Posts Tagged ‘Federal Railroad Administration’

Amtrak Host Railroads Push Back on FRA OT Rule

May 21, 2020

Running a passenger train schedule between one station and another should seem like a straight forward process.

Take such factors as distance and maximum speed allowed over the length of the run to determine “pure running time.” Then factor in station dwell times. The result is a schedule.

In fact those are factors Amtrak has used to create its schedules.

But during a recent public hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration over its proposed rule mandating on-time performance standards for passenger trains, Amtrak’s host railroads argued that schedule making it more complicated than that.

The host railroads want the FRA to require rather than suggest that Amtrak and its host railroads conduct periodic negotiations over schedules.

As the host railroads see it, current Amtrak schedules are not realistic because they were set years if not decades ago and conditions have changed since then.

Norfolk Southern told the FRA that Amtrak schedules need to account for “operating and market conditions affecting the railroad, including infrastructure capacity, traffic volumes, traffic mix, and maintenance needs.”

NS contends that Amtrak is unwilling to adjust schedules in response to these factors.

The proposed FRA standards would define a train as on-time at any given station if it arrives within 15 minutes of its published schedule although that would be weighted by the level of use that station typically sees.

A recent analysis of the issue published on the website of Trains magazine laid out some of the various factors in the on-time rule making dilemma.

If Amtrak and its host railroads were forced to negotiate new schedules, the process would likely become protracted as each sought to advance its own underlying agendas.

For the host railroads that is likely to include lengthening schedules rather than contracting them.

Railroads have a financial incentive to demand longer schedules. Amtrak pays them incentives to operate trains on time. It penalizes host railroads by withholding those payments if trains are late.

Typically, schedules include “recovery time” to enable a late train to get within its schedule at some point.

Recovery time tends to be placed toward the end of a route. You can find it by calculating the scheduled running time from the terminal, say Chicago, and the next station on a route.

It is not unusual for the scheduled running time into Chicago from that station to be twice what it is for trains leaving Chicago.

However, in some instances, recovery time is built in around specified en route check points.

Another sticky issue involves routes with multiple host railroads. If a train arrives late onto the tracks of railroad B because of delays incurred while on the tracks of railroad A, railroad B doesn’t want to be penalized for that.

Yet Amtrak’s host railroads argue that will occur if the proposed FRA standard is adopted.

In their comments to the FRA, some host railroads were critical of Amtrak for refusing to show them certain information including passenger boarding information at individual stations.

That is important information, railroads say, because the built-in dwell time at any given station needs to take into account how many passengers it typically handles.

Because passenger counts at any given station are subject to change, host railroads contend that the dwell time at some stations may be outdated given the passenger traffic there and thus not “reasonably achievable.”

Trains found after reviewing the testimony and written statements of the parties that participated in the FRA hearings that Amtrak’s host railroads generally favor a single measure rather than multiple definitions of when a train is late, depending on the length of the route traveled.

Amtrak’s host railroads through their trade group, the Association of American Railroads, challenged complex on-time definitions in court in previous litigation over a section of a federal law mandating the setting of on-time performance standards for passenger trains.

The Rail Passengers Association in its statement to the FRA expressed the fear that Amtrak’s host railroads are playing a long game of seeking to engage in endless litigation and regulatory proceedings in an effort to forestall on-time standards that are not to their liking.

Rail passenger advocates argue that if the host railroads get their way Amtrak schedules would be reset to be so slow that fewer people would want to take the train.

Passenger advocates also contend that without a mechanism in place to penalize Amtrak’s host railroads for their failure to dispatch trains on time there will be no incentive for the hosts to ensure passenger trains adhere to their schedules.

The Trains analysis noted there was widespread criticism by host railroads and passenger train advocates alike over Amtrak’s refusal to share operating information with the public.

This includes Amtrak’s Customer Satisfaction Index. Amtrak argues that information collected to calculate that index is proprietary.

The FRA is accepting public comments on its proposed rule through June 1.

Whatever it decides probably isn’t going to make everyone happy and it could even leave all parties somewhat to greatly dissatisfied.

Everyone involved in this matter has their own agenda and it’s probably inevitable that those agendas will conflict.

Each party wants someone else to give up something that is valuable to them that they are not willing to surrender no matter what “compensation” they may get in return if indeed there is anything to be gained by giving in.

Court Rules Texas Central is a Railroad

May 10, 2020

A Texas appeals court has ruled that Texas Central Railway is for legal purposes a railroad and an interurban electric railway.

The decision, written by Justice Nora Longoria of the Thirteen District Court of Appeals, overturned a lower court ruling and sent that case back to that court for further review.

