Posts Tagged ‘intercity rail passenger service’

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.”

Virgin to Build Station in Boca Raton

December 13, 2019

Virgin Trains USA will build a station in Baca Raton, Florida, after that city council there approved a long-term land lease for the construction of the station and parking garage.

The facility is expected to open by late 2020, becoming the third new station for the service also known as Brightline.

Other new stations are planned at Aventura and PortMiami. Brightline trains currently stop only at West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Virgin will pay for and operate the station, which will be built on a 1.8-acre site near Palmetto Park Road and Dixie Highway.

The city will fund most of the design and construction of the 455-vehicle parking garage adjacent to the station, but Virgin will be responsible for all operating expenses of the garage and the parties will split the profits.

So What Did Mr. Anderson Mean?

December 11, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently gave an interview to the Here and Now program on National Public Radio and a railroad passenger group found in his remarks a commitment toward preserving rail service to all of America and not just a few coastal urban corridors.

As the Rail Passengers Association sees it, Anderson indicated he recognizes Amtrak has a legal obligation to offer a national network.

When rail passenger advocates use the term “national network” they are talking about long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson has been outspoken in the past year that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are money losers and suggested the future of intercity rail passenger is short corridors linking urban areas.

He has hinted that Amtrak wants to eliminate some of those long-distance runners by chopping up their routes into corridors.

An NPR reporter said asked Anderson why if the long-distance trains are the money losers he says they are why that the carrier doesn’t say they are no longer a part of Amtrak’s core business and eliminated them.

Anderson responded this way: “Well, no, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Amtrak because we have a statutory responsibility to provide intercity travel. We also have a statutory responsibility to minimize losses and run this like a business. So we’re at an intersection of both a really important public-policy role and the responsibility to be very good stewards. So, we have to have good answers for rural communities. So we take that challenge.”

But was Anderson saying what RPA claims that he said?

Anderson indeed said Amtrak has a legal obligation to provide rail passenger service but that doesn’t necessarily mean he said that includes long-distance trains.

He said Amtrak needs to have good answers for rural communities, but didn’t say what those will be.

What constitutes a “national network” is a murky concept. There are vast swaths of the United States that lack intercity rail passenger service and haven’t had it for decades.

Amtrak has never served South Dakota. Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, have been off the Amtrak map for 40 years.

Does a national network mean that all 50 states and all principal cities must be served?

Some rail advocates might answer in the affirmative, but that doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.

RPA wants to see Amtrak receive a separate source of funding to grow its network.

The organization rightly fears the corridor services that Anderson is fond of promoting will come at the expense of long-distance routes.

The rail passenger advocacy group said a separate funding source for new Amtrak routes is gaining support in Congress and within Amtrak itself, but it remains to be seen if that materializes.

There have been many proposals over the years for dedicated funding sources for Amtrak, but none of ever made it into law.

Instead Amtrak funding continues to be the annual appropriations granted by Congress that are subject to the vicissitudes of which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

RPA claims Anderson’s response during the NPR program is a subtle but important change from his earlier rhetoric.

The advocacy group is correct in asserting that Anderson’s comment about the need to minimize Amtrak’s losses and run the passenger like a business speaks to a tension between operating a tight ship and the mission of serving communities that are unprofitable.

Getting to where RPA and other rail passengers advocates want to be is a long game that will still be playing out long after Anderson has left his post.

There may be some support in Congress for the type of expansive rail passenger network that advocates want to see – including a mixture of corridor services and long-distance trains – but there remains considerable opposition to it as well.

That opposition is not just in Washington but also in the headquarters of every Amtrak host railroad.

Even if Anderson’s rhetoric has undergone a subtle change, I have yet to see evidence, including in his comments made during the NPR interview that he has changed his mind about the role of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Perhaps Anderson has learned intercity rail passenger service is politically different than airline service provided by for-profit companies and his comments reflect that.

That doesn’t mean that he has come around to the viewpoint that all long-distance trains need to be kept in place in order to maintain a national network that meets the transportation needs of rural America. What constitutes the latter is subject to wide differences in interpretation.

‘Data Nerd’ Creates Ohio Intercity Rail Network Plan

December 6, 2019

A self-described data nerd has designed an intercity rail passenger network for Ohio that is rooted in the moribund Ohio Hub plan.

It remains to be seen whether the plans drawn up by Kevin Verhoff will get any attention.

Verhoff, who lives 40 miles from Columbus and grew up in Elyria, is seeking to create a public transportation network for the state after riding to work on public transportation while living in San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey.

