Archive for January, 2021

Biden Makes Top USDOT Appointments

January 23, 2021

President Joesph Biden has made 39 appointments of top officials to serve in key U.S. Department of Transportation positions.

Amit Bose was named deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He previously served as FRA deputy administrator, FRA chief counsel, USDOT associate general counsel and USDOT deputy assistant secretary for government affairs.

Bose also has served as vice president for HNTB Corporation and chair of the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor, and has been involved in the California High Speed Rail Project, Northeast Corridor Future, Southeast Passenger Rail and Build America Bureau.

Nuria Fernandez was named deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration

Fernandez most recently was CEO of California’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and has served in various executive positions at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Lana Hurdle, deputy assistant secretary for budget and programs, will serve as acting secretary of transportation until secretary of transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Other appointments included Casey Clemmons, special assistant, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; Steve Cliff, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Carlos Monje Jr., senior adviser and acting chief of staff; Alex Pena, special assistant to the general counsel; Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration; Diana Lopez, senior advisor to the administrator, FRA, and Subash Iyer, chief counsel, FTA.

Oberman Named STB Chair

January 23, 2021

Martin Oberman has been designated by President Joseph Biden to serve as chairman of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Under federal law, the STB chairman is to be a member of the political party holding the White House.

Oberman, a Chicago attorney, joined the STB as a Democratic member on Jan. 22, 2019, and has served as vice chair since Jan. 6, 2020. His term will expire on Jan. 31, 2023.

Oberman has served as a Chicago alderman, a member of the board of commuter railroad Metra, and as a member of the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

He will replace Ann Begeman, a Republican member whose term expired on Dec. 31, but who is eligible to remain on the Board in holdover status until the end of this year.

However, her position could be replaced at any time by the Biden administration.

Face Mask Mandate Issued

January 23, 2021

President Joseph Biden has signed an executive order mandating use of facial coverings on trains, public transit, planes, intercity buses and in airports.

Most carriers had already implemented their own mask requirements but the order will now have the force of federal law.

Biden’s order requires federal agencies to “immediately take action” to require passengers to wear masks, although details of when it will take effect and enforcement have yet to be determined.

Loading Baggage on the Cascades

January 18, 2021

An Amtrak worker is loading checked baggage aboard a Talgo train used in Cascades service at Seattle’s King Street Station. This particular Talgo will be headed for Portland, Oregon. Note the hooks inside the car for hanging bicycles. The image was made on June 29, 1999.

Amtrak Suspending Some Washington Service

January 18, 2021

In advance of the inauguration of president-elect Joseph Biden, Amtrak is suspending some services to Washington.

In a service advisory, the passenger carrier said it will not operate Northeast Regional service south of Washington on Jan 19 and 20.

The New York-Charlotte Carolinian will only operate in North Carolina between Raleigh and Charlotte on those dates.

Long distance trains operating to or through Washington will be unaffected, including the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.

Amtrak said passengers whose trips begin or end in Washington should be aware that there will be pedestrian and vehicle restrictions at and around Washington Union Station.

This includes the closure of DC Metro’s Union Station stop. Passengers are being directed to use Metro’s NOMA/Gallaudet station, which Amtrak described as being a short walk from Union Station. Metro will operate on a modified schedule.

MARC commuter trains to Maryland and West Virginia have been suspended and Virginia Railway Express said its trains will not run Monday through Wednesday.

The service advisory said there will be no access to taxi or ride share services at WUS.

DOT Report Urges Greater Accessibility

January 18, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation is calling for improved accessibility to stations and new rail cars, for Amtrak, other rail passenger operators, and transit systems.

The recommendations are part of a draft Strategic Plan on Accessible Transportation released last week.

The report addresses the need for better access for people with disabilities for all forms of transportation, noting that a 2018 report estimated that 25.5 million Americans experience a travel-limiting disability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for those with disabilities to have access to transportation to connect to essential services, DOT said.

The report will be used to guide the agency’s work in the 2021-25 federal fiscal years. Public comment on the report is being accepted through Feb. 16.

FRA Releases Preliminary Maglev Project Review

January 18, 2021

The Federal Railroad Administration has released a draft of a preliminary review of a proposed 40-mile maglev train service between Washington and Baltimore.

The report said the line would cost between $13.8 billion and 16.9 billion, and could be operational as early as a decade from now pending regularly approval.

However, that timeline might be thwarted by local opposition.

