Hotline #736 - December 9, 2011

Ross Capon, President of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), appeared before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee on December 4 to make the case for a strong national component in the high-speed rail program, and commended the Federal Railroad Administration for its work in building the program from the ground-up.

[Click here for archived video of the hearing]

“Perhaps the most singular lesson learned is that it takes a federal partner to advance passenger train improvements,” said Capon. “We regard the program as critically important, successful, and appropriate to the current stage of U.S. passenger train development.”

[Read NARP’s press release on Capon’s statement]

The hearing was titled “The Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program: Mistakes and Lessons Learned.” Judging from the statements put out since then, the program’s supporters and detractors walked away with an entirely different set of lessons in hand.

On the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee website, Chairman John Mica (R-FL) had harsh words for the FRA’s approach that provided incremental upgrades for existing services across the country. Instead, Mica advocated for an all-in approach to the program:

We need one high-speed rail success, and our country’s best opportunity to achieve high-speed rail is in the Northeast Corridor. Now that federal funding for this program has been stopped, we have an opportunity to learn from those mistakes and make the needed changes to develop at least one truly successful high-speed rail corridor in this country.

On the DOT’s Fast Lane blog, LaHood continued the vociferous defense of the program he initiated in response to the House Majority’s animated questioning during the hearing:

Since 1991, Presidents and Congressmen—Republicans as well as Democrats—have had an American high-speed rail network on their agenda, in good economic times and bad. What’s changed today is that we have a President and Vice President who are backing up their words with actions. We’re not just writing reports and filing them away; we’re hiring workers, we’re laying track, and we’re building stations.

[You can read more about the conversation surrounding the hearing on the NARP Blog]

Chairman Mica will continue his investigation into the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program next Thursday in a hearing titled “California’s High-Speed Rail Plan: Skyrocketing Costs & Project Concern.”

[The hearing will be webcast live on the House Transportation & Infrastructure website]

Mica’s criticism of the California project will be bolstered by last week’s Field poll which found a majority of Californians would like to see the high-speed rail bond resubmitted to the voters on the 2012 ballot.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority responded by releasing a public statement, pointing to the prolonged economic recession as the root of public unease over the project’s cost.

“To back pedal on this project means we reject billions in stimulus funds, lose 100,000 new jobs and, ultimately, pay tens of billions more for congested highways in the long run,” said the Authority in a statement. “The uncertain economy may give some voters pause, but this kind of infrastructure investment and job creation is exactly what we need at this time and we will be making that case to Californians across the state who voted to start this project in 2008.”

A police officer and passenger were wounded onboard an Amtrak train traveling to Chicago on December 3, when a man pulled a pistol on police after he was asked to consent to a search of his person.

Law enforcement followed Stephen Ray Malone, Jr. aboard a train stopped in Dallas Union Station after observing the suspect engage in “suspicious activity.” Malone, a convicted felon facing prison time if found in possession of a firearm, pulled a gun when police requested to search him. Officers fired upon Malone, who was killed.

Dallas Corporal Samuel Hussey was hit in his hand, and nearby passenger Paul Railey received a bullet in the shoulder, although neither was seriously injured.

Dallas police investigators are still determining whether Malone got off any rounds, or whether Hussey and Railey were hit by police. Dallas Police Chief David Brown stated he believed the officers handled the situation correctly based upon the information they had at the time.

“You could have had a running gun battle in a lobby with many others injured,” Brown told KERA News. “The officers, in my opinion, approached the gentleman in the best way possible.”

The Cascadia Center for Regional Development (CCRD) announced today that an agreement has been reached between the U.S. and Canadian government to streamline the inspections process to speed the movement of passenger trains across the border. The agreement will benefit the twice daily Amtrak Cascades train, which connects Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The successful negotiations took place as part of the Beyond the Border accord, an initiative spearheaded by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper. CCRD also made sure to praise the work of Washington State’s congressional delegation, who worked to include require an assessment of how to streamline the border inspection process in the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008. Amtrak issued the report in 2009, providing a blueprint for the current agreement.

“By December 2012, with pre-clearance a reality, the region will benefit from one—instead of two—inspections, meaning a faster and more efficient train travel experience,” said Bruce Agnew, director of the CCRD. “The decision is also better for the inspection officers who will be able to consolidate their efforts in Blaine, Washington, to one central location in Vancouver, British Columbia.”

The agreement follows an August decision by the Canada Border Services Agency’s decision to permanently waive an inspection fee that threatened to derail a second daily Amtrak Cascades train—initially added in the winter of 2007 for travelers to the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and continued due to its immense popularity among riders.

The CCRD is looking to build on the positive momentum by advocating for a third daily train, and encouraging Washington State transportation leaders to further expand service.

