Hotline #789 - December 14, 2012

Following news that an order for 40 additional rail cars for the Acela Express fleet had been cancelled,

Amtrak announced at a December 13 hearing of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure that it is advancing plans to acquire “new next-generation high-speed train sets” for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), “and ending its plans to purchase 40 additional high-speed passenger cars to add to the existing Acela Express fleet.”

“Moving directly to new high-speed train sets is the best option to create more seating capacity, permit higher speeds, and maximize customer comfort all while improving equipment reliability and reducing operating costs,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman in his statement to the Committee.

Amtrak will issue a Request for Information (RFI) in 2013 to begin replacement of the 20 Acela Express train sets.  The railroad also will add additional train sets to expand capacity on the NEC, providing increased frequencies. 

The planned 40 cars were axed after Amtrak and train manufacturer Bombardier failed to reach agreement on a price.  The cars were intended to provide a short-term boost to capacity.  However, with specialized nature of U.S. rail equipment—which, by federal regulation, is heavier than its international counterparts—there are no “off the shelf” options for Amtrak.  The high cost for Bombardier to retool for a relatively small order, in addition to technical challenges to accommodate longer Acela train sets at existing stations, ended up being prohibitive.

This does pose problems in the near term: the Acela service is already running near its capacity, and passengers could have a longer wait for relief.

“My concern is, when all is said and done, the additional capacity will be farther in the future,” NARP President and CEO Ross Capon told Bloomberg News. “I just wonder if it’s trying to put the best face on a bad situation.”

Boardman tried to assuage those fears by outlining an aggressive timeline for the purchase.

“What we really need to do is replace the Acela with new equipment,” Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman told the House Committee. “I told our folks they need to get this done by the time I’m 70, and I’ll be 64 next year.”

Despite massive flooding and infrastructure damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy to the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak set yet another record for ridership and revenue during last month’s Thanksgiving travel period, and set a new single-day ridership record by carrying 140,691 passengers on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving.

There was concern over how Sandy would affect the capacity to move passengers on the busiest travel day in the U.S. (for both Amtrak and the transportation industry at large).  But through the hard work of Amtrak crews, and a short term lease of VIA Rail Canada equipment to supplement Amtrak’s fleet, the company more than met the challenge.

“Amtrak is a key element of the regional response to Sandy and it was critical for us to restore service and operate our full and expanded schedule to connect families for the holiday—and with the help of our commuter partners we did it,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman.

The success story is much broader than the Northeast, however.  Work to meet demand ranged from additional frequencies in Michigan to extra equipment in California.  Service expansion has also provided much-needed capacity expansion—passengers flocked to the newly extended Downeaster service that connects Freeport and Brunswick, Maine, and to Eastern North Carolina’s new Amtrak Thruway bus service, which connects eight communities to the Palmetto rail service.

The railroad outlined the specifics of its feat in a December 10 statement:

Amtrak carried a record 737,537 passengers during Thanksgiving 2012, up 1.9 percent over the previous year and the prior record set in 2011. In addition, Nov. 21, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was the single busiest day in the history of Amtrak with 140,691 passengers. Ticket revenues were a best ever $56.1 million, up 8.4 percent versus 2011.

Amtrak recovered quickly from Superstorm Sandy and served the same number of Northeast Corridor holiday passengers as the year before. Ridership was up 3.4 percent on state-supported and other short distance routes and up 0.8 percent on the long-distance services. The Thanksgiving 2012 travel period extended from Nov. 20 – 26.

It’s tempting to speculate what the ridership and revenue numbers might’ve been had Superstorm Sandy not caused so much damage in the month prior.  But the fact that Amtrak was able to provide such high levels of service following a natural disaster of unprecedented levels in one of its key corridors is proof that passenger trains are a necessary component for a resilient transportation system.

An emergency spending bill to cover repairs for damage caused by Superstorm Sandy (see last issue) and help prepare infrastructure for future storms is rapidly making its way through Congress. It contains $336 million for Amtrak, well over the $32 million the Obama Administration requested. H.R. 6581 is sponsored by Senators and Representatives from New Jersey and New York.

