Posts Tagged ‘Federal Railroad Administration’

Virginia Wants More Service to Richmond

May 22, 2018

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation wants to see additional Amtrak service between Washington and Richmond, Virginia.

To provide that service, the agency said that two new tracks need to be constructed between Washington and Arlington, Virginia, after separate plans for an expanded Long Bridge are completed.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the District of Columbia Department of Transportation are expected to recommended a design and layout for the project later this year.

The recommendation for increased service to Richmond, which would also include an increase in service provided by Virginia Railway Express, was presented to  a Commonwealth Transportation Board subcommittee.

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Durbin Wants FRA to Pressure Railroads to Run Amtrak Trains On Time

May 11, 2018

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has joined Carbondale, Illinois, officials in seeking to pressure the Federal Railroad Administration into leaning on Amtrak’s host railroads to operate Chicago-Carbondale trains on time.

During the past year trains on the route were on time on just 32 percent of their trips.

“That’s simply unacceptable and deserves the FRA’s immediate attention and action,” Durbin wrote in his letter to the FRA.

“Amtrak’s Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route continues to be one of the worst preforming routes in the country,” he said. “The Illini and Saluki trains are consistently delayed by CN’s freight interference and the ongoing speed restrictions put in place by CN in 2015.”

The speed restriction that Durbin referenced was put into place along a 200-mile stretch of the 309-mile corridor as a safety precaution following repeated mechanical issues.

However, Amtrak and CN have been in a stalemate over finding a solution to solve that issue and lift the speed restriction.

Durbin wants the FRA to take a more active role to ensure that Amtrak trains operate on time in Illinois and around the country.

“My constituents have waited long enough while the Amtrak service they rely on has suffered,” Durbin said. “It’s time for the FRA to take on a larger oversight role in the ongoing dispute between Amtrak and CN, and I urge you to begin convening regular meetings between the leadership at FRA, CN, and Amtrak that include my staff so the FRA can set deadlines, prevent further delays, and ensure greater accountability.”

Durbin also contended that freight train interference has played a major role in causing delays to Amtrak trains.

“Canadian National in particular has a long history of holding up Amtrak trains and holding back investments that could improve passenger and freight service in downstate Illinois,” Durbin said.

Durbin’s letter came shortly after Carbondale city officials met with him and Amtrak managers to discuss the paltry on-time performance of Chicago-Carbondale trains, most of which are funded by the State of Illinois.

The route also hosts Amtrak’s Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans.

FRA Wants More Info on Ann Arbor Station Proposal

May 3, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration continues to press Ann Arbor, Michigan, officials for further information about its proposed new Amtrak station.

The FRA has asked the city to provide justification and support for the project, including the size of the station and parking garage to be built in Fuller Park, and the costs, which are now estimated at $86.2 million.

The FRA needs to approve the station design before the city can move ahead on building it.

City Administrator Howard Lazarus told the Ann Arbor City Council he has earmarked $69,200 from his contingency budget for continued work on the project, saying the funding is needed to support additional archeological survey work required by the FRA.

“The requirement stems from changes in staff at FRA, which city staff could not have foreseen,” Lazarus said. “Although no council action is required at this time, I am providing notification so that complete transparency on this project is maintained.”

Amtrak currently serves Ann Arbor from a station it built years ago on Depot Street. That facility is too small.

Based on long-term ridership projections, a new station would need to be 8,494 square feet to meet Amtrak guidelines. The existing station is 3,206 square feet.

In a draft environmental assessment report released last September the city identified a site in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital as its site for a new station.

A revised environmental assessment was sent to the FRA in late March, which prompted the request by the agency for more information.

The agency also asked why the proposed parking garage, storage lockers and a cafe are necessary because they will increase the station size.

The FRA also wanted to know what the city planned to do with the existing Amtrak station.

“This section is light on analysis; physical views are described, but both FRA staff and the public felt the discussion lacked analytic details to support the arguments presented. This is a theme in public comments,” the FRA said in requesting additional information.

Ann Arbor officials are hoping that the new depot will be funded largely by federal government and other sources.

Vermonters Still Wary Of Service Future

May 3, 2018

Although Vermont officials and rail passenger advocates are optimistic that Amtrak service to their state will survive, they are not taking that for granted.

Many in Vermont became alarmed after Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told a congressional hearing in February that the passenger carrier would likely suspend service using routes that are not protected by positive train control.

Anderson was speaking about the prospect that some of its host railroads might not meet a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline set by federal law to install PTC.

However, the New York-Rutland Ethan Allen Express and Washington-St. Albans Vermonter use routes in the Green Mountain state that are not required to have PTC under federal law.

Both trains are funded in part by the State of Vermont.

Following Anderson’s comment an Amtrak government affairs manager tried to downplay the matter, suggesting that Vermont’s trains are likely to continue.

Amtrak is studying how and if to operate on route that are not required to have PTC.

However, of late Vermont officials have sound the alarm again because they say that Amtrak officials have been noncommittal in speaking about the future of the Vermont service.

