Hotline #850 -- February 21, 2014

New Mexico’s State Legislature adjourned yesterday without identifying a solution for the continuation of the Southwest Chief over its current route, although legislators have vowed to fight on until the necessary funding is secured.

As we’ve reported previously, the Southwest Chief’s existing route is endangered because BNSF has announced that declining demand for freight capacity on a portion of a mainline in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico means they will no longer maintain that segment to the level required for passenger trains, which run at higher speeds than freight trains. To keep the train on its current route, each of the three states is asked to chip in $4 million per year over the next 10 years (after that, the annual costs will drop sharply).

Five bills were introduced by New Mexican legislators over the past few weeks, providing a number of different proposals to secure operation of the line on the current route. Unfortunately, none of the bills managed to pass both bodies.

“I am disappointed, because I feel like there’s so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico,” Representative Dennis Roch (R-Logan) told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Fortunately, Amtrak’s lease with BNSF doesn’t expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple. Unfortunately, the agreement we had worked on with the other states required all parties to come to the table, and the failure of these bills to pass kind of communicated to the other states that New Mexico wasn’t willing to make that investment.”

Despite the lack of a permanent solution, the legislature did include a $50,000 appropriation for a legal study by the Legislative Council Service in the budget, which has passed both chambers and is on the Governor’s desk. The state has also initiated a cost/benefit analysis of the rail, to be completed by the New Mexico Department of Transportation in conjunction with the DOT’s from Colorado and Kansas.

NARP has played an active role in organizing public and political support along the route. Though New Mexico’s legislature is out of session, we will continue to push local and federal leaders in the coming months.

 

Next week marks the return of Amtrak service to Denver Union Station, following almost three years of renovation work.

Starting Friday evening, February 28, passengers will return to using Denver Union Station (1701 Wynkoop St., Denver, CO). Amtrak has been operating out of a temporary location since 2011 during the redevelopment of Union Station. As a result of the work, passengers have access to a newly constructed passenger platform. Construction will continue through July; the waiting room, ticketing, and baggage are only accessible from the platform-side of the station in the meantime.

“On the morning of February 28, westbound Train 5 will be the last train to stop at the temporary station, and Amtrak will begin service at Denver Union Station with the evening departure of eastbound Train 6,” reported Amtrak in a service advisory.

The stop for Amtrak Thruway buses will be temporarily located on Wynkoop Street, across from Union Station and marked with signage.

 

Already facing a shortage of spare cars, Metra struggled to maintain its fleet this winter with several cars requiring weather-related maintenance and passengers reporting severe overcrowding. The agency has announced that it will look to other states to lease more cars.

Metra, the commuter rail connecting the Chicago metropolitan area, hopes to increase its number of spare cars from 36 to 80-85, with the goal of having about 10% of its 837-car fleet as spares. This improvement would allow more flexibility for maintenance and upgrades, which would prevent future delays and over-crowding like those experienced during the recent winter storms. Metra is looking to rail agencies in several states to find the right cars to add to its fleet.

“Wherever we can find the cars we’re going to go look at them so we can get the best vehicles for Metra,” said Metra Executive Director Don Orseno. “We want to make sure our customers are comfortable.”

Orseno added that Metra is in the middle of rehabbing 176 cars as part of a “huge rebuilding program.”

 

After years of commuter service as far as Newark, the Raritan Valley line will begin a one-seat ride to New York on March 3. As a pilot program, ten trains will operate off-peak weekdays with service to and from Penn Station in Manhattan. Tom Morgan, Senior Director of Rail Service Planning for NJ Transit announced the new service to the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition on Tuesday.

The first daily one-seat train will leave Somerville at 8:46 a.m. and arrive at New York Penn Station at 10:09 a.m. DailyRecord.com provides more examples of the new timetable:

“Later trains will leave Somerville at 9:51 a.m., 10:50 a.m., 11:50 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. The trains will make stops at stations along the line.

“Two trains daily will originate at High Bridge, the western terminus of the line, at 9:18 a.m. and 12:18 p.m.

“The trains will leave Plainfield at 9:05 a.m., 10:10 a.m., 11:10 a.m., 12:10 p.m. and 1:10 p.m.

“Five one-seat ride trains will leave each weekday from Penn Station. The trains will leave at 10:44 a.m., 11:49 a.m., 12:49 p.m., 1:47 p.m. and 2:39 p.m., arriving in Plainfield about 50 minutes later and in Somerville 70 minutes later.”

NJ Transit will evaluate the program based on its ridership, adding evening and weekend service if it is considered successful. For now, Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski urges the coalition to “step up” its efforts to energize the public to ride the one-seat train. Peter Palmer, Somset Couty Freeholder and head of the coalition, says the coalition plans to promote the new service using social media.

 

Just two months after the Houston Metro extended its North Line, ridership on the new 5.3 mile segment is topping projections by 62%. In its first full month of service, the North Line averaged 4,200 boardings on the weekdays, 1,600 more than was projected for fiscal year 2014.

“This speaks volumes about the value of rail in the community, and how expanding the reach of one form of transit enhances others like our bus service,” Metro Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia told Metro Magazine.

