Hotline # 751 - March 23, 2012

Florida East Coast Industries (FEC) announced plans to develop All Aboard Florida yesterday, a privately owned, operated, and maintained passenger train service to connect South Florida and Orlando, which the company says will be up and running by the end of 2014.

“The All Aboard Florida passenger rail project will connect South Florida to Orlando through a 240-mile route combining 200 miles of existing tracks between Miami and Cocoa and the creation of 40 miles of new track to complete the route to Orlando,” said the company in a release.  “Eventually the system could be expanded with connections to Tampa and Jacksonville.”

The company believes they will connect Orlando and South Florida with a three-hour trip—with a top speed of 100 to 110 mph—for around $1 billion.  And they claim they will pay for it with private funding.

The project will be “100 percent privately funded with no risk to the state,” All Aboard Florida spokesperson Christine Barney told Progressive Railroading, without going so far as to rule out the possibility of utilizing public funds.  And since they estimate the project would create around 6,000 construction jobs, along with 1,000 permanent operating and maintenance jobs, there may well be officials looking to push the project along.

The train will have business- and coach-class service with advance purchase reserved seating, Wi-Fi internet access, and a meal service.  The company is planning on stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando to connect with Metrorail, Metromover, and SunRail systems.

All Aboard Florida was also clear that the new passenger service won’t impinge upon the freight operations on the FEC line, which serves as a valuable freight-corridor for the region.

“Florida East Coast is continuing to invest in the trade infrastructure and maintenance, and they are making a lot of investments at the Port of Miami and Port Everglades,” said Barney. “They will continue to build additional mainline capacity to handle additional freight growth, and freight capacity will not be negatively affected.”

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NARP President Ross Capon submitted written testimony to the House Appropriations on Subcommittee on Transportation for the Fiscal 2013 transportation budget.

“It is essential to have a federal program that supplements state investment in worthy intercity passenger train projects,” wrote Capon in support of the restoration of the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program of capital grants for states and Amtrak.  “It is unacceptable for the federal government to resume its practice of telling states ‘we have highway and aviation money for you but you are on your own when it comes to passenger trains.’”

Capon also wrote of the pressing need to begin building the replacements for the nation’s aging fleet of equipment:

[The funding scenario outlined] not address the system expansion that we envision.  It does not adequately address the desperate need for new rolling stock—both to expand capacity and to deal with the aging of Amtrak’s fleet.  It is good that Amtrak already has ordered cars from CAF-USA which will replace the 1950s baggage and dining cars as well as increase capacity on Eastern long-distance trains.  However, we must begin to address the aging of equipment that Amtrak purchased in its early years—including the Superliners that have been the workhorse of the long-distance fleet for over three decades—as well as provide for expansion of capacity on Superliner trains.

Other issues addressed include: restoration of service to the Gulf Coast region, the high-speed rail project in California, routing of the Southwest Chief, and the Gateway project.

[Read the full text of the statement here.]

How passenger rail fares appropriations process will be critical, particularly in light of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s budget, which slashes discretionary spending below the levels in the bipartisan debt ceiling law enacted last summer.  The Ryan proposal would eliminate intercity passenger train capital grants to states.  Though apparently silent on Amtrak itself, the overall budget targets make reasonable funding for Amtrak unlikely.

The first critical step in the appropriations process will be funding allocations among the subcommittees.  At a March 22 hearing where the House subcommittee heard testimony from the heads of DOT’s four main modal administrations, there was considerable discussion about the importance of resolving the House-Senate stand-off regarding surface transportation.  As the San Francisco Chronicle reports today, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) “dared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to pass her [bipartisan] bill with the help of Democrats or throw transportation funding into chaos…Both parties refuse to raise the gasoline tax that funds highways and transit, leaving leaders scrambling to come up with money elsewhere.”

Also at the House hearing, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo, responding to a question from Chairman Tom Latham (R-IA), said that the California High Speed Rail Authority next week will release its revised plan with a lower cost thanks to “value engineering.”

Amtrak announced yesterday that it is on track to more than triple the number of Positive Train Control-equipped (PTC) track-miles on rail it owns.

“PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time and Amtrak is strongly committed to its expanded use to enhance safety for our passengers, employees and others with whom we share the tracks across our national network,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman.

