Hotline #849 -- February 14, 2014

A massive storm blanketed the U.S. on Wednesday night, snarling transportation systems across the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia. Amtrak operated at half of its normally scheduled frequencies on Thursday, and heavy ice accumulation forced the company to cancel operations in much of the Southeast.

Amtrak was forced to cancel a number of trains in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with downed trees causing major blockages. However, the railroad was able to resume modified service on most routes starting this morning.  Of the long distance services, only the Silver Star and Auto Train were canceled for Friday. [For route specific updates, check out the Passenger Advisory at the bottom of the Hotline.]

Roughly 7,400 U.S. flights were canceled, the highest number since Hurricane Sandy  hit the East Coast in 2012.  Around 97,400 flights were canceled since December 1, 2013 because of extreme weather conditions, affecting 5.7 million passengers, according to MasFlight, an industry analyst firm.

Some of these canceled flights have meant more business for Amtrak, with the railroad’s more resilient operational ability able to provide a safety valve in severe winter weather.

“There’s no question that when airlines and airports shut down people divert to Amtrak where Amtrak is a travel option for them,” said Amtrak’s Steve Kulm. “So long as we’re running, we do see some uptick from airline diversions.”

 

Following a meeting with North Dakota’s Congressional Delegation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has committed to add more crews and equipment to address congestion that is delaying freight and passenger trains in the region.

The oil boom in North Dakota, coupled with a harsh winter, has caused delays for both passenger trains and freight trains, which serve as vital links to local populations and the agricultural industry. NARP issued a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation which drew national attention to the ongoing problem.

BNSF promised to add 5,000 crewmembers system wide, with 250 temporary workers in North Dakota. Additionally, BNSF will send 5,000 rail cars and 125 locomotives to the area within the next few weeks. The railroad also committed to end the directional running of the Amtrak’s Empire Builder in North Dakota by month’s end, which forced westbound passengers onto buses for Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Rugby.

 

Amtrak expanded its AmtrakConnect Wi-Fi service to eight Midwestern routes this week, providing internet access to around 3.3 million passengers in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

"Amtrak trains in Illinois are faster, thanks to our joint commitment to high speed rail," said Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. "Now, Wi-Fi access on those same trains will make each trip more productive and enjoyable. Faster, better and more efficient - now there are even more reasons to take the train in Illinois."

Beginning February 10, AmtrakConnect will be introduced on Amtrak’s Lincoln Service (Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis), Illini/Saluki (Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale, Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg (Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy), Wolverine Service (Chicago-Ann Arbor-Detroit-Pontiac), Blue Water (Chicago-East Lansing-Port Huron), Pere Marquette (Chicago-Holland-Grand Rapids), Missouri River Runner (St. Louis-Jefferson City-Kansas City), and the Hiawatha Service (Chicago-Milwaukee). Amtrak operates these routes in partnership with the states, which provide most of the funding.

“We continually look for ways to improve the customer experience on board our trains,” said Matt Hardison, Amtrak Chief Marketing and Sales Officer. “The availability of a free Wi-Fi service that delivers the speeds and connectivity passengers are looking for is yet one more way to achieve this goal and maintain a competitive position among transportation providers.”

 

Senator Mark Udall of Colorado applauded Amtrak’s vocal commitment to maintain the current route of the Southwest Chief, maintaining a vital transportation link to rural towns in Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.

Senator Udall issued a public statement in response to comments made by Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, who said his railroad was looking at ways to reduce operating costs in service of the company’s mission to connect the United States by rail.

"Our most essential goal is to ensure Amtrak continues to serve small town America that is being abandoned by airlines and bus companies, and keep communities such as Trinidad and La Junta, Colo.; Devil’s Lake and Minot, N.D.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Dodge City, Kansas, connected by rail to the rest of the nation," said Boardman.

The statement was well received by Senator Udall, who emphasized the important economic link the train provides to businesses and residents in his state.

"The Southwest Chief plays a critical role in supporting jobs and keeping businesses and residents of southern Colorado connected to the broader world," said Udall.

 

University of Texas-Pan American celebrated the opening of the new Transportation Center for Railway Safety.

A collaboration between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Texas A&M University, the center will be home to research that will study how to improve the safety of rail technology.

"The railway vehicles and technologies of the future are going to need men and women who are prepared to plan, design and manage transportation systems for the 21st century,” said Gregory Winfree, the U.S. Department of Transportation's assistant secretary for research and technology. “This rail safety program is going to turn applied research into that equipment and system failures into tangible solutions that save lives and minimize economic losses."

You can read more about the program at the U.S. DOT’s Fastlane blog.

