Hotline #788 -- December 7, 2012


In a December 6 hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, transportation officials gathered to speak about the devastating impact Hurricane Sandy had on some of the U.S.’s largest rail systems.  Witnesses included Amtrak President Joseph Boardman, Chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Joseph Lhota, Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Patrick Foye, and Executive Director of NJ Transit James Weinstein.

While Amtrak was able to minimize damage to the Northeast Corridor through careful preparation, the railroad did see extensive flooding in the New York and New Jersey area, especially in the six New York City tunnels.  Boardman testified about “the fragility of century old structures and the challenges that come when we’re confronted with weather and conditions the designers never anticipated,” outlining the financial toll that Hurricane Sandy levied on the railroad—both through infrastructure damage and lost revenue:

To address these critical needs, and to compensate Amtrak for increased costs and revenue lost during Hurricane Sandy, Amtrak is requesting $336 million in emergency federal funding. Of this amount, $276 million would be for measures that provide enhanced protection and improved recovery capability of Penn Station New York and its tunnels against flooding or emergency disruptions, and to begin design and construction of elements of the capacity increasing Gateway Program. The additional $60 million would be to cover estimated operating losses incurred as a result of the storm.

“[Amtrak needs] a system that’s robust enough to support our operational needs not just on good days, but every day,” Boardman emphasized.  He highlighted key capital investments that have taken place over the past decade—such as improved pumping systems and expanded ventilation—that were ultimately successful in reducing the total damage experienced as a result of the storm.  The railroad chief also identified three key improvements to further improve operations and resiliency in and out of the America’s busiest train station:

1.) Design a high density signaling system to provide greater operational flexibility in the four East River Tunnels used by Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road, to allow higher operation loads in the event of a tunnel’s failure.

2.) Rebuild a major electrical substation at Kearny, N.J. atop a platform that will be above the high water line. This substation supplies power to the North River Tunnels and Penn Station New York, and the new platform should be large enough so that more electrical capacity can be added in the future for additional operational loads.

3.) Advance design and early construction elements of the Gateway Program, including two new Hudson River tunnels between New York and New Jersey, providing permanent and substantial new levels of flood prevention, redundancy, and capacity.

NJ Transit Tallies Losses

The head of NJ Transit outlined $400 million in immediate funding needs following the hurricane, providing details for the widespread damage inflicted on the second largest transit system in U.S.  Weinstein insisted that the company had followed proper shutdown protocol in advance of the storm, but stated that—precautions aside—the state’s rail system “took the brunt of Sandy’s wrath”:

Sandy damaged every one of NJ Transit’s 12 rail lines. System-wide, more than 630 trees fell on rights-of-way, along with 23-plus miles of catenary power and other wire. Ninety-foot catenary poles 40 miles inland from the coast were snapped in half. Nine bridges, including two major draw bridges, suffered severe damage, including one that was knocked askew from its supports when it was hit by boats set adrift in the storm. Nearly eight miles of track and roadbed were washed out, much of it along our hardest-hit North Jersey Coast Line. The Coast Line was where you may have seen pictures of the large fishing boats and a metal shipping container left perched atop the tracks on railroad bridges over coastal rivers.

...

Altogether, we estimate the cost of curing Sandy’s damage at nearly $400 million. That breaks down roughly into a little more than $100 million for rail equipment, including rolling stock, and some $300 million to fix and replace track, wires, signaling, electrical substations and equipment, as well as to cover the costs of emergency supplemental bus and ferry service, and lost revenue.

In addition to the $400 million in repair funds, Weinstein stated that he believes it will take another $800 million “harden” the transit system against future storms.

Near Term Funding Prospects Uncertain

President Barack Obama has outlined a $60 billion aid package for the state of New Jersey and New York, developed in concert with Governors Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Andrew Cuomo (D-NY).  While that figure is below the needs outlined by the states, it is a heavy lift in the face of a Congress heatedly debating ways to reduce the deficit and cut spending.