Justice Logoria said the lower court erred when it concluded Texas Central was not a railroad because it is not yet operating trains or acting like a railroad in doing such things as land surveys or claiming the potential to exercise eminent domain.

“Considering the legislature’s instruction to view present tense as including future tense in the statute and the actions taken by appellants to begin to operate a railroad, we conclude that TCRI [Texas Central Railroad & Infrastructure, Inc.] and ITL [Integrated Texas Logistics, Inc.] are railroad companies,” Justice Longoria wrote in a 20-page opinion filed on May 7.

The case began when a land owner, James Miles, objected to a request by Texas Central to survey his land as a potential route for its proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line.

Miles and other land owners in Leon County took Texas Central to court and raised the question of whether it was an actual railroad that would have the power of eminent domain.

“To the extent that Miles contends that this statute does not extend to high-speed rails, but rather was intended for ‘localized, electronic trolley-car companies of a century ago,’ we find nothing in the statute to confirm this assertion,” Justice Longoria wrote about the assertion that Texas Central was not a interurban railway.

The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to release a final environmental impact statement on the project later this month.

AAR Says Amtrak Schedules Are Unrealistic

May 10, 2020

Amtrak’s host railroads appear poised to argue that keeping its trains on time is difficult because the schedules are difficult to meet.

During a recent hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration, Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads indicated that nearly all Amtrak schedules are unrealistic and it would be a mistake to promulgate on-time standards based upon them.

The FRA is considering setting on-time standards that host railroads would be expected to follow in dispatching passenger trains.

It is yet another in a decade-long legal battle over on-time performance standards that have involved AAR challenging in court a law approved by Congress directing the setting of such standards.

“The freights’ strategy is clear: Get FRA to require Amtrak to lengthen schedules even more, making passenger rail so trip-time uncompetitive that passenger rail dies in the United States,” said Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association.

Mathews noted that several railroad executives spoke during the FRA hearings about hard hard it is to run a railroad and keep passenger trains on time.

Mathews also took issue with AAR’s assertion that Amtrak schedules have not been changed in decades, saying that many scheduled have been changed repeatedly.

“On time performance was much better before 2013 when Federal court action suspended performance metrics, leaving the freights with no consequences for running late trains,” Mathews said. “And it improved again when certain railroads had a bright public light put on them last year.”

He said that whether trains run on time is dependent upon consequences for host railroads when their dispatching decisions result in late trains.

The FRA is accepting public comment in the case through June 1.

FRA Awards Grants for Passenger Rail Projects

May 7, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this week that it has awarded more than $22 million in grant funding to three passenger-rail projects affecting eight states.

The money from the Restoration and Enhancement Grant Program is aimed at projects to “initiate, restore or enhance intercity passenger-rail service around the country,” FRA officials said in a news release release.

The grants will help fund a possible expansion of Amtrak service between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, a possible restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast and improving CTrail Service in Connecticut.

The Southern Rail Commission received $5.45 million to be used to implement Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation received $12,569,200 toward the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger-Rail Service Project.

The project calls for adding a second daily roundtrip train between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, to supplement Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The additional train would provide more convenient travel times and serve 12 stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation received $4,395,616 for the CTrail-Hartford Line Rail Enhancement Project.

That project envisions two additional weekday trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts.

The additional service will allow for more connections with MTA Metro-North Railroad and Amtrak trains.

Texas Lawmakers Seek to Kill High-Speed Rail

April 13, 2020

Opponents of a high-speed rail line in Texas are trying a different tactic to thwart the project.

Some two dozen state lawmakers have written to the U.S. Department of Transportation to ask it to kill the project.

Their letter contends that Texas Central Partners lacks the financial resources and expertise needed to continue with the project.

“To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rule-making process at the Federal Railroad Administration,” the letter said.

The FRA is currently reviewing the project and Texas Central expects to receive approval this year for a rule of particular applicability that would allow it to operate on shared right of way with freight railroads.

Some Texas lawmakers have opposed the project from the start but have failed in their efforts to ban it in the state legislature.

Texas Central has proposed building a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.

In an unrelated development, construction work continues in California on building a high-speed rail line in the central region of the state.

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some work methods have changed.

Workers have engaged in social distancing by holding smaller safety meetings each day and where possible increasing the physical distance between workers.

Workers also have been allowed to take voluntary furloughs, or leave on a given day if they feel unsafe about possible exposure from a co-worker.

FRA to Take Another Crack at Amtrak on-Time Rule

March 24, 2020

Federal regulators are taking another stab at promulgating rules to define on-time standards for Amtrak.

The Federal Railroad Administration last week suggested that the rule would set a minimum performance standard of 80 percent.