The Maryland Department of Transportation said public comment on the report of the proposed maglev system is being accepted between Jan. 22 and April 22.

The report noted that current highways and rail lines between the two cities are nearing capacity. The region’s population also continues to grow.

Trips aboard the proposed maglev system are expected to take 15 minutes.

The FRA report noted there is a need for additional transportation in the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

The report examined multiple route alternatives that included a variety of underground and elevated sections.

Stations would be located in Washington, Baltimore, and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

‘Amtrak Joe’ Offers a Reality Check

January 18, 2021

President-elect Joseph Biden has yet to take office and already has disappointed some rail passenger advocates.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan released last week contains not a dime for additional Amtrak funding or, for that matter, airlines or intercity bus companies.

All of those modes of transportation received some funding from a pandemic relief bill adopted by Congress in late December.

At the time, the incoming Biden administration had said it considered that package to be a prelude to another round of pandemic relief in the spring.

We’ve now seen what that next aid package will involve. The Biden proposal does contain $20 billion in assistance for what the president-elect has described as the hardest-hit public transit agencies.

Although those were not named, they are likely to include systems based in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The plan noted that these systems have been devastated by lost ridership and revenue.

Of course a similar scenario has played out with intercity rail, air travel and intercity bus travel.

The Rail Passengers Association issued a statement in response to the Biden plan praising it for proposing aid to public transit.

However, RPA stopped short of criticizing the proposal for ignoring Amtrak.

Instead RPA called for amending it to including funding to enable the intercity rail passenger carrier to resume operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules by next summer.

The Biden proposal is just that, a proposal and not a guarantee. It will be up to Congress to approve the plan, which is subject to change as it makes its way through the House and Senate.

There is no guarantee that Congress will adopt another pandemic relief plan at all. Biden’s Democratic Party controls both house of Congress by thin margins.

There will Republican opposition and not all Democrats will necessarily be on board with everything the new administration is proposing.

Biden, who is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because of how he used to commute to Washington by train has just given rail passenger advocates a reality check.

Some advocates, including RPA, have hailed the possibilities of what might happen with a president who supports passenger rail.

A letter I received from RPA last week claims Biden has a vision for a “second rail revolution” and “will be looking far beyond just paving roads to secure our transportation future.”

That was last week. This week RPA was writing on its website that the Biden plan falls far short of the “resources needed to tackle the immediate crisis.”

By that RPA means a billion dollars to restore long-distance trains to daily service.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will release another plan a few months from now that will propose infrastructure improvements.

Presumably, that proposal will benefit rail passenger service by providing capital dollars for such things as new equipment and route development.

In the meantime, Amtrak and the rest of the transportation network looks to remain much as it has been of late with fewer flights, fewer intercity bus services and less-than-daily Amtrak service in many places.

Airline industry observers have been writing for months that they expect it will take up to four years for the air service network to return to the level it was in early 2019 before the pandemic took hold and the travel market all but collapsed.

Rail passengers may not like it, but the Biden pandemic relief plan has shown them that restoration of suspended Amtrak services may be following a similar track.

Less-than-daily trains and fewer corridor services are likely to be with us for a while longer and maybe quite a while.

The Biden administration might be thinking that public transit has higher priority because it enables people to get to work. For some workers, it is their only option to get to work.

Much of the Biden aid package is oriented toward bolstering state and local governments. The thinking appears to be to take care of that first and as the economy recovers and the pandemic is tamed then travel will recover as business travel resumes and pent-up demand for leisure travel explodes.

Only then will we be seeing more flights, more bus service and more daily Amtrak trains.

Meeting in a Swirl of Snow

January 16, 2021

Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited meets a westbound CSX manifest freight in Perry, Ohio, during a heavy lake effect snowstorm. The trains are running on the CSX Erie West Subdivision. The freight was stopped due to traffic ahead. Amtrak No. 48 was running a few hours late.

Some Hiawatha Service Trains to Remain Suspended

January 16, 2021

Amtrak said this week that the suspension of some Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains has been extended.

In a service advisory, the passenger carrier said the suspensions will continue due to continued low ridership.

However, Amtrak said that starting Feb. 1 it will add a pair of early morning trains, Nos. 329 and 330.

Trains 331, 337 and 339 will continue to operate from Chicago and Trains 332, 338 and 342 from Milwaukee in order to provide daily morning, afternoon and evening trips.

The advisory said ridership will continue to be evaluated and service restorations are expected later this year.

The Hiawatha Service is funded by the states of Wisconsin and Illinois.