Hotline #780 -- October 12, 2012

Amtrak announced on October 10 that it carried more than 31.2 million passengers in Fiscal Year 2012, the highest ever annual ridership in the railroad’s 41 years of operations. 

This most recent ridership record—the ninth in the last ten years—is a 3.5 percent increase over FY 2011’s ridership number, the previous benchmark.  Growth in ticket revenue jumped even greater than ridership, with a 6.8 percent increase compared to FY2011 for a record $2.02 billion.

The numbers are a stark reminder about the importance role Amtrak plays in enabling American mobility, and will serve as ammunition for passenger train advocates in pushing back against attacks on the government investment in the national rail network.

"People are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers across the country because there is an undeniable demand to travel by rail," said President and CEO Joe Boardman. "Ridership will continue to grow because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners to improve on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds."

Rising gasoline prices, a contracting network of air service, and frustration over road and airport congestion were driving factors in spurring on the American rail renaissance.  And the performance of Amtrak trains certainly didn’t hurt, with system-wide on-time performance (OTP) rising to 83 percent (compared to 78.1 percent in FY 2011).  While there’s still plenty of room for improvement—especially on certain long distance routes—that’s the highest system-wide OTP has been in 12 years.

In its press release, Amtrak broke down the record-setting numbers by category:

During FY 2012, ridership on the Northeast Corridor is up 4.8 percent to a record 11.4 million, state-supported and other short distance routes is up 2.1 percent to a record 15.1 million and long-distance services is up 4.7 percent to their best showing in 19 years at 4.7 million.

Also, FY 2012 produced other ridership achievements including new records for 25 of 44 Amtrak services, and 12 consecutive monthly records with July being the single best month in the history of Amtrak. Since FY 2000, Amtrak ridership is up 49 percent.

You can find route-specific highlights here [PDF].

 

A coalition of Canadian passengers and workers engaged in a nationwide leaflet campaign this week to protest a series of cuts being applied to VIA Rail service.

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Union has been a leading voice in the campaign, which aims to draw attention to the necessity of an efficient and comprehensive passenger rail network for Canada.

"Modernization shouldn't translate into a decrease in passenger rail services," said CAW President Ken Lewenza. "The federal government and VIA Rail should be working to improve and expand on services, not diminish and destroy them, one cut at a time.  Passenger rail services in Canada are far behind many other industrialized countries and as a nation, we should be looking to truly modernize our rail, and by extension, our transportation system, as a useful community and economic development strategy.”

The leaflet asks passengers to contact Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Denis Lebel and VIA Rail CEO Marc Laliberté to make the case against the cuts to passenger train service.  CAW is arguing the correct course of action—given public demand, congested roads, and rising fuel prices—is rather to expand Canada's passenger rail network.


Beginning October 14, MTA Metro-North will begin running an 79 additional trains per week as part of its new fall schedule, the first in a series of planned service improvements announced in September.

The 79 additional trains include 15 extra weekday trains and 30 weekend trains on the New Haven Line, 24 extra weekend trains on the Harlem Line, and 10 extra weekday trains on the Pascack Valley Line.


"The combination of 98 percent on-time performance and frequent train service will make Metro-North the preferred way to get around and we expect people will vote with their feet," said MTA Metro-North President Howard Permut, according to Progressive Railroading.

The new trains have been targeted for the most popular off-peak and weekend times.  The agency will also supplement crowded weekend trains with additional cars, providing much needed expansion in capacity.

Metro-North is planning to run an additional 151 trains each week beginning April 2013.  Taken in combination with this month’s additions, it will mark the largest enhancement to service frequency in the railroad’s history.

 

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced October 4 that it had finalized a $100 million purchase of the Framingham/Worcester line from freight railroad CSX, clearing the way for what state leaders hope will be significantly improved commuter rail operations for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Massachusetts legislators representing the region are applauding the deal, arguing that MBTA control of the line will lead to better service with fewer delays—as well as allowing for more frequencies to be added.

“Historically, CSX has given priority to their own freight trains moving about the tracks rather than prioritizing the needs of railroad commuters,” state Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) told MetroWest Daily News.

The MBTA will add three daily roundtrips beginning October 29.  Additionally, MBTA will extend three westbound trains that now end in Framingham, adding stops in Ashland, Southborough, Westborough and Worcester.  Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray has identified a goal of 20 daily roundtrips by this time next year.

“That will be huge for us,” said state Rep. Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland), adding that, as a regular commuter during the legislative session, he will personally be looking forward to the three additional stops. “I think this is really important to Framingham and Ashland, and to the whole state.”

While the MBTA owns the trains—and, now, the tracks the trains are run on—the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad is under contract to run the trains.  However, the current contract is expiring soon, and state transportation officials are hoping for inclusion of a stricter service outcome agreement in the next round of bidding to ensure better performance for the commuter line.

