Hotline #772 -- August 17, 2012

The City of Mobile, Alabama, and Mayor Sam Jones (D) hosted a Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, sponsored by NARP and several other organizations. Over 100 people attended, representing local, state and federal elected officials, business community leaders, and passenger advocates. Local leaders’ strong interest in bringing passenger train service back to the region was prominently on display, and it received significant media coverage.

The Gulf Coast region has been without intercity passenger train service since Amtrak indefinitely suspended the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"With the economic successes we are having and the large retirement community we have, plus the number of baby boomers we have moving south to the coast after they retire, we need another transportation option," said Mayor Jones.

“I think we’ve probably got another four to six months’ worth of preparation before we step out with our plan and proposal,” Jones told the Mobile Press-Register after the summit. “We need to sell it as a region, and that’s what we’re committed to do.” He said the coalition of Gulf Coast mayors’ next meeting, tentatively scheduled to be held in the next 90 days in Biloxi, will focus on its congressional proposals.

The keynote speakers at the Summit were Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Hedlund, Amtrak Southeast Division Government Affairs Director Todd Stennis, NARP Mississippi Council Representative Paul Nelson, National Science Foundation transportation policy advisor Eric Peterson and Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau President Beth Butterfield Carriere.

Hedlund responded to the familiar criticism that trains are too costly. "What is affordable about adding four more lanes to Interstate 10? What is affordable about doubling size of airports? Rail is affordable. Yes, upfront costs can be higher but it lasts for hundreds of years," she told the audience.

Stennis said Amtrak stands ready to work as a partner with whatever federal or state government develops a plan to bring service to the region, but that the chosen government entity must take the lead. He reviewed the projected cost of the three options Amtrak presented in its 2009 report: restore the Sunset Limited as it was pre-Katrina; extend the daily City of New Orleans from Chicago to Florida, or develop a stand-alone New Orleans-Florida corridor service. These are not the only options on the table. The coalition of Gulf Coast mayors has yet to come up with an operating plan or a funding source, both of which must be identified before Amtrak can move forward, but the mayors seem to prefer a stand-alone daily New Orleans-Florida service.

Stennis emphasized Amtrak’s position that the 2006 decision to suspend the Sunset indefinitely was a “strategic business decision” that was not intended to single out the Gulf Coast region as unworthy of train service. Here is a video of the question-and-answer portion of Stennis's remarks.

Nelson’s well-received presentation focused on the ability of train stations to be economic development engines for en-route communities, and pointed to Amtrak’s Downeaster as a model for this. He closed by emphasizing former Meridian, MS Mayor John Robert Smith’s aphorism: “A connected region is a competitive region.”

Mayor Smith was also present in MobileIn a brief video interview, he expresses optimism for the future of passenger rail in the Gulf Coast region--but only if the region's leaders think cohesively and exhibit political will.


At the summit, Hedlund unveiled FRA’s award of $100,000 to the State of Alabama to conduct a feasibility study for restoring passenger train service between Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. This route has been without a train since 1995, when Amtrak’s Gulf Breeze was replaced by a Thruway bus, which was later discontinued.

The study will include a cost and ridership analysis, stakeholder outreach and planning to assess the feasibility of service between Birmingham and Montgomery, according to FRA.  Birmingham and Montgomery local governments will contribute an additional $100,000 total for the study. The results of the analyses will determine whether it is feasible to also extend the study to Mobile and proceed with the preparation of a Service Development Plan, environmental review and preliminary design. 

“Solid planning and thorough analysis is the foundation for successful rail projects,” Hedlund told the Summit audience.  “Rail corridors rarely stop at state lines, and it takes a team effort of governors, mayors, legislators, advocacy groups and policy makers coming together to establish a clear vision.”   


As the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) celebrated the opening of a brand-new El train station at Morse on the Red Line, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that June marked the agency’s 16thconsecutive month of ridership increases.

"These numbers demonstrate that a firm commitment to improving our infrastructure will help improve quality of life for all Chicagoans," said Mayor Emanuel. "Our residents are taking the CTA now more than ever and as we improve the stations and the infrastructure of the system as a whole, these trends will continue, creating jobs throughout Chicago and improving the prospects of Chicagoans from every neighborhood. 

The number of recorded rides on CTA’s rail network has seen 51 months of consecutive growth. For the first half of 2012, there were nearly 114 million rides taken on CTA trains, an increase of 6.2 percent. "While we cannot attribute one particular factor to changes we're seeing in ridership trends, it is clear that the investments we've made to improve both the bus and rail system over the past year have contributed to our continued growth in ridership," CTA President Forest Claypool told Railway Track & Structures.


The Federal Railroad Administration completed its first five of eight scheduled public Scoping Meetings for NEC Future: A Rail Investment Plan for the Northeast Corridor, which it is developing in cooperation with Amtrak, which owns most of the Corridor. It calls for investing $151 billion to modernize the nation’s busiest passenger railroad.

NARP Vice Chairman and New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers President Albert Papp, Jr. spoke at the Scoping Meeting on Wednesday in Newark, NJ. NJ-ARP Vice President Jack May, NJ-ARP Board member Phil Craig, and NARP New York Council Representative George Haikalis also spoke.

Papp’s statement highlighted three items: the reinstatement of the previously-included plan to connect New York Penn Station with Grand Central Terminal (part of Amtrak’s NextGen High-Speed Rail proposal), that creative funding mechanisms like Public-Private Partnerships should be examined, and that through ticketing among Amtrak and commuter and regional rail systems be part of the plan.