They say Amtrak has not yet ruled out the possibility at the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express will cease operating to Vermont on Jan. 1, 2019.

Another complication, Vermont officials say, is the prospect that a segment of the Vermonter’s route in Massachusetts may not meet administrative requirements that would reassure Amtrak of its safety.

The segment in question is 49 miles owned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that it purchased in 2014 from Pan Am Railways so that the Vermonter would reach a higher population base.

The resulted in rerouting the Vermonter from a route via Amherst to a route via Northhampton.

There are no plans at present to install PTC on that line.

There is little rail traffic on the route and the Federal Railroad Administration might be willing to grant it a waiver from the PTC requirement.

The Vermont Business Magazine said it had spoken with two sources who attended an April 16 meeting in Washington of the Rail Passenger Association, a national advocacy group.

During that meeting, Chris Jagodzinski, Amtrak’s vice president for operations, displayed a map indicating, in practice, the relative likelihood that Amtrak would cease serving certain route segments.

The sources said the 49-mile segment in Massachusetts is rated among the highest-risk routes because its lacks a PTC plan.

Vermont officials fear that Amtrak might refuse to run the Vermonter north of Springfield and instead carry passengers there by bus.

They also fear that once rail service is lost, it might be difficult to get it back.

A MassDOT spokesperson declined to comment on the PTC issue other than to make an innocuous statement in support of rail passenger service and referring specific questions to Amtrak.

Nonetheless, a source told the Vermont Business Magazine that MassDOT is working with the FRA, Amtrak and Pan Am to resolve the PTC issue, which the source said appears to be “solvable” by the PTC deadline.

An Amtrak spokesperson said the carrier is just now beginning to undertake a safety review of the Ethan Allen route and has yet to begin the review of the Vermonter route.

Federal law requires that if service is to be terminated by Amtrak, it must give 180 days notice. If service to Vermont is end or be suspended on Jan. 1, 2019, the notice would need to be given by July 5.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation and Genesee & Wyoming, which owns the tracks used by the Vermonter in Vermont are seeking a $1.6 million grant under the federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program that could be used to pay for safety equipment.

This could includes, for example, the installation of rock slide detectors.

“At this point the ball is in Amtrak’s court,” Michele Boomhower, director of policy planning and intermodal development at VTrans, said. “We have no time frame for anything changing, so we’re operating on a business-as-usual framework, awaiting Amtrak’s safety analysis.”

Budget Bill Gives Boost to Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service Along the

March 28, 2018

Gulf Coast proponents of restoring Amtrak service are looking toward a provision of the recently approved federal budget as a cause for optimism.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains $20 million for a grant program aimed at initiating, restoring or enhancing passenger rail service.

An aide to Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the program is competitive but was created with the Gulf Coast service in mind.

The Southern Rail Commission said the budget bill contained $592 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, which has $35.5 million to restore lost passenger service.

The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, a partnership between the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission and 28 cities, regional planning councils and state departments of transportation last July sent a report to Congress that urges creation of daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Orlando.

The route was served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until that service was suspended following extensive damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The report estimated the cost of service restoration at $115 million, but track owner CSX contends it would be $2 billion.

The working group has expressed doubt about the CSX figure but said it could not validate it without knowing the methodology behind the estimate.

Since the report was completed, CSX has offered for sale the track between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida, that Amtrak once used.

Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, is optimistic that if CSX sells the track that could boost efforts to restore passenger service to the Florida panhandle.

“(State and federal regulators) could make the passenger train a condition of sale,” Ross said. “That they have to maintain the line to at least current standard, and that they have to allow the (passenger) train.”

The Southern Rail Commission is also seeking twice-daily rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got a short-term opportunity to get something done,” he said.

One stumbling block to service restoration could be the lack of positive train control on the line between Pensacola to Orlando.

Amtrak Wants Right to Sue Host Railroads over On-time Performance

March 13, 2018

Tucked away in Amtrak’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 is a plea to Congress to give the passenger the legal right to sue its host railroads for delaying its trains.

Amtrak wants to be able to seek legal remedies to protect its statutory right of preference by bringing “an action for equitable or other relief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, or in any jurisdiction where Amtrak resides or is found, to enforce preference rights granted under this subsection.”

The requests follows setbacks in the lawsuits challenging certain provisions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

The Association of American Railroads challenged the process whereby on-time metrics were to be developed by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Specifically the AAR objected to allowing Amtrak to play a role in establishing the standards.

AAR won that battle when the courts ruled that Congress had unlawfully granted Amtrak regulatory power over the industry in which it participates.

When Amtrak brought three cases against its host railroads, using a Surface Transportation Board metric of 80 percent on-time performance in deciding pending cases, an appeals court ruled that the 80 percent standard had been tainted by the previous rulings.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee recently, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said, “We’ve never been able to get the preference right that Amtrak has, enforced . . . and we’d like a private right of action.”

Amtrak is also seeking legislative action to overturn a law that prohibits it from hiring lobbyists. It noted that its host railroads and labor unions are able to hire lobbyists.