In a news release, the FRA said its proposal would give Amtrak, its passengers, service providers, the FRA and others a common tool to help objectively gauge intercity passenger rail travel.

“Eighty percent is a minimum standard,” said FRA Administrator Ronald Batory. “We expect many routes will be much more reliable. Clarity should help all parties ensure compliance.”

To develop the standard, FRA said it and Amtrak consulted with many stakeholders, including the Class I railroads that host Amtrak trains, states, labor unions, an advocacy group that represents Amtrak riders, and the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

The rule would contain additional measurements for evaluating how well Amtrak serves the public, including financial performance and customer service metrics.

The FRA said the proposed rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register in the near future.

Public hearings, likely to be held online, will also follow a 60-day public comment period.

New Station to be Built at Windsor Locks

March 3, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded a $17.4 million grant to Connecticut to be used to build a new station in Windsor Locks on the Hartford Line.

The depot will be built a mile north of the existing station and is part of a larger transit-oriented development project in downtown Windsor Locks.

Windsor Locks also has received more than $321,000 in grant funding from the Connecticut Department of Transportation for pedestrian improvements as part of the project.

The federal grant money will also be used for track and signal work, street-level rail crossings, and Amtrak rail yard work.

The Hartford Line is used by Amtrak and CTrail Line trains.

Budget Proposal Slashes Amtrak by More than 50%

February 13, 2020

The Trump administration this week released its federal fiscal year budget proposal and to no one’s surprise it has proposed slashing Amtrak funding by more than half.

The budget proposal also recommends funding cuts to rail-related transportation of nearly $900 million when compared with the last two budget cycles, most of which would be achieved by appropriating less money for federal agencies that oversee rail transportation activities.

For Amtrak, the administration has proposed cutting spending on the Northeast Corridor from $700 million to $325 million.

Support for the long-distance service would fall from $1.3 billion to $611 million with those trains being phased over in the next few years.

The budget document released by the U.S. Department of Transportation calls for funding of a vaguely defined account that is meant to transition long-distance routes into corridor services of between 100 to 500 miles that would be funded in part by state and local governments.

These grants would be known as “National Network Transformation Grants — Long Distance Routes” and would receive $550 million.

Amtrak’s overall funding will decline from $2 billion in the 2020 budget to $1.5 billion in 2021.

The focus on corridor services would be in line with the vision for Amtrak that the carrier’s president, Richard Anderson, and its senior executive vice president, Stephen Gardner, have been talking up for more than a year.

Indeed the DOT budget document uses language similar to that used by Anderson and Gardner in saying that long-distance routes have outlived their usefulness and Amtrak needs to transform into a corridor-oriented operation linking urban centers.

“Long-distance routes continually underperform, suffering from low ridership and large operating losses of roughly half a billion dollars annually,” the DOT budget document states. “Amtrak trains inadequately serve many rural markets while not serving many growing metropolitan areas at all.”

This of course raises the question of whether DOT is parroting Anderson and Gardner or whether the Amtrak executives are mouthing what DOT has told them to say.

DOT said it would release later this year details about the long-distance route transformation program as part of its recommendation for a re-authorization of the FAST Act.

The administration’s budget proposal also recommends $13.2 billion for public transportation, a $303 million increase from the FY2020 enacted level, but would reduce passenger-rail grant programs by $712 million for a total of $1.8 billion.

The budget proposes a 10-year, $810 billion plan for surface transportation reauthorization to replace the FAST Act, which expires Sept. 30. That is $75 billion above the current authorized level.

Public transit would receive $155.4 billion over the next 10 years. The administration stated that it would submit a comprehensive surface transportation reauthorization proposal in the coming months, APTA officials said in a legislative update.

The Federal Railroad Administration would receive just under $2 billion compared with nearly $2.8 billion budgeted in 2020.

FRA Extends Deadline for Passenger Rail Grants

December 24, 2019

The deadline for a passenger rail grant program overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration has been extended to Feb. 5, 2020.

FRA had $24 million in Restoration and Enhancement Grants for “initiating, restoring, or enhancing intercity passenger rail service.”

The money was authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

The deadline had been Jan. 5, 2020, but was extended by a month after another $1.92 million was authorized by Congress for fiscal year 2020.

That brings the total amount of available grant money for the program to $26.3 million.

Funding in the program can be used for staffing, fuel, electricity, station expenses, rolling stock lease payments, routine planned maintenance, host railroad access costs, train yard operation and administrative costs.

Grants may be awarded to states (individually or collectively), cities and other government entities, Amtrak and other intercity passenger rail companies.

By law the FRA must give priority by application type, including those supporting projects that “foster economic development, expand transportation options in under served communities, and restore former Amtrak routes.”

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.”