Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak expansion’

More Hope Than Plan at This Point

February 3, 2021

News outlets in Ohio over the past few of days have reported stories about Amtrak service expansion plans in the state.

The intercity passenger carrier has been reported to be planning five new corridor services including Cleveland-Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton; Chicago-Cincinnati via Indianapolis; Cleveland-Detroit (Pontiac) via Toledo; Cleveland-New York via Buffalo, New York; and Cleveland-New York via Pittsburgh.

Most of these routes would have multiple daily frequencies including four daily roundtrips on the Chicago-Cincinnati route.

The 3C corridor service would be three daily roundtrips while the Cleveland-New York service would be two daily roundtrips via Buffalo and one roundtrip via Pittsburgh.

Amtrak would fund these services through a program for which it is seeking $300 million from Congress.

For its part, Amtrak has been issuing a written statement to reporters seeking information that is far less detailed.

After stating that corridor services of 500 miles are the fastest growing segment of its network, the passenger carrier has said, “We have developed a visionary plan to expand rail service across the nation, providing service to large metropolitan areas that have little or no Amtrak service.

“We are working with our state partners, local officials and other stakeholders to understand their interests in new and improved Amtrak service and will be releasing that plan soon. We will call on Congress to authorize and fund Amtrak’s expansion in such corridors by allowing us to cover most of the initial capital and operating costs of new or expanded routes”

And that’s it. The statement did not provide any details about specific routes and service levels.

The specific information came from All Aboard Ohio, an advocacy group that has long sought without success to push for creation of a network of passenger trains in the Buckeye state.

But is this proposal the “game changer” that some on social media are calling it?

It could be but keep in mind it is simply a proposal. There is no guarantee Congress will approve funding for the corridor development program and no guarantee that any of the proposed Ohio trains will ever turn a wheel.

AAO public affairs director Kenneth Prendergast acknowledged in an interview with Trains magazine that the five corridors that his group has identified are “more of an outline or goal than a plan.”

Amtrak officials have been meeting with local officials throughout Ohio to discuss the corridor program proposal. Similar meetings have been held in other states, including Tennessee and Kansas.

Based on what Amtrak government affairs officials said during state legislative hearings in those states, Amtrak would front the costs of route development and pay operating expenses on a sliding scale for up to five years.

State and local governments would have to begin underwriting the service starting in the second year and assume all funding after the fifth year.

If you read the Amtrak statement carefully, it says the passenger carrier would pay for most of the initial capital and operating costs.

That is not necessarily the 100 percent federal funding factoid that AAO described in a post on its website and it officers have been talking up in news media interviews.

In fairness, though, the AAO post later said that Amtrak might pay up to 100 percent of the initial capital costs and up to 100 percent of the operating costs for the first two years.

Given that Amtrak has yet to release details about the corridor development program and has yet to formally ask Congress to fund it, there is much that remains unknown.

And given that the Amtrak statement falls short of saying it will pay all costs of getting a route up and running it is reasonable to conclude that state and local governments would need to pay something, although we don’t know yet what that would be.

One guess is local and state money would need to help fund station development.

Not even AAO expects the proposed services to come to fruition anytime soon.

Writing on Twitter, AAO said it can take three to six years to get a route started depending on its complexity.

In the meantime, AAO has said it will seek a “small appropriation” in the next biennial budget to pay for state-level planning of the five proposed corridors.

It is not clear whether Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio legislative leaders would be receptive to that.

AAO argues that DeWine is more inclined to be supportive of passenger rail than was his predecessor, John Kasich.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Kasich adamantly opposed using a $400 million federal stimulus grant the state had received to start 3C service.

Upon being elected, Kasich returned that money to the U.S. Department of Transportation although not before making an unsuccessful pitch that the state be allowed to redirect the grant toward highway development.

AAO contends that DeWine has asked the Ohio Department of Transportation to put passenger rail “back on the radar.” But the scope of DeWine’s support for passenger rail has yet to be publicly articulated.

It is all but certain that once concrete proposals are introduced in the legislature authorizing spending state money on rail passenger service development that opposition will arise from opponents decrying wasting public money.

Another unknown is what demands the host railroads would make to agree to allow these trains to use their tracks.

We know that in the past host railroads have submitted lists of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements as the price of acceptance.

How necessary those improvements were is debatable, but the demands seemed exorbitant enough to discourage the proposed service.

Such pricey demands have thwarted efforts to operate the Chicago-New York Cardinal and the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited daily rather than tri-weekly.

Some of the articles and social media posts about the proposed Ohio corridors have noted that President Joseph Biden is an avid supporter of passenger rail and is expected to release an infrastructure proposal later this year.