“It was very convenient for me,” he said of those experiences. “It made a big difference in my day-to-day life.”

Although he grew up in Ohio, Verhoff said he experienced something of a culture shock when he returned to the state and had to do with limited public transportation.

His proposal for a passenger rail system in Ohio is comprised of seven basic routes, including one that is oriented to serving Columbus.

The plan also included the long-discussed 3C corridor between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton.

Other routes would connect Toledo and Cincinnati via Dayton; connect Cleveland and Dayton on a different alignment than the 3C Corridor; connect Marietta and Toledo while continuing into Michigan to Detroit and Ann Arbor; and connect Toledo and Cleveland with an extension into far Northeast Ohio and possibily to Buffalo, New York.

Not all of the route would link the city’s urban areas. The proposed Keystone Express would be situated in eastern and central Ohio linking such town as Mount Vernon, Millersburg, New Philadelphia and Steubenville. The line could continue to Pittsburgh.

Verhoff’s network would serve half of Ohio’s 88 counties.

In an interview with Ohio Capital Journal, Verhoff acknowledged that creating the network is a tall challenge with issues of funding and right of way acquisition.

It will also be a challenge to get politicians, business leaders and other stakeholders to work together on the plan, which he estimated would cost $9 billion.

The executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a rail and public transportation advocacy group, agrees that Verhoff’s plan faces major hurdles.

“(The) real work comes in educating Ohio’s policymakers how far ahead our neighboring states are in developing, improving and operating passenger rail services, and what benefits they are enjoying from those investments,” said Ken Prendergast.

He said All Board Ohio appreciates Verhoff’s advocacy and hopes the attention drawn to transit issues will make an impact.

Ohio policy makers have supported various statewide intercity rail passenger plans at various times, but nothing has ever materialized.

Those included the 2007 Ohio Hub plan, which envisioned a statewide rail network that would have extended beyond the state’s borders.

The closest the state case to financially supporting a rail route was a $400 million grant from the federal government to pay for work to launch the 3C corridor.

But John Kasich ran for governor in 2010 in opposition to that plan and after he defeated incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland he killed the 3C project. The funding was taken back by the federal government.

Since then, the Ohio Department of Transportation has created its Access Ohio 2040 plan that describes a number of “long-term transportation outcomes” but does not mention a passenger rail network other than making references to enhanced and improved access “to the existing multimodal system.”

The Ohio Rail Development Commission in its 2018 State of Ohio Rail Plan described a proposal to develop a passenger line between Chicago and Columbus.

A feasibility study was completed in 2013 but a environmental impact study is now needed.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission is conducting its own study of a proposed rail line linking Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh.

That study is looking at the potential of a hyperloop, which would involve passengers riding in high-speed tubes.

The ORDC plan also touched on Amtrak station improvement projects that were planned or underway in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo.

Verhoff told Ohio Capital Journal that transportation is an issue which intersects with health care, economy, jobs and tourism.

After he posted his map to his blog and on Twitter Verhoff said he was surprised at the number of positive responses he received.

“A lot of people were saying ‘this would totally change my life,’” he said.

Others asked that their communities be included in the network. These comments, Vehoff said, show there is a demand for public transit is widespread across Ohio.

As for funding, Verhoff said it could come in a variety of ways, including municipal bonds or shifting highway and gas tax funding toward transit priorities.

Verhoff said much of the $9 billion project cost could be mitigated by using and upgrading existing rail lines in the state.

Oklahoma Passenger Service Plan Falls Through

August 8, 2019

A plan to expand intercity rail passenger service in Oklahoma has fallen through because the railroad that was to provide the service has ended its participation in the six-month pilot program.

The Stillwater Central Railroad told the Oklahoma Department of Transportation it would be unable to meet an Aug. 4 deadline to launch the service between Del City and Sapulpa, Oklahoma.

The railroad, which is owned by Watco, cited “changing conditions” but did not elaborate on those in a news release other than to say passenger service is no longer financially viable.

The passenger service pilot program was a requirement of the $75 million sale of the Sooner Sub rail line to Stillwater Central in 2014 by ODOT.

The Stillwater Central had agreed to provide the passenger service at no cost to the state or taxpayers.

ODOT said Stillwater Central has met all other provisions in the sale agreement and will pay ODOT $2.8 million in liquidated damages.

“The department is disappointed that the pilot program didn’t launch, as it would he helped determine the long-term viability of passenger service on this line,” state officials said. “ODOT will continue to be open to and explore other options from the private sector for a cost-effective solutions for future passenger service.”

