Hotline #798 -- February 15, 2013

Update: Senator Frank Lautenberg will retire in 2014.  The original entry incorrectly stated that the Senator would retire in 2016.

President Barack Obama reiterated his call for the nation to invest in a modern passenger rail network in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, arguing high-speed rail is an essential part of ensuring that America remains economically competitive in the 21st Century.

“Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids," said the President. "The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they'll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I've seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.”

[Read a roundup of the reactions to the President’s comments on the NARP blog.]

On the same day the President’s singled out passenger trains, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was lauding federal investment in passenger trains before a group of industry representatives and advocates.  In a speech given before the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s High-Speed RailSummitinWashington,D.C.on the Morning of February 12, Secretary LaHood defended outlined a strong and ongoing commitment to passenger rail in the Obama Administration:

“This has been an extraordinary four years for high-speed rail. We’ve come a long way. When the economic recovery plan was passed by Congress within 30 days of the president being sworn in, there was $8 billion for high-speed rail. That’s $8 billion more than any other president.

...

“There’s no turning back. Do not be dissuaded by a few detractors. Do not be dissuaded by people without a transportation vision. The last group of transportation officials left us an interstate system. What we will leave to the next generation is high-speed rail.”

LaHood also pushed back against criticism leveled by a CNN reporter, who suggested that the high-speed and intercity passenger rail program isn’t delivering and that improvements to conventional service aren’t worthwhile (perhaps following up on a bad report featured on the CNN show Anderson Cooper 360).

“The idea that we were going to develop a passenger rail plan where every train is going to go 200 mph was never our vision,” responded LaHood.

“It took 50 years to build the interstate system,” he continued.  “Fifty years. And back in the day when President [Dwight] Eisenhower signed the bill, there were governors, there were members of Congress that said: ‘We’re not going to have an interstate system. We don’t want one. Today, we have a state-of-the-art interstate system. Twenty-five years from now, you’ll be riding on good trains.”

 

One day before Amtrak takes control of the 97-mile Norfolk Southern (NS) line between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, Michigan, Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) released a statement commemorating one full year of 110 mph train service in Western Michigan.

Michigan’s Amtrak trains carried almost 800,000 passengers in the state in 2012, a record level of ridership for the state's three routes.

 “Rail is an important component ofMichigan's economic comeback,” said Michigan State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. “Investments in intercity passenger rail will reduce travel times, improve service and set the stage for increases in capacity along the Wolverine Service. The first anniversary of 110 mph train travel inMichiganis the perfect time to give a shout-out of appreciation to passengers who are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers.”

Amtrak will take over the line from NS on February 16, and will work with MDOT to upgrade the corridor.  MDOT will spend $196.5 million in federal grants on major track and signal improvements, increasing speeds and lowering trip times, increasing reliability, and improving on time performance for the popular Wolverine Service and Blue Water trains.  Roughly 80 percent of the corridor betweenChicago andDetroit will be publicly owned. 

“Amtrak looks forward to working with the FRA, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to improve this corridor and better connect these vital cities in the Midwest with travel times far better than driving, more comfortable and productive than flying and with a smaller carbon footprint than either of those modes,” said Joe Boardman, Amtrak President and CEO.

Michiganpurchased the segment from NS for $140 million.  NS will continue to use the route to move freight trains, and will pay the state for access.

“The improvements being made to the line will be performed in a way that protects the freight rail potential throughoutMichigan,” said Tim Hoeffner, MDOT’s rail chief. “MDOT will continue to work with NS and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to grow the freight business along with intercity passenger rail travel.”

 

The City of Winter Park, Florida hosted a ceremonial groundbreaking on February 13 to commemorate the start of construction on the new Winter Park Train Station, a 2,400 square-foot building that will connect the local community through intercity and commuter rail.

City leaders were joined by officials fromAmtrak,FloridaDepartment of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration to celebrate the groundbreaking.  The $1.2 million station will feature craftsman-style architecture, a nod to the original Winter Park Train Station built in 1882 (and subsequently replaced in 1913).  The structure will be accessible to passengers with disabilities.  The FTA is providing a $950,000 grant to fund construction, with the remainder provided byWinter Park’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Amtrak released a statement praising the local and national cooperation that allowed for the project to go ahead:

“The Winter Park Station is an important part of the Amtrak national network. The Silver Meteor and Silver Star both serve this station, and will continue to do so during construction, providing convenient access south to Miamiand north to New York. Since fiscal year 2002, this station has seen a 40 percent increase in passenger ons and offs with more than 33,400 last year. The new station will provide a long-term viable solution for continued growth in ridership and bring many benefits to the community including economic development and tourism growth. 

“We applaud the City of Winter Park, Florida Department of Transportation and everyone in the community for their efforts to coordinate this new station and encourage passenger rail growth.”

 

With the March 1 deadline for an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts to the federal budget, the Department of Transportation is warning that cuts to transportation spending could lead to a spike in congestion and gridlock in America’s travel network.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a letter outlining how the cuts required by the sequestration—$1 billion from the U.S. DOT’s budget alone—would negatively impact the movement of Americans.

“Sequestration will require indiscriminate spending reductions to be taken equally among the affected accounts, programs, projects, and activities within each account, severely restricting our ability to manage such large funding reductions,” LaHood wrote in a letter sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While NARP has focused on how the sequester would negatively impact Amtrak’s budget, policy analysts are beginning to sound the alarm for a different mode, warning that cuts to government subsidies of the Federal Aviation Administration could lead to more airport congestion.

“The downward receipts to the aviation trust fund means that FAA will need to rely more heavily on already scarce general funds,” stated a February 13 report released by the House Appropriations Committee minority staff. “If budget levels are permanently reduced by sequestration, FAA may shutdown or severely reduce traffic at hundreds of lower level federal and contract air traffic control towers.”

While a lot of that congestion has to do with how government subsidies undergird air traffic control operations, there are a number of elements in play.  Cuts to federal spending on the Transportation Security Administration could lead to hour-long waits to clear security checkpoints.

“Travel could become the face of the sequester,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association. “There are few areas that Americans are going to be touched more directly.”

 

Senator Frank Lautenberg announced today that he will not seek reelection in 2014, signaling a close to a three decade career in the Senate.

The 89-year-old Lautenberg has been a consistent and passionate advocate for passenger trains and transit, and is the only two time recipient of the NARP Golden Spike Award—in 1988, and again in 2000.

 

Amtrak named Thomas J. Hall as chief of customer services and Jay Commer as general manager of state-supported services in an announcement released yesterday.

Hall began working for Amtrak in 1980, and has served in a variety of departments, including food and beverage service, terminal services, and on-board services. As chief of customer services, Hall will work to ensure that passengers expectations are being met.  He will oversee a variety of system operations functions, including the “ConsolidatedNationalOperationsCenter, crew management services, intermodal connectivity, administration of special trains, and food and beverage services.”

Commer began his work with Amtrak as a locomotive engineer in 1987.  He previously served as general superintendent of Amtrak’s Pacific Division.  In his role as general manager of state-supported services, Commer will be responsible for coordinating with Amtrak state partners, overseeing financial goals and other performance targets.

 

Travelers Advisory

--The San Francisco Travel Association and Amtrak are teaming up to bring you “49 Hours of SF: Arts & Culture,” which encourages train passengers to take a 49 hour excursion in the City on the Bay. 

Through the end of April, Amtrak passengers can receive a 25 percent discount when staying for three or more nights at hotels booked through www.49hoursofsf.com.  In honor of the partnership, San Francisco Travel Association has decorated one of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight cars in a wrapping that will make the car look like one of theSan Francisco’s famous cable car trolleys.