Hotline #767 -- July 13, 2012


Amtrak released its Vision for the Northeast Corridor: 2012 Update Report this week, providing insight into the current state of planning and development on the Northeast Corridor. 

The plan paints a tantalizing picture of being able to catch a train in a beautifully renovated Moynihan Station in New York City, and disembarking at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station within 37 minutes, or WashingtonD.C. within 94 minutes. 

[Read the full report (PDF)]

Amtrak estimates the improvements would cost $151 billion over the next 30 years, and the company will be looking for federal, state and private funding.  This combined figure represents a saving of $18 billion (due to “efficiencies”) compared with earlier estimates that placed Master Plan costs [upgrading the existing railroad] at $52 billion and “NextGen” at $117 billion.  

A spokesman for House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-FL) made a public appeal for private capital, saying the Mica believes the “private sector could do these types of projects much more effectively than the federal government.”

Amtrak President Joe Boardman pushed back against the notion that the private sector can replace government’s role in public infrastructure investment, arguing that federal and state funding will have to precede private sector interest.

“We knew it was going to take a significant effort on the part of government at some level or all levels,” Boardman told Bloomberg News, echoing analysis by private sector analysts. “We know for sure that needs to come sooner than a public-private partnership that’s often talked about.”

Passengers will see medium-term benefits.  Some of the key capacity and performance milestones include:

  • 2015 – 40% increase in Acela capacity
  • 2020 – High-speed rail serviced doubled between NYC – Washington
  • 2025 – Increased capacity and improved service through NYC, via completion of Gateway Project (new Hudson River rail tunnels)
  • 2025 – Improved and expanded service between NYC and Boston, via infrastructure improvements
  • 2030 – NextGen service between NYC and Washington (NYC – Philadelphia in 37 minutes, NYC – Washington in 94 minutes)
  • 2040 – NextGen service between NYC and Boston (NYC – BOS in 94 minutes)

[Read more about the plan on the NARP Blog]

 

The 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail was held in Philadelphia this week, convening transportation officials and industry representatives from all over the globe to share successful development strategies, best practices for implementation, and innovative high-speed train technologies.

A preliminary event was held July 10 on Capitol Hill, when the American Public Transportation Association rolled out its  study on the development of American passenger trains, “Opportunity Cost of Inaction: High Speed and High Performance Passenger Rail Service.”  The report was paired with a national survey that found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are interested in traveling by high-speed rail, with that number jumping to 74 percent for younger Americans.

NARP’s summer intern Chris Romero was among those present, and he wrote-up his experience for the NARP blog:

Rail Executives from Japan, France, Russia, and Italy spoke of their respective systems and the accomplishments they each have had. The European and Japanese rail systems are famous for their impeccable safety records, low carbon emission, and speeds of up to 250 mph. These executives with their years or knowledge and expertise assured the United States from their experience that a high-speed rail network would only benefit the U.S. economy rather than cripple it, which many opponents of High Speed Rail claim will happen.

Vladimir Yakunin, President of Russian Railways, RZD spoke of the dangers of waiting to upgrade the nation’s rails to include High Speed Corridors. Russia used to be a leader in rail travel, however the former Soviet government felt that its citizens did not need such technology, and stopped funding passenger train related programs. Decades passed, and the Russians fell behind the rest of the world and now they are playing catch up with Western Europe and Japan. Yakunin warned the United States that the cost to upgrade a rail network is high, but the cost to waiting is greater.

The Philadelphia event kicked off on July 11, featuring remarks from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who reemphasized President Barack Obama’s commitment to ensuring Americans have access to a vibrant, modern passenger train network.

“The dream is to connect 80 percent of Americans in 20 years with passenger rail,” said LaHood.  “We’re committed to getting there.”

[Check out Progressive Railroading’s transcription of a Q&A with the Secretary, along with PR’s in-depth coverage of the event]

California High-Speed Rail – One Week Later

The World Congress on High Speed Rail was held, coincidentally, one week after California’s state legislature held a historic vote that unlocks $8 billion in rail funds for California -- $2.6 billion in state funds (leveraging $3.2 billion in federal funding for the Central Valley 130-mile initial operating segment), plus $1.1 billion for San Francisco-San Jose and Los Angeles Metrolink upgrades and $900 million for connecting rail projects.  The California High Speed Rail Authority’s new executive director, Jeff Morales, told the World Congress that San Francisco-San Jose service could be electrified by 2019.