PTC technology is able to use the remote monitoring of train movements to detect potential train-to-train collisions, and halt the trains’ movement before to avoid collisions.  PTC can also prevent derailments caused by excessive speed, prevent human-caused incidents such as misaligned track switches, and enhance buffers protecting employees who are working on rights-of-way.  In the wake of a deadly commuter train crash in Chatsworth, California, Congress passed a requirement to install PTC on lines carrying passengers or toxic inhalation hazard materials.

At the time of writing, Amtrak has installed PTC on around 530 track-miles—on the entirety of its Michigan Line, along with segments of the Northeast Corridor (NEC).  The railroad will have installed an additional 1,200 track-miles of PTC by the end of 2012, covering the remaining Amtrak-owned sections of the NEC, along with the entirety of the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania.

This new territory won’t be functional until Amtrak’s locomotive fleet is equipped with the corresponding PTC systems, which should be in place in 2013.  Amtrak is also planning on installing PTC components in 50 of its locomotives that operate on tracks owned by other freight railroads later this year, in preparation for the host railroads’ installation of their own PTC equipment.

The congressionally mandated deadline for installation is December 31, 2015.  However, there is a provision in the Senate surface transportation bill that would give the Department of Transportation the discretion to grant up to three year-long extensions.

The Northwest Division of NARP, in conjunction with All Aboard Washington and Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, held a successful Spring 2012 membership meeting this past weekend in Whitefish, Montana. 

Passenger rail advocates from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana were in attendance to hear a keynote speech from Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo plus presentations by NARP Chairman Bob Stewart and Amtrak VP—Government Affairs and Corporate Communiations Joe McHugh.

You can find video of the local news coverage on the NARP Blog.

The head of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration joined with local officials and advocates at Portland’s Union Station on March 16 to recognize the work done on the Pacific Northwest Passenger Rail Corridor construction project.

The region has received $814 million in High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program grant dollars to upgrade the intercity passenger rail corridor that runs between Vancouver, British Columbia, Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Oregon.  The upgrades will provide a much needed expansion in capacity, with the number of roundtrips between Portland and Seattle expected to increase by 50 percent in just five years.

“All across the country, rail projects like this are putting Americans to work creating transportation options while reducing congestion,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “As part of President Obama’s plan to rebuild America, this project is spurring economic development in the short term and will transform American transportation for generations to come by bolstering our economic competitiveness.”

The move will benefit the southern segment, which connects the cities of Portland, Salem, and Eugene.  This corridor links Oregon’s economic center to the state capital, and joins the three largest public universities.  Ridership on the southern segment grew 22 percent last year.

“A world-class transportation network is the foundation of America’s economic success,” said Administrator Joseph Szabo. “These investments create American jobs, make the regional economy stronger and produce a more efficient transportation system that’s better for consumers and the environment.”

Amtrak is teaming up with actress and philanthropist Rosario Dawson for National Train Day on May 12 of this year.

Amtrak will host key events at stations in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and Union Stations in Chicago and Los Angeles (Washington, D.C. won’t have an event this year due to extensive restoration work being done in Union Station to repair damage caused by an earthquake in August).  There will also be scores of events organized by local passengers throughout the country.

[Click here to host your own train day event!]

Dawson was enthusiastic in her reminiscing on the importance of trains in her childhood:

“I love trains not only because they offer a more intimate way to see the country and experience the communities along the way, but also because they are one of the greenest ways to travel, which is a value that has always been important to me.  So many of my very first memories of travel as a kid in New York City were on the train.  I remember riding on Amtrak and jumping up at the first opportunity to visit the café car. It’s great to be able to walk around, hang out and grab a bite at my leisure. I’m always watching the fast changing scenery through the windows which can be as mesmerizing as a film. It always makes the trip so much more vivid.”

Amtrak’s events will include displays on equipment, model trains, high-speed trains, K-9 units, and more.  There will also be activities for children and Amtrak merchandise for sale.

“We are thrilled to have Rosario Dawson, someone who is an inspiration both on and off the screen, as our spokesperson for the 5th Annual National Train Day,” says Emmett Fremaux, “Like many of our customers, she is passionate about staying connected to her community and is someone who enjoys the journey, not just the destination.”