Hotline #853 -- March 14, 2014

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) revealed that Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013, reaching heights in public transit ridership not seen in 57 years. That’s the equivalent of a 1.1 percent increase over total ridership in 2012, yet again outpacing growth in automobile travel.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.  People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “Access to public transportation matters. Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization.”

NARP investigated these numbers earlier this week:

Rail advocates can be delighted that much of this growth is on rail-based systems. Nationwide, ridership on commuter rail systems grew by 2.1% in 2013, and light rail ridership grow by 1.6%. Commuter bus ridership remained largely stagnant, decreasing by 0.1%. As might be expected, much of this growth occurred in cities that have made substantial investments in building new rail systems. In Texas, patronage of Austin’s Capital MetroRail and Denton County’s A-Train increased by 37.3% and 23.0% respectively. Here, we can attribute the increase to local authorities’ decisions to invest heavily in the acquisition of faster and more efficient trains, lowering operational costs and offering more options to commuters. 

Similar investment in Pennsylvania precipitated a 33.8% increase in ridership on Amtrak’s Keystone Service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Pennsylvania’s investment in the service has not only allowed the service to continue after PRIIA Section 209 came into force, but also allowed planners to contemplate expanded, faster service in the future. With the Keystone Service, we find yet another example of passenger rail’s place in the larger transportation network. Amtrak is by no means an occasional service for those who want to go on a weekend journey, rather, it moves Americans to and from work and home each and every day.

 

Despite political hurdles, the state of California has been moving ahead with project expenditures, with construction set to begin within a matter of months.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has spent $1.2 billion on the project so far. Of that, 7% has gone to project oversight and administration, 57% has gone to project managers and engineering, with the remaining 36% to be spent on the construction of the 29-mile Fresno – Madera segment.

That progress has been made in the face of a court ruling that has delayed the use of state bonds on the project. CAHSRA is working to amend its business plan to unlock the bonds. In the meantime, the project is relying on federal funds from the High Performance Rail Program to keep things moving, with an extension granted by the FRA.

“We've been working with the federal government and, in fact, we can extend out. So we really would like to see a lot of these issues resolved by the legislature and the courts in the June time frame,” said Authority Chairman Dan Richard to reporters. “We have a president who wants this project. We have a governor who wants this project. And this is a great example of cooperation between the state of California and our federal funding partners.”

Additionally Governor Jerry Brown, one of the project’s biggest supporters, has given the project a boost by promising $250 million in revenue from the state’s new tax on air pollution.

 

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released the results from a 60-day safety assessment of Metro-North Commuter Railroad today, with its findings indicating that Metro-North’s overemphasis on on-time performance has been detrimental to safe operations and infrastructure maintenance. 

The FRA spoke bluntly about what it termed a “deficient safety culture,” and the report requires Metro-North to submit plans within 60-days that will identify concrete steps to improve the effectiveness of its Safety Department and training programs.   

“Safety is our top priority, and this in-depth assessment should serve as a wake-up call to Metro-North as they work to make their operations safer,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Efficiency and on-time performance are important, but they cannot come before the safety of every passenger on board or those communities along the system.”

The FRA identified specific concerns that it expects Metro-North to address, including track safety standards, railroad operating rules, certification requirements for locomotive engineers and conductors, and safety training for roadway workers and employees who maintain rolling stock.

You can read the full report on Metro-North on FRA.gov.

 

Since the Downeaster began operations between Maine and Boston in 2001, it has experienced steady growth in ridership and revenues. Last year the train carried more than 559,000 passengers, setting a new ridership and revenue record. But, not content to rest on their laurels, management is reaching out to passengers to ensure that the service continues to develop in a manner which meets the needs of the traveling public.

While Amtrak actually runs the trains, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority oversees the management of the Downeaster. NNEPRA will be hosting a public meeting at Portland City Hall on Wednesday, March 19 to hear what direction passengers want the service to develop.

The outreach is part of the development of Maine’s state rail plan. Development of the plan was put on hold when grants from the Obama Administration’s High Performance Rail Program allowed Maine to extend the Downeaster north from Portland to Freeport and New Brunswick.

“It's taken us a little bit longer to complete it because we wanted to give a chance for the new improvements we made to settle in,” NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn told the Portland Daily Sun. “We solicit feedback all the time, so I think we have a lot of good information about what people want to see, but this is another opportunity for people to bring us their ideas.”

"Hopefully people will come and they will bring us some ideas and thoughts," Quinn added.

The event will be held at 6:00 PM in Portland City Hall, State of Maine Room.

