Hotline #775 -- September 7, 2012

Amtrak released a statement this week to dismiss concerns that the railroad has plans for the Southwest Chief that would eliminate service in Kansas:

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.

However, decisions and financial commitments will be needed by the end of 2014.  If they are not in place, steps will need to be taken to operate the train via a different route between Newton, Kan., and Albuquerque by early 2016

In an interview with the KSN TV, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari addressed the challenges that will need to be addressed to preserve service.  The biggest hurdle is the maintenance backlog to the tracks the Southwest Chief uses, which are owned by BNSF Railway, one of the US’s biggest freight carriers.  Amtrak requested $100 million in funds from the states of Kansas and New Mexico to fund the capital repairs, which was rejected by the states’ transportation departments.

Magliari affirmed that, in spite of this difficulty, Amtrak is committed to preserving service in Kansas:

The cities have already begun to meet and they've been talking with their state DOT's to look at solutions.  And we've proposed a solution in April. And the state DOT's sent us a letter saying that solution doesn't work for them. But we still have a lot of time to work out a solution. We have the rest of this year and all of next and into 2014 before we would have to make a decision in the Southwest Chief re-routing. 

We remain highly committed.  We get many inquires all the time about expanding service. This last year we had the best passenger numbers we've ever seen. Record numbers. We recognized and appreciate all that the cities have done and continued to do along the Amtrak routes. 

Magliari also addressed the movement to restore passenger rail service to Wichita, saying the railroad would “love to see an Amtrak stop” in the states most populous city, which has been without passenger trains since 1979.


The Federal Railroad Administration is extending the deadline for public comment on its Northeast Corridor scoping process to October 19.

The FRA issued a public advisory today regarding the NEC Future program scoping process, which will inform the agency's preparation of its Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate potential passenger rail improvements between Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston, Massachusetts.  The public has a chance to comment on a broad array of potential alignments and impacts concerning the affected communities. 

The comment period was scheduled to close on September 14, 2012.  Due to the response received from the public during a series of Scoping meetings throughout the NEC, the FRA has decided to extend the formal comment period until October 19, 2012.

You can submit a comment here.


As part of an effort to improve service along the Portland-Salem-Eugene passenger rail corridor, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will be holding a series of open houses to solicit public input.

The agency is engaged in a $10 million study of the 125-mile line—the southern segment of the Amtrak Cascades corridor that runs north to Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia.  State leaders envision increasing daily frequencies from two round trips to six round trips.  The improvement plan would also cut the Portland to Eugene trip from two hours and 35 minutes to just under two hours, and increase on time performance to 95 percent (from the current 68 percent).

While state leaders are taking a leading role in guiding the planning process, it seems clear they will need a strong federal partner in bring this vision to fruition.  Around fifty percent of the funds for the study came from a federal high performance rail grant, and ODOT is looking to the federal government to provide around 80 percent of the $2 billion price tag for the project.

It is equally clear that demographic trends require the development of the region’s transportation network—the population of the Willamette Valley (where the corridor is situated) is expected to grow by 35 percent, and freight volume in the state is projected to increase by 60 percent.

“[These trends] will result in travel demand that exceeds existing freight- and passenger-rail capacity,” ODOT officials said in a statement. “ODOT is studying how improved passenger-rail service can address increased travel demands, especially as funding for highway projects is in decline. 

A complete list of the dates and locations of ODOT’s four public scoping meetings for the planning and environmental impact assessment processes is here, courtesy of our partners at the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates.


New YorkUS Senator Charles Schumer (D) is reporting that the Federal Railroad Administration has finalized a $16.5 million grant to fund construction of a new multimodal station for Niagara Falls.

Part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) II grant program, the $16.5 million would go towards the creation of a new multimodal transportation center that will house Amtrak and local and intercity buses.

“The new Amtrak station and intermodal transportation facility will bring transportation activity and commerce to the region, and lay the groundwork for broad-based economic and job growth in the short and long term,” Senator Schumer stated.

Some of the station's features include a high-level platform that stretches for 500 feet, and 26,000 square feet of new space to accommodate passengers.  The building will incorporate a historic custom house structure that dates back to 1863 (the station lies just across the border from Ontario, Canada).  The renovated customs house will feature exhibits detailing the Niagara Falls’ role in the Underground Railroad, which transported runaway slaves north to freedom, and will once again house US Customs and Border Protection officers who will process Amtrak passengers arriving from Canada.

 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched an electronic ticketing (eTicketing) pilot this Monday, becoming the third U.S. passenger train operator to implement the technology this year.

Under the new ticketing scheme, MBTA commuter rail passengers will have access to a mobile app that will allow them to purchase and display tickets on their smart phones—limited, for now at least, to iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys.  The commuter agency expects the technology to lower labor costs and reduce the need for capital expenditures on ticket kiosks.

The MBTA will be following in the footsteps of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, who’ve already rolled out eTicketing to varying degrees (Amtrak much more extensively than NJ Transit).  The MBTA’s pilot program will be small at first—limited to around 80 customers, and confined to the Kingston/Plymouth, Middleborough/Lakeville and Greenbush regional rail lines.

 

The annual autumn tour of Amtrak’s Great Dome Car was officially announced this week, with breathtaking views of New York State’s fall foliage season available on the Adirondack service from September 13 through October 21.

“The ‘Great Dome’ car and the overall traveling experience on our Adirondack service continues to be a favorite among our passengers and a unique way to witness the changing of the seasons that should not be missed,” said Kevin Chittenden, Amtrak’s Superintendent, for Train Operations, Empire District.

Amtrak is partnering with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the National Park Service Trail & Rails program to promote the experience to tourists of all stripes.  With unique panoramic views available on the car’s second level, passengers will have a unique view of the landscape between Albany, New York and Montreal, Canada.

“Governor [Andrew] Cuomo knows that tourism is an important engine in New York State’s economy, and the Dome Car is a special way to experience the awe-inspiring Adirondacks and the vibrant foliage this fall,” said New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald.  “[We] are thrilled about the continuing rise in ridership on the Adirondack line.  Taken together, this is great news for the North Country, for travelers between New York and Montreal, and for all who wish to enjoy the beauty of the Adirondacks.”

The New York State-supported Adirondack carried over 104,000 passengers so far this fiscal year (October 2011 – July, 2012).  That number represents a 3.9 percent increase over the same period last year. The Great Dome will operate north from Albany on Thursdays, Saturdays and Mondays, and south from Montreal to Albany on Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays during the period. It will then move south to make three round-trips on the Cardinal between Washington, DC and Chicago in late October and early November.

 

Travelers Advisory 

—Amtrak announced that train service between Chicago and New Orleans via Memphis will resume September 10, following a suspension of service due to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaac.

Other Amtrak routes to and from New Orleans from Los Angeles (Sunset Limited, Trains 1 & 2) and New York (Crescent, Trains 19 & 20) that were affected by the storm have already been restored.

—Track work on the Pacific Surfliner will affect service on the line beginning today and ending Monday morning, September 10.

Work being performed by Northern County Transit District and Southern California Regional Rail Authority will require sections of the Pacific Surfliner to cease operations, primarily south of Oceanside. To find out more details, check out the service alerts at Amtrak.com.