providing the service, which is now 13 weekday Keystone Service trains and the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian.

Some Keystone Service trains operate between New York and Harrisburg.

Levin also contended that state operation would lead to increased train service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

The 103-mile Harrisburg-Philadelphia line is owned by the federal government and it would have to agree to transfer ownership of it to the state.

“SEPTA is one of the best managed commuter rail operators in the nation and there is no reason why their franchise cannot be modified to allow them to run west of Thorndale to Harrisburg,” Levin said. “Therefore the initial step in crafting a solution in the Pittsburgh region is to divorce Amtrak by having the U.S. Department of Transportation gift the Harrisburg Line to Pennsylvania and let SEPTA provide the existing Keystone Service.

SEPTA has 81 weekday trains on the Harrisburg Line that carry 20,000 passengers.

Amtrak’s  26 weekday Keystone trains carry 4,130 people, and the Pennsylvanian carries more than 560 passengers a day.

Levin said his plan would remove Amtrak as a middleman. “We have already paid for the Harrisburg Line; we should own it,” he said.

Levin noted that the state and SEPTA collectively pay Amtrak $1 million a week to operate intercity and commuter rail service on the Harrisburg line.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and SEPTA have paid more than $250 million for infrastructure improvements to the route including new or renovated stations at Paoli, Exton, Downingtown, Mount Joy, Elizabethtown, and Middletown.

Levin acknowledged that under his plan passengers traveling from within Pennsylvania to New York would have to change trains in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station.

“Those folks going to New York, let them walk downstairs,” he said in reference to the upper level and lower level platforms.

Levin was critical of the schedule of the westbound Pennsylvanian, which he said is oriented to passengers connecting to Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited to Chicago in Pittsburgh.

But fewer than 10 percent of Pennsylvanian passengers are connecting to Amtrak train No. 29.

With an earlier schedule westbound, the equipment used on the Pennsylvanian could be turned at Pittsburgh to create a new Pittsburgh-Johnstown commuter train.

PennDOT, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern have discussed expanding service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh but thus far those talks have not produced any agreements.

Levin told Trains magazine that all of the parties seem to be talking past each others. “It’s my belief that Norfolk Southern is a perfectly rational partner, once you get Amtrak out of the picture,” Levin said.

Party Time on the 5:08 to Milwaukee

December 21, 2019

Some passengers who ride Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service trains on weekdays are commuters and they’ve gotten to know each other quite well.

They see each other standing on the platform at the same time every morning and afternoon and sitting in the same seats in the same cars.

That leads them to strike up conversations, share laughs, talk about family and even create their own Facebook page.

They know each other well enough to celebrate together birthdays, retirements and holidays.

“You tend to bond with people you see every day standing on the platform shivering at 6 a.m.” said Carol Abing, who has commuted from Milwaukee to Chicago for her job for nine years.

Todd Allen of West Allis, Wisconsin, agreed. “You spend three hours a day with these people, so you get to know them,” he said. “They become friends and family, both on and off the train.”

Allen has worked in Chicago for 30 years and met a lot of people on the rails during that time.

The website On Milwaukee recently profiled the good times these passengers have had over the years.

That included their recent annual party to celebrate the December holidays that was held as they rode home.

It took place on the train that left Chicago Union Station at 5:08 p.m. and included eating, drinking and laughing that got under way in the café car before the conducted had given the highball to leave the station.

In early May the group holds a Cinco de Mayo party on the same train that features blender drinks. Once there even a pinata.

The parties are held with the approval of Amtrak. “The conductors know we aren’t going to cause any problems or get too wild,” said Allen, who served as the bartender for the party along with his daughter, Rachel.

“It’s one of the high points of my year,” said Rachel Allen, who lives and works in Milwaukee. “I get to spend time with my dad and make sure all these fantastic human beings have a bartender so they can spend more time with each other.”

Many of the party goers sipped SouBoxer’s ready-to-pour Old Fashioned drinks, but shots of Tully and seasonal cans of Miller Lite beer also were consumed in red plastic cups.

