Hotline #855 -- March 28, 2014

Image via Texas Central Railway

Today the mayors of Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth announced their joint support of high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, a project led by Texas Central High-Speed Railways.

At a press conference today, the mayors cited numerous reasons to seize the opportunity for a high-speed route, including stimulating the economy, reducing travel time, reducing congestion and cutting harmful emissions.

“With Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth being two of the largest and fastest growing metropolitan areas in America, we are both faced with many of the same challenges: growing traffic congestion, ever-increasing commutes and limited public transportation dollars from the state.  It is imperative that we give our residents an innovative alternative. If successful, Houstonians will have a reliable, private alternative that will help alleviate traffic congestion and drastically reduce travel times,” said Mayor Annise Parker of Houston.

The mayors said they look forward to working closely with state and federal partners, along with Texas Central Railway, which hopes to make the project a reality within the next ten years.

 

Amtrak announced yesterday that Empire Builder trains will originate three hours earlier in an attempt to address On Time Performance issues that have been negatively impacting the service for over a year.

Empire Builder trains leaving Seattle (Train 8) and Portland (Train 28) will originate three hours earlier than they currently do, with the additional padding being added in three segments: Minot – Rugby, Grand Forks – Fargo and St Cloud – Minneapolis/St. Paul. The schedule between St. Paul and Chicago will be largely unchanged. Amtrak will monitor how the performance of the train improves following the implementation of these changes, and has expressed openness to further modifications.

“We are working closely with BNSF Railway Co., which owns the tracks and controls the dispatching of the Empire Builder trains between St. Paul and the West Coast, in order to publish a schedule that accounts for the freight train congestion and the condition of the BNSF-owned infrastructure,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s Route Director for the Empire Builder. “We will assess the ability of BNSF to dispatch the Empire Builder with better reliability on this schedule, with further schedule changes possible in June.”

NARP spoke out about this problem in January, drawing national attention to the issue. We have recognized the need for a lengthening of the schedule in the face of extreme freight congestion—but only on the condition that the change was temporary until work to expand capacity on the corridor can be completed.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the new schedule, but only time will tell if the connections to Train 30 and Train 50 are achieved,” said Dave Randall, NARP Vice-Chair of Service Delivery. “There is also the concern about the potential ridership loss on account of the missed connection from and to the Starlight at Portland. I think Amtrak is making the best of a tough situation, but NARP has to keep an eye out for the passenger’s best interest.”

 

The Michigan Association of Rail Passengers has teamed up with the Michigan Environmental Council to push for a feasibility study of a Detroit – Holland passenger rail corridor.

Called the Coast to Coast line, the corridor would join businesses and universities in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Holland. It has already drawn an endorsement from the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council’s Policy Committee.

“This is an opportunity to get started,” John Langdon of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers told the Grand Rapids Press. “It’s a long-term issue. The feasibility study will only tell us whether it makes sense to move ahead to the next level.”

Michigan by Rail has outlined some of the many potential benefits the line would bring to the state:

By meshing existing train tracks with local transit options and intercity coach services, the route will extend possibilities well beyond its station stops and allow comfortable travel across Michigan without a car.

The Coast-to-Coast will:

·         Ignite innovation by providing a conduit for new partnerships between the world-class medical centers and 19 colleges and universities along its tracks.

·         Provide workers access to jobs along the corridor and make their commutes more pleasant and productive.

·         Breathe new life into our centers of arts and entertainment by giving out-of-town visitors a reliable and relaxing way to reach new cultural experiences.

·         Help Michigan attract and retain more of the talented workers the state needs to prosper in the future.

The economic impact of these new opportunities is huge.  For instance, passenger rail service on the Wolverine Corridor brings more than $45 million in community benefits to towns along the route each year.  Amtrak invested more than $31 million in Michigan companies in 2013 for goods and services to keep its trains running.

And demand for convenient rail travel has never been greater. Amtrak ridership in our state has increased over 78% since 2002.  Michigan trains carried over 800,000 passengers in 2013, a new ridership record generating Amtrak $28.7 million.

You can find more at Michiganbyrail.org.

 

A Maine startup company proposes to restart passenger rail service between Portland and Vermont, with future plans for an extension to Montreal.

David Schwanke, President of the Golden Eagle Rail Corporation, told the Portland Press-Herald that he believes there is a sufficient base for freight and passenger traffic between Portland and the White Mountains region of northern New Hampshire. That’s why his company is going to begin discussions with the Maine Department of Transportation to upgrade 45 miles of track between Westbrook and Freyburg.

