Hotline #784 -- November 9, 2012

President Barack Obama was reelected as president of the United States this week, ensuring another four years of a pro-passenger rail White House.  Challenges remain in the U.S. Congress, however, requiring a strong response from passenger train advocates.

Over the past four years the President has been far from alone in his pro-train vision, joined in this important work by leaders of all stripes.  As if to underline the increasingly bipartisan support for passenger trains, two Amtrak start-ups are taking place in—and with funds from—states with conservative Republican governors.  The Downeaster extension to Freeport and Brunswick, Maine, began November 1, and Washington-Norfolk, Virginia, service will begin December 12.  America’s passengers are not divided along Democratic and Republican lines; we all ride the same trains, and rely on the same transit subways and streetcars and commuter railroads.

As the hyper-partisan language of the election recedes, it is time for our leaders to re-forge the relationships that will allow meaningful work to take place.  The fact that a rail-friendly President sits in the office does not affect that trains have lost some important champions in this election cycle, not least those from the ranks of the Republican Party.  Republican Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas will be sorely missed, as will Republican Representative Steven LaTourette of Ohio.  NARP Council Members and staff will be engaging with freshmen members of both parties in the coming months to put forward the best case for rail, as well as work with returning members to solidify representation for America’s passengers.

The conventional wisdom is that, even if President Obama pushes for more rail spending, he “is still likely to have to downsize his [rail] aspirations, in light of significant cuts in the fiscal 2013 appropriations process” (from a November 8 Congressional Quarterly report).  NARP must intensify efforts to make sure that passenger rail does well in the funding process.

Four more years of work begin now.

[Support NARP!]


Amtrak has been working throughout the week to reopen three tunnels significantly damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, a process it expects to complete by the end of tonight.  Returning service to these tunnels will improve access to and from Penn Station New York, allowing for expanded Amtrak and commuter rail service north, south, and west of New York City.

“The return of all tunnel access to New York City will be a major milestone in the continued restoration of Amtrak and commuter rail service and for the larger recovery efforts of the Northeast region,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman.

Amtrak provided further detail in a November 7 release:

Two of the tunnels (known as Line 1 and Line 2) that will re-open this week are located under the East River and will support more Northeast Corridor service north of New York and Empire Service and other trains that operate to/from Albany and further west. When the two tunnels open, each will operate at 80 percent capacity, or at a peak level of about 32 trains per hour, as repairs continue. Two other East River tunnels did not flood and are operating at 100 percent capacity, or at a peak level of about 40 trains per hour.

The other tunnel (known as the North Tube) to re-open is located under the Hudson River and will allow expanded Amtrak and New Jersey Transit commuter rail service south of New York. In combination with the South Tube, which re-opened on Oct. 31, the two Hudson River tunnels will operate at about 63 percent capacity, or a peak of about 24 trains per hour which doubles the capacity of a peak of 12 per hour today. A normal peak is about 38 trains per hour.

With mobility hampered in the region, and gasoline rationing in effect in parts of New York and New Jersey, improving train service will be crucial for a number of reasons.  It is another step towards normality for commuters in affected areas.  Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) restored limited rail service on November 7 for the first time since the hurricane hit the East Coast.  MTA’s Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) continues to operate on a modified schedule while crews perform repairs.  Most of the lines on New York City’s subway system have been restored, meanwhile.

The tunnel restorations will also smooth train movements generally, positively affecting multiple aid efforts:

Major obstacles remain, however.  A Nor’easter on the evening of November 8 delayed work throughout the region, and brought LIRR’s eastbound service to a halt twice, and caused significant delays through the evening and next morning.

More significantly, New Jersey Transit is reporting that 23 percent of its rail cars and 35 percent of its engines were damaged in the hurricane, with the agency still in the process of determining what is salvageable and what is lost. 

“Our full concentration is strictly on the restoration of service, and the ongoing recovery after this devastating hurricane,” NJT spokesperson Nancy Snyder told Bloomberg News. “That’s front and center.”

With little equipment commonality among U.S. transit systems, borrowing rail equipment will be difficult.  While SEPTA loaned NJ Transit 30 busses to help ease the capacity shortage, it is a short-term crutch to an enduring problem with no easy solution.  This past Wednesday, NJ Transit carried a little over 23,000 customers into Manhattan during the morning commute—roughly half the number of usual riders.

 

Train manufacturer Talgo has filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for breach of contract, saying it is not obligated to turn over two train sets that the state contracted to purchase for $47.5 million.  Wisconsin has already paid $42.2 million towards the equipment.

The deal was originally part of a plan to expand service within the state to Madison as part of an $810 million Recovery Act grant that was part of President Obama’s high speed and intercity passenger rail program.  Governor Walker swept into office in 2010 and promised to cancel the train, the operating cost of which he labeled too costly.

Talgo’s Chief Executive Officer Antonio Perez pulled no punches in his statements to the press, alleging the state “used every conceivable excuse, whether fair or not and whether lawful or not, to ensure that Talgo did not receive what it bargained for, including by refusing to pay for the trains that Talgo completed."

"I don't see how any company would in the future choose to do business with the State of Wisconsin when the state has shown that it cannot be trusted to honor contracts that it signed," added Perez.