 

Plans for the new Tacoma Amtrak Station were altered this week when preliminary engineering studies found the original Tacoma Freighthouse Square to be unfit for remodeling. According to a Washington Department of Transportation official, concerns about the weak foundation and swampy soil underneath the structure almost guarantees that an all-new station will be built, rather than incorporating the structure of the old Freighthouse.

The all-new station will instead be built on the footprint of a section of the historic structure and will still reflect the Freighthouse’s original style of architecture. WDOT is currently deliberating on the section upon which to build the new structure; putting it on the east end near G Street was the most popular suggestion when it was presented at a Tacoma Amtrak Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday afternoon. At the meeting, Freighthouse owner Brian Borgelt described this option as the “least disruptive” in terms of the construction process, as well as future location of merchants and access to the parking lot.

As previously reported by NARP, the new Tacoma Amtrak station will accommodate a new Amtrak route through Tacoma starting in 2017. David Smelser,  WDOT’s chief planner for the $800 million Cascades rail corridor improvement project, told the News Tribune to expect more detailed plans this summer, after more technical studies are completed and negotiations concluded with the Freighthouse owner.

 

East- and westbound lines of the New Haven Line of the Metro-North commuter rail system are now equipped with a full back-up power redundancy system, thanks to a $10 million upgrade completed this week.

"This project was designed to prevent the type of catastrophic power failure that occurred last fall in Mount Vernon, N.Y., seriously disrupting New Haven Line service,” Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy told Progressive Railroading. "In addition, it will allow us to add more service on the New Haven Line as we move forward."

Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said that the improvement project, completed on schedule, was the result of the strong partnership between CDOT, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P), and Metro-North, as well as extensive and comprehensive planning.

 

SunRail will invite prospective passengers aboard its new commuter trains to ride free of charge from April 15-18 and 21-25 to promote the service’s official launch on May first.

SunRail has been teasing locals with practice runs along the 31.5-mile route since last year, and it just launched a television ad campaign that will supplement its billboard series along Interstate 4.

Though the online ticket purchase application is not yet up and running, SunRail spokesman Steve Olson told the Orlando Sentinel that he expects it to be ready by the beginning of April. Despite delays with the IT infrastructure, SunRail has already sold over 9,000 tickets.

SunRail is expected to release details about the free rides, including a schedule, closer to the dates of the promotion.

 

The Sooner Subdivision remains on the agenda of the Tulsa City Council, even after Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett vetoed a resolution urging the Oklahoma Department of Transportation not to sell the line.

Two weeks ago, NARP wrote a concerned letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin about the sale of the 97.5-mile rail line that the state had previously promised to hold onto for the possibility of future passenger rail service.

City councilors have now taken up the fight to preserve the Sooner Subdivison for passenger rail and could override the mayor’s Thursday veto. They may also pursue his support through a new resolution.

"All we're doing is expressing our opinion," Councilor Phil Lakin told 2NEWS. "We want convenient, reliable and frequent passenger rail service as a real possibility between Tulsa and Oklahoma City."

 

From the NARP Blog

LA Metro Subtly Educates New Passengers through Art Tours: With most cities, transit passengers learn the rules of navigating the systems—both written and unwritten—the hard way. Stand on the left side of the escalator in D.C.’s Metro and you’ll hear about it from other passengers. Don’t move your bag from an adjacent seat in New York City’s subway for another passenger looking to sit down at your own risk.

But in Los Angeles, a city consciously working to loosen the noose that traffic-clogged highways and overburdened roads have placed upon its growth, they’re trying a gentler approach at educating first-timers than the hard stares of other passengers. [Read More]

Amtrak's New Math for Long-Distance Route Expenses: Marketing Yes, Amenities No: Against a backdrop of unprecedented ridership, constrained capacity, and operational challenges, Amtrak's national network of the 15 long-distance routes recently came under the aegis of Mark Murphy, Amtrak's new General Manager Long Distance Services. The reorganized business line is now largely overseen by a cadre of Amtrak veterans such as Murphy, who graciously presented to the joint NARP and RailPAC (Rail Passenger Association of California) “Steel Wheels” member meeting in Los Angeles on February 1. [Read More]

 

Passenger Advisory

A large fuel tanker truck explosion on New Jersey’s McCarter Highway disrupted Amtrak trains, NJ Transit, and traffic early yesterday morning. Amtrak crews were able to complete repairs to Northeast Corridor tracks affected by the burning fuel by Friday morning’s commute.

—An explosion that destroyed two apartment buildings in Harlem disrupted train service out of Grand Central Terminal on March 12 and 13. The tragic incident claimed seven lives.

The explosion occurred at Park Avenue and 116th Street in New York City, and trains running past the site were forced to slow speeds to ensure safe operations.