Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Transformational? Probably Not

August 4, 2021

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill now being debated by the Senate contains an infusion of new funding for rail passenger service, it is not necessarily the “transformational” development that rail passenger advocates have long sought.

Writing last week on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, the president of the group formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the bill provides meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding, yet doesn’t have nearly enough funding to provide for a wide-ranging expansion of Amtrak routes and services.

But 24 hours later, RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s vice president of policy and government affairs, wrote a post saying that the views expressed in Mathews’ earlier post had been a little too pessimistic and that the infrastructure plan could be transformational.

When RPA and other rail passenger advocates use the word “transformational” they are talking about a vision in which the nation’s intercity rail passenger network is much greater than it is now. By that they mean doubled, tripled and maybe quadrupled.

It is difficult to say because advocates tend to speak in general terms about Amtrak expansion.

Amtrak has laid out its own transformational vision in its Amtrak Connect US plan that calls for a network of 39 new corridor services by 2035.

Individual rail passenger advocates, though, tend to have their own visions and dreams, some of which would involve several new long-distance routes plus an expansion of the number of trains on existing long-distance routes. Amtrak is not calling for additional long-distance routes.

Whatever your vision for expanding intercity rail passenger service might be, it won’t happen without a massive infusion of public money.

The infrastructure plan now before the Senate would allocate $66 million for passenger rail.

But most of that money would be used on Amtrak’s existing network, leaving just $32 billion for additional passenger rail funding.

 “While this bill would count as the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House,” Mathews wrote.

He was referring to the $74 billion originally proposed by President Joseph Biden for new passenger rail projects in his American Jobs Act proposal.

What RPA and other passenger advocates really want is the $110 billion in the House-approved INVEST Act that would be spent on passenger rail.

The Senate infrastructure bill combines figures from what had been two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021.

That bill, which contained $34.2 billion for passenger rail, was approved earlier by the Senate Commerce Committee.

If you combine what is available for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill with the Transportation Investment Act figures, Jeans-Gail wrote, you get a passenger rail investment of $102 billion over the next five years, which he called a “transformational” figure.

Maybe, but read the fine print. The only funding that is guaranteed by the infrastructure bill is the $66 billion of the original bi-partisan infrastructure plan.

The rest of the funding is subject to approval through the congressional appropriations process.

“There’s no assurance that the additional $36 billion in investment will ever fully materialize,” Jeans-Gail wrote. “This creates uncertainty in how the guaranteed funds would be used, hindering the ability of states and Amtrak to effectively execute multi-year capitalization plans.”

So what will that $66 billion be used for? Primarily to fund capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and the national network, and buy new equipment for the national network.

Some of the funding is devoted toward establishing new services, although Mathews suggested it might only be enough for one or two routes.

The RPA posts have suggested that money could be used to restore discontinued routes, extend existing service and add additional frequencies on existing routes.

In his post, Mathews said there remains hope that the House will approve a more generous rail funding section of the infrastructure plan. Any differences would need to be worked out between the House and Senate.

He conceded that a higher level of rail funding could draw the opposition of those Republicans who have thus far supported the bi-partisan Senate infrastructure bill.

It seems unlikely the Senate will lie down and give in to everything that the House wants. There will be a give and take in reconciling the differing visions of each chamber.

Then again the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, hasn’t been considered by the House and hasn’t been signed by the president. We are talking about proposals at this point not finished products.

The numbers may change in time, but the overall thrust of what the infrastructure bill will and won’t do is unlikely to change all that much.

That may result in something transformational or it might simply lead to incremental additions to the nation’s intercity rail passenger network with new equipment and improved infrastructure being used by the existing services.

If that turns out to be the case it would be a positive for America’s intercity rail passenger network. It just won’t lead to the fulfillment of most of the desires and dreams of many rail passenger advocates.

Canada to Issue RFP for Rail Project

July 8, 2021

Canadian authorities said this week that they will be issue a request for proposals for new train service in the Toronto-Quebec City Corridor.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said the move is part of an effort to create VIA Rail Canada high frequency rail service.

He called the plan the largest transportation infrastructure project seen by Canada in decades.

The request for proposals for the procurement process is expected to be issued this fall.

The proposals must address how the new service would include shorter travel times and faster trains that would reduce average trip times between Toronto and Ottawa by up to 90 minutes.

Other requirements include more reliable on-time arrival performance up to 95 percent from a current average of 67 percent.

There are expected to be more direct routes with improved connectivity between cities and to other modes of transportation; and new services to communities, such as Peterborough, Trois-Rivieres and Laval, and new stations in targeted locations including near Jean Lesage Airport.