According to Metro Magazine, Metro’s improvements are widespread and ongoing:

—Increased the amount of transit service, adding 192 rail trips each weekday, replacing 149 weekday bus trips.

—Increased the frequency of service: peak and midday service has been running every 12 minutes compared to 15 minutes on previous bus routes.

—Improved on-time performance: Route 79, which serves the Northline Transit Center (the line’s last station), scaled to the top 10 routes for on-time performance from the bottom 10.

Ridership on the North Line is expected to grow even more after a series of Metro improvements, including the addition of two more rail lines. When the East End and Southeast Lines open later this year, the entire Metro rail system will triple in size.

 

New JerseyTransit's Executive Director Jim Weinstein submitted his resignation to the Board of Directors on February 18. His resignation will go into effect on March 2. 

NARP Vice Chair Al Papp, Jr.—who also serves on the leadership at the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers—offered insight and context into Mr. Weinstein’s tenure:

That this occurred was really no great surprise to those of us who are involved in local passenger rail advocacy.  I had more than a fair share of meetings with Jim Weinstein and the one thing you could say was that he always exhibited a professional demeanor by being even spoken and always ready to listen to you.  He was extremely loyal to his subordinates and when the full extent of the $130 million worth of Hurricane Sandy damages became known, he hunkered down and defended his troops to the hilt. However, the decision by NJT management to move both locomotives and cars into the Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC) was a terrible mistake, which cost the agency dearly and disrupted systemwide train schedules for months afterward.

There were positive developments during Mr. Weinstein's tenure.  This included the establishment of "Quiet Cars" on rush hour trains so that those riders would not have to listen to the incessant chatter of others intent on explaining every action of theirs on cell phones, the proof of purchase of a ticket through a display on a smart phone ("My Tix"), and the location of a bus, on which a passenger is intending to board, through cell phone digital technology ("My Bus").  He implemented a New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) suggestion to eliminate weekend parking fees at Hudson-Bergen and Newark Light Rail stations. 

 

A Tacoma architect revealed 14 concept designs for the new Tacoma Amtrak station which will be built in Freighthouse Square, accommodating a 2017 switch in the passenger train route.

Jim Merritt, brought on by the Washington Department of Transportation to reinvigorate the site selection and design process for the new station, proposed a plethora of designs for the new station that included everything from work-live units to a new structure built over the street.

Merritt’s proposal, and its unconventional elements, aimed to address complaints about the original design unveiled by the Washington Department of Transportation in December. The public expressed particular concern about the preservation of the historical structure of the Milwaukee Road freighthouse in the design of the new station, as well as integration of retail activity and attractiveness of the structure.

Merritt and the state carefully chose the freighthouse as the new station location after studying myriad options. The concepts for the building itself reflect six weeks of public forums held on the matter.

 

In honor of Black History month, Amtrak has sponsored a slate of events that will recognize the contributions African Americans have made to the railroad industry throughout its history.

“Black History Month is a great time to not only reflect on the important contributions made by so many Americans, but it allows us the opportunity to dream and to learn,” said Darlene Abubakar, Senior Director of Amtrak’s National Advertising and Marketing Programs. “What is perhaps most exciting and gratifying about many of these celebrations is the extent to which numerous employee teams have worked hard to develop and execute these programs.”

For more events and information, visit myblackjourney.com. NARP reported on other facets of the celebration on the NARP Blog:

Amtrak is also partnering with theroot.com to sponsor an online contest titled “Our Roots, Our Railroad: Take an Amtrak Ride through Black History”.  The interactive contest gives those a chance to learn more on African-American history as well as a chance to win two round trip Amtrak tickets good for anywhere in the United States.  For more details on the contest and events near you, click on the links below for information. 

Amtrak's Our Roots, Our Railroad Contest

Amtrak Black History Month Events

 

U.S. Transportation Secretary joined the nation’s largest freight railroads today to announce a voluntary safety initiative that will put new operating practices into place when transporting crude oil by train.

“We share the Administration’s vision for making a safe rail network even safer, and have worked together to swiftly pinpoint new operating practices that enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger.

NARP applauds the steps taken to improve safety by the Class 1 railroads, and will work with America’s freight carriers, Amtrak, and the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure that the right to reliable, on-time train transportation is protected. You can read NARP’s letter to Secretary Foxx about the delays to the Empire Builder here.

Today’s announcement focused on operations. Equipment improvements will be addressed later on. The improvements include:

  • Increased track inspections on main line routes over which trains moving 20 or more carloads of crude oil travel. 
  • Improvements to braking systems on all trains with 20 or more carloads of crude oil, using either distributed power or two-way telemetry end-of-train devices, allowing train crews to apply emergency brakes from both ends of the train resulting in shorter stopping distances.
  • Use of rail traffic routing technology to aid in the determination of the safest and most secure rail routes for trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil.
  • Impose a speed limit of 40 MPH on trains with 20 or more tank cars carrying crude oil, if they include at least one older DOT-111 car and are traveling through one of the 46 federally designated high-threat-urban areas.
  • Increased trackside safety technology, with wayside wheel bearing detectors no further than 40 miles apart on lines with trains carrying 20 or more crude oil cars.
  • A $5 million increase to emergency response training and tuition assistance, which provides training to local emergency responders in the field.