Four more Scoping Meetings will be held in Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE on Aug. 20; Washington, DC on Aug. 21, and Providence, RI on Aug. 22.  All interested NARP members and parties are encouraged to attend. Find more information here. You can also submit a written comment here.

 

In a victory for the Northern Flyer Alliance (NFA), a hard-working group of passenger advocates and business leaders, the Kansas state legislature voted to create an interim study committee to investigate passenger rail issues in the state. These include extending Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer north into Kansas to connect with the Southwest Chief (the goal around which NFA was organized) and what the state needs to do to preserve the Chief’s current route.

The NFA is now in the process of recommending individuals to be invited to testify to the Committee regarding the benefits to passenger rail to Wichita and western Kansas. The Committee will hold only one day of hearings, most likely sometime in September. The Kansas DOT’s witnesses will consume a good chunk of that time.

“We anticipate that the committee will hear from several business leaders around the state as to why passenger rail is important for their businesses and employees,” said NFA President (and NARP Kansas Council Representative) Deborah Fischer-Stout.

 

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today that the Administration will redirect $473 million in unspent highway earmarks from the 2003 through 2006 appropriations laws to eligible highway, transit, passenger rail or port projects.

Every state except Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, will be eligible to receive funds, but will be expected to designate them for new use by October 1, and to obligate them for spending by December 31. Governors and state DOTs will decide which projects get funded, but this money, originally intended for highways, can now possibly go to passenger trains. 

“We’re right in the middle of the construction season,” LaHood told reporters. “We’d like to get money spent on these projects.” He added, “By November, we’ll have a pretty good notion of how the money will be spent and how many people we can put to work.”

The announcement was framed as part of a series of “We Can’t Wait” initiatives by President Obama, aimed at taking executive action to circumvent a gridlocked Congress.


The North Carolina Board of Transportation, a body independent of the NC Department of Transportation consisting of members appointed by the governor and the state legislature, adopted a 30-year transportation plan for the state that envisions growth and development of passenger and freight rail service.

The Board rated the state’s intercity passenger rail service this year as “LOS D,” showing that the frequency, convenience and reach of train service are “significantly below expectations and below levels needed to capture the market demand for such service,” according to the “2040 Plan.” It estimates that the passenger rail sector needs $2.7 billion in investment over the next 30 years. (LOS refers to Level of Service and is traditionally used to describe operating conditions on highways. They range from LOS A--“free flowing” traffic--to LOS F, where speeds are reduced and stoppages may occur.)

North Carolina’s passenger train development program is nearly 25 years old and a heavily-populated corridor with higher levels of train service than most of the country. Nevertheless, the 2040 Plan’s low grade reflects the scarcity of service outside the Raleigh-Charlotte Piedmont corridor.

“Growth of ridership in that corridor as highway congestion grows and train frequency is improved suggests the presence of underserved (Raleigh-to-Washington, D.C., Southeast High Speed Rail) and untapped western and southeastern part of the state markets,” the report states. “The continued public investment in the state’s intercity passenger-rail services, as well as long-term investment of high-speed rail, will improve mobility across the state.”

The 2040 Plan also estimates the state’s freight rail investment needs to be $806 million. NCDOT “envisions strategy investments in private Class I and short-line railroads to enhance publicly sponsored rail operations that address targeted safety priorities,” the report states. 

 

The National Association of Realtors awarded the Greater Portland Transit District a $15,000 grant to study new ways to fund a 29-mile commuter rail line between Portland, Maine and the town of Auburn to the north, anticipating that the service would be a boon to real estate development along the line.

Wednesday’s announcement breathes new life into the long-envisioned proposal. The Realtors’ grant will be used as seed money to leverage an additional $60 to $70,000 needed for the study. The State of Maine already owns the tracks that would be used, which currently host freight service.

Among the focuses of the newly funded research work will be a look into utilizing so-called “value capture” methods of funding the transit expansion in Maine, according to the Bangor Daily News. The model involves recouping investment into the rail infrastructure by capturing additional tax revenues generated by raising property values along the rail corridor. 

Tony Donovan, founder and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition and a Realtor, called the grant “a game changer.”


With Amtrak having had electronic ticketing in place system wide, largely successfully, for 3 weeks, New Jersey Transit announced Monday that it will become the nation’s first commuter railroad to offer online ticketing.

A pilot program has begun that allows people to buy tickets for trains to the Meadowlands sports complex and print them at home. It is in place just in time for tomorrow’s start of pre-season football. Depending on how well the pilot works, the concept could be expanded to the entire commuter rail system.

“It’s a good idea,” Doug Bowen, managing editor of Railway Age and director of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, told the Asbury Park Press.

 

The Ontario Northland Railway’s Toronto-Cochrane, ON Northlander passenger train—part of one of only three intercity train services in Canada not operated by federally-owned VIA Rail Canadawill make its last run on September 28, the railway announced yesterday.

The move comes as part of the government of Ontario’s program of privatizing the publicly-owned Ontario Northland, which also operates bus, ferry and telecommunications services. The Northlander train, which currently operates daily except Saturday, will be replaced by buses for the length of its route. The Polar Bear Express between Cochrane and remote Moosonee, on the shore of the Hudson Bay, will continue to operate, but will eventually be transferred to a private company.

While the Polar Bear Express remained popular with both locals and tourists, the Northlander suffered from dwindling ridership. Many who were interviewed by the Toronto Star, however, said the train’s disappearance will make travel more difficult for many, particularly the elderly.

“On a bus, you’re stuck in a seat for hours. By the time the bus reaches Toronto, it’s pretty difficult for elderly people to even get out of their seats. They’re the ones who are especially going to suffer from this (decision),” said Cochrane resident Janien Ouellette.