Bombardier Miffed About Missing Out on VIA Order

December 15, 2018

A Canadian company is disgruntled about having been passed over for a new equipment order from VIA Rail Canada.

Alain Bellemare, the CEO of Montreal-based Bombardier, said it is “incomprehensible” that there is no requirement for local production to protect Canadian companies and jobs.

“We work in many countries around the world, and all countries require significant local content,” Bellemare said. “We see it in the U.S. It’s difficult to understand that here, we can’t find ways of protecting innovation, technology and jobs that are similar to all the other countries in the world.”

In announcing that it has chosen Siemens to be the builder of 32 new trainsets to be used for corridor service, VIA said on-time delivery was one reason why it bypassed Bombardier.

However, Bellemare said his company can fulfill orders on schedule despite it having missed some deadlines on a Toronto light rail project and delays on a New York subway contract.

“We’ve had a few production problems on some projects, which I began fixing in 2015, and we’re completely fixing them today in 2018,’’ he said. “So for me, this is really not a justification to decide for a C$1 billion project.”

The new equipment being built by Siemens will be assigned to the corridor between Quebec City and Windsor via Toronto.

VIA Awards Contract for New Train Sets

December 13, 2018

Artists drawing of the new equipment being ordered from Siemens by VIA Rail Canada.

VIA Rail Canada has awarded a C$989 million ($741 million) contract to Siemens Canada to build 32 intercity train sets for use in the Quebec City–Toronto–Windsor corridor.

The new single-level equipment is expected to begin revenue service in 2022. It will be pulled by a locomotive based on the design of the Charger locomotives used by Amtrak.

VIA said in a news release that the new equipment will significantly increasing capacity to 9,100 seats.

VIA bases in Montreal and Toronto will maintain the equipment with support from Siemens under a 15-year Technical Services and Spares Supply Agreement.

The equipment will have LED lighting, USB ports, wide seats, quiet zones, bicycle storage racks, and flexible luggage space.

The fleet will exceed current accessibility standards for passengers with reduced mobility, including Braille seat numbering, companion seating, at-seat emergency call buttons, accessible toilets, and an integrated mobility device lift.

Siemens won the contract over bids submitted by Bombardier, Stadler and Talgo.

Brightline, Virgin Group Announce Partnership

November 20, 2018

Brightline and the Virgin Group have announced the formation of a partnership that will seek to provide the Brightline brand of intercity rail passenger service elsewhere in the United States.

In an announcement, the two companies said the partnership will involve a strategic partnership and trademark licensing agreement that will result in Bightline trains, stations and future developments being marketed under the brand Virgin Trains USA starting in 2019.

Brightline operates intercity rail service in Florida between Miami and West Palm Beach.

It has proposed extending gthat service to Orlando and Tampa, and is also seeking to acquire  XpressWest, which is seeking to establish a rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Virgin Group has made a minority share investment in Brightline for an undisclosed amount.

Fortress Investment Group has retained majority ownership of Brightline.
Virgin Group operates intercity rail services in the United Kingdom, including Virgin Trains, a high-speed intercity passenger-rail system.

Study Favors Chicago-Fort Wayne Service

October 28, 2018

A preliminary study has determined that intercity rail passenger service between Fort Wayne and Chicago is possible between 2026 and 2030.

The study estimated the trains on the route could carry between 387,000 and 765,000 passengers a year by 2035.

Ridership will hinge on the average train speed and number of trips offered. The study examined various scenarios ranging from a top speed of 79 mph to 101 mph.

Although the study looked only at the segment between Chicago and Fort Wayne, that corridor is part of a larger route between Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, via Valparaiso, Gary, Plymouth, and Warsaw in Indiana, and Lima in Ohio.

The route between Chicago and Lima would follow or run parallel to the former route of Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Broadway Limited, which was rerouted away from those cities in late 1990.

The study, conducted by consulting firm HNTB, determined that the estimated capital costs are about $898 million for 79-mph service and $1.2 billion for 101 mph.

Texas Central Taps Renfe

October 11, 2018

Spanish company Renfe has been chosen to help operate a Texas high-speed rail service under development.

Texas Central said it has established a partnership with Renfe to operate the proposed service between Dallas and Houston.

Renfe will provide technical advice on design and construction and help Texas Central with operation and maintenance plans.

Another Spanish company, Adif, will help Renfe maintain equipment and signals, and oversee ticketing.

Renfe operates 5,000 trains daily on 7,500 miles of track in Spain.