Passenger rail advocates are hoping to use that as the springboard to shake loose billions of federal dollars for passenger rail development.

It may be a time to be optimistic yet nothing is certain. At best Amtrak’s proposal represents hope. But as we’ve seen in the past, those hopes can be a very fragile thing.

Amtrak Sends Wish List to Congress

January 27, 2021

Amtrak this week informed Congress of its wish list of legislative priorities.

Perhaps the top items is an additional $1.541 billion of COVID-19 pandemic emergency relief.

In a letter signed by Amtrak CEO William Flynn, the passenger carrier said the money is needed “to sustain and restore operations and recall employees” through Sept. 30 and into the next federal fiscal year.

The letter did not indicate how much money Amtrak believes it needs to restore daily operation to long-distance trains whose frequency of service was cut to tri-weekly last October.

In response to a query from a Trains magazine reporter, Amtrak said that restoration of service on long-distance routes hinges on certain public health, future demand, and current ridership performance metrics compared with pre-pandemic numbers for those trains.

In the letter Flynn said specific requests for funding in federal fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1, will be sent to Congress later.

In the meantime, Amtrak’s legislative priorities are primarily a repeat of past requests that have yet to be approved by lawmakers.

These include establishing an intercity passenger rail trust fund, legislation designed to overcome resistance by host railroads to service expansion and increased frequency of service, legislation that would give Amtrak a right to sue a host railroad that subjects passenger trains to excessive delays due to freight train interference, and funding for new corridor services

The trust fund proposal is not new. The late W. Graham Claytor Jr. sought such a fund back in the 1980s when he was Amtrak’s president, suggesting the intercity passenger carrier be given funding from the Highway Trust Fund.

In his letter, Flynn said Amtrak needs a predictable source of federal funding for the Northeast Corridor and national network so it can pursue large, multi-year projects and service expansions rather than relying on annual appropriations.

Flynn did not specify what tools Amtrak wants to compel host railroads to approve service expansions, but indicated it needs changes in federal law.

The corridor service Amtrak is seeking would require amending Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act so that Amtrak could pay the initial startup costs and operating expenses of those corridors.

Under existing, law, state and local governments are required to underwrite corridor services.

Although Amtrak has told several states that it wants to front the costs to develop corridors between urban centers, it also has made clear that in time the states served by those trains will be expected to pay for them.

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.

Hope for Heartland Flyer Expansion? Maybe, But it Will be a Long, Difficult and Expensive Road

June 19, 2017

Amtrak garnered a lot of positive publicity recently when it operated an inspection train from Oklahoma City to Kansas City.

The train stopped in several cities in Oklahoma and Kansas that are hungry to see Amtrak return after an absence of more than 37 years.

Probably more than a few people who turned out to see the train or heard about it through the news media came away thinking that it was a giant step toward extending the route of the Heartland Flyer.

But getting Amtrak to operate an inspection train is simple compared with the work of finding a way to make the service happen. And that wasn’t something that Amtrak talked about much during the stopovers.

Instead, Amtrak spokesman Joe McHugh talked up how there had been a “tremendous turnout” in communities that haven’t seen a passenger train since the Chicago-Houston Lone Star was discontinued during a massive Amtrak route restructuring in 1979.

McHugh said Amtrak will work with BNSF, which owns the track used by the inspection train, to establish the service.

He said the next step toward passenger rail service would be planning what that service will look like, how much it will cost and what investments are necessary to rebuild the BNSF tracks.

McHugh said that work will probably last through the summer and fall.

Actually, Amtrak already knows a lot about those things.

The idea of extending the Heartland Flyer has been around for a long time.

One idea is to run it all the way to Kansas City, where it could connect with Missouri Mule service to St. Louis and the Southwest Chief to Chicago.

Another idea is to extend the Flyer to Newton, Kansas, where it would connect with the Chief.

As it is, Amtrak began Thruway bus service to Newton from Oklahoma City last year for that purpose.

It is the nature of rail passenger advocates to spin studies and inspection trains in the best possible light.

Mark Corriston, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, carried a sign that he held up at the Topeka, Kansas, station – which is already served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief – that read, “If Amtrak runs it, we will ride it.”

He told a local news reporter that the sign was out of the movie Field of Dreams, in which an Iowa farmer hears a voice saying, “If you build it, they will come.” That was in reference to a baseball diamond.

But not all passenger advocates are as sanguine.

In two postings on the NARP website, Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma, Passenger Rail Kansas, sounded downright morose about the prospects for extending the Flyer.

His comments are illustrative of the sense of weariness that passenger advocates must feel.

As Stair sees it, the inspection train was part of a continuing dialogue rather than a means to an end.

He suspects that the inspection run “will likely become yet another symbol of dashed hopes as Amtrak’s national route system continues to stagnate.”

