Hotline #865 -- June 6, 2014

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a budget that allocated $1.39 billion for Amtrak as part of a $54.4 billion transportation bill for FY2014, pushing back against House attempts to cut $200 million from the program by freezing investment at 2014 levels.

Senate appropriators also included $11.1 billion for transit programs, a $309 million increase above the FY2014 levels. TIGER grants—which support intermodal projects, and have historically benefited passenger trains immensely—fared worse, receiving $550 million. That’s a $50 million cut from what TIGER received in FY2014, but still better than the $100 million the House appropriators provided—and the Senate ignored the House’s bizarre revision to the program that explicitly denied eligibility to passenger trains.

From the tone of the Senate press release—which promises to ensure the ability of Amtrak to “make investments in the state-of-good repair infrastructure projects and to operate a safe and reliable passenger rail network for the nation”—it’s clear passenger train advocates are supposed to be happy with these numbers. It’s certainly better than the House Appropriations Committee FY 2015 bill, which cuts $200 million from Amtrak’s capital budget, and the Senate should be commended for better prioritizing smart transportation investment.

However, we should be clear: $1.39 billion is simply not enough money to address the capital investment backlog America’s passenger rail system faces. Amtrak will need more to upgrade critical infrastructure and order the new train cars the national network so desperately required. While Senate policy makers might congratulate themselves for being better than their House counterparts, they are only slightly less guilty in perpetuating the slow-motion physical degradation afflicting our rails, roads, and airports.

The NARP blog covered the worrisome trend of Amtrak’s deteriorating service levels in the face of partisan political attacks:

The service cuts on Amtrak come from Washington lawmakers, who are pairing starvation-level budgets with an increased push for profitability and efficiency.

But what happens when Amtrak becoming a land-based version of an economy airline—with slower travel times, to boot? In certain markets, Amtrak will continue to thrive because of the unique properties of rail transportation—think the Northeast and Capitol Corridor’s abilities to move large volumes of people in through densely populated regions, and the way long distance trains can serve rural markets that airlines and bus companies are pulling out of. However, Amtrak is in real danger of losing customers nationally through this program of cuts. Diana Kersey, a regular passenger on the Empire Builder, told USA Today that the train’s former amenities, "These are things you never get while flying, and it made all the difference in the world to me." A look back on the history of Amtrak’s service provisions shows an alternate path.

[Read the full post]

The Senate transportation bill includes new rail safety policies concerning the transportation of crude oil by rail.

The bill would include $3 million more for track inspections, hire an additional 20 rail and hazardous materials inspectors, and requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a final rule on improved designs for tank car standards by this fall.

“In Washington state and across the country, the rapid increase in transportation of crude oil by rail presents us with new and challenging safety concerns,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WAS, Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing & Urban Development.  “We all need to recognize that these trains are already moving in states across the country, including Washington, and that there are steps we can take now to make our communities safer.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) hopes to bring the transportation bill to the full floor in mid-June. Before it can move to the President for approval, the differences between the House and the Senate versions will have to be reconciled in conference by Congressional leadership. The Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, hopes to deal with the funding component of the bill before the July 4 recess.

 

Several rail projects, including CrossRail Chicago, Amtrak Black Hawk Service, and the Metra Western Avenue Crossing grade separation project, are moving forward in the greater Chicago area with backing from state and federal officials.

The Illinois General Assembly recently passed resolutions SR 639 & HR 1044, which put pressure on the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to integrate the CrossRail Chicago, a planned passenger rail service conceived by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, into the

GoTo2040 state rail plan.  CrossRail would create a cross-city link between Union Station, O’Hare Airport, and the south and northwest suburban communities, and, along with a new rail facilities as O’Hare Airport, would “build the foundation needed for the development of a Midwest high speed rail hub in Chicago.”

The Western Avenue Crossing, a major bottleneck for Amtrak and Metra service, also received attention from the state’s General Assembly, with resolution SR 1172 calling for state, federal and private funding for repairs to the aging interlocking’s infrastructure. This resolution lays the groundwork for repairs to the aging equipment which controls the myriad switches at the location, many of which were originally installed in the 1930s and frequently malfunction, causing delays on both Metra and Amtrak.

 

This past Tuesday, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) called upon the Canadian National Railway to cooperate with Amtrak and the state of Illinois in establishing passenger service on the former Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway.

Amtrak’s Black Hawk service, as it will be known, is slated to connect downtown Chicago to Galena and Rockford via trackage which CN acquired with its purchase of EJ&E in 2009. With its increased freight service on the route, CN has also failed to work with local communities on safety precautions seeking to mitigate potential hazards resulting from this surge in rail traffic.

Durbin’s letter, addressed to CN CEO Claude Mongeau, informed the company of a possible extension of monitoring by the Surface Transportation Board which was established to investigate the potential impacts of the EJ&E acquisition. The Senator continued to push for the establishment of the Black Hawk service, telling Mr. Mongeau that he stands “ready to work with you to improve the safety and availability of passenger and freight rail service along CN routes in Illinois.”