The City of Chicago is providing an inside look at the findings of the Chicago Union Station Master Plan study, and inviting members of the public to share input on the preparatory work being to accommodate the steady growth in intercity passenger and commuter rail ridership. The meeting will be held Union Station from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 15, 2011:

The meeting will be an open house, with experts and visuals explaining ideas to increase capacity for more trains, people, and traffic on nearby streets. A narrated presentation will be made at 4:30 p.m. and again at 6 p.m., allowing commuters to attend before boarding trains home. The study, which has been in progress for about one year, has been a collaborative effort led by the City of Chicago’s Department of Transportation with extensive participation from Amtrak (the station’s owner), Metra (the station’s primary tenant), and other stakeholders. The public is encouraged to attend the open house Public Meeting and share input.

Union Station now often operates close to capacity. Continuing growth in both commuter rail service and Amtrak long distance and intercity passenger rail service, combined with the potential for future growth in high-speed intercity passenger rail, has compelled the City and affected railroads to consider future options for accommodating further growth in station traffic.

City and Amtrak planners will discuss a number of possibilities, including the addition of tracks and platforms, the redesign of existing platforms, better connecting other rail and transit services to the station, even the construction of new multilevel subways.

The Vermont Rail Action Network is reporting that the Ethan Allen shaved 15 minutes of its total trip time as a result of track upgrades done by the Vermont Rail System between Whitehall and Rutland, Vermont this summer.

VRAN states that, effective December 12, the Ethan Allen will be departing Rutland 15 minutes later and making the New York City to Rutland trip 15 minutes faster:

Vermont Rail System spent $750,000 of it’s own money for the work, surfacing 8 miles of track and replacing 12,000 ties, part of it’s “Get Well Plan” for the service. Trackwork wrapped up yesterday.

The work focused on raising the speed on the slowest spots rather than increasing top speed. The easiest—and cheapest—way to go fast is not to go slow! Eliminating slow spots is cheaper than raising the top speed, yet does more for a trains performance.

You can read more about recent and planned upgrades to the corridor on VRAN’s website.

Lawrence Amtrak Station (prior to renovation). [Image: Lauren Keith]

Local officials and representatives of Amtrak gathered in Lawrence, Kansas on December 3 to celebrate the completion of $1.5 million in improvements to the communities train station.

As a result of the investment, the station will now feature a new 500-foot passenger boarding platform, improved exterior lighting designed to both improve safety and blend with existing fixtures, and improved compliance for disabled passenger. Amtrak was also able to restore neon “Amtrak” sign, as well as a neon sign identifying the name of the city—a tribute to the neon “Sante Fe” signs found at stations served by the Santa Fe Railway.

The celebration was organized by Depot Redux, a local volunteer group that helps Amtrak to improve services at the station and organize events at the building.

“Thank goodness for Depot Redux,” Joseph Rago, Philadelphia-based Director of Station Programs in the Amtrak Engineering Department said of the local group. “Carey Maynard-Moody and her group are great ambassadors for Amtrak.”

The mayor of Columbus, Georgia has formed a Passenger Rail Commission to develop train service between the town and nearby Atlanta.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s commission is made up of civic, business, university, and political leaders of all stripes to organize the campaign, and includes which includes Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail.

Kenna believes that Atlanta-Macon is the most likely first segment of any state rail development plan in Georgia. Tomlinson is working to ensure that Columbus is included in future considerations.

“While Columbus may not be the first city connected to any Georgia passenger rail line, we have to know whether we should be the second, third or fourth city to be on the line,” said Tomlinson. “We can’t sit on the sidelines and let Georgia’s transportation future pass us by.”

A full list of committee members is available at the Ledger-Enquirer.

A train originating in Moscow will arrive in Paris’ historic Gare de L’Est on December 13, the inaugural run of a new 1,975 mile-long Franco-Russian train service.

The “Trans-European Express”—which runs by way of Berlin and Warsaw—takes two days and one night, and will run five times a week in summer, and three times a week in winter. The first train will arrive in Paris a day after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest report on Russia’s economy, and the new service is seen by many commentators as part of a larger effort by Russia to reach out to western Europe.

You can read more about the line over at The Man in Seat 61 (listed as Option 5).

Travelers Advisory:

  • As part of an effort to upgrade passenger service for intercity and commuter trains in the Southern Californian region, Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner trains will be disrupted through the weekend.

    The Southern California Regional Rail Authority and San Diego Northern Railway will be doing improvement work on tracks over the weekend. The project includes double-tracking and bridge work.

    As a result, a number of trains will be altered or canceled, with passengers rerouted to charter buses in many cases. Amtrak has a full list of the scheduled changes.


  • Canadian National Railway will be doing track work in Chicago today and tomorrow, affecting the Wolverine, Blue Water, Pere Marquette, Cardinal, Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

    Amtrak has a full list of the scheduled changes.