Hotline #857 -- April 11, 2014

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois announced on April 10 that the state will invest $223 million to introduce Amtrak service between Rockford and Chicago, with service scheduled to start in 2015. The infrastructure investment will create hundreds of jobs, and return intercity passenger trains to communities that have gone without service since 1981.

“Next year, rail service between Rockford and Chicago will finally be a reality,” Governor Quinn said. “This funding and a new route are the final pieces of the puzzle to restart this critical rail service, which has been dormant for more than three decades. This is just the beginning – reliable, intercity passenger rail will create jobs and drive economic development in these cities, the region and the state for years to come.”

Initially, service will consist of a daily roundtrip between Chicago Union Station and Rockford, with stops in Elgin, Huntley and Belvidere. Initially, passengers will use a temporary Rockford station while a permanent multi-modal station is developed on Main Street. Huntley and Belvedere will develop new stations, while Elgin will utilize an existing Metra station.

“It is essential for the economic development and the ultimate financial well being of all communities to have quality transportation,” said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain. “I thank Governor Quinn and the state of Illinois for providing our region with improvements to I-90, high-speed rail and bus rapid transit between Elgin and Rockford that will bring us all unprecedented opportunities for growth."

In subsequent years, the corridor will be extended west to Dubuque, Iowa. The service restoration relies on a new northern route, which utilizes Metra’s Milwaukee District-West Line and Union Pacific’s Big Timber Road in Elgin. The Rockford restoration project is part of Governor Quinn’s six-year, $31 billion IllinoisJobs Now! infrastructure investment program.

 

New Mexican officials gathered on April 7 in Albuquerque’s North Valley to celebrate the opening of the new Montaño Transit Center, intermodal transportation hub that will serve passengers of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express and ABQ RIDE (the local bus system).

The Rail Runner Express features 14 stations along the 100-mile Rio Grande corridor, with more than 60 total bus connections along the commuter rail network. The Montaño station will be served by seven north and southbound stops on weekdays, four on Saturdays, and three on Sundays.

“The Montaño Transit Center is a welcome addition to the neighborhood which will open a bigger stretch of the North Valley to greater economic development opportunities,” said Mayor Richard J. Berry. “It will also bring affordable public transportation to even more Albuquerque residents.”

The $7.1 million station was built in pueblo-revival style, relying on a 78/22 split in federal and local funding sources.

 

Vermont’s House of Representatives voted on April 8 to approve a resolution supporting the extension of passenger rail service from Rutland to Burlington.

The resolution, which passed unanimously, directs the Vermont Department of Transportation "to engage with NYDOT to prepare a joint application for a federal grant for capital upgrades to the rail line from Mechanicville [in New York] to Rutland, so that both agencies are prepared to submit a strong grant application in the event that federal grant funds for intercity passenger rail service become available."

Chris Parker, Executive Director of the Vermont Rail Action Network and a NARP Council Member, provides important context in an interview with Railway Age:

"It is significant to have the legislature's full support on the longtime goal of extending the Ethan Allen up the Western Corridor to Burlington, Vermont's largest city. The Vermont Rail Action Network has worked for this project, both behind the scenes and as a coordinating voice among many supporters. Governor [Peter] Shumlin has made this one of his priorities. Key has been the support of many local and business leaders including local mayors, every Chamber of Commerce on the route, colleges, legislators, and many others. We have just 12 miles of welded rail left to fund and install before the route attains passenger competitive speeds, so we are close, very close.”

The extension would also advance the goal of creating a direct rail connection between Montreal and Boston.

 

The Washington State Department of Transportation issued a Request for Information (RFI) to gather information from train operators about potential delivery options on the Cascades service, a 467 mile corridor that connects Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon, with stops in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

Currently, the Cascades is operated by Amtrak. Similar stories are playing out with other state supported services. NARP reported in last week’s Hotline on Indiana’s Request for Proposals to improve Amtrak’s HoosierState passenger train, and Governor Dannel Malloy announced last week that the Connecticut Department of Transportation will seek proposals from operators for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line; both lines are currently operated by Amtrak.

The unifying thread is that these requests have come after the implementation of Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, where operating costs on rail lines of less than 750 miles were shifted from the federal government to states. While more direct responsibility has led to a greater interest in improving quality among state officials, it has also placed additional stress on state budgets. Washington State, which manages the corridor in conjunction with Oregon, explicitly outlined this tension in the RFI:

Washington and Oregon currently contract with Amtrak and other service partners to provide a quality intercity passenger rail service that customers value with clean, safe, reliable travel; and comfort and convenience, including amenities such as Wi-Fi and food and beverage service. At the same time, rising costs and increasing budget constraints require the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to minimize the financial impact to the states while continuing to achieve transportation goals. The states are requesting opportunities for cost reduction and developing priorities based on what will generate the best value relative to the resources required in a manner that will:

  • Provide an efficient, safe, and cost-effective alternative to highway, bus, and air travel;
  • Support future growth of intercity passenger rail service on the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon;
  • Operate an efficient, high-quality intercity passenger rail service that that help minimize the need for state subsidies;
  • Provide flexibility for WSDOT and ODOT to manage service amenities and business costs;
  • Be sensitive to community and environmental impacts; and
  • Integrate with local roadway, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian transportation networks.