The line, known locally as the “Mountain Division”, hosted its last passenger trains in 1959. Freight service ended in 1983 when Guilford Transportation Industries abandoned the line. Maine purchased it in 1994 with an eye to reopening it, but has yet to find a willing operator.

Schwanke proposes to upgrade the line in stages. In the first stage, Golden Eagle would spend $7-10 million upgrading the track in Maine to modern standards. Next, the company would rehabilitate the line into Vermont and begin passenger service to the White Mountains region. Doing so, Schwanke notes, would allow the company to tap into demand for ski trains in the winter and excursions in the summer and fall. Finally, the company would complete repairs on the entire line to St. Johnsbuy, Vermont, where it will connect with existing lines to Montreal.

Maine officials are cautiously optimistic. Nate Moulton, director of the state’s industrial rail access program believes that Schwanke’s proposal has potential, but that the company must offer “real business plan” before the state would consider a partnership to revive the line.

 

Tulsa leaders and passenger rail activists gathered a crowd of sixty to rally against the sale of the state-owned railroad between Tulsa and Oklahoma City and demand an answer from state transportation officials as to how the deal would benefit the public.

During the public forum held at a downtown bar, former city Councilor and Tulsa Rail Advisory Committee Chairman Rick Westcott called out the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for misrepresenting facts about the Sooner Subdivision and for neglecting to participate in any Tulsa City Council meetings related to the issue.

“Here’s what it (upgrading the rail line for passenger service) costs: $1 million,” Westcott told Tulsa World. “And that will bring run times down to two hours and 15 minutes each way. … It doesn’t cost $100 million,” as he said ODOT has suggested. In the railroad’s current state, a passenger trip between Sapulpa and Del City would take at least three hours.

Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Tulsa City Councilor Blake Ewing also voiced their support for future passenger rail service at the event, bringing attention to the multiple benefits of the service, including economic development, enhanced livability, and a way to attract young professionals to the area.

For more background information on the Sooner Subdivision and to voice your support for future passenger rail service, click here.

 

Last week Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) FasTracks began construction on North Metro Rail Line, a new electrified commuter rail service to open in 2018.

The new line will serve Denver’s northern communities, connecting downtown Denver to northern Adams county and running through north Denver, Commerce City, Thornton and Northglenn along the way.

The first 12.5-mile phase, to be designed and built by RTD contractors Regional Rail Partners, will run from Denver Union Station to 124th Avenue. The final six miles will connect the route to 162nd Avenue/Colorado Highway 7, and will be built as funds become available.

Metro Magazine captured the significance of the event:

During the groundbreaking, RTD GM/CEO Phil Washington noted that 2014 marks the 20-year anniversary of rail transit opening in Denver and the 10-year anniversary of voters' approval of the FasTracks expansion program to build 122 miles of new passenger rail and bus rapid transit across RTD's eight-county district.
"It's remarkable to see how far we've come," Washington said. "More than a year ago, this line was not set to be completed for many years. Now, because of innovative financing, working with our stakeholders and reaching out to the private sector, we are here today breaking ground on the first phase of the North Metro Rail Line."

 

From the NARP Blog:

West Virginia Passengers Need Your Help: For several decades, the Brunswick Line of Maryland’s MARC commuter rail service has served the West Virginia towns of Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg. Hundreds of commuters use this line every day to commute to and from their jobs in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Like many other commuter rail services, the Brunswick Line has enjoyed increased ridership in recent years. Now, more than ever, commuter rail is an integral part of the region’s transportation network. [Read More]

Illinois Needs Your Input on Next Phase of Chicago - St. Louis Rail Corridor: The Illinois Department of Transportation is looking for public input on the next phase of the Chicago – St. Louis rail corridor, and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is organizing local train advocates to ensure that the potential for truly world class high speed operations is protected. [Read More]

You can help build passenger rail between Phoenix and Tucson: Phoenix, Arizona is one of the urban centers of what demographers and public policy scholars term the “Sun Belt”. This vast region, stretching from Miami to Los Angeles, has seen tremendous economic growth in the past decades. This growth can be credited to a combination of new high tech industries looking to take advantage of lower labor costs as well as retirees seeking warmer climes, and is best reflected in the census. Phoenix is no exception to this story. Between 1980 and 2014, the city’s population increased by more than 97% from just under 800,000 to nearly one and a half million residents.

Growth, however, has come at a price. As former Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton opined in a recent article, Arizona policymakers, like their counterparts elsewhere, prioritized the creation of highways over investment in other forms of transit. An alliance of private developers, rural property owners, and general contractors produced a policy that sanctioned urban sprawl on a huge scale. [Read More]