In 1998 Amtrak ran an inspection train to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but that has yet to materialize into scheduled intercity rail passenger service to a city that last had it on the day before Amtrak came to life in 1971.

Stair said the logical endpoints for the Heartland Flyer are Fort Worth and Kansas City.

For the past 18 years the Flyer has operated between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, connecting at the former city with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

BNSF and Amtrak had earlier said that to operate the train between Fort Worth and Kansas City would require $479 million in capital improvements.

That figure drops to between $126 million to $156 million if the extension goes no further north than Newton.

Stair questions whether that much needs to be spent on a line that has moderate freight traffic.

In recent years, the Heartland Flyer has been funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

Oklahoma nearly cut its funding by $1 million for fiscal year 2018, which would have ended or sharply curtailed operation of the train.

At the last minute, the legislature came up with the funds, but Stair noted that Oklahoma’s finances are strained due to declining revenue.

In such an environment, Stair wrote, there is little prospect for the state agreeing to meet the capital needs demanded by Amtrak and BNSF.

Heartland Flyer service expansion is essential to [its] preservation,” Stair wrote. “The train cannot survive for much longer as-is. Amtrak now recognizes this after 18 years. What took them so long? We were knocking on their doors 10 years ago!”

A more likely solution to the capital funding dilemma, Stair wrote, would be using federal grant money such as TIGER funding.

TIGER funds were used to rebuild the BNSF track in western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northern New Mexico used by the Southwest Chief.

Yet with the Trump administration seeking to end the TIGER program, it is not clear where that funding will come from.

“There is some good news,” Stair wrote. “There are signs Amtrak managers who deal directly with the Heartland Flyer are listening. This only occurred when Passenger Rail Oklahoma encouraged, through a failed House Bill, to unbundle the Heartland Flyer contract. ODOT and TxDOT then threatened a request for proposal to unbundle the service.”

That would have meant having an operator other than Amtrak operate the train.

What Stair thinks could save the service would be the creation of an Oklahoma City section of the Texas Eagle or Southwest Chief in the same way that there is a Portland section of the Empire Builder.

That option, though, creates its own set of challenges.

For now, the Heartland Flyer continues to operate and some continue to hope that the “dialogue” will someday result in service where it does not now exist.

Hurdles Remain for Western Pa. Amtrak Expansion

March 4, 2017

Although they continue to push for expanded Amtrak service, public officials in western Pennsylvania acknowledge that finding money for that service is a significant challenge.

“You’ve got a tight budget, so any additional money to expand rail service is tough to come by,” said State Rep. Bryan Barbin, a former member of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.

pennsylvaniaBabin said the proposed service expansion is likely to take time to realize because other projects are high on the state’s list of priorities.

He said the potential hurdles include the state budget, cooperation with Amtrak and negotiations with Norfolk Southern, which own the tracks used by the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

The state-funded Pennsylvanian is the only intercity rail service on the NS line between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Support for additional service has been particularly strong in the Johnstown area. Officials from Johnstown and Cambria County testified last year in favor of the service at a meeting of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.

Support has also come from public officials in Pittsburgh and Altoona.

Babin said that other projects higher on the state’s list of priorities so, “It’s going to be a while.”

Pennsylvanian Congressman Bill Shuster has also expressed support for the expansion.

“I believe these new investments will bring new economic growth to our communities,” said Shuster, who is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Passenger rail service provides an important link for southwestern Pennsylvania to the rest of the country, and anytime there’s a market demand for new service, it’s something that should be looked at.”

Babin observed that Pennsylvania is operating at a deficit and the legislature is looking at the possibilities of raising taxes, cutting spending and closing loopholes in the state budget.

However, he noted that Pennsylvania spends $18 million per year on passenger rail of which $17 million goes to support trains in the eastern third of the state.

“We need to do the same thing if we’re going to connect the whole state,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the biggest transportation issue for the western part of the state.”

House Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. John Taylor, of Philadelphia, said he is still committed to expanding rail service in the western part of the state.

“It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together,” said Eric Bugaile, the committee’s executive director. That would mean reaching an agreement among PennDOT, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern officials on the same page.

Aside from state budget challenges, another sticking point is the fact that the NS route to be used by the service is a busy freight corridor.

NS spokesman David Pidgeon said any expanded Amtrak service should not adversely affect NS freight customers.

Pidgeon said NS was amendable to what he termed “viable plans” for expansion, which would take the carrier’s concerns into account.

Amtrak spokesman Mike Tolbert said the carrier continues to work with PennDOT “to provide a thorough evaluation of additional service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Due to the nature of these requests, which often include multiple stakeholders, extensive research and negotiations, they can require a significant amount of time to finalize.”