Amtrak’s allotment is intended to pay for property damage, offset an operating budget shortfall due to lost revenue during the storm, and support improvements necessary to protect tunnels into Manhattan against future flooding and to increase passenger train capacity into New York City.

Hundreds of passengers gathered to welcome Amtrak Virginia’s new Norfolk train on December 12, celebrating the first passenger train to serve South Hampton Roads since 1977.

A group of rail advocates were part of the crowd, and they rode the train to carry a message about the benefits of passenger trains to their elected representatives in Washington, D.C.

A special inaugural train ran from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to a temporary station at Norfolk’s Harbor Park, carrying Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, Amtrak President & CEO Joe Boardman, Amtrak Board Chair Tom Carper, Norfolk Southern Chairman & CEO Wick Moorman, CSX Executive Vice President Ellen Fitzsimmons, and local dignitaries in celebrating the new Amtrak Virginia service to Norfolk.

"This is a historic day that will lead to new jobs, more economic development and greater transportation access in the decades to come, with the first passenger rail connection in 35 years tying together markets, businesses and tourism destinations in Norfolk, Richmond, Washington D.C. and across the entire Eastern Seaboard," said Governor McDonnell. "This new economical and congestion-free transportation option is a testament to how public and private-sector partners can achieve great things in a short time by working together for a common purpose. This is just another example of the innovative thinking that is getting Virginians moving again after years of gridlock and stalled transportation projects."

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Passenger Advisory: If travelers need to reach station staff around the hours of train arrivals and departure, the phone to the temporary train station in Norfolk is 757-622-0595.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on December 8 that Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) service would return to normal for the first time in six weeks following flooding precipitated by Hurricane Sandy.

The statement identified the vital work done by Amtrak crews to restore signal system capacity in one of the two flood-damaged East River tunnels:

In replacing the severely damaged signal system in one of the tunnels, combined with an increase in speed on a loop track connecting the East River tunnels with the Sunnyside storage yard, Amtrak restored sufficient train capacity to allow for the increased levels of service during the LIRR’s rush hour. Amtrak is continuing their work to replace the damaged signal system in the other remaining tunnel to restore full train capacity to their East River tunnels. LIRR signal workers are assisting Amtrak in that effort by rewiring one of Amtrak’s five new signal cases for the tunnels. The second tunnel signal system is expected to be restored to full capacity in time for the Christmas holiday.

“Restoring full LIRR rush hour train service will provide relief to those customers that endured crowded conditions during peak periods due to the loss of tunnel capacity from the flooding effects of Superstorm Sandy,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak in restoring this crucial LIRR service.”

The Sacramento Bee today published an excellent editorial defending the decision to build the initial segment of California’s high-speed rail system in the Central Valley and questioning the opposition of US Reps. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Jeff Denham of Turlock, both Republicans.

The editors point to the prospect of ongoing federal funding being key to McCarthy’s opposition, in spite of the likelihood that state and private funding can finish the project once the Initial Operating Segment is serving passengers between Merced, Fresno and Palmdale:

McCarthy and Denham should stop Republicans in the nation's capital from treating the San Joaquin Valley as "nowheresville" – though its eight counties are home to 4 million people, a population larger than half of the states in the nation.

If McCarthy and Denham don't want federal dollars to be a primary source of funds for building post-2017 phases, they ought to promote other sources – instead of denigrating a project that will help their region and put California at the forefront of the national transportation network of the future.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) announced on December 12 that the new segment of Amtrak’s Downeaster service, in the first month of operation, carried almost twice as many passengers as initially projected.

The segment east of Portland—serving Freeport and Brunswick—carried an average of 190 passengers a day.  "We had actually expected that we would have 100 passengers per day," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA.

“I think that all takes a little time to figure out,” Quinn stated when asked to explain why the train was so busy.  “In November, we had Thanksgiving, and that was very busy for us. And we have a lot of passengers from Brunswick who are using the train to go to Boston… In January and February, we don't know what to expect. We have really good demand of people riding northbound and southbound, so I think we're off to a really good start.”

It certainly keeps with a trend, however: the service carried 528,292 riders in Fiscal Year 2013—the highest ever in the Downeaster’s ten-year history, and the seventh consecutive year that the train has demonstrated ridership growth.

