Hotline #856 -- April 4, 2014

NARP issued a press release today condemning Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal to eliminate Amtrak’s operating grant—part of a comprehensive budget plan—calling it an irresponsible attack on America’s passengers that would hurt the U.S. economy if enacted:

Representative Ryan’s budget directs Congress to eliminate operating subsidies for Amtrak, on the pretext that operating funds have been “insulating Amtrak from making the structural reforms necessary to start producing returns.” Though Ryan is proposing radically cuts to highway and transit spending, he only requires profitability from one mode: passenger rail.

It is certain that by starving Amtrak of funds, the Wisconsin congressman’s plan would cripple the railroad. This would not only deny a critical transportation link to tens of millions of Americans—it would imperil commuter service that 831,000 working Americans rely on each day, eliminate the 20,000 middle class jobs provided by Amtrak, and jeopardize the jobs of the thousands of men and women who manufacture Amtrak equipment and materials.

NARP is working to secure $19 billion over the next four years to help build a world class passenger rail system that will help America compete. A critical part of this plan is securing dedicated funding for trains that will allow Amtrak and states to purchase new equipment and carry out multi-year infrastructure investment plans.

“Amtrak’s total budget only accounts for 0.037 percent of the federal budget, yet provides a critical role in providing mobility for hundreds of millions of passengers through its intercity and commuter operations. This is in no way a serious deficit reduction measure,” said NARP Vice President Sean Jeans-Gail. “America’s passengers need Congress to stop playing politics, and to start thinking about how we as a country can address the growing infrastructure crisis affecting our rails, highways, and transit systems.”

Join NARP in telling Congress to oppose this Amtrak-killing plan!

 

An architectual rendering of Birmingham's new intermodal facility.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to speak of the economic and social benefits that will come with the new $30 million intermodal station. Construction began on the new station last month, which will host Amtrak trains, regional transit, and Greyhound buses.

Boardman used the trip to speak to local mayors about the vital importance of the intercity trains to the national transportation system, and of the dire consequences of failing to address the infrastructure investment crisis currently facing the U.S.—consequences that will negatively impact the public and our economy.

Boardman’s trip was covered in the NARP blog, where we contrasted and compared differing visions for America’s national rail network being pushed from within the framework of the Republican party (before his time at Amtrak, Boardman served as Transportation Commissioner for the Republican Governor of New York, George Pataki, and he went on to head the Federal Railroad Administration under President George W. Bush):

Amtrak enjoys support from across the political spectrum, including powerful Republicans such as Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), who has long supported Amtrak’s national network; Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who received the NARP Golden Spike for the integral role she played in initiating the Downeaster service; and many more who are willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to modernize and expand America’s passenger rail network.

However, there is no more prominent Republican booster for Amtrak than the railroad’s President & CEO, Joseph Boardman… Boardman is proof of the strong vein of support in the Republican party.  He reiterated this support in a meeting this week with local mayors in Alabama, where he passionately defended the long distance trains as the “backbone” of America’s national network:

“They are vital to the communities and people they serve, and increasingly important as airlines and bus companies abandon significant regions of America… We see the characteristics of our population are changing… people are coming back to the centers of cities. But they need to get between the metropolitan areas. That's what intercity rail is about, that's what Amtrak's about. We connect the country border to border, coast to coast.”

Boardman was clear in his warnings warned that the current anemic levels of government funding have eroded quality of Amtrak equipment and infrastructure; that recent disruptions to service would escalate, driving passengers away; and that the status quo is simply unsustainable.

 

Louisiana cities are considering a revised approach to passenger rail following a study released earlier this year.

While Governor Bobby Jindal decided in 2008 to opt out of federal funding for proposed high speed rail service in the state and the initial plans for high-speed rail were abandoned, Baton Rouge and New Orleans have decided to move forward with plans to connect the two cities with higher-speed passenger train service. After a study released in February, however, the cities have revised the initial plans, considering instead the option to move forward with medium-speed rail service.

Now that New Orleans population levels have largely recovered following Hurricane Katrina, the necessity for commuter rail service in the region has become apparent. In addition, officials in the cities are also thinking ahead to the possibility of another hurricane, in the event of which passenger rail could serve as a valuable evacuation route for New Orleans residents.

Officials from NTSB Corp, the civil engineering and construction management firm which performed the study, have stated that high speed service is not necessary to execute either of these uses. The study revealed that trains traveling 79 miles per hour would provide a sufficient and competitive commuting option between the two cities, while drastically cutting the cost of the project.

In its current condition, the 90-mile rail corridor between the two cities, owned by the Kansas City Southern Railway, could not support the 110 mile per hour speeds clocked by high speed trains. Aging infrastructure, such as the wooden trestles which support the line in many places, would need to be replaced before the line could qualify for high speed service. Running conventional passenger trains, on the other hand, would necessitate only a few select upgrades.

Alan Tobias, a transportation planner for NTSB, remarked on the option of medium-speed rail, “It’s only 80 miles long, so you don’t really gain a whole lot by going 110 mph. If you can get to 79 mph and maintain that speed, you can get some competitive travel times.”

 

The Indiana Department of Transportation, in conjunction with local community partners, has issued a request for proposals to improve Amtrak’s Hoosier State passenger train service that runs four times a week between Chicago and Indianapolis.

The open-ended request calls for private operators to bid on providing some or all services on the Hoosier State line. The RFP emphasizes improving service on the line, which is funded through a $2.7 million state grant.