There was also taco dip, pizza and homemade cookies to eat.

Sandy Ross of Milwaukee, collected signatures and donations for the conductors’ holiday cards, a tradition of giving cash-filled envelope to the 13 conductors working the route as a gate agent I Chicago.

“This is the most generous group you will ever meet. We raised over $900 for the conductors. They take good care of us, and they put up with our shenanigans,” Ross said.

As the train raced south of Milwaukee the party crowd switched to clean up mode to return the café car to condition it was in when they boarded.

It was then that Santa Clause appeared to hand out boxes of “Naughty Bag” condoms.

Playing Santa was Gary Hollander who has commuted to Chicago from Fox Point,

Wisconsin, for 20 years. It was his first time playing Santa.

“I wasn’t willing to wear a fat suit, but otherwise I’m fine being Jewish Santa handing out condoms,” said Hollander who works as a consultant for a non-profit group working to reduce sexually-transmitted infections and teen pregnancy.

The Hiawatha commuter pay $416 a week or about 5,000 a year to ride Amtrak.

“I look at it as a car payment,” Ross said. “Because I live in Downtown Milwaukee and work in Downtown Chicago, I don’t need to own a car.”

He used to drive to work but began taking the train because it was easier. “Driving to work is more work for people like us,” Allen said.

The train can have drawbacks including  delays and mechanical malfunctions. Allen said those who miss the 5:08 p.m. train are stuck in Chicago until the next train leaves at 8 p.m.

The other reality of commuting by rail is a 14-hour work days.

Yet many said they wouldn’t want to live in Chicago because it is too expensive.

Shea Royal said Milwaukee has everything Chicago has and is smaller and easier to get around.

And knowing people on the train has helped him cope with the time spent away from his family.

He said he met the Milwaukee commuters during their last party.

“I was looking for a place to get some water and walked through their party car. I asked them for a cup for water and they said I absolutely should not drink the water on the train because it’s nasty. So they offered me beer and Tully instead. Basically this group saved my life,” he said.

Brian Bell will be retiring soon after working in Chicago for 24 years for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“And I’ll be back on the train occasionally after I retire,” he said. “For the parties.”

Virginia Announces $3.7B Rail Passenger Expansion Pact

December 21, 2019

An agreement involving Amtrak, CSX and the Commonwealth of Virginia would result in hourly rail service within 10 years between Washington and Richmond.

The $3.7 billion pact will also pave the way for expansion of intercity rail passenger service to other parts of the state.

CSX will get increased capacity on its lines that are used by Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains.

State officials said the agreement will give Virginia control over 350 miles of railroad right-of-way and 225 of existing track in three rail corridors.

This includes the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac line now owned by CSX between Richmond and Washington.

As part of the agreement, the double-track mainline through Ashland, Virginia, will remain unchanged.

Central to the agreement is the Long Bridge, a two-track structure over the Potomac River at Washington that is used by CSX, VRE and Amtrak and is at near capacity during peak times.

Virginia will be allowed to build and own a new bridge parallel to the existing structure that will be used only for passenger trains.

That bridge, which is now undergoing an environmental review, will also contain a span for bicycles and pedestrians.

The existing Long Bridge, which is 115 years old, will be reserved for use by CSX.

Virginia will build and own separate tracks for passenger service between Alexandria and L’Enfant Station in Washington.

The state also plans to build a flyover near Springfield and Franconia to allow passenger trains to cross from the east side of the rail line to the west to cross the new bridge.

The bridge project is expected to be completed by 2030 although it could open as early as 2028.

The first phase of the expansion project will involve building four miles of track in Fairfax County from Franconia south to Lorton by 2024.

The second phase will add by 2026, adds 19 miles of track, including the flyover in Fairfax and a third track in Hanover County north of Ashland that would serve as a siding for coordinating rail traffic.

An additional six daily Amtrak Northeast Regional trains will be added between Richmond and Washington with the first additional train launching in 2020.

Additional trains are planned to Norfolk in 2010 and to Newport News by 2026.