 

As the Oklahoma Department of Transportation considers four bids for the 97.5 mile Sooner Subdivision rail line, the Oklahoma City Council has announced it is asking the agency to preserve the option for future passenger rail development between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

A report issued by Oklahoma City’s city manager identified a rail connection to Tulsa as a critical component for preserving mobility as the region’s population grows. Oklahoma City and Tulsa are the two biggest cities in the state. Oklahoma City will make the request official after they’ve secured the support of the Tulsa City Council.

In related news, Sunday marked the inaugural journey of the Eastern Flyer between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa, a suburb of Tulsa. Iowa Pacific, the operator of the Flyer, has said it would like to operate a commuter service between the cities if the local governments make the necessary capital investments.

 

Mexican government officials released more details about the $9.4 billion rail investment program this week at the ExpoRail 2014 event, identifying 13 passenger and freight projects that will help modernize the country’s rail network.

Around $7.2 billion will go towards revitalizing the country’s passenger rail network. Officials identified corridor improvement projects for Mexico City to Toluca, Mexico City to Querétaro, and on the Yucatán peninsula.

Privatization in the 1990s led to the disappearance of most long distance passenger service in Mexico. Policy makers are now trying to undo some of that damage with this $7.2 billion slate of investments.

 

Swiss voters approved $7.1 billion worth of passenger rail investment, which will go towards the maintenance and expansion of the Swiss rail network.

Of that $7.1 billion, 60 percent will go towards maintenance and 40 percent toward capacity expansion. Analysts predict demand for Swiss rail network will grow steadily over the next few decades, with a 60 percent increase in passenger traffic and 70 percent increase in freight traffic by 2030.

 

From the NARP Blog

NARP Greets New Cities Sprinter: Amtrak's "Cities Sprinter" dazzled as it rolled into Union Station in the late afternoon sunlight. Today it took its inaugural revenue run from Boston to DC, even boasting a VIP passenger: Vice President Biden. It was greeted by a conglomerate of media attention including Abe Zumwalt and Jenna Jablonski of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. NARP Vice President Sean Jeans-Gail attended the launch ceremony yesterday at Philadelphia 30th Street Station. [Read More]

The Olympics Ride the Rails: Whether in their summer or winter variations, hosting the Olympics give national and local governments an opportunity to showcase the best they have to offer—not just in athletics, but also in the supporting transportation infrastructure. What good, after all, is building an Olympic Village, complete with new stadiums, if there’s no way to get there? [Read More]

More Evidence That Millennials are Turning Their Back on Autos: The Financial Times reported this week that “the average age of a new car buyer in Germany rose to a record 52.2 years in 2013, three years older than the average a decade ago, reflecting a trend observed in other industrialised countries.” [Read More]

 

Passenger Advisory

—Amtrak issued the following service alerts earlier today. More information will be released throughout the day at Amtrak.com:

Amtrak plans to operate Crescent (New York-New Orleans) and Northeast Regional services on Friday, Feb. 14, following the severe winter storm that impacted most of the East Coast and South.

In addition, the following long-distance services originating on Feb. 14 are canceled: Auto Train (Lorton, Va.-Sanford, Fla.), and Silver Meteor (New York-Miami).

Amtrak plans to operate all Keystone Service (New York - Harrisburg) and most Northeast Regional service (Boston - Washington), in addition to reduced frequencies of Acela Express (Washington – Boston) and Empire Service (New York – Albany, N.Y.) on Friday, Feb. 14, following the severe winter storm that impacted most of the East Coast.

Amtrak Downeaster (Brunswick, Maine – Boston) and the Springfield Shuttle (New Haven, Conn. – Springfield, Mass.) will continue to operate a normal schedule.

Additional information about long-distance service that runs along the East Coast will be provided later today when available.

—Commuter rail service was also heavily affected. For the most up-to-date information, please visit agency websites.

  • Metro-North was running at 40 percent capacity this morning.
  • NJ Transit had all trains operating by Thursday evening, with system-wide delays of 15 minutes.
  • SEPTA was able to restore rail service this morning, after weather conditions forced a suspension of service Thursday at 10 p.m.
  • MARC service was eliminated on Thursday, and ran on an abbreviated “S” schedule today.
  • Washington, D.C.’s Metro was running at normal capacity today.

—Freight traffic continues to impact the schedule of the Empire Builder, with Amtrak warning passengers of Train 7/27 and 8/28 to expect significant delays. Additionally, BNSF Railroad is requiring the westbound Empire Builder Train 7/27 to detour between Fargo and Minot, resulting in the train missing the stops at Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby, ND. Bus connections will be provided.

—Union Pacific track work will affect Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains on February 15, 22 and 23. Find out more at Amtrak.com.