Hotline #861 -- May 9, 2014

The House Appropriations Committee released a fiscal year 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill earlier this week that would further tighten the budgetary screws on the national passenger rail network, precluding any chance to improve service and grow the system.

In the subcommittee draft, rail is funded at $1.4 billion, representing a reduction of $193 million below what was enacted last year. That number includes $340 million for Amtrak operations (the same as enacted in fiscal year 2014), and $850 million for capital grants and debt service (a $200 million reduction from FY 2014). No amendments were offered during the subcommittee markup on Wednesday, so further action will have to wait for the full committee.

The House Appropriations’ figures well short of the $3.9 billion requested by NARP, which would allow Amtrak to improve the reliability of operations, as well as fund new equipment for both the national network and state corridors. While the trajectory established by the House is disappointing, other action on the Hill provided reason for optimism. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pushed for the GROW AMERICA Act, or Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America, which would include trains in a comprehensive surface transportation bill and provide $19 billion for passenger rail over four years. Secretary Foxx used a speech he gave during the NARP Capitol Hill reception to talk about why trains matter:

Last Tuesday, it was a privilege to be able to send Congress the GROW AMERICA transportation bill, our comprehensive plan to create millions of good new jobs building the transportation system America will need to remain competitive in today’s economy. And it was an honor to cap the day by addressing the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP) annual citizen advocacy event, "NARP Day on the Hill."

NARP members know as well I do that America will be home to 100 million more people by 2050, so we need to make sure we give people as many transportation options as possible – including rail.

That's why I sent GROW AMERICA to Congress to tackle these problems. It will increase the level of Federal investment in our rail system--including intercity passenger rail--and put rail on par with other surface transportation modes, all without adding to the budget deficit.

You read more about the GROW AMERICA act over on the FastLane blog.

 

Amtrak announced that it has agreed to a request by BNSF Railway to temporarily detour the westbound Empire Builder in North Dakota to assist in speeding the work of BNSF crews to improve infrastructure between Fargo and Minot, North Dakota. Eastbound trains will remain unaffected.

While the detour is an inconvenience, it will allow for critical work that will address reliability issues that have been plaguing the Empire Builder. Once boasting one of the best On Time Performance records among Amtrak’s long distance lines, the Empire Builder has seen a 15 percent drop in ridership this year over a six-month span (compared to the same period last year) because of persistent delays.

“Local community and business leaders prize the Empire Builder and see Amtrak service as an important public transportation link,” said DJ Stadtler, Amtrak Vice President, Operations. “BNSF needs to speed repairs and upgrades in order to return the Empire Builder to its previous reliability as fast as possible. We fully expect this work to be done by the end of September—at the latest.”

Amtrak President Joe Boardman visited the affected communities this week, and local leaders have expressed support for Amtrak’s attention to resolving the issue.

“It’s an inconvenience to people who want to ride Amtrak, but it’s also an inconvenience to Amtrak itself,” Grand Forks City Council member Dana Sande told the Forum. “They don’t want the service interrupted any more than the passengers do. But Amtrak has been very good to the communities in North Dakota, recognizing that agriculture is very important, moving oil from the Bakken is very important. So, rather than make it more difficult, they’ve gone out of their way to find alternative ways to move people while the upgrades to the track can be done, so that they can provide better service in the future.”

 

The NARP Board unanimously approved a resolution supporting the return of passenger trains between New Orleans & Florida, joining the Southern Rail Commission to revitalize the effort to restore the missing link in the national rail network.

NARP has consistently endorsed the re-introduction of passenger rail service along the southern route linking New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando, Florida, which we view as vital to promoting economic development across the southeastern U.S. So we’re pleased to report that—through the excellent work of Council Representatives Christina Anderson and Paul Nelson, NARP was able to team up with the Southern Rail Commission, which has made application to the Federal Railway Administration for the funding of a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to perform a feasibility study to restore this missing link.

On April 30, the freshly elected NARP Board of Directors strongly endorsed the Commission’s application for the TIGER grant, pledging to assist the Commission with monetary or “in-kind” contributions. These contributions include staff communication and outreach, administrative support for public meetings, and assisting the Commission with the required “matching funds” necessary to successfully procure the federal funding.

This resolution is just the first step, and NARP will keep you apprised of opportunities to get involved and support this critical campaign.

 

Colorado Governor Hickenlooper announced that, after successfully moving through the state’s General Assembly, he will sign the Southwest Chief legislation into law at a ceremony in Pueblo on May 14. 

“House Bill 1161, sponsored by Representative Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) and Senator Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa), creates a commission and a fund to save Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, and add a stop in Pueblo,” said the Governor’s office in a public statement. “The bill was supported in a bi-partisan fashion through both chambers of the General Assembly.”

The signing will take place behind the Union Depot (200 W. B Street, Pueblo, CO) on Wednesday, May 14 at 12:45 p.m.

 

The head of Amtrak issued sobering statements about the condition of the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor, highlighting the Hudson River rail tunnels as a critical chokepoint that will rapidly deteriorate without immediate public investment.

“I’m being told we’ve got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down,” Amtrak’s President & CEO Joseph Boardman told attendees of a conference held by the Regional Plan Association in New York. “I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it.”