 

The Texas Department of Transportation released a map this week that outlines the preliminary routes to be investigated in the state’s $14 million study, a preliminary step in developing a modern, statewide intercity passenger train network.

The proposed area of study spans more than 850 miles, covering cities as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as Brownsville (near the Texas-Mexico border).  Planners envision a network of efficient, high-speed passenger trains that will connect major Texan population centers 100 to 600 miles apart. 

Scheduled to be finished in 2014, TXDOT officials are in the process of soliciting public input for the route.

"It's really what's going to serve the public,” TXDOT Rail System Section Director Jennifer Moczygemba told YNN. “What types of service do they need? What types of trips are they making up and down the corridor? Do they want this to be competitive with their car travel? Do they want this to be competitive with air? Those are some of the questions we need answered."

You can read more about the project on TXDOT’s website.

 

From the NARP Blog

—CNN covered the fight over passenger rail funding in the lead up to the Vice Presidential debate, highlighting anti-train attacks made against Amtrak.  When interviewed by CNN, NARP President Ross Capon stressed that demand for a modern, reliable transportation network cuts across partisan lines:

Capon was quick to point out that there are fundamental transportation realities that will be faced by whoever is elected President in November.

There's some really basic factors that are driving the love for trains," said Capon. "That is going to be difficult for any candidate to ignore."

Those factors include an average 831,000 passengers per weekday who depend on commuter rail services that use Amtrak-owned infrastructure, dispatching, shared operations, or ride commuter trains operated or maintained by Amtrak under contracts with local or regional agencies.  This doesn't touch on the hundreds of rural and small-town communities for which Amtrak is the only transportation alternative to automobile.

—Capon also responded to a September 28 editorial published by the Chicago Tribune  attacking the Midwest high performance passenger rail program as “a ridiculously expensive dream”— ("Higher and higher; You thought high-speed rail already was a boondoggle? Listen to this").  Capon corrected an error in the Tribune’s analysis of the project in a letter to the editor that was published on October 8:

We support the steady work of federal, state and local governments to improve passenger train service on the Chicago-St. Louis line. Your editorial attack on the case for new locomotives that can go 125 mph locomotives is off base.

The locomotives are to be acquired as part of a joint procurement by several states. Such procurements offer significant economies of scale. Michigan is testing a grade-crossing barrier that will allow 125 mph. California is getting ready to build 125-mph track. And the new diesels will be able to provide 125-mph service linking points off the electrified Northeast Corridor with points on the corridor.

But the real issue is not top speed. It is taking advantage of passenger-design developments that have not been offered in the 110-mph version rather than reusing a design based on freight locomotives. The proposed locomotives are more fuel-efficient than the older design. They will be 15-plus tons lighter than Amtrak's current standard diesel locomotive. They will emit 76 percent less particulate matter and 70 percent less nitrogen oxides, fulfilling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tough new Tier IV emissions limits. They will run faster schedules even where top speed limits are relatively low.

[You can read the rest of the letter here]

  

Travelers Advisory

--The Grand Canyon Railway has added a completely refurbished, full-length dome car to service, allowing passengers a unique view of one of America’s natural wonders.  NARP members are entitled to 20% off coach fare on Grand Canyon Railway trains between Williams, Arizona and the canyon’s south rim, or 10% off a vacation package. 

Grand Canyon Railway spent almost a million dollars refurbishing the car, naming it in honor of Fred Harvey, who established the first U.S. restaurant chain.  His hotels, lunch rooms, restaurants, souvenir shops and dining cars served the Santa Fe Railway.

"Naming the car after Fred Harvey is a tribute to the legendary customer service standards established by the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad," said Bob Baker, general manager of train operations for the Grand Canyon Railway. "It is our goal to maintain and honor the legacy of the Fred Harvey Company and its commitment to quality railroad hospitality."

The Fred Harvey Luxury Dome is not yet bookable online. Call 1-800-THE-TRAIN to reserve your seats.


--Social media savvy train travelers can now earn 100 bonus Amtrak Guest Rewards points following the launch of a new program that lets Amtrak Guest Rewards members connect their account to Facebook.

“Amtrak Guest Rewards is always looking for new ways to make the member experience more convenient and rewarding,” said Michael Blakey, Senior Director of Loyalty Marketing at Amtrak. “Many of our Amtrak Guest Rewards members use Facebook as their primary mode of communication, so we launched this innovative Facebook connection feature to enhance the member experience by putting everything in one place.”

Amtrak is promising that participants will be able to use Facebook to get easy access to real-time information about their Amtrak Guest Rewards account; see personalized Amtrak Guest Rewards content; and access exclusive Amtrak Guest Rewards offers and promotions.

To participate, just go to Facebook.com/Amtrak or by visiting AmtrakGuestRewards.com.  For the 100 bonus points, members must connect their account by November 3, 2012.