The passenger carrier also wants changes to streamline its compliance with at-odds reporting requirements from multiple federal agencies, an exemption from Freedom of Information Act requests, and a law that will make it a federal crime to assault an Amtrak crew member.

Proposed Minnesota Rail Route Clears Hurdle

March 9, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration has found that a proposed passenger rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, would have no significant impact on the environment.

That finding will enable the Minnesota Department of Transportation to seek federal and state funding for the 152-mile Northern Lights Express.

The proposed service, which would use BNSF tracks, is expected to cost between $500 to $600 million and make intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, and Hinckley, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.

Studies have projected the trains would generate 700,000 to 750,000 rides in the first year of operation.

“It’s a significant hurdle because we can now work on getting an agreement with Amtrak, BNSF, and funding for final design and construction,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT’s transportation department’s project manager,

Amtrak operated a state-funded train known as the North Star on this same route until 1985.

During the 1970s, the North Star originated in Chicago for a time.

NTSB Releases More Info on Silver Star Crash

March 1, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released a preliminary report on Feb. 4 head-on collision between Amtrak’s southbound Silver Star and a CSX auto rack train in South Carolina that provides additional details about the crash that caused an estimated $25 million in damage and claimed the lives of two Amtrak crew members. At least 92 passengers and crew members aboard Amtrak No. 91 were injured.

The report reviews the CSX dispatching system at the time of the accident and reveals how two CSX crew members of the parked auto rack train that Amtrak struck managed to escape injury.

The report said the CSX engineer had gotten off his train before the Silver Star entered the siding due to a misaligned switch. He was able to run to safety.

The CSX conductor was thrown off the locomotive of his train by the impact of the collision and suffered minor injuries.

The three-page NTSB report does not seek to assess blame for the accident, but reiterates earlier released information that a misaligned switch led to the collision.

A more detailed report that states a probable cause along with recommendations will be issued several months later.

In the meantime, the NTSB has recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration issue an emergency order providing instructions for instances in which a signal system has been turned off and a switch has been reported as relined for a main track.

Other information contained in the preliminary NTSB report includes:

Amtrak Train No. 91 reached a top speed of 57 mph after leaving its station stop in nearby Columbia, South Carolina. This was below the 59 mph limit allowed under signal suspension rules.

Information taken from the Amtrak locomotive’s event recorder indicated that before it stopped recording the engineer had activated the locomotive horn for three seconds and brake pipe pressure began decreasing two seconds later.

The engineer then moved the throttle from full throttle to idle as the train slowed to 54 mph.

A second later, the train’s emergency brakes were applied, by which time its speed had fallen to 53 mph.

The recording ended as the air brakes were approaching maximum braking effort and train speed was 50 mph.

The forward-facing video camera of the Amtrak P42DC was recovered from the wreckage and sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington for analysis.

It stopped recording shortly before the collision, but NTSB engineers are attempting forensic efforts to recover further information.

Investigators have also recovered the forward-facing video camera and event recorder of the lead CSX locomotive.

The engineer and conductor of the Amtrak train died as a result of the collision and at least 92 passengers and crew members of the Amtrak train were transported to local medical facilities.

Batory Sworn in as FRA Head

March 1, 2018

Ronald L. Batory was sworn in on Wednesday as the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The ceremony was officiated by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. Batory is the first FRA head to have railroad operating experience since Joe Szabo, who stepped down in 2014.

During remarks at the ceremony, Batory said that safety will be the FRA’s primary focus.

Supreme Court Won’t Intervene in On-time Case

February 27, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a request by Amtrak to review a lower court decision that found the Surface Transportation Board cannot assume regulatory authority that is granted to Congress.

The high court’s decision means that a last effort by the federal government to revive the delegated authority will be decided by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In a July 2017 decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the STB lacked the authority to establish regulatory standards for “on-time performance” in exercising its power to require freight railroads to give “preference” to Amtrak trains. See, Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Surface Transportation Board, 863 F.3d 816 (8th Cir. 2017).

The Union Pacific case was one of two in which courts considered challenges to a portion of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

That law delegated to the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak the joint power to establish metrics and standards to define “on-time performance,” and gave the STB power to penalize railroads that fail to meet the standards.

The other case was Association of American Railroads vs. U.S. Department of Transportation.

In the latter case, the railroad trade organization challenged the joint FRA/Amtrak authority as an unconstitutional delegation of governmental power to Amtrak because it is a for profit entity.

The appellate court in that case sided with the AAR, ruling that the law constituted a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause to give Amtrak, “an economically self-interested actor,” the power to regulate its competitors.

Following that decision, the STB sought to establish the on-time standards itself, which led to the Union Pacific case.

The district court in Washington has set oral arguments for March 5 in what remains of the AAR case.

During that hearing, the federal government and Amtrak will be seeking to have the court reinstate the joint rule-making authority of the FRA and Amtrak by narrowing the court’s previous decision and striking down only a portion of the offending PRIIA provision.