Hotline #847 -- January 31, 2014

Following months of serious delays to the Empire Builder service, NARP issued a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asking him to bring together stakeholders to address the ongoing problem.

The Empire Builder connects communities in eight states, providing an important economic link for towns along the route, and connecting rural residents to vital health and public services located in urban centers. Beginning in late Spring 2013, the train begin to experience significant delays of four, six, and eight hours—sometimes even longer. This has negatively affected tens of thousands of passengers who are no longer able to count on the train, causing particular harm to business and medical travelers. Things have gotten so bad that Amtrak will no longer guarantee—or book—most same-day connections for Empire Builder passengers, causing undue financial hardship.  For example, if you try to book Williston ND to Pittsburgh PA at www.amtrak.com you get this message: “Problem Finding Service: Sorry, we cannot find train service matching your request. Please try alternate stations/cities. To learn more about trains available at a particular station, please click on the 'Stations' tab above.”  In the printed timetable, this would involve a two hour 45 minute layover in Chicago. No more.

While NARP recognizes that the recent extreme weather has greatly exacerbated the congestion, the delays predate winter and appear likely to continue.  News reports have investigated the delays, and concluded the congestion is due in large part to the hundreds of additional freight trains servicing North Dakota’s Bakken formation, an increasingly important source of domestic oil production.  There also was an unusually big agricultural harvest in the Upper Midwest.  The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued a series of recommendations to improve train routing and container safety for crude oil by rail, citing a 400 percent increase in shipments since 2005 (across all carriers).

In the letter, NARP calls for an examination of the delays, and a constructive dialogue on how they can be alleviated:

NARP recognizes the key role that America’s freight railroads play in fueling economic activity in the U.S.  However, Amtrak and host railroad BNSF Railway Company must come together to ensure that the Empire Builder’s passengers have continued access to adequate, reliable public transportation.  Toward that end, we are asking you use the full power of the Department of Transportation to convene the concerned parties and ensure that an equitable solution is reached.

The Empire Builder serves communities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon, with some 18.8 million people living within 25 miles of an Empire Builder station.  The train acts as a vital transportation link for hundreds of rural communities to essential services in urban population centers.  Amtrak’s Empire Builder carried 536,400 passengers in fiscal year 2013 along a 2,256 mile corridor that has little in the way of transportation alternatives, and regularly experiences extreme winter weather conditions that close down airports and road networks.  Without a fully functioning rail service, many of these Americans will be effectively stranded.

Unfortunately, decades of underinvestment in passenger rail infrastructure can’t be remedied with the flip of a switch. These delays are further evidence of the need for Congress to enact President Barack Obama’s FY 2014 passenger rail investment proposal, which included $800 million for Amtrak’s long distance routes.

 

Image via NBC Charlotte

An unusually cold winter has claimed another victim, as snow brought transportation networks to halt throughout much of the southeastern United States this week.

While the snowfall was light compared to what has been plaguing the Midwest and Northeast—only one to two inches—the lack of a snow-clearing infrastructure and sparse public transit meant the region’s transportation network ground to halt.

Atlanta was hit particularly hard, with roads paralyzed and thousands of flights canceled. The combination of a sprawling road network and few transit alternatives left millions of area residents scrambling to find a way home.

“More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms. It seemed that the only places open were Waffle House and Home Depot, the former serving hash browns and coffee and the latter opening up its stores as makeshift shelters. People who didn’t camp out in supermarket aisles and hotel lobbies were trapped in cars for 10, 16, 20 hours as they tried to make commutes that normally take just 30 minutes,” reported Politico, which offers an insightful breakdown of the political dysfunction which has led to the region’s over-reliance on roads.

Fortunately for rail passengers, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority’s (MARTA) commuter rail system was able to act as a pressure valve. While the weather did force MARTA to fall back on a Sunday schedule on Wednesday and Thursday, trains continued to operate, allowing Atlantans to bypass the traffic nightmare paralyzing highways.

“I live not far from the NS tracks, which share a right of way with MARTA,” reported NARP Directors Circle member Jackson McQuigg. “Trains were the only things I heard moving on Tuesday night and for much of Wednesday.

“For me, MARTA rail delivered. I left my car at my work’s parking deck and headed to the nearest MARTA station and, along with some walking, if got me home the other night.” added McQuigg, who serves as Vice President for Friends of Tampa Union Station. “Amtrak and Norfolk Southern ran just fine, too.”

This past week’s events stress the importance of robust public transit for a flexible and resilient transportation network. Atlanta’s passengers are no doubt hoping this storm serves as a wakeup call to public officials.

 

In a letter sent today to Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer, NARP urged him to press Prime Minister Harper to prevent discontinuance of the Sault Sainte Marie – Hearst passenger train.  CN has announced the train’s last runs will be March 31 due to the federal government ending support.  The letter, from NARP President Capon, also urged the government to act to save Montreal-Halifax service.  This came in response to a CBC report that CN in as little as five months could abandon a 70-km segment (Bathurst-Miramichi) of the route in New Brunswick.

