Hotline #785 -- November 16, 2012


Despite massive operational and infrastructure hurdles faced in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Amtrak announced that it is well positioned to handle the surge of Thanksgiving holiday travelers.

The passenger railroad has been confronting serious challenges in the wake of the super storm, including pumping three million gallons of salt water from the Hudson River and East River Tunnels, and restoring a critical electrical substation damaged by flooding.  Amtrak workers have aggressively responded to these challenges, however, and Amtrak President & CEO Joseph Boardman has expressed confidence that the system will be well positioned to handle next week’s flood of travelers.

“We expect to be able to cover our full service load for Thanksgiving,” Boardman told Bloomberg News. “There are a lot of people that want to move.”

An agreement stuck with VIA Rail Canada has secured extra equipment for Amtrak, a key solution to the operational strain faced by the railroad.  Amtrak’s Adirondack service will be utilizing two sets of VIA Rail equipment between Albany and Montreal over the next two weeks.  The VIA Rail sets will consist of five coaches and one Observation-Dome ‘Park’ Car, which will used as a lounge car.  This arrangement will necessitate a cross-platform change at Rensselaer between the VIA Rail equipment and regular Amfleet-equipped trains for the Albany to New York Penn segment.

While Amtrak has leased extra equipment from New Jersey Transit in the past to supply extra capacity for the holidays, NJ Transit experienced significant fleet damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

[Check out the NARP Blog for Thanksgiving service alerts and travel tips to help manage the holiday rush!]

 

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit announced that repairs to a key Amtrak-owned electrical substation in Kearny, New Jersey is scheduled to finish up today, restoring power to levels needed for further service expansion.  Flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy damaged the substation.

“The expedited repairs to the substation are a direct result of the cooperation and communication between Amtrak and NJ Transit, and will allow our infrastructure to support a near regular service level,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman.

Amtrak and NJ Transit workers have spent the past weeks inspecting and testing the substation, which plays a critical role in powering the signal and switching system between New York City and NewarkAmtrak has reported that flood damage was not as severe as initially feared, and crews were able to perform necessary repairs to get the facility back online today.

This work has been instrumental in allowing Amtrak and NJ Transit operations to get on the path to full restoration.  Amtrak began running a combined 24 Amtrak and NJ Transit trains between New York and New Jersey on November 12—roughly 63 percent of normal weekday capacity.  While normal peak levels are approximately 38 combined trains per hour in both directions, Amtrak had been running only 12 trains per hour between New York and New Jersey prior to Monday’s commute.

“This is an example of strong cooperation between the two agencies, all with an eye toward improving the commute for tens of thousands of customers following the devastating impact Hurricane Sandy has had on many of their lives,” said James Weinstein, Executive Director of NJ Transit. “The repair of this important substation will allow us to operate nearly 90 percent of our rail network into New York.”

 

Caltrans announced November 9 that it has nearly doubled bicycle storage capacity on its San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains, enhancing mobility options for Northern Californians looking to escape road congestion and rising gas prices.

“There’s been a need for additional storage as more and more people ride bicycles on their commute,” said Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) Director Malcolm Dougherty. “By the end of next year, more than a dozen expanded railcars will be available for train riders.”

The San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor routes—which operate between Bakersfield, Oakland and Sacramento, and between Auburn and San Jose, respectively—are extremely popular services that have seen explosive growth over the past decade.  Amtrak California announced in October that ridership on the San Joaquin route increased 7.2 percent to a record 1.1 million passengers, while Capital Corridor passenger counts rose 2.2 percent to a record 1.75 million riders, making them the 5th- and 3rd-ranked routes in Amtrak’s national system.

But this success has brought capacity challenges, especially for passengers who use bicycles to travel between home to train station to work, with bikes often spilling in the aisles

[Read the rest of the story on the NARP Blog]

 

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) initiated testing for six newly refurbished commuter rail cars in southeast Michigan on November 12.  The cars will eventually be used by the proposed Detroit-to-Ann Arbor and WALLY (between Washtenaw and Livingston counties) commuter rail services when operating funding is made available.

According to MDOT and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the six bi-level, stainless steel “gallery” railcars were purchased from the Chicago-area commuter rail system Metra.  The cars were refurbished by Great Lakes Central Railroad in Owosso, at a cost of approximately $310,000 each.

Amtrak, Great Lakes Central Railroad, MDOT consultants, and Federal Railroad Administration staff will test the rail cars between Pontiac and Jackson, with a target operating speed of 79 mph.

SEMCOG and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority are working on securing operating funds for the two commuter rail services.  Until that time, the commuter rail cars will be used for special events.