Speakers made the point that this is not just about connecting the Los Angeles and Bay Area metropolitan areas, and countered the “train to nowhere” trope being utilized by the train’s opponents, highlighting the Central Valley’s more than seven million people, and the fact that the Valley has the state’s fastest growing population.

A similar sentiment was outlined much more forcefully in a letter sent by California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard to the Los Angeles Times, blasting the paper for its coverage of the high-speed rail project:

Over the past year, your reporters covering the High Speed Rail program have spun out one sensational story after another, invariably repeating critics' charges uncritically and writing things that mostly turn out to be wrong. However, the latest example, "High Speed Rail Officials Spurned offer from French Company," hits a new low.

First, it was strategically timed; your reporters asked for our comments on this item several weeks ago. They waited until after the vote on Friday in an attempt to reset the debate and again focus on the "deficiencies" of the High Speed Rail Authority.

Second, how in the world can one elevate the self-serving proposal of one company that would have had the state simply handing them the keys (with no offer of funding, by the way) into a serious policy question? SNCF's proposal to take over the program would be the equivalent of the LA Airports Authority bringing in Airbus to construct the new terminals; don’t be surprised when the jetways don't accommodate anyone else's airplanes.

Third, your reporters might have noted that the bond measure authorizing construction of high speed rail specifically calls out cities that must be served. One can argue whether going up I-5 makes more sense (and it doesn't) but there is the small matter that bypassing Central Valley towns raises serious legal questions along with environmental concerns.

Finally, and most notably, I was not a member of the Board during the time frame discussed in your story, but I am aware that there was significant controversy over SNCF in 2010, emanating from their role in deporting French Jews to death camps during WW II. The California Legislature passed Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield's bill (vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger) to have barred the company from public contracts absent an apology and compensation. Your newspaper editorialized ("Echoes of the Holocaust") on Nov 20, 2010 that: "Particularly distressing is the fact that the apology was apparently not prompted by regret. Rather, it seems to have been spurred by the company's desire to win multibillion-dollar high-speed rail contracts in California and Florida." 

Today's story ignores all of that controversy in an attempt to make the High Speed Rail Authority look incompetent or worse. Yet, it shouldn't have been hard for your reporters to find this material in the archives. After all, one of them covered the issue at the time.

 

Amtrak's Downeaster carried 528,292 passengers within the past year, setting a new ridership record for the popular New England service.

The service was launched just over 10 years ago (December 2001), and has proved increasingly popular ever since.  In FY2012, the route saw a four percent increase in ridership and a 4.5 percent bump in revenue.

"The economy comes and goes. Gas prices come and go. But we continue to gain a little bit every year," Patricia Quinn, executive director at the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, told reporters. "It shows that more people are getting used to the service and more people are riding it more often. 

Currently the Downeaster makes five daily trips between Portland and Boston.  Quinn predicts that when two of these five trains extend their route northward later this year—adding stops in Freeport and Brunswick—the service will see an additional 36,000 riders per year, with the potential for 50,000 extra passengers annually as the service develops.

 

Responding to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) notice that it would be adding seven new categorical exclusions to its existing list, NARP and its coalition partner OneRail submitted comments supporting the changes and advocating a level playing field in the project review process.

Categorical Exclusions (CEs) are specific, common sense exemptions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that allow infrastructure projects to progress without expending resources on environmental reviews whose conclusions are predictable.  Since passenger rail has long been underfunded relative to other modes, the FRA’s list of CEs has lagged behind its counterpart agencies which oversee highways and transit.  Ironically, this puts passenger trains at a disadvantage compared to less energy efficient modes.  NARP congratulated the FRA for its efforts to correct this imbalance:

Upgrading and rehabilitating tracks, signals, trains, stations and other railroad facilities either within existing rights-of-way or in areas that are already developed and zoned for such facilities are all cost-effective activities that go a long way towards making passenger train service safe, frequent and reliable, and thus able to attract greater number of travelers away from driving and flying. Not only does this generate many direct returns on the public's investment in rail (generating revenue, creating jobs and spurring economic activity), it also has a net positive environmental impact as trains are proven to be a less energy- and land-intensive way to move both people and goods, compared to cars and airplanes.

