Hotline #769 - July 27, 2012


It was a big week for Washington Union Station, with Amtrak’s unveiling of a 20 year capital improvement plan that would create a 21st century transportation hub behind the historic structure. 

The NARP Blog looked at the plan, which maps out a long-term investment that would cost $6.5 to $7.5 billion over the course of 15 to 20 years:

In partnership with Akridge real estate firm, Amtrak released a… station development plan that would double train capacity and triple the number of passengers the station could accommodate by 2030.  The Master Plan would preserve the historic character of Union Station-proper, expanding north to create broad, airy new concourses for passengers; expand and add platforms; and cover over the tracks north of the station to create a new, transit-accessible neighborhood in central D.C. 

While the potential cost is daunting, the potential benefit is great, as well.  The Master Plan—along with the complementary commercial and residential real estate development plan—will have an impact on the Washington area economy of $13.5 to $15 billion in gross regional product over the 15 to 20 year construction period.  Building the project will create 3,000 full-time construction jobs per year on average.  And once the station’s real-estate development is complete, nearly 7,000 full-time employees will work at the Washington Union Terminal and associated real-estate development.

Needless to say, the increased development will also drive up the demand for intercity and commuter trains.

An initial reaction among some NARP members has been that the plan is too costly at a time when the capital investment for the national network has been so constrained for so long.  Another piece on the NARP blog attempted to address this valid concern by addressing some possible funding mechanisms, and attempting to take up the “either/or” which has come to characterize the thinking of many advocates as it relates to passenger rail investments for regional and national systems:

If you live in a town with an open-air station,  service that amounts to a single train a day—or worse, only three trains per week—and that train features rolling stock that’s seen better days?  You’re well within your rights to wonder why the national passenger rail system isn’t getting more investment.  Rest assured that NARP is working very hard to convince our elected leaders of the need for greater investment in all corners of the national passenger train network.

[However, operations] along the entire Northeast Corridor are possible, in large part, thanks to work done at the turn of the century.  It was our grandparents and great-grandparents who built and paid for Washington Union Station, the Hudson River rail tunnels, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel.  After a lull, passenger rail’s time has come in America again—but now we have lost time to make up for.  Work to do.  That work can only be done if we don’t see every grand, multi-decade investment in some other part of the U.S. as an indirect attack on the viability and growth of our own piece of the network.

 

Miami-Dade Transit will open the new Miami International Airport Station tomorrow, providing a convenient, efficient connection to the city via Metrorail’s new Orange Line.

“This is such an exciting project for our community, and it’s going to be a huge benefit for our residents and visitors, alike,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told reporters. “By directly linking our airport to our urban center, we’re joining the ranks of the great world cities—London, Paris, Tokyo—that already enjoy this kind of dynamic, game-changing connectivity.”

The 2.4-mile Metrorail extension is the most significant addition to the system since its inception in 1984.  That link is expected to increase ridership on the system by millions of passengers each year.

Including the new station, the addition will cost around $506 million to complete.  Around $400 million of that cost was funded by a half-penny sales tax approved by Miami-Date County in a 2002 vote by 2/3rds of voters.  The Florida Department of Transportation funded the remainder.

You can read more about the new service at www.miamidade.gov/transit.

 

Commuter ridership in America is on the rise, with two major systems reporting record ridership in the past year. 

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that its PATH commuter system is on track to set yet another ridership record, with passenger volume up 4 percent over the first half of the 2012:

The 2011 annual record of 76.6 million passenger trips were the most since the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey established PATH in 1962 after taking over the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. 

Through June of this year, PATH trips slightly exceeded 39 million, up from 37.6 million through the same period in 2011. That puts PATH ridership on pace to exceed 78 million riders in 2012, which would represent an increase of more than 8 percent since 2009. Of PATH’s 39 million riders during the first six months of 2012, 22 million – or 56 percent – boarded PATH trains at the seven New Jersey stations.

The good news out of New Jersey comes the same week as Virginia Railway Express, which posted a 5.6 percent increase in ridership in FY 2012, said it was on the way to its highest ever ridership total [PDF]:

With the close of the fiscal year on June 30th, final VRE ridership rose to over 4.772 million passenger trips annually. This exceeded last year’s numbers by 255,000 passenger trips. 

Even more impressive is the actual total passenger trips for the fiscal year exceeded the original budgeted ridership projections for FY 2012 by 406,000 passenger trips. That resulted in a net positive growth of VRE’s fare revenue by 8.5%.

This news is all the more significant in the face of stagnant gasoline prices and a lagging global economy, which would normally depress commuter transit demand.

 

Opponents of California’s high-speed rail project have announced that they are backing down from an effort to put the 220 mph train between San Francisco and Los Angeles to another vote before the public.

The San Jose Mercury reported on July 26 that State Senator Doug LaMalfa (R-Willows) announced the suspension of the Revote High Speed Rail campaign, which would have o subjected the $10 billion bond measure to another statewide vote.  The bond was approved by Californian voters in the 2008 elections

LaMalfa said he would focus his efforts on the lawsuits filed by several communities along the proposed route that are hoping to keep construction of the line away from their property.

New report finds study critical of trains’ benefits is “flawed”

The Regional Plan Association examined a study done by UCLA’s research center, Anderson Forecast, and found several critical flaws.  The Anderson Forecast study, which has been widely cited by critics of California’s project, found that high-speed rail creates negligible economic benefits, and encourages sprawl.  The RPA’s report found these conclusions to be suspect based upon methodological inconsistencies:

The methodology adopted in the study is questionable, as its selection of control group for comparison is biased. The interpretations and conclusions derived from the analysis are logically flawed. The study fails to single out the economic effects of HSR, and hence the conclusions are doubtful.