Amtrak now has five Northeast Regional trains that serve Richmond via the Staples Mill Road Station in Henrico County.

But just two of them stop at Richmond’s Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom.

Four more Amtrak long-distance trains stop at Staples Mill and Virginia wants to see those trains able to serve Main Street Station.

In announcing the rail expansion plan, Virginia transportation officials said its purpose is to relieve traffic gridlock on Interstate 95.

They said that the cost of expanding rail service is one-third of the cost of adding a new I-95 lane.

VRE service to Northern Virginia, including additional trains through Manassas, are expected to relieve rush-hour traffic on I-95 and I-66.

CSX will receive $525 million from the state for the right-of-way and existing track on three rail lines.

That includes half of the 112 miles of right-of-way and 39 miles of track that CSX owns between Richmond and Washington, passenger train rights to 30 miles of track between Richmond and Petersburg, 75 miles of right-of-way on CSX’s abandoned S-Line between Petersburg and Ridgeway, North Carolina, and 173 miles of right-of-way and 186 miles of track on the Buckingham Branch Line between Doswell and Clifton Forge.

Amtrak is expected to contribute $944 million to the project, which also would be financed by the state and regional partners, including the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, co-owners of VRE.

State funding will come from Virginia’s partnership with the federal government on the Atlantic Gateway project in the I-95 corridor, and regional toll revenues from the I-66 expansion inside the Capital Beltway. The project would require authorization of bonds, but not for tax-supported debt.

VRE capacity would increase by 75 percent, leading to 15-minute headways during peak service hours. Additional service will be added on weekends.

The additional VRE service will include five daily VRE trains between Spotsylvania County and Washington and four additional VRE trains on the Manassas Line between Washington and Broad Run in Prince William County.

Virginia officials will need to reach an agreement with Norfolk Southern, which owns a portion of the Manassas Line.

The agreement also has the potential to enable Maryland-funded commuter rail service MARC to expand service from Baltimore into Northern Virginia once the new Potomac River bridge is completed.

MARC service now operates no farther south than Washington Union Station.

Mobile City County to Vote on Funding Amtrak Route

December 21, 2019

The city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to vote on Dec. 31 on a proposal to help fund the restoration of Amtrak service to the city from New Orleans.

The city funding would be between $2 million and $3 million for three years.

The federal government has awarded a grant to help pay for the route’s operating expenses. The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to chip in funding but Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has thus far refused to approve that state’s estimated $2.2 million funding share.

If Mobile approves funding for the route, the money would not be paid until 2023 when the service is expected to begin.

City Council President Levon Manzie said that it is “untenable” that Mobile could not be included on the route. “We need to be a part of this service,” he said.

Ivey and Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons have opposed the service on the grounds that it could potentially interfere with traffic at the Port of Mobile.

Canadian PM Boosts VIA High Speed Rail Plan

December 21, 2019

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has identified boosting VIA Rail Canada’s high-frequency rail project between Quebec City and Toronto to be one of its top transportation priorities.

The project is part of the Transportation 2030 strategic plan.

Trudeau recently sent a “mandate letter” to Transport Minister Marc Garneau in which he directed Garneau to work with the infrastructure and communities minister to create the HFR project in the Toronto-Quebec City Corridor as part of those duties.

The HFR project would expand VIA Rail services to Peterborough, Ontario, and Trois-Rivieres, Quebec City, via a new rail line north of the current service corridor.

NY Penn Station Work to Resume Jan. 3

December 21, 2019

Renovation work at New York’s Penn Station will resume on Jan. 3 but will not affect the operations of Amtrak trains.

The next phase of the Infrastructure Renewal Program will involve work on tracks 11 and 14 and cost $7.6 million. The work is expected to be completed by April 17, 2020.

Some Long Island Rail Road schedules will change with five of 144 morning-rush trains being rerouted and six of 130 evening-rush trains being rerouted.

Five trains are being added immediately before or after the rush trains, and other trains are being lengthened, so that the net loss of seating capacity is less than 1 percent.