Hotline #754 - April 13, 2012

Another year, another record-breaking year for Amtrak ridership.  At least that’s what trends in the first six months of fiscal year 2012 indicate, with passenger counts up 3.7 percent in the over the same period last year.  FY 2011 holds the current record, with 30.2 million passengers.

Amtrak is reporting that all its business lines are seeing an increase in the numbers of passengers, with Northeast Corridor up 5.2 percent, long-distance trains up 3.0 percent and state-supported and other short-distance routes up 2.7 percent.  While these trends indicate that Amtrak will set its ninth ridership record in ten years, President & CEO Joe Boardman isn’t satisfied just yet, using the numbers as an opportunity to speak about the vital necessity of working now to increase capacity in America’s passenger rail network.

“Amtrak achieving ridership records is important, but it is more critical that the right infrastructure be in place to continue this trend in the years to come and to provide safe, efficient and reliable rail transportation for all current and future passengers,” said Boardman. “To do this in the Northeast, we must advance our proposed Gateway Program, as it is essential for the future growth and economic development of the entire region.”

The Gateway Project is the plan to construct new tunnels under the Hudson River into New York City and new bridges over the Hackensack River a short distance to the west.  The existing, 100-year old tunnels currently constitute the biggest bottleneck on the entire Northeast Corridor, particularly as one of the two tunnels is out of service on weekends.  New tunnels are desperately needed. 

The Gateway Project was developed after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) to kill plans to build a second pair of Hudson River tunnels, which would have served only New Jersey Transit trains and would not have served New York’s Penn Station.  Christie was concerned about the costs to New Jersey and cited lack of connection to Amtrak’s network (a Government Accountability Office report released this week has called the cost assumption into question).
"If we don't get our infrastructure improved, we're going to have problems growing anything in the Northeast," Boardman told reporters this week.  "We're out of space—in the tunnels, on the tracks, in Penn Station… There has to be a change in the attitude and discussion about transportation in this country [and the role trains play in moving people].”

NARP has been highlighting how this issue will adversely affect the national network for years—most recently in NARP President Ross Capon’s statement to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation regarding Fiscal Year 2013 funding.  In his written statement, Capon emphasized that the $2.54 billion request for Amtrak’s capital and operations should be considered a floor, not a ceiling:

The funding outlined is a minimum.  It does not address the system expansion that we envision.  It does not 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.
Specific ridership highlights include (all increases in reference to FY 2011 compared with FY 2010, unless otherwise indicated):
  • Northeast and Southeast: there was an 8.2 percent increase on the Northeast Corridor (Washington, D.C. to Boston), Amtrak’s most heavily traveled line. The Keystone Service (New York – Philadelphia – Harrisburg) also saw significant growth, with a 4.0 percent uptick in passengers.  The Ethan Allen (New York – Rutland, Vt.) is up 9.0 percent, due in large part to improved quality of service flowing out from High-Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail Program upgrades made to the corridor.  In New York, the Adirondack (New York – Montreal) is up 5.5 percent, and the Empire Service (New York – Albany) is up 3.6 percent.  The Downeaster (Boston – Portland) is up 3.3 percent.  Amtrak’s Virginia services continue to post massive gains, with Washington – Lynchburg up 27.4 percent and Washington – Newport News up 16.0 percent. The Piedmont (Raleigh – Charlotte) is up 15.1 percent.
  • Long-distance routes: A number of Amtrak’s long-distance routes saw ridership growth.  There was a 6.6 percent increase on the Empire Builder (Chicago – Seattle/Portland), a 5.7 percent increase on the Coast Starlight (Los Angeles – Seattle), a 5.5 percent increase on the City of New Orleans (Chicago – New Orleans), a 3.5 percent increase on the Silver Star (New York – Raleigh – Tampa – Miami), a 3.3 percent increase on the Crescent (New York – New Orleans), and a 3.2 percent increase on the Southwest Chief (Chicago – Los Angeles).
  • Midwest: the Heartland Flyer (Oklahoma City – Fort Worth) led the way, with a 10.6 percent increase in ridership.  It was followed closely by the Lincoln Service (Chicago-St. Louis), which saw a 10 percent increase in the number of passengers carried. 
  • West and Pacific Northwest: California had a strong first six months, with the San Joaquin (Sacramento-Oakland-Bakersfield) seeing 11.5 percent more riders, and the Capitol Corridor (San Jose – Oakland – Sacramento – Auburn) up 6.7 percent.  After a number of years of significant growth, the Amtrak Cascades (Vancouver, B.C. – Seattle – Portland – Eugene) finally came back to earth with only a half a percentage point increase; this could be due in large part to mudslides, caused by unusually heavy rains, forcing many of the trains to be delayed or canceled entirely.