 

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on the high speed and intercity passenger rail program on December 6, eliciting a vociferous defense of the program from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Led by outgoing-Chairman John Mica (R-FL), the hearing was the latest in a series critical of Amtrak and the Obama Administration’s passenger rail program.

“Beginning with the $8 billion included in the stimulus, the President’s high-speed rail program has gotten off to troubling start,” Mica said. “Unfortunately most of the high-speed rail funding has been spread around to projects that are not high-speed.”

Somewhat ironically given Mica’s statements, the hearing directed its harshest criticism at the California high-speed rail project, the only 220 MPH passenger rail service in development in the U.S.  (Washington State’s Transportation Secretary testified about the development of conventional passenger train service along the Cascades corridor in the Pacific Northwest—but those projects have been an exemplary model of incremental development, which focuses more on frequency, reliability, and steadily decreasing trip time than reaching ultra-fast top speeds).

Some of the most vocal opponents of the California project—which would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley—came from the Californian Delegation.

Two U.S. representatives testified as witnesses.  “Maybe it’s time we cut our losses,” said Republican House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-Bakersfield). “If we build it, I don’t know if they will come.”  Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA-San Pedro) strongly supported the project and accepted Mica’s invitation to sit with the committee and ask questions.

“There are a lot of things we would like in California, and a new shiny train would be one of them,” added Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA). “It would be fun to have, but the question you have to ask yourself is ‘can we afford to have something fun, can we afford to have a luxury right now, and can we afford to do it with no viable plan and no private investment?’”

This past June, Denham pushed through an amendment in a funding bill that prohibits federal spending on the California high-speed rail project in any Fiscal 2013 appropriations.  While entirely symbolic—there was no money directed at high-speed rail in the House’s spending package—this move drew the ire of Secretary LaHood,

“We're not going to get one dollar as long as there's language in appropriations bills that says no federal money can be spent on California high-speed rail. That doesn't help us,” fumed the Secretary, accusing Denham of undermining the very business plan that he claims to want to see strengthened.  “I would hope that we could find members of Congress that wouldn't prohibit the federal government from funding high-speed rail projects, that's a good first start,” he added, pointing out that almost no major infrastructure project has 100 percent of the necessary funds in hand before construction begins.

“We’re not giving up on high-speed rail,” concluded LaHood. “The president will include funding in his budget. I think we’ll get there with public money, but in the absence of that we’ll get there with private money.”

Overall, however, Denham appeared to soften his position somewhat.  He asked about environmental exemptions for high speed rail to help expedite the project.  LaHood—saying this had never come up in his discussions with the state or with his own staff—promised to look into that. 

Of the California High Speed Rail Authority, LaHood said, “I think the right people are in place now.  I would not have said this two years ago.  I spent three days in meetings with farmers and with Fresno officials who had not been treated well, had been treated arrogantly by the authority.” 

This resonated with Denham, who acknowledged that the authority “had done a good job of outreach before the 2008 vote.”  Then there were changes.  LaHood said, “I don’t know if we’ll get them [farmers and others who have been alienated] back [as rail supporters] but we’re trying.”

Mica said “one reason I’ll be back” in the T&I Committee next year, albeit not as chairman, is to see that we “do” the Northeast Corridor.


The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded more than $3.2 million to the State of Washington on November 27, for a project that will enhance capacity and improve reliability for intercity passenger and freight rail in the Pacific Northwest.

The U.S. DOT grant will go towards the Mount Vernon Siding Extension Project.  This $8.4 million project will act to reduce intercity passenger and freight rail congestion by adding rail capacity and easing a significant regional bottleneck. 

“This project will provide greater rail capacity and improved reliability for passengers and businesses in the Pacific Northwest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “When it’s complete, this project will bring Washington and Oregon’s Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor Project one step closer to achieving its vision of providing people with a comfortable, reliable and affordable alternative to rush-hour gridlock and crowded airports.”

The corridor is used by Amtrak’s Cascades service.  By extending existing siding tracks, the project will allow host railroad’s BNSF trains access to the siding, which is currently to short for many of the freight’s consists.  Easing freight/passenger congestion will add necessary capacity; the service is an increasingly important people mover in the region, with annual ridership growth averaging 9.5 percent over the past 17 years.