Traditional Dining to Return to Eastern Trains

June 27, 2021

Dining aboard the Capitol Limited in route to Chicago in May 2012.

Goodbye flexible dining and hello French toast.

Amtrak announced on Tuesday its plans to return traditional dining to eastern long distance trains and allow coach passengers to buy meals in the dining car.

However, it gave no date for when those changes but indicated it would be late this year or in early 2022.

Traditional dining for sleeping car passengers is being reinstated on western long distance trains on June 23.

Amtrak officials also indicated the eastern trains likely will receive an abridged version of the menus used on western trains and that coach passengers might not necessarily be able to eat in the dining car but use a takeout service.

Those are moves Amtrak management expects to decide over the next few months.

The announcement was made on Tuesday at a press event at Chicago Union Station during which Amtrak showed off its first Siemens ALC-42 locomotives that will be used in the carrier’s national network.

The carrier also showed new interior designs for its Superliner fleet.

Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president operations and customer services, said when traditional dining and coach passenger access to dining cars is implemented will depend on the reactions the carrier gets to the new dining-car menus planned for the western long-distance trains.

 “A lot of it is centered on two things,” he said. “First will be passenger reaction to the menu. “Do we need to make any adjustments? What is the most popular, and how long each of those items takes to cook, because we imagine that whatever is popular with our [sleeping-car passengers] is going to be as popular with our coaches,

“And then, once we understand that, we’ll figure out the logistics of what’s going to make sense. Is it opening up the dining room or additional tables for coach customers, or is it more of a take-out kind of menu, or is it a delivery? Those are the things we have to weigh. It is a priority for us to roll it out for coach customers, so hopefully within three or four months we can do that.”

As for the differences between menus of the eastern versus the western trains, Jordan said the former will receive “a version” of the new menu, but probably not the exact menu. 

“You’re only talking three or four meals, so I don’t know if we have to have every single menu item.”

Jordan indicated the return of traditional dining to eastern trains will likely occur late this year or early near year.

Traditional dining on Amtrak’s western trains will include the return of linen tablecloths and napkins, new flatware and glassware.

Dining car china will return in a few months once Amtrak is able to receive its order of china. Until then meals will be served on plastic plates.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and revenue officer, said the return of traditional dining and upgraded silverware and dishes reflects an understanding that premium prices should be accompanied by premium service.

“We have so much demand that prices go up, because we’re a little bit of a supply-and-demand world,” Harris said.

“We look at it, and go, ‘wow,’ if we’re going to charge people more, we better do a better job of looking after them . . . I’s not just a tablecloth. The food product is better.”

Jordan said the fare to be served in dining cars was developed in consultation with Amtrak’s own chefs as well as those from vendors such as Cuisine Solutions and Aramark.

The menu they decided upon has a mixture of long-standing Amtrak menu items, including French Toast, Angus beef burgers, and flatiron steak and some new entrees.

 “Overall, we wanted healthy items, whole food items — fairly traditional, but we wanted to simplify it to some extent, as well,” Jordan said.

“Our previous menu had 18 items; this one has, not counting the appetizers, 12 items. So customers are not overwhelmed by the choices and it makes it easier for our chefs to prepare these.”

Changes Made to NC Connector Service

May 21, 2021

The Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation has modified some NC Connector service between High Point and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

PART will incorporate Route 1 and Route 3 to allow connections between High Point and Winston-Salem.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said passengers will need to transfer at PARTs Coble Transportation Center in Greensboro from one route to another, depending on direction of travel.

Passengers boarding at the Winston-Salem Clark Campbell Transportation Center or Winston-Salem State University will board PART Route 1 schedule service to the Coble Transportation Center.

Upon boarding, the driver will verify travel document and issue a PART Paper Token. The Winston Salem State University stop has been relocated just north of the current stop to Union Station.

When arriving at Coble Transportation Center, passengers will use the PART Paper Token to transfer onto PART Route 3 schedule service that will proceed to the High Point Train station.

Westbound passengers coming from Piedmont and Carolinian trains will need to collect a PART Paper Token from a station agent before proceeding on PART Route 3 schedule service to Coble Transportation Center.

When arriving at Coble Transportation Center, passengers will use the PART Paper Token to transfer onto Route 1 schedule service that will proceed to the Winston-Salem Clark Campbell Transportation Center and then Winston-Salem State University.

Route 1 connections at the Winston-Salem Clark Cable Station are at the L-1 slip located on the side of WS Depot facility on North Liberty Street.

At Winston-Salem University,  Route 1 connections are located at the PART Bus Stop sign in front of the Union Station building. Passengers have three routes to connect to campus.

At the High Point Terminal,  Route 3 connections are at the High Point Terminal Outer Slip.

