Hotline #757 - May 4, 2012

Amtrak released on Wednesday the company’s third revision to its Fleet Strategy Plan. It outlines how the company intends – given the necessary financial resources – to replace and grow its passenger railcar and locomotive fleet to provide a more reliable and pleasant travel experience for growing numbers of riders.

The revised plan, dubbed Amtrak Fleet Strategy Plan 3.1, calls for the company to order a total of 1,453 cars, 784 locomotives, and 52 high-speed trainsets over the next 30 fiscal years. These will be in addition to new equipment for state-supported corridor trains to be ordered by the Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee, a statutory body with representatives from Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, state DOTs and the railroad industry.

Amtrak’s orders will be used to completely replace its existing fleet over time (some existing equipment may be retained for emergency and special uses, with the rest being sold or scrapped) and generate increased capacity for ridership growth, which Amtrak conservatively estimates at 2% per year. The last three fiscal years’ ridership growth have exceeded this number, and NARP will make the case that significantly greater growth should be planned for, especially in the event of a major uptick in oil prices, which also may result in a contraction in air service.

Read more in the NARP Blog.

Amtrak and communities across the country are preparing to mark the fifth annual National Train Day on Saturday, May 12. NARP will have a role in 21 observances in cities large and small all across the country.

Click here for a listing of the events at which there will be a NARP presence. Click here for a full listing of events nationwide, as submitted to Amtrak.

Of particular note are the grassroots celebrations along the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, where service is threatened by deferred track maintenance needs that must be funded—to the tune of about $10 million a year—in order to keep the train on its current route.  The Colorado Rail Passengers Association (ColoRail) won official National Train Day proclamations from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (both D). The cities of Lawrence, KS; La Junta, CO; and Albuquerque, NM are planning events, and a delegation from ColoRail will ride the Chief round-trip from La Junta to Las Vegas, NM on May 12.

Amtrak’s theme for this year’s celebration is “See More on a Train,” emphasizing the unique perspective on the passing landscape, and the opportunity for socializing or for quiet reflection or productive work, that train travel offers.

Amtrak has attracted some high-profile names to headline its own National Train Day events. Actress and activist Rosario Dawson will officiate ceremonies at New York’s Grand Central Terminal (hosting a Train Day event for the first time as Washington, DC’s Union Station undergoes post-earthquake repairs). Hill Harper, an author and actor in the TV series CSI-NY who wrote much of his most recent book during a trip on the Southwest Chief, will speak and sign books at Chicago’s Union Station. Finally, Nickelodeon’s cartoon star Dora the Explorer will guide children on a tour of places Amtrak serves at Los Angeles Union Station.

Read more on the NARP Blog and at Amtrak’s News Releases page.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaking to students at Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL, was asked about Amtrak funding as well as the surface transportation authorization bill making its way through Congress.

Students were given a rare opportunity to speak directly with a high-ranking federal government official. LaHood, a native of Peoria and a Republican, in 1994 was elected to the U.S. House from a western Illinois district, serving in the House until his 2008 appointment as Transportation Secretary by President Obama in 2008.

Jennifer Wilson, a junior journalism major at the university, asked LaHood about the potential for elimination of the popular Amtrak Chicago-Quincy corridor trains, which serve Macomb. “Many students depend on this route to travel to Western, and it is a deciding factor of whether or not they choose to attend Western,” she told the Secretary.

“Ridership on Amtrak is way up, and we have invested billions of dollars into Amtrak so that they can get new equipment in Illinois,” LaHood responded. “Thanks to Gov. Quinn’s leadership on Amtrak, we’ve invested the second largest amount of money along the corridor from Chicago to St. Louis, and we’ll continue to make investments on other corridors that will connect to that corridor.”

“People,” said LaHood, “if they’re provided with service at a cost they can afford, they will ride Amtrak, and that’s what’s happening in Illinois.”

Amtrak will soon roll out eTicketing – a more flexible reservations system that gives passengers more options for purchasing and obtaining tickets, and tell Amtrak and its crews who is aboard at any given time – on the Heartland Flyer route between Fort Worth, TX and Oklahoma City.

With eTicketing, passengers can buy tickets online, by phone, or by using a smartphone up until time of departure, and the reservation will automatically be reflected on the conductor’s handheld device. Passengers can print boarding documents at home or simply display a bar code on their smartphones, and also can have boarding documents printed at the station by an agent or QuikTrak machine.

The Heartland Flyer route was chosen because only one of its stations is staffed by Amtrak ticket agents (Fort Worth), and only one other has a QuikTrak ticket machine (Oklahoma City). A large number of passengers either purchase tickets less than eight days in advance (the minimum amount of time it takes Amtrak to mail tickets to passengers) or walk up and buy a ticket on-board.

This way, passengers will be able to make or change reservations right up until time of departure and can either obtain an electronic boarding document instantly or simply give their name and reservation number to the conductor and be checked in instantly and pay the conductor by cash or credit card without a lot of paperwork.

The Heartland Flyer becomes the fourth in a series of pilot routes on which Amtrak is rolling out eTicketing, which is planned to be in place systemwide by the end of the summer. It follows the Downeaster, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins, Pacific Surfliner and City of New Orleans, which all now use eTicketing.

National Geographic’s NewsWatch blog points to five reasons to believe that Californians’ addiction to the automobile may be starting to wane.