Here are some quotations from parts of the letter that framed the broader issues:

We have been appalled to watch Canada’s passenger train network disappear.  Consider that VIA Rail Canada ridership—heavily influenced by service cuts—fell about 40% from 6.4 million in 1988 to less than four million passengers in 2012 at the same time that Amtrak’s ridership increased by 45%.  …

The fundamental issue, however, is Canadians’ need for a transportation policy that will support strong economic development, and that is consistent with sound environmental practice and environmental policy commitments, as well as with the reality that younger people are more interested in trains—and less interested in driving—than previous generations.  Passenger rail also plays an important role in getting people in rural areas to specialized health care provided in larger centers.  People most affected by service cuts tend to be seniors, the poor, and young families.  All of this argues for expanding train service, not continuing to gut the system. …

Canada has a wonderful reputation for social justice, affordable health care, successful urban transportation, and not destroying many of its inner cities with expressways and ‘urban renewal.’  Further shrinking an already-small passenger network is not consistent with that reputation.  Eliminating passenger trains serving small communities and giving tourists and residents environmentally friendly access to Canada’s natural beauty is at odds with the achievements that have earned your nation great respect in the United States.  Such good will has a real value to Canada, which should be weighed carefully when considering whether to abandon the world’s most environmentally sustainable mode of transportation. 

NARP also issued a news release about the letter.

 

California’s State Senate announced the formation of the Select Committee on Passenger Rail on January 27. The committee will meet this Spring to discuss policies to improve passenger rail service in the state.

“Passenger rail reduces congestion and vehicle emissions and helps us move people and goods efficiently,” said State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who will serve as the committee’s chair. “With a select committee like this, I’m hoping we can help give existing and future passenger and commuter rail projects the policy attention and priority they deserve.”

Other members include Senator Mark DeSaulnier, Senator Marty Block, Senator Anthony Cannella, Senator Cathleen Galgiani, Senator Jerry Hill, Senator Carol Liu, and Senator Alex Padilla.

 

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced the completion of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for proposed system improvements to passenger rail services on the Empire Corridor.

The 463-mile corridor connects communities across 16 stops in New York. In addition to terminals at Penn Station in New York City and Niagara Falls Station, the train serves Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady and Albany.

The FRA and NYSDOT will hold six public hearings in March across the state to present the Tier 1 Draft EIS and solicit public comments. You can find a full list of meeting dates and locations here.

 

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman responded to a Congressional hearing on transportation safety by calling for inclusion of intercity passenger rail in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization, and for policy makers to move beyond highway-dominated policy to build a truly interconnected transportation network.

The hearing, titled “Improving the Effectiveness of the Federal Surface Transportation Safety Grant Programs,” was held by the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. Although it was ostensibly focused on how Congress can improve the effectiveness of the surface transportation safety grant programs, most of the panelists focused on the impending bankruptcy threatening the Highway Trust Fund.                                

Amtrak’s CEO responded in a statement later that day, urging Congress to embrace a 21st Century vision for transportation:

The fact that highway-rail grade crossing safety has long been included in the Highway Trust Fund is a strong argument for a new framework of a balanced surface transportation investment program that can invest in any surface mode—including Highway, Transit and Rail (both freight and passenger). The guiding principle of such a program must focus on national priorities, connectivity and economic growth.

We all need to recognize the Highway Trust Fund is based on an outmoded vision for mobility in the United States and is financially unviable. If Congress simply structures a new surface transportation bill around the existing framework of the Highway Trust Fund, we will all lose because nothing worthwhile will change in our national transportation policy.

You can read more on this issue in Boardman’s “Bringing Transportation Funding into the 21st Century,” delivered before the National Press Club.

 

Held in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the National Football League’s Super Bowl XLVII is being called “the first transit Super Bowl” due to its reliance on public transportation.

Since no private vehicles will be allowed to approach the stadium without prior arrangement, fans will all be accessing the stadium via the New Jersey Transit train from Secaucus or by pre-arranged hotel shuttle bus.

Fans can find everything they need to know on the MTA’s website, which includes information on connections to the NYC Subway, Metro-North, and the Long Island Railroad.

 

Metro-North Railroad has named Joseph Giulietti as the next president of the commuter service.  The Connecticut native, who will depart his role as Executive Director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, will take over on February 10.

The former president, Howard Permut, retired earlier in January. Metro-North has been struggling following two serious derailments: a December accident that killed four passengers, and a May derailment that injured 76 people.

Dissatisfaction has risen to the point that locally-based Commuter Action Group (CAG) is looking to channel that frustration through an online campaign. CAG is asking commuters to report delays and other service failures to them via email and Twitter, which the advocacy group will pass on to Metro-North.

"My hope is that we're going to finally be able to capture not only the number but the depth of commuters who are angry about how bad service has got," Jim Cameron of CAG told the Wall Street Journal. "I don't think elected officials can ignore that.”

 

NARP Council Members from the Southwest Division at NARP's Reception on the Hill. (From right to left) George Chilson, Matthew Melzer, Pat Montague, Dennis Lytton, Alex Brideau III, Ryan Stern, Kenneth Kao, Neil Bjornsen

It is our sad duty to convey the news of NARP Council Member Neil Bjornsen, who passed away on January 22 at the age of 68.

“Throughout his career and in his volunteer engagements, Neil truly exemplified the spirit of public service,” said Matte Melzer, NARP’s Division Leader for the Southwest Region. “His affable, thoughtful style of advocacy on behalf of train and transit passengers was informed by a wealth of technical knowledge and invaluable historical perspective.  Neil was a steady champion for our cause, and more importantly, a supremely kind, decent person whose life and legacy we in the NARP family will always remember.”

Los Angeles Metro’s Richard Morallo shared the following thoughts about Neil, who served on the L.A. Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAC):

A Navy veteran, Neil worked in maintenance at the Southern California Rapid Transit District  and was a general manager of a transit system in Shreveport, LA. He retired from the LA County Public Works.

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Metro and the CAC join the transit industry in honoring Neil for his 51 years in mass transportation which includes all aspects of public transit, both rail and motor coach, traffic streets, roadways, congestion management and railroads.