According to the Indiana High Speed Rail Association:

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act ended federal support for certain Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles. In October, Governor Mike Pence announced an agreement to keep the HoosierState operating for one year in partnership with Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Rensselaer, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and Beech Grove.

INDOT and the communities seek to improve the Hoosier State passenger experience, increase the number of passengers on the train and decrease train operating costs by opening the operation of the train to competition from private operators in addition to Amtrak. The Act allows states to contract with independent providers or Amtrak to operate the trains that they now help subsidize.

According to INDOT, current service on the HoosierState will not be disrupted as a result of the RFP.

 

In a report released on Monday, the Northeastern Illinois Public Task Force has called for the abolition of the Regional Transit Authority of Chicago.

The recommendation comes following a wave of patronage scandals involving board members of Metra, the operator of Chicago-area regional passenger trains. The report called for the three component agencies of RTA—Metra, Chicago Transit Authority and Pace—to be consolidated under a single board, an attempt to consolidate city and suburban transit and reduce the autonomy of each agency. This would eliminate the 48 paid members of the RTA board and allow the new consolidated board to set the policies and priorities for each of the former agencies, which would be considered “operating units.”

While the state government would need to alter the current law in order for the consolidation to occur, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has recognized the necessity of actions to repair the trust of the state’s citizens and move the transit system forward. The task force has emphasized the problems with the current system by declaring in a letter to Governor Quinn that “If the Chicago region is to be globally competitive it must have a globally competitive transit system, currently we do not.” Although some task force members fear push-back from some groups, including suburban residents, DePaul University scholar Joseph Schwieterman states that “the panel is swinging for a home run.”

 

An April 16 rally is planned to protest the sale of the state-owned Sooner Subdivision between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Passenger Rail Oklahoma, the grass roots organization behind the event, aims to communicate to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and five cabinet members involved in the sale that “no sale” is the only resolution the public will accept.

The rally will take place from 11:30 am to 2:00 pm on the South steps of the State Capitol Building in Oklahoma City. For more details on the rally, see Texas Rail Advocates’ recent article.

While NARP hasn’t taken an official stance on the sale of the corridor, we are calling for the enactment of protections for the development of 2-hour train service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa on the corridor.

 

From the NARP Blog

Monorail? More like Mono-d'oh!: Fans of the long-running FOX series The Simpsons might remember a 1993 episode where the citizens of Springfield, swayed by a clever salesman’s presentation, invest the town’s treasury in a monorail service with hilariously disastrous results. While we at NARP don’t pretend that a cartoon can possibly encapsulate the nuances of transportation policy debates, recent events in Tennessee might force us to reconsider. [Read More]

NARP Welcomes New Policy Intern Henry Scherck: Hello! My name is Henry Scherck and I am going to be a policy intern here at NARP this spring! I have long been interested in passenger rail, and I am really excited to be working here at NARP. I come from Slingerlands, NY, a small suburb of Albany, and I have been a resident of New York’s Capital Region for the past 15 years. I am a sophomore at Union College, a small college in Schenectady, NY, a city steeped in railroad history and the former home of the American Locomotive Company. At Union, I major in Political Science with a focus on American Politics. During my studies, I have become intrigued by local government, city politics, and, of course, transportation policy. [Read More]

“There Are Three Kinds of Lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”: The people who fuss and fume because passenger rail in the U.S. is subsidized will acknowledge (if pressed) that all public transportation is subsidized. And they will also concede, albeit grudgingly, that the roughly $1.5 billion that Amtrak gets every year from the federal government is a tiny fraction of one percent of the annual budget. [Read More]

Chinese Travelers Flock to the Rails: Earlier this year, China’s Xinzheng International Airport became the sight of a massive riot. Angry airline customers swarmed the airport, removing machines and strewing them about the concourse. Police struggled to keep the crowd in check as customers scrambled over ticket counters and entered staff offices. The riots occurred following the end of the Lunar New Year Celebrations in response to the exceptionally poor service Chinese airlines provided to customers on their return journeys. Yet, the airlines’ substandard accommodations were not just a result of a greater number of customers traveling via air; in fact, poor service is a daily occurrence throughout China. [Read More]

 

Travelers Advisory

—Downed catenary disrupted Amtrak and MARC commuter service on the Northeast Corridor for roughly six hours yesterday. The interruption stemmed from an incident where Amtrak No. 181 train tore down overhead wires, leaving the train without power. Crews worked throughout the morning to address the problem, and were able to get trains on the corridor running again around 3:00 PM.

A mudslide in Washington State halted Amtrak and Sounder service between Seattle and Everett on April 1. Burlington Northern Santa Fe crews were able to clear the tracks, but safety precautions kept trains from running until early this morning. Passengers were bussed in the meantime.

The Coast Starlight Train 14 will depart Klamath Falls, OR and Chemult, OR 37 minutes earlier from April 16-23, May 1-8, and May 16-17 due to track work being performed by Union Pacific railroad.

The Empire Builder Train 7/27 from Chicago and 8/28 from Seattle and Portland will operate on a modified schedule from April 15 through May 31. The most up-to-date departure times for all trains can be found on Amtrak.com under the “Schedules” tab, our free mobile apps and at 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).

The discount for Student Advantage (SA) and International Student Identity Card (ISIC) members has changed from 15 to 10 percent for reservations made on or after April 2. The student discount for Amtrak Express Shipments will also change from 15 to 10 percent.