If you've ever been to the NARP website before, you’ll notice it has a much different look.  Last year, NARP obtained a grant from the Sally Mead Hands Foundation to upgrade our site; what you're looking at is the product of a year's worth of hard work.
We’ve kept all the popular features, such as the Hotline and Blog—and made them more prominent, so it'll be easier to tell when they've been updated.  But we’ve also added some new features we think will prove popular—and they're accessible at any time in the new navigation menu located across the top of the site. 
Amtrak yesterday announced that it met with BNSF Railway officials and with representatives from communities along the Southwest Chief’s route to discuss the issue of preserving passenger train service in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
Amtrak’s statement provides insight into the content of the meeting:
In the meeting, Amtrak explained how changing freight traffic patterns mean BNSF's remaining needs can be met with lower track speeds, making the line unsuitable for through passenger service.  Funding to maintain and improve track will be needed in coming years in order for the Southwest Chief to continue to serve the current route. 
Several ideas for funding and public action were discussed by Amtrak and BNSF. Both railroads are committed to work with the affected communities to find a solution to the issue, with Amtrak and BNSF both saying the current route is the best for the Southwest Chief.  Many communities and others have made investments in their stations and in otherwise supporting the service – and those efforts are recognized and appreciated.
Amtrak did not hide the urgency of the situation, however—political and financial commitments will need to be made no later than 2014.  Failing that, Amtrak will have until 2016 to preserve the service in any form, rerouting the train south between Newton, Kansas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.  As with the effort to save the present route, funding also is not guaranteed to accomplish the reroute.  

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood congratulated the Northern Flyer Alliance today on the successful symposium they held in Kansas City on Friday, April 6.  He wrote in the U.S. DOT Fastlane blog:

The Northern Flyer Alliance is a group of 49 cities, 6 counties, and 19 Chambers of Commerce from Kansas City to Fort Worth that have joined together to promote passenger rail in their communities and in the tri-state region that includes Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
TexasKansas, and Oklahoma understand the threefold value of rail: as a job creator, as an engine of growth, and as a means of sustaining economic competitiveness. They've seen communities like Brunswick [Maine] and Normal [Illinois] leverage the opportunity passenger rail offers, and they are ready to bring those benefits home to their own residents and businesses.

Featured speaker Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said, “I am pleased to see the planning work currently taking place in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, proving that strong, long-term planning leads to the creation of a market-driven rail plan that benefits communities throughout the corridor.” 

NARP President Ross Capon also spoke.  He highlighted the efforts of North Carolina, the importance of the Empire Builder to Montana as reflected in US DOT and Montana DOT reports, and the importance of the Texas Transportation Institute’s new focus on passenger trains—including reports on the Heartland Flyer and Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawathas states.  Other speakers included state and local officials and Midwest High Speed Rail Executive Director and NARP Board Member Rick Harnish.  Also, Prof. Wally Meyer of the University of Kansas School of Business reported on the economic benefits of reconnecting Kansas City and Fort Worth via Oklahoma City as discovered in a report by students and consultants.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority officially endorsed the new 2012 Business Plan yesterday, a move that will send the project to California’s State Legislature.

The revised plan cuts the total price to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by about a third, from $98.5 billion down to $68.4 billion.  The authority was able to achieve this reduction through a blended approach in the metropolitan endpoints of the line, which will now rely on existing, conventional speed infrastructure.  Touting a “building block” implementation in the new plan, CAHSRA is emphasizing that each of the construction phases will have independent utility.  California will be able to reassess the project’s progress at multiple points over the next two decades, while still reaping the benefits of each block.