NARP wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week regarding the administratively-imposed three-year limit on use of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) funds for intercity passenger train operations.

The letter was sent on November 5, and highlighted the inconsistency with which the three-year limit was applied to different modes:

Passenger train operations is the only CMAQ-eligible activity which is time-limited; the three-year limit was established administratively, not legislatively.

This change would give states and groups of states the flexibility envisioned in MAP-21, which reaffirmed the value of CMAQ.  Such flexibility becomes even more important in light of the fact that, effective October 1, 2013, PRIIA Section 209 will be fully operational and force many states to increase their payments for Amtrak passenger trains.

Significantly, making the change we request would not change the distribution of funds, and would not mandate the use of CMAQ funds for passenger trains. 

 

NARP issued a news release on November 6 reiterating support of the Federal Railroad Administration’s oversight and development of the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program in response to a critical report released by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s Office.

The report, FRA’s Requirements for High Speed Rail Stakeholder Agreements Mitigated Risk, but Delayed Some Projects’ Benefits [Report No. CR-2013-007; November 1, 2012], criticized the FRA’s timeline and prioritization.  NARP President Ross Capon responded by providing context for the size of the task, while reminding the IG’s office that the jobs the HSIPR program is creating are still much needed in today’s economy:

“The Recovery Act’s $8 billion was provided for a program that was not well developed and had previously received only small amounts of funding; only $30 million was appropriated for high-speed rail in 2008 (0.00375 percent of what the FRA would be responsible for under the Recovery Act), and $90 million in the appropriations omnibus for 2009.  It made sense, therefore, for the agency responsible for ensuring that taxpayers received value for their money to proceed carefully at the outset in a way that would not, for example, have been expected of the Federal Highway Administration; or, for that matter, expected of Amtrak, which received $1.3 billion in Recovery Act funds, and spent it within two years of obligation, as the law required.

“Moreover, as it is generally recognized that the economy is still not producing enough jobs, the ‘delayed stimulus’ which the high speed rail program is producing is valuable for the jobs it is producing now and going forward.  Thus the result is that we have the best of both worlds – funds spent more responsibly than would have been likely under a ‘quick outlay’ approach, and useful jobs still being produced today when the economy still needs them.


Amtrak has named Doug Varn to the newly created position of General Manager of Long Distance Services.

Varn’s office will be based in Chicago, the de facto hub of the national network.  He will oversee safety, customer satisfaction, ridership, on-time performance, and financial results for the 15 long distance routes that stretch across an 18,500 mile network, serving 39 states and the District of Columbia.  Additionally, long distance trains account for the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states Amtrak serves.

During Fiscal Year 2010, long distance trains carried 4.5 million passengers 2.8 billion passenger miles―44 percent of total Amtrak passenger miles.  With long distance ridership up 20 percent from 2006 to 2010, and ticket revenue up 27 percent over that same period, it is an important business line for the railroad.  Given the tight fiscal environment, and political attacks on Amtrak’s budget as a whole, managing it well will be essential.

“Doug’s Amtrak professional experience crosses a full range of functional areas, including serving as vice president of planning and finance for the former Intercity business unit,” said Vice President of Operations DJ Stadtler. “He will leverage his deep experience to bring operational, financial and organizational excellence to Amtrak long-distance services.”

Currently chief of product planning and financial analysis for the Amtrak Marketing Department, Varn has been with Amtrak since 1973.  Varn served a successful stint as the manager of Amtrak’s Auto Train, improving the service’s financial performance.

 

The Fayette Register-Herald profiled NARP member David Gay this week, highlighting his excellent work advocating for passenger mobility for his community in West Virginia.

The November 7 “Amtrak Advocate: A Passion for Trains” looked at the Fayette resident’s boyhood love of trains, his real-world introduction to the economic and mobility benefits of the mode during the 1973 gas crisis, and his longtime work with Friends of the Cardinal in advocating for an improved Amtrak Cardinal service:

“Intermodalism is something that’s been common in Europe for years. You’re seeing more of that in this country, as being in different modes of transit to one place. If you have buses from communities, you have a smooth, seamless trip from, say, Summersville to the station to catch a train. With the higher gas prices, if buses are coming down here, it gives folks an option to leave cars at home and ride the bus to meet the train, or board a bus when it comes in to go back home.”

What’s more, buses are accessible to those with mobility issues, such as an elderly person, or one confined to a wheelchair and can no longer drive.

“Having the bus service down here helps that many more people to be able to ride the train,” Gay said.

“Of course, trains are handicapped accessible.”

The full story is well worth the read.

 

NARP is sad to report that long-time passenger train advocate Jane Holtz Kay’s passed away on November 4 at the age of 74. 

In addition to an accomplished career as a “journalist, author, architecture critic and committed preservationist,” Jane was a decades-long supporter of the work that NARP has been engaged with in the defense and development of a national train network.  Her love of architecture, old buildings, and people-focused communities inspired her work and her advocacy.  Kay wrote "Lost Boston" and "Asphalt Nation,” seminal works in the urbanism movement that fought against the erosion of community and place, and argued for the sustaining power of transit and passenger trains.

Jane Holtz Kay’s life will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday, 14, at the Bigelow Chapel in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Contributions in her memory may be made to WalkBoston, Old City Hall, 45 School Street, Boston, MA 02108.