The St. Paul, MN, Union Depot Multi-Modal Transit Center began Metro Transit service on Saturday, December 8, opening to the public for the first time in 40 years.  It will eventually be a hub for intercity passenger trains, light rail, buses, bicycles, and taxis.

The $243 million project will turn the iconic 1920s structure—closed to the public since the last passenger train left in 1971, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974—into a bustling center of transportation and commerce.

“In early 2013 Jefferson Regional Bus Lines will move to Union Depot to provide intercity bus service, and One-on-One Bike Studio will open a full-service bicycle center complete with storage, repair shop and showers and lockers,” explains the Ramsey County Regional Rail News.  “Later in 2013, the Amtrak Twin Cities station will move to Union Depot, and in 2014, Central Corridor Light Rail—the Green Line—will stop in front of Union Depot.”

The Saturday event began with addresses by public officials, including Ramsey County Commissioners Jim McDonough and Rafael Ortega, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Chris Coleman, and Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh—all speaking about the importance of the transit station to the region. The opening celebration also featured holiday festivities and family-friendly activities.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Norfolk Southern Railway Co. (NS) have reached an $140 million agreement to transfers ownership of 135 miles of NS railroad to MDOT

In addition to carrying NS fright trains, the track hosts Amtrak's Wolverine and Blue Water passenger service between Kalamazoo and Dearborn.

While passengers won’t see any immediate change, and the line will continue to be an important freight corridor for Michigan industry, the agreement is a step forward in the process that will enable infrastructure improvements necessary to accommodate 110 mph passenger service.

When the final transfer is executed (expected to take place in early 2013), MDOT and Amtrak will begin the process of upgrading track and grade crossings.  The upgrades—including “new, continuously welded rail and ties, improvements to highway-rail grade crossings, fiber-optic lines for train and signal control systems, and gates and flashers at highway-rail grade crossings”—will take roughly two to four years to complete.

When the improvements are in place, the transit time between Chicago and Detroit will be cut by 30 minutes, bringing the total trip time to around five hours.

You can read more on MDOT’s website.

Longtime NARP members Harold and Judy Bryant were presented with Amtrak’s President's Service and Safety Award last month for their volunteer work with the railroad.

Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman presented the award to the Hondo, Texas, couple at Amtrak’s annual awards luncheon in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2012.

The railroad outlined the Bryants’ dedication to raising awareness about the unique benefits of passenger train travel in Amtrak Ink:

Harold and Judy Bryant are volunteers dedicated to educating the public about Amtrak long-distance trains. Throughout Southern Texas, they held workshops in San Antonio, Uvalde, Alpine and Hondo, explaining what to expect when traveling aboard Amtrak. Their goal is to raise awareness of train travel in communities that are not familiar with Amtrak service.

During 2011, they held nine workshops averaging 40 to 80 participants per class. They have also conducted a session with as many as 375 attendees. The workshops are free and open to the public, offering important information for first-time travelers. In their sessions, Harold and Judy Bryant walk passengers through the Amtrak experience. Classes begin with an Amtrak commercial provided by Marketing’s Jill Farris, and continue with discussions that include how to make reservations, availability of parking at stations, checked and carry-on baggage regulations, dining car service, sleeping accommodations, walking safely through the train and even an appropriate gratuity amount.

Harold Bryant has been a NARP member since 2005, and always makes sure he hands out NARP literature at the couple’s workshops.

From the Blog

Join NARP at the New York Times 10th Annual Travel Show for a spectacular international celebration. 

The show will be held January 18-20, 2013 at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City (655 West 34th StreetNew YorkNY).

[Click here for tickets and more information]

January 19 and 20 will be open to the general public, and will feature hundreds of unique sights.  At 11 AM on Saturday, January 19, NARP Chairman Bob Stewart will be speaking about the unique benefits of travel by passenger trains.  From bustling cities on the Northeast Corridor, to desert vistas on the Southwest Chief, to stunning glaciers on the Empire Builder, train travel offers an irreplaceable way to see this great country.  And don't forget to stop by the NARP booth!

[Read More]

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