 

A recent economic impact study reported that All Aboard Florida would generate billions for the state’s economy and create thousands of jobs.

The study revealed that the passenger railway from Miami to Orlando would pump $6.4 billion into the Florida economy over the next eight years, including $2.4 billion in labor income and $653 million in tax revenue. It would also create 10,000 jobs during its two-year construction period, along with 5,000 permanent jobs when it’s finished.

Despite its significant benefits—economic and beyond—All Aboard Florida is battling opposition from a few communities along the proposed route that are concerned about the potential disruption the train will cause (although some members of the public question their motives).

In response, supporters of the train are rallying Florida residents to sign a petition saying they want the proposed rail service. NARP encourages its Florida members to show their support by signing the petition, in order for the train service to become a reality along with all the opportunity it will bring to the Sunshine State.

 

A new surveyrevealed strong support for passenger train service among Wisconsin residents.

According to the Journal Sentinel, many of the survey’s findings support expanding passenger train service in the Badger State:

In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to the survey. Very few want to see its funding eliminated. Nearly three out of four Wisconsin residents want the option of additional service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. There is overwhelming support for expanded service across all demographic groups, all of whom have no problem with the $1 billion yearly federal investment in Amtrak, and many who would like to see it expanded.

Interestingly, the strong support for Amtrak in Wisconsin comes despite the fact that residents currently have limited rail service options. Nearly 80% said they have not been a passenger on Amtrak in the past two years; no surprise here given that the carrier provides only one long-distance train and one corridor service. These views also contrast with Wisconsin's governor, who, in 2011, sent $850 million in already approved passenger rail funds back to the federal government.

According to the same article, polls across several states reveal “nearly identical” results, demonstrating the widespread and every-increasing demand for Amtrak, which carried a record-setting 32 million passengers last year.

The survey also uncovered Wisconsin residents’ opinions on train safety and freight rail. Survey-takers expressed their support for legislation that would mandate a minimum crew size of two. They also want the state’s freight railways to be “safe and adequately staffed.”

The article concluded, “It is time for Washington to take a time out from partisan fighting and listen to what the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites, and Americans, are saying: Don't nickel and dime Amtrak; fund it and modernize it.”

 

Amtrak is finding contractors to improve the quality of its Wi-Fi by setting up a wireless network along the tracks of the Northeast Corridor.

Traveling at 160 mph in sometimes remote areas, Amtrak trains often experience poor reception through the current cellular connection. The web speed is further dragged down by the fact that an estimated half of Amtrak passengers are using competing cellular devices while on the train.

As a solution, Amtrak is building its own wireless network designed to accommodate trains traveling at high speeds. It hopes to provide internet speed as fast as 25 Mbps per car and reach 100 Mbps by 2019. Amtrak plans to start the revamp in the Northeast Corridor, and will be accepting proposals from contractors up until July 28.

 

Amtrak has ended the temporary suspension of train service between St. Paul and Minot on the Empire Builder route that lasted from May 31 to June 5.

The five-day suspension was a result of extreme cold weather in North Dakota in the past several days. These drastic temperature changes following the long, harsh winter made track maintenance imperative.

Amtrak notified passengers of the suspension period on May 28, but it was unable to provide bus services in place of the train service due to the long distance and the number of local stations in between St. Paul and Minot.

The Empire Builder route that extends from Illinois to Washington experienced frequent delays in the past months. In light of increased traffic, BNSF, the railway company that owns the tracks, pledged to spend $5 billion on infrastructure improvement.

 

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is initiating a pilot program which will replace “Nite Owl” buses with rail service.

Beginning on June, 15, the Philadelphia area commuter agency will utilize the Broad Street and Market Frankfurt rail lines overnight during weekends, a service which buses have provided since 1991.

The increased demand for late-night subway service is indicative of the changing nature of Philadelphia’s core. "Now, with all of the restaurants, increased late-night activity, and people moving back into the city,” Joseph Casey, SEPTA’s General Manger, told Progressive Railroading. “We're excited to be able to provide this service that city, business leaders, and customers have been asking us for."

 

Traveler’s Advisory

Service between Stamford and Bridgeport, CT was disrupted this afternoon due to bridge problems. Repairs continue. Follow @AmtrakNEC on Twitter for live updates on the situation.

- Lake Shore Limited Trains 48/448 and 49/449 will not operate on select dates starting tomorrow in order to accommodate track work by CSX Transportation. Substitute bus service will be provided between Albany-Rensselaer and Boston South Station. See Amtrak.com/alerts for details.

From the NARP Blog

NARP Welcomes New Intern Henry Zuo: Hi! My name is Henry Zuo and I will intern with NARP for the summer. I am very passionate about politics, and, for a Chinese student, have a rare passion for U.S. domestic politics. I have been yearning for an opportunity to witness politics firsthand. Thus I am very excited for this learning opportunity with NARP... [Read more]