Missouri Lawmakers Mull Cutting Amtrak Service

March 25, 2021

Missouri lawmakers are considering making Missouri River Runner Service just one roundtrip a day, which is what it has been since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Before the pandemic Missouri funded two daily roundtrips between St. Louis and Kansas City.

But a proposal before the House Budget Committee would only pay for one roundtrip even though the Missouri Department of Transportation is seeking funding for double daily service.

MoDOT said the River Runners handled 172,000 passengers annually before two years of service disruptions.

These included flooding that led Amtrak to transport passengers by bus rather than the train.

The route itself was unaffected by the flooding but host railroad Union Pacific routed freight trains off other route that were closed by high water.

Ridership also has fallen during the pandemic transportation officials said.

Amtrak, Vermont Talking About Service Revival

March 25, 2021

Vermont transportation officials are talking to Amtrak about reviving the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express.

Both trains were suspended last year during the CVOID-19 pandemic.

During a briefing about the pandemic, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said the state has had has had “preliminary discussions” with Amtrak about restoring both trains.

“We just don’t know exactly when it’s going to be,” Scott said.

Vermont Agency of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Taiko said her agency hopes to make an announcement within the next several weeks as to when the service might return.

Before being suspended, the Vermonter operated between St. Albans and Washington while the Ethan Allen Express ran between Rutland and New York.

State officials said that Amtrak has made non revenue runs in Vermont to keep the operating crews qualified.

New Capitol Corridor Sked Set to Roll Out

March 25, 2021

The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority will introduce a new schedule on March 29 for Amtrak’s Capitols Service.

The agency said the new schedule “better reflects current ridership demand.”

Restoration of pre-COVID-19 levels of service are not expected until sometime in 2022.

Before the pandemic, the corridor hosted up to 30 trains per day. During the pandemic service fell to 10 trains a day.

Service rose last June to 16 weekday trains with 10 on weekends. The corridor has 18 stations on its 170-mile route.

Among the changes in the new schedule will be inauguration of a direct round-trip train on weekdays between Auburn and San Jose, thus allowing riders to travel the entire corridor without a change of trains.

A sixth round-trip between San Jose and Oakland will also return.

CCJPA in a news release described the new timetable as a “pulse schedule” because it features adjustments to departure times so they are “more consistent and predictable,” and “a better distribution of trips throughout the day with smaller gaps between morning and midday trains.”

Judge Says Amtrak Liable for 2017 Cascades Derailment

March 25, 2021

A judge has ruled that Amtrak is strictly liable for a December 2017 derailment of a Cascades Service train in DuPont, Washington that left three dead.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Amtrak engineer Steven Brown, who was at the controls at the time that Cascades No. 501 derailed.

The National Transportation Safety Board later ruled that the train was exceeding the posted speed limit on a curve when it derailed.

Brown claimed in his suit that he was not properly trained and that a positive train control system could have prevented the derailment.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Karena Kirkendall means that when Brown’s suit goes to trial later this year the only issue to be decided will be that of damages.

Amtrak had argued in court that Brown’s negligence caused the derailment.

But Judge Kirkendall granted Brown’s motion for partial summary judgment, which asked the judge to find Amtrak “strictly liable” and that the only defense to Amtrak’s absolute liability would be to prove that Brown “was the sole cause of his own injuries.”

SRC Touts Endorsements of Gulf Coast Service

March 25, 2021

The Southern Rail Commission said recently that it has gained support from several Gulf Coast organizations and mayors from cities across the region in support of Amtrak’s plans to begin rail passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Amtrak wants to begin the service in 2022 but is locked in a dispute with host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern over what rail infrastructures improvements are needed to host the service.

The intercity passenger carrier recently took its case to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

The Gulf Coast has lacked Amtrak service since August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the route used by the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

The SRC has been trying since then to get intercity rail service reinstated and has landed federal and state grants to be used for that purpose.

“Restoring passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile is a critical economic driver for our region,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in A prepared statement. “I pledge to work with Amtrak and the railroads to help make the service a reality. We know that to grow, we have to think regionally, and this is a step in connecting New Orleanians with destinations along the Gulf Coast.”

California, USDOT in Talks to Settle Suit

March 25, 2021

California and the U.S. Department of Justice are talking about a settlement in a lawsuit the state filed against USDOT after it canceled a $929 million grant for the state’s high speed rail project.

That action was taken during the Trump administration. In its lawsuit, filed in 2019, California argued that USDOT lacked the legal authority to withhold the funds, which had been granted during the Obama administration.

During the Trump presidency, the Federal Railroad Administration contended that the state “failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”

California officials countered that the cancellation of the grant stemmed from Trump’s “overt hostility” toward the state.