 

The opening day for Norfolk’s new Amtrak service has already proven such a success that the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Amtrak announced they will add an additional four cars to the first revenue train, freeing up 280 more seats on the sold out train’s first day of service.

“The remarkable demand to ride this new service proves Hampton Roads is ready to park congestion and ride the train through Virginia and into the Northeast,” said Thelma Drake, Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The new Amtrak Virginia service will begin operations on December 12, connecting residents and businesses in the region to key economic markets as far north as Boston.

“It is encouraging to see such strong support for the new Norfolk service and we are pleased to offer additional capacity on the first day of operation,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman.

Tickets are now available for purchase from Amtrak.

 

Florida East Coast Industries has negotiated a $2.5 million purchase in downtown West Palm Beach, establishing the future home of a train station for the Orlando to Miami passenger rail line.

FEC is planning on turning the property into a modern, two-story train station with an 800-foot platform.  The property is currently home to a warehouse. 

The company has outlined an ambitious development plan for its $1 billion All Aboard Florida train service to local leaders.  FEC will double-track 50 of the 66 miles between West Palm Beach and Miami (though single tracks would remain on seven bridges).  The railroad will also have to build 40 miles of new track into the Orlando metropolitan area. 

Even with all this work, the railroad has said it’s still on schedule to begin operations by 2015, with a goal of 16 to 19 stops in West Palm Beach per day.  The $2.5 million purchase has convinced locals that the company means what it says.

“Money talks,” Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches President Dennis Grady told the Palm Beach Post. “That shows at least a very strong commitment on their part.”

 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) today released its 2013 Most Wanted List on November 14, identifying full implementation of Positive Train Control throughout the U.S. rail network as one of its key priorities.

The NTSB is an independent Federal agency that investigates significant accidents in U.S. transportation—including civil aviation, railroad, and highway— issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. 

Positive Train Control (PTC) technology acts as a check against human error, automatically slowing or stopping a train whose operator has failed to act in accordance with signals, instructions or operating rules.  Amtrak has had a form of PTC technology in place on the Northeast Corridor for years, and several train operators like California’s Metrolink have moved aggressively to implement the system by the statutory deadline, earning praise from the NTSB.  But the NTSB has emphasized that for PTC to reach its potential, it must be implemented in a comprehensive manner throughout the U.S. passenger and freight rail network:

Although legislation enacted in the aftermath of the Chatsworth, California, collision mandated positive train control systems by 2015, as of March 9, 2011, 10,000 miles of track were exempt from this mandate—which is a troubling fact. The Federal Railroad Administration accident database for 2011 attributes human factors issues as causal to most train collisions. Ninety-six head-on, rear-end, and side collision accidents occurred in 2011, and 83 percent of those accidents were determined to be caused by human factors. Positive train control can provide the critical redundancy to compensate for human error. 

The statutory deadline for PTC implementation is 2015.  While Amtrak has promised to meet the deadline, many freight rail companies have expressed concern at the cost and technical obstacles of implementing PTC on networks that span tens of thousands of miles.

[Read more about NARP’s take on the implementation of Positive Train Control]

 

The OneRail coalition called for more efficient integration of freight rail plans into state freight plans and state rail plans to utilize rail’s inherent benefits to address key national goals.

The OneRail coalition—of which NARP is a member—is a diverse group of rail stakeholders who represent freight railroads, passenger rail operators, rail suppliers, and passengers.  OneRail’s comments were in response to the United States Department of Transportation’s proposed State Freight Plan Guidance.  With rail possessing a 40.2 percent share of the nation’s freight ton-miles, the coalition argued that providing state planners with the tools and guidance to create integrated multimodal plans is essential for the U.S. economy.

“Because of rail’s inherent characteristics and efficiencies, the full inclusion of freight rail into State Freight Plans will help States and the USDOT address the USDOT’s strategic goals of improving safety, state of good repair, livability, and environmental sustainability,” stated the document.  “Increasing the share of freight that moves by rail will also alleviate highway congestion, help insulate the cost of freight movement from the volatility of gas prices, and help reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.”

OneRail also called for the freight plan to be integrated into the state rail plan, arguing that it would allow planners to better address passenger rail needs.

The full document can be read on OneRail’s website.

 

As another symbol of America’s growing acceptance of and desire for rail travel – and of the area’s historic attachment to trains and streetcars – the name of the AAA minor-league baseball team in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA was changed from the Yankees to the RailRiders.

The team, a New York Yankees affiliate, chose a porcupine as its mascot, as the name “Porcupines” got the second-most votes from area fans in a contest to decide the new name. “All Aboard!” was chosen as the team’s slogan. The team’s home park, Scranton’s PNC Field, is accessible by a short trolley ride from the Electric City Trolley Museum and the Steamtown National Historic Site, which are across the street from each other.