It’s worth noting the Cascades has been quite successful with Amtrak as operator, with ridership topping 836,000 in 2012, up from less than 200,000 in 1994. Additionally, ticket revenues have jumped from just over $5 million in 1996 to over $30 million in 2012. Additionally, Amtrak is actually well positioned to win these contracts, with experienced workforce and an expansive network to connect to. Even now, Amtrak plays a varying role across state supported services, with different states replacing Amtrak for different tasks (the Capitol Corridor subcontracts out its reservations, and the Vermonter subcontracts out food service). Perhaps introducing competition could serve to refocus attention on improving the onboard experience—a concern as of late.

This addresses NARP’s primary concern: good service. Of course, the contention that an Amtrak alternative actually saves money must be based on realities, like access to railroads. NARP believes Section 209 has the potential to improve the U.S. passenger rail network by bringing in additional stakeholders—but only if Congress lives up to its responsibility to increase capital funding to state corridors, long distance routes, and the Northeast Corridor. If Congress uses Section 209 as an excuse to cut funding to passenger trains, then Section 209 will ultimately have a negative impact on America’s passengers.

 

New JerseyTransit reported this week that the Princeton Dinky has seen a sharp decline in ridership since the decision to relocate the old Dinky station to a temporary site 1,200 feet down the line.

NARP joined with the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) to oppose the relocation of the station, which was to moved away from the center of town to accommodate Princeton University’s “Arts and Transit” project.

NJT admitted that the 10.4 decline in ridership since last year corresponds to “the start of free shuttle buses operated by Princeton University between Princeton and Princeton Jct. as the result of the temporary relocation of the Princeton station to facilitate construction there.”

NJ-ARP provided analysis of the data in a press release, and found the situation is likely much worse what NJT is describing:

According to New Jersey Transit, ridership on its entire Northeast Corridor Line, of which the Princeton Branch is one element, increased by 10.4 percent, coincidentally the same amount of the decrease on the branch. NJT reported that its “2nd quarter was record-setting for the NEC with new quarterly highs in total passenger trips, average weekday passenger trips, average Saturday and average Sunday ridership.” According to statisticians, this means that the effect of the large drop in passenger loadings on the Princeton Branch is likely worse than 10.4 percent. Had the station not been moved, it is probable that the branch’s ridership would have increased by a percentage close to what the entire corridor experienced.

“Put differently,” said Jack May of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP), “the station abandonment and terminus relocation to a much less convenient site has dampened the usage of the branch in the area of 20 percent of what would have been expected had this event not occurred, as the total NEC ridership increase of more than 10 percent would have also applied to the Princeton Branch’s patronage. Thus the relocation of the Princeton Station has resulted in 1 out of 5 potential riders going elsewhere.”

 

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)  announced April 9 that it will issue a proposed rule that will require two-person train crews on crude oil trains, as well as “establishing minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations. “

The announcement came following an inability of the members of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee’s (RSAC) Working Groups on Appropriate Train Crew Size, Securement, and Hazardous Materials Issues to reach a consensus on crew size. The FRA says the two-person crew requirement will bring regulations in line with current industry best practices.

“We believe that safety is enhanced with the use of a multiple person crew—safety dictates that you never allow a single point of failure,” FRA Administrator Joseph C. Szabo said.  “Ensuring that trains are adequately staffed for the type of service operated is critically important to ensure safety redundancy.  We commend the RSAC’s efforts and will use the valuable input received to formulate a proposed rule that protects the public and recognizes the nuance of railroad operations.”

You can read more about the Notice of Proposed Rule Making on FRA.gov.

 

New Haven’s parking authority began a $2.3 renovation of Union Station last week. The scope of the work includes “exterior repairs to the facade and roof, waterproofing at the Front Plaza, as well as concrete and masonry restoration, re-painting and re-caulking of windows, and sidewalk restorations,” and is scheduled to be completed in December 2014.

“It is a goal of my administration to make Union Station the hub of a revitalized transportation and retail district — this exterior renovation project is consistent with and part of that plan,” said New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. “A year or so from now, when this project is complete, one of New Haven’s architectural jewels will have been polished beautifully to attract, welcome and please all those who spend time in and around Union Station.”

 

From the NARP Blog

High Speed Rail in the Lone Star State's Future: When Americans think of high speed rail, we’ve typically thought of Amtrak’s Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor. More recently, we’ve also thought about California’s ongoing construction of a 220 mph line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which, when complete, will be the fastest rail line in the country. In both cases, however, the basic impression is the same. High speed rail has been typically understood as a “blue state” project favored in states controlled by Democratic governors and legislatures. As we’ve discussed in the past, this correlation has created the unwarranted and wrongheaded perception that transportation investment is a partisan issue. In California, after all, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a champion of the state’s high speed rail initiative. Investment in all modes of transportation is a national necessity, and it ought not be subject to the vagaries of partisan bickering. [Read More]

 

Travelers Advisory

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey announced that the AirTrain Newark service “will be suspended for approximately 75 days beginning Thursday, May 1, 2014, to allow the Port Authority to perform critical repair work to the on-airport rail system.” The AirTrain station connecting to New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains along the Northeast Corridor will be closed throughout the service suspension, with substitute shuttle bus service provided from Newark Penn Station.

—New Jersey Transit announced this week that starting May 5 it will introduce a pilot program to expand its Quiet Commute program to off-peak trains serving the Hoboken Terminal. Quiet cars—which require passengers to refrain from cell phone use, disable sound feature on mobile devices and laptops, conduct conversations in subdued voices, and maintain low headphone volume to avoid distracting other passengers—will expand operations to the 10 AM to 4 PM window.

"We want our customers to know that their feedback will continue to be the driving force behind NJ Transit's ongoing efforts to improve their overall experience on our system," said NJ Transit Executive Director Veronique Hakim.