Among the positive signs are that Amtrak’s California ridership is burgeoning as the state awaits the construction of the country’s first world-class high-speed rail line, and that the average number of miles driven by people ages 16 to 34 fell 23 percent from 2001 to 2009 while the average number of miles traveled by transit increased 40 percent (according to a California Public Interest Research Group report).

In addition, bicycle and scooter sharing programs are starting to take off in San Francisco, greater Los Angeles is undertaking a Sustainable Communities Strategy to reduce traffic congestion and associated pollution-induced respiratory problems by 24 percent each (and a bikeshare program is coming to Los Angeles), and parking spaces are being converted to miniature parks at a rapid rate.

The Board of Directors of Caltrain, the San Francisco-San Jose-Gilroy commuter service over whose tracks California High-Speed Rail trains are planned to operate, voted Thursday to give preliminary approval to a budget that would add six trains to its current weekday schedule and would provide $1.5 billion to the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) to electrify the corridor.

The CAHSRA grant, which Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon described as “historic,” would match the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s $700 million investment in the electrification project. It would mean the conversion of Caltrain trains from diesel to electric locomotives, and the construction of two tracks alongside the existing tracks for the use of high-speed trains, as reported in the Menlo Park Patch.

The electrification could be completed by 2015, allowing Caltrain trains to make more stops, accommodate more passengers, and reduce emissions of particulates, smog-forming ozone, and greenhouse gases.

The six additional weekday trips, to relieve overcrowding at peak hours, will cost $375,000.

The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) is close to releasing a final study of proposed corridor passenger train service between Chicago and Omaha. The state has selected the route via Des Moines and Iowa City, owned by the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS) and paralleling Interstate 80, as its preferred alternative.

IAIS, a regional freight carrier whose controlling firm is headed by long-time NARP member Henry Posner III, is a very willing host to passenger trains and is actively working with the state of Illinois to get Chicago-Quad Cities service started in two years.

IDOT has held several public meetings as part of the planning process. Of all the comments received at the meetings and by mail and email, only 4 percent have been negative towards passenger service, the rest positive.

The preliminary draft plan will be released this fall, with one more round of public hearings before the final document is submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration. FRA will decide whether or not to move forward, then it will be up to Congress to appropriate to FRA sufficient funds to make a grant to support the service.

Amtrak’s Spring-Summer 2012 timetable was released this week. Any changes to train schedules therein will take effect Monday, May 7, and will be in effect through the end of October.

The only significant change is the new schedule for the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited and one change in the eastbound day of operation (departure from New Orleans Saturdays instead of Fridays, arrival in Los Angeles early Monday AM instead of Sunday AM).  The timetable change means Houston and southern Arizona points will be served at more attractive times. This change was described in the April issue of NARP News (available in the members-only section of our Website).

Two recent actions by officials threaten to delay the construction of the Englewood Flyover on Chicago’s South Side, which would separate Metra Rock Island District commuter trains from Amtrak intercity and Norfolk Southern freight trains.

Three African-American Illinois Congressmen asked Metra (the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority) to rebid the $133 million project this week because hardly any of the contracts were awarded to black-owned firms. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) threatened to stop the project “in its tracks” unless changes were made.

Rep. Rush was joined in his letter to the Metra Board, which is due to decide on the contract award in June, by fellow Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis. "It is unacceptable that a public procurement process wherein millions of taxpayer dollars are expended could have at its very core the systemic disenfranchisement of a community of people," the letter says.

Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford responded by saying his agency cannot legally rebid the job. He said the agency has followed federal requirements that at least 25% of the work go to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, which can be owned by women or minorities. One black-owned firm, a security contractor, is scheduled to get $112,000 in work.

Separately, Metra announced this week that it will not be able to complete the project in 28 months, which is the amount of time specified in the federal grant of $126 million for the work. The one-year extension would normally not be a major issue, but has become controversial with Democratic U.S. representatives criticizing the project and the mood in Washington leaning towards cuts in transportation spending.

The flyover would put the Metra line on a bridge over the Norfolk Southern line, eliminating the current at-grade diamond crossing that is a frequent source of delays. The NS line is used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverines, Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water, Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited and Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited.

Kenneth Allen (Ken) Maylath, a writer, veteran broadcaster, train travel enthusiast and long-time NARP member, passed away on January 30th in Baltimore. He was 75.

Ken MaylathMaylath, who grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, NY and spent much of his boyhood around the New York Central Railroad and its Harmon Shops (now Metro-North Railroad’s shops), was in Baltimore for a special train excursion in the mid 1960s when he stopped by radio station WFBR, applied for a job, and was hired. He settled in Baltimore and became the host of the show ‘Conference Call.’

He was also a writer who penned many articles for the magazine Rail Travel News (now defunct) in the 1980s, as well as Interchange, the magazine of the Baltimore chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS). In addition to NARP (which he joined in 1976), he was active in the NRHS and volunteered as a docent at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

"He had been volunteering here close to 14 years,” said B&O Museum Executive Director Courtney B. Wilson. “His great expertise was in passenger trains. He had a great depth of knowledge of passenger, parlor, dining and sleeping cars.” Mr. Wilson said that while Maylath was "quiet and reserved," he easily "engaged with museum visitors and families, who were soon fascinated with him."

Tom Marr, a WFBR colleague of Maylath, said “Trains were the passion of his life, and he had traveled all over the U.S. and in other parts of the world by train.”