“With nearly one in four people traveling between Eugene and Vancouver choosing rail, it’s more important than ever that we invest in rail in the Pacific Northwest,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo.

 

A group of Minnesotan students are organizing in support of a proposed high performance passenger train service between Duluth the Twin Cities, holding a series of rallies across the state this Saturday.

“We are looking for ways to be less reliant on automobiles,” Brian Downing, co-chairman of the University of Minnesota Duluth chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), told the Duluth News Tribune.  “High-speed rail is a good option for the future of transportation in Minnesota.”

Dubbed the Northern Lights Express (NLX), the service would travel a 155-mile route in about two hours and 15 minutes, reaching speeds of 110 MPH.  Early estimates put the project’s costs at around $900 million, and it is expected to create 13,800 construction jobs and spur $2 billion in new economic development along the proposed corridor.

“It is a matter of thinking in the long term and thinking about all the things that we need to happen,” Downing added.  “...This is what we as students want the future of transportation to look like.”

The NLX Alliance, made up of regional transportation officials, will finish up the initial environmental study by the end of this year.  The group will hold public meetings beginning January 2013 to reach out to community stakeholders.

MPIRG’s rallies are tomorrow, and will includes speeches from U.S. Representative-elect Rick Nolan, St. Louis County Intergovernmental Affairs Director John Ongaro, NLX Alliance Board members Doug Carlson and Diane Gibbs, and state Representative Frank Hornstein.

·         Duluth Depot, 9:45 AM

·         Hinckley Fire Museum, 12:30 PM

·         St. Paul Union Depot, 1 PM

·         Foley Boulevard Metro Transit Station, Coon Rapids, 3 PM

 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a long-term lease agreement between CSX Corporation and Amtrak on December 4, clearing the way for Amtrak to take full control of the Hudson Line between Schenectady and Poughkeepsie.

“High-speed rail is a critical part of the transportation network of New York State’s future and these four projects made possible by an historic and long-awaited agreement between passenger and freight rail partners are another step toward improving New York State’s economy by fostering a rail system that is fast, reliable and efficient for business and leisure travelers, as well as for companies shipping goods across the state,” Governor Cuomo said. “Communities, especially in upstate New York, rely on rail transportation to bolster local economic activity. Enhancements to rail service will continue to lead to job creation and business growth all over New York State.”

The contract took effect December 1, and ensures that passenger trains will have scheduling priority, improving on time performance for Amtrak trains.  The lease will also allow $181 million in capital improvement projects to go forward, reducing congestion and travel time along the Empire Corridor from New York City to Niagara Falls for both passenger and freight trains.

“For years I have been working to improve passenger rail service across the Empire Corridor in New York State,” said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, founder and co-chair of the Bicameral Bipartisan Congressional High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. “This is certainly a wonderful step and I am hopeful that it serves as the beginning for similar agreements that will benefit those of us in other parts of New York State. This agreement will go far toward improving reliability and speed for the thousands of New Yorkers who depend upon rail service for their livelihood and to stay connected to their loved ones. I look forward to working with all of the parties involved as we introduce similar agreements in the Rochester region.”

 

The Federal Railroad Administration has launched a new iteration of its website, featuring new graphics and an improved set of search tools to allow for easier navigation and better functionality.

“The improvements are the result of feedback that we received from visitors to our site,” wrote Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo.  “We are committed to continuously improve the content, look and feel of our website so that it meets your needs.   More updates are coming, so I encourage you and your colleagues to continuing taking our user surveys and letting us know how we can improve the site even more.”

The FRA is introducing its brand new eLibrary, a central place where you can find all of the documents the agency produces. 


Travelers Advisory

Due to bridge work being performed by Canadian Pacific Railway near Red Wing, Minnesota, Train 8/28 will detour between St. Paul/Minneapolis and Chicago, bypassing intermediate stations including Milwaukee.  The Empire Builder will detour on December 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, and 20.  Bus service will be provided at all stations between St. Paul/Minneapolis and Chicago, except Glenview.