The report details five specific flaws, and is available to read online. [PDF]

 

Planners in Longview, Texas met last week to discuss improving service on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle through the Texarkana region, bringing together representatives from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.

The East Texas Corridor Council convened to discuss planned and potential improvements to the Texas Eagle, which provides daily service between Chicago and San Antonio and thrice-weekly service beyond to Los Angeles (through-cars on the Sunset Ltd.).  Ridership has seen a significant increase in recent years, with 299,508 passengers carried in FY 2011, a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year.  The ETCC is looking to build on that success by improving the train’s performance through East Texas.

“The trains now function at about 35 miles per hour on average,” council chairman Richard Anderson (husband of NARP Council member Christina Anderson) told the Longview News-Journal. “We’re looking to double those speeds in the next six to 12 months.”

The Texas Department of Transportation is projecting a 70 percent surge in commuter traffic along the Interstate 20 corridor in the coming decade, and Anderson outlined the how the ETCC sees the Texas Eagle as a tool for dealing with the region’s growing transportation demands:

Negotiations are currently ongoing with a consultant, who has worked with Amtrak and Union Pacific in developing the time and sequence of freight and passenger cars on existing UP tracks.

Our plan serves as one piece of a strategy to address the larger issues of transportation that come along with population growth.  The interstate highway system between Shreveport and Dallas has been essentially unchanged for 50 years. 

We’re pursuing an expansion of passenger rail as an alternative driving to alleviate traffic.

The ETCC Chairman also spoke about how the passenger rail service will fill in the gaps left by a struggling market for regional air travel.

Longview’s airport loses an estimated one flight per day to DFW International Airport, and individuals who rely on these flights for their business have no choice but to drive a greater distance for their flights, said Anderson.  “As you continue to see constriction in local air travel, rail becomes a feeder to more centralized airports. So, we’re looking to put that infrastructure in place to keep transportation flowing smoothly.”

 

Following multiple incidents where morning commuters were locked out of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amtrak station, the railroad announced this week it will be installing automatic locks to ensure passengers have access to the station.

Two previous incidents where Amtrak employees didn’t show up to unlock the doors left passengers scrambling across tracks to make it to the platform in time for their train.  The new locks will automatically open everyday at 5 a.m., and will cost around $22,000 in materials and labor. 

“I’m pleased that Amtrak has committed to making reforms at the Lancaster station so travelers will no longer be locked out,” said Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), who has worked with the railroad to respond to customer complaints.

 

Amtrak spokeswoman Danelle Hunter said the automatic locks will be fully operation in around four to six weeks of the materials delivery.

 

The White House announced today that it will be expediting the permitting and review process for the Atlanta Regional Multimodal Passenger Terminal project, on account of its status as a “nationally and regionally significant infrastructure project.”

Part of President Barack Obama’s We Can’t Wait initiative, the order to expedite will allow the station to shave a full year off the environmental and community impact review process.  From the White House press release:

The Atlanta Regional Multimodal Passenger Terminal Project is a part of a larger economic redevelopment plan for downtown Atlanta, and will also serve as a one of the catalysts for commercial and residential development on 120 acres of underutilized land in the area.  The new terminal will create a centralized transit hub to link currently disconnected transportation networks in downtown Atlanta, including high-speed rail, commuter rail, streetcar, Greyhound, MARTA, pedestrians, cyclists and more.  The project is funded in part by the Federal Transit Administration and Georgia Department of Transportation’s Public-Private Partnership program.

While it's unclear whether intercity or commuter trains will eventually use the multimodal terminal, it will serve MARTA rail transit and buses, the under-construction Atlanta Streetcar, intercity buses, the planned Atlanta Beltline, as well as Georgia Regional Transit Authority, Cobb County and Gwinnett County transit buses.


Genesee & Wyoming announced this week that it has reached an agreement to acquire RailAmerica for $1.4 billion in cash, a deal which will merge the two largest short-line and regional rail operators in North America.

Through subsidiaries, RailAmerica hosts Amtrak’s Vermonter service, VIA Rail Canada trains in Ontario, and the Branson Scenic Railway in Missouri.  Conversely, Amtrak hosts Rail America subsidiary Connecticut Southern RR between Springfield and North Haven, CT.  

The deal will need to be approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

 

Safety detection systems kicked into place on Wednesday when vandals cut a cable on a high-speed rail line yesterday in France, preventing any serious incident.  Tens of thousands of passengers were delayed, however, while crews performed inspections and repairs.

Unidentified vandals cut a cable on line in the central Burgundy region of France, delaying southbound trains headed for Lyon, Marseille, Perpignan, Barcelona and Geneva.  Safety systems kicked in to prevent an accident, stopping trains en route as they headed south from Paris.

Still as many as 60,000 TGV passengers were affected as SNCF crews worked through the night to make repairs.  Delays between 30 minutes and three hours were still being seen on the Paris–Lyon line well into Thursday.

The French police have opened an investigation.


Traveler Alerts

—A track washout in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on July 24 has led to a rerouting of the California Zephyr through Wyoming, missing all stops between Denver and Salt Lake City (exclusive of those cities), until Union Pacific crews can restore the damaged section of track.

Politico is reporting that average domestic airline fares rose to an all-time high of $373 in the year's first quarter. That marks a 4.8 percent increase from the average $356 fare at the same time last year. Airlines collected 69.5 percent of their total revenue from passenger fares during the first quarter, down from 87.6 percent in 1990. Cincinnati had the highest average fare at $525, and Atlantic City had the lowest at $157.