We analyzed Boardman’s statements on the NARP blog, looking at the impact the tunnels have on the operations of the NEC and the economy region:

Since their opening in 1910, Amtrak’s Hudson River Tunnels have played a critical role in the Northeast’s transportation network. The tunnels, which connect New York City to the rest of the Northeast Corridor, carry thousands of passengers travelling on Amtrak trains each and every day. Additionally, the tunnels also host passengers travelling on both New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad, further demonstrating the tunnels’ relevance to the region. Without them, there could be no rail service to midtown Manhattan, an untenable situation for the millions of commuters who rely on trains.

Boardman’s predictions about the Hudson River Tunnels’ future stress the need for Washington policymakers to change their tune quickly. Continued inaction will have vast consequences for the nation’s transportation network. It’s no longer a question of inaction delaying the prospect of improved service, or of potentially halting improvements to existing infrastructure. Rather, continued inaction will mean a quite literal collapse of a major portion of the nation’s rail network. Unless steps are taken immediately to design, fund, and build a replacement for the Hudson River Tunnels, there is no alternative to their closure within the next two decades. Closure of the tunnels means the effective immobilization of the Northeast Corridor and billions of dollars in lost economic activity: an unacceptable possibility for a nation still recovering from the Great Recession.

 The Northeast Corridor has long been one of America’s most important transportation arteries, and will continue to play this important role in the coming years. But it cannot do so without prompt public investment to modernize aging infrastructure, including the Hudson River Tunnels. Otherwise, we will be faced with a transportation crisis on an unimaginable scale.

Read the full piece on the NARP blog.

 

May 7th, 2014, marked the return of rail service to historic Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, MN, with the arrival of eastbound Amtrak train #7, the Empire Builder.

The structure, which was completed in 1923 and once played host to such prestigious trains as the Burlington Zephyrs and Milwaukee Road Hiawathas, has not seen rail service in over four decades. In 1971, all rail service was consolidated at the Minneapolis Great Northern Depot during Amtrak’s formation, and was more recently moved to Midway Depot in western St. Paul. Amtrak service at the station will not only help more travelers to fully utilize the recently restored neoclassical structure, but will also allow rail passengers to connect with the multitude of regional transportation options that serve the transit hub, including Metro Transit’s Green Line, which will begin serving the station next month.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, joined by officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, was on hand to perform the ribbon cutting and to kick off the festivities surrounding this momentous occasion, which will continue until May 10 and culminate in a celebration of National Train Day.

The $243 million project was largely funded by federal grants, including a Federal DOT Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant and funding from the Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. Both President Boardman and and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman recognized the economic benefits which the project has, and will continue to provide to the region, including the creation of over 4,000 jobs, as well as an increase in housing and retail development in the surrounding area. FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Hedlund concurred, stating, “This is what we can achieve--in Minnesota and nationwide--if we continue investing in passenger rail.”

 

James Oberstar, former U.S. congressman from Minnesota and a legendary figure in passenger train advocacy, passed away earlier this week. He died May 3 at the age of 79.

We covered his passing earlier this week in the NARP Blog:

NARP honored Oberstar with our Golden Spike Award in 2005, for his staunch defense of Amtrak and the national network. He understood the value of a well-balanced transportation system with strong rail and transit connections.

“Representative Oberstar has one of Capitol Hill’s most extensive records in support of a modern transportation system,” said then-Chairman George Chilson during the 2005 NARP Board Meeting in Minnesota. “He has worked tirelessly both in defending Amtrak and in promoting development of world-class high speed rail.”

You can read more on the NARP Blog, which includes a selection of some of the many tributes to Congressman Oberstar that poured out in the day following his death.

 

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority announced this week that the Cape FLYER train is adding a new stop at Wareham Village

The service connects Boston to Cape Cod and the Islands during the summer, operating from May 23 through Labor Day. It has proven an immensely popular transportation choice for residents of the Boston metropolitan region looking to escape to the coast during the hot summer months, allowing them to avoid packed roads.

"The CapeFLYER's goal during the inaugural season was to provide a safe and reliable way to bring people to the Cape and Islands without needing their cars; thereby reducing congestion for everyone coming to Cape Cod," said CCRTA Administrator Thomas Cahir. "The first year was a rousing success and we believe that the second year will only be better."

 

According to several state-run Chinese news outlets, Chinese rail officials are considering the construction of a high-speed rail corridor that would connect China with the United States.

The proposed line would originate at Beijing, traversing Chinese soil before crossing Siberia and the Pacific Ocean to Alaska. The corridor would continue across Canada to the continental United States. The Chinese-funded project would allow a passenger to make the intercontinental journey in two days by means of 125 miles of tunnel under the Bering Strait, according to China Daily.

Chinese sources failed to mention whether the United States, Canadian or Russian governments have been consulted regarding the project, although they stated that Russia has been considering such an undertaking for some time. The massive project is only one of four similar international rail projects which the Chinese government is considering at this time. If completed, they would link China to cities as far away as Paris and London. China Daily emphasized, however, that "the details of this project are yet to be finalized."