… 

Federally-funded projects of the kind proposed to be excluded that have already been completed, and are nearing completion, are already making things noticeably better for the traveling public and local economies. These include the replacement of jointed rail with welded rail over much of the Amtrak Vermonter route within Vermont, which has made the train one of Amtrak's best on-time performers. Another is the track and station improvements that make possible the coming extension of Amtrak's Downeaster to Brunswick, Maine, which is already spurring new businesses to open up near the two soon-to-be Amtrak stations. A third is the next-generation fleet of bi-level passenger coaches that five Midwestern states are ordering to increase capacity and improve reliability on their corridor services -- all being built in existing facilities and being run on existing tracks. All of these projects had their environmental reviews done prior to the Recovery Act's passage, and more similar projects could have been completed by now had CEs been in place.

OneRail’s statement also focused on creating a common set of CEs across transportation modes, which it argues will aid state planners in developing a more efficient multimodal transportation system:

Given the reality of the transportation network and industry, with the demand for multi-modal projects increasing and with agencies often using multiple federal funding sources, creating a common set of CEs, where appropriate, would enhance efficiency and expedite project delivery for the whole transportation industry. 

With the recently enacted MAP-21 legislation now taking effect, it is also critical that new changes to environmental procedures for FHWA and FTA be reviewed for their applicability for rail projects under FRA jurisdiction.  As the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient mode, rail must not be put at a disadvantage relative to other modes in the development of projects.

 

New Jersey Transit announced its FY 2013 operating budget this week, sparing passengers from any fare increases by tightly controlling budget growth.

NJ Transit’s board green-lit a $1.9 billion operating budget and a $1.2 billion capital budget during a July 11 board meeting.  That means the FY2013 operating budget will only be $9 million more than was seen in FY2012—the lowest rate of growth seen in 15 years, according to NJ Transit’s acting chief financial officer, Michael Lihvarcik.

The budget includes $720 million for improvements to existing infrastructure, including upgrades to tracks and electrical systems, new rail and bus equipment, and refurbishment of old equipment.  The capital program targets $35.7 million for repairs and improvements to the Northeast Corridor, $16 million over what was appropriated for FY2012.

Even with these increases, some transportation advocates argue that more needs to be done to bring the NEC into a state of good repair.  The Lackawanna Coalition expressed worry that overly conservative budget growth will force deferrals in maintenance, hurting operations—and passengers—in the long run.

“The question people need to ask is what have they spent it on in the last years,” said Joseph Clift, Lackawanna Coalition technical director. “If it is not for (electric) power, signals or switches, it is not helping to make the train run on time.”

NJ Transit officials stated that, in conjunction with Amtrak, they are actively developing a strategy to address the needs of the heavily traveled rail corridor.

“We’re meeting with [Amtrak President & CEO Joseph] Boardman next week, once we find out what the problem is, we’ll come up with a plan to fix it,” said New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson.

 

A coalition of U.S. railroads announced this week they will continue an industry-wide initiative to hire 5,000 military veterans in 2012; that same number of veterans was hired in 2011.

"The railway industry clearly recognizes that hiring veterans is good for their companies, bottom line, and we are appreciative of their efforts to serve veterans as well as they have served the country," Brad Cooper, executive director of Joining Forces, told CNN.  Joinin Forces is a White House program designed to help place veterans in positions that fully utilize their unique skill-sets.

Amtrak currently employs 1,500 military veterans.  Since January, military veterans have accounted for 14 percent of the company’s new hires.

“The success of our railroad depends on our employees, and military service members bring skills that emphasize quality and productivity, resulting in a better experience for our customers,” said Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper, a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Amtrak is joined by the freight railroads, which are looking to find solutions for an aging workforce that will see massive turnover in the next decade.

"Today, roughly 23 percent of the railroad workforce is eligible to retire by 2015," President Ed Hamberger of the Association of American Railroads told CNN, speaking about the critical need to create a pipeline of skilled, rail sector workers.  "We are proud to offer our heroes transitioning from military service the opportunity for another career in service to our country… [It's a] great mesh of their characteristics and leadership learned in the armed forces.  It's a win-win."