“We now stand poised to have an operational high-speed passenger rail system within ten years,” said CAHSRA Board Member Mike Rossi. “By working with community leaders throughout the state we will begin construction soon on a smarter, more cost-effective transportation option for all Californians that reflects the direction mandated by voters in 2008 with the passage of Proposition 1A.”

Local leaders from communities along the route showed up to advocate for the adoption of the plan.

“I hope to see, in the near future, trains pulling through all the way from Los Angeles to the Central Valley, through Silicon Valley to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal, which we believe to be the Grand Central Station of the West,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, speaking before the Board yesterday in favor of the new business plan.
The new plan was adopted, with one amendment: CAHSRA has agreed to work with transportation agencies in Orange County to identify cost-effective ways to enable a one-seat ride to and from Anaheim, focusing on solutions that will cost less and be less intrusive than a full-build link.

Authority Board Chair Dan Richard compared the controversy over the high-speed train to the fight that broke out over the construction of the (now popular) Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the Bay Area.  “This project will have a similar impact and people will look back and say, 'Thank God they did it,'" said Richard. 

Federal transportation leaders joined Michigan Congressmen on April 10 to break ground on a new $28.2 million intermodal train and bus station.  Served by Amtrak’s Wolverine train, the project will reenergize downtown Dearborn by increasing transportation connectivity throughout the region, and encouraging rail oriented development.

The new intermodal station will replace two existing passenger rail facilities with a modern, pedestrian-friendly station in West Downtown Dearborn.  In addition to local residents and business travelers, the station will serve students at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and Henry Ford Community College.  The intermodal facility will also be connected, via a new pedestrian overpass, to the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village—an attraction which draws 1.7 million visitors each year.
Joined by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), U.S. Department of transportation officials were there to talk about the benefits the new, federally-funded intermodal station will bring to the community.

“This new Intermodal Station will serve as Dearborn’s gateway to a modern 110 mile per hour regional passenger rail system,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo.  “By 2015, nearly 80 percent of the Chicago-Detroit corridor will see sustained speeds of 110 MPH – with all new high-performance equipment – allowing travelers to check email, read or relax while speeding past cars on the interstate.  This new facility will provide seamless connections from rail to other transportation options, providing a boon to tourists, students and business travelers alike.”   

The city of Tuscon took the first steps in the construction of a new 3.9-mile streetcar project on April 12, beginning work on a modern streetcar line that will efficiently connect commuters to Tucson’s downtown employers.

The line will connect a population of the more than 85,000 people that live, work, and play within walking distance of the 17 planned streetcar stops.  The streetcar will have stations at important health care facilities, the University of Arizona, and restaurants and nightlife.

Tucson is joining a growing list of American cities—from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte, North Carolina—where the modern streetcar is spurring economic development, revitalizing downtown neighborhoods, and attracting a new generation of riders,” said Secretary LaHood. “The Obama Administration is committed to investing in strong transportation choices like these as part of an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy to reduce our dependence on oil, relieve congestion and improve air quality.”

The project is projected to create 1,200 construction-related jobs locally.  The streetcars will be provided by United Streetcar of Portland, a manufacturer based in Oregon

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that demand for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants exceeded the funds available by a twenty-to-one ratio—a stark indication of the need for increased investment in intermodal infrastructure.
The TIGER program The $10.2 billion in applications—distributed across 703 applications from all 50 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia—far exceeds the $500 million set aside for the program in the current fiscal year.

“President Obama has challenged us to invest in an America that is built to last, and it’s clear that communities across America can’t afford to wait any longer to get started,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood.  “At a time when gas prices are high, it’s more important than ever that we invest in projects that will relieve congestion, improve the safety of our transportation systems, and provide Americans with affordable, efficient options for reaching their destinations.”

This is the fourth round of TIGER funding.  The previous three rounds have provided $2.6 billion to 172 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  But applications over those previous three rounds have added up to more than $95 billion.

Earlier, Secretary LaHood noted that $100 million of the TIGER funds are available for intercity passenger trains but DOT had received $1 billion in such requests.

Travelers Advisory
If you're thinking of riding the rails north of the border this summer, VIA Rail Canada is offering 50% off tickets on all routes, including sleepers, for travel starting June 13 -- but only if you book before midnight this Tuesday, April 17.