Hotline #799 -- February 22, 2013

The White House released a general outline of President Barack Obama’s infrastructure plan, which calls for $50 billion to be invested in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, with $40 billion targeted to the most urgent upgrades, and focused on fixing transit systems, bridges, and roads most in need of repair.

The outline didn’t specifically reference passenger trains, although the President did reference high-speed rail in his State of the Union.  Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo also made a strong case for rail investment in at the U.S. Department of Transportation blog this week:

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama called on us to reignite the engine of economic growth. Here at DOT, we know that investing in America's transportation infrastructure is one way to jump-start that economic engine--through the construction and engineering jobs created right away and through the efficiencies modern infrastructure provides to our nation's businesses.

To see an example of this in action, we need look no further than our own Midwest, where U.S. high-speed rail investments are already boosting economic activity, and where 460 different companies are poised to contribute to the rail supply chain and modernize passenger rail in America.

That means manufacturing growth; it means modernized old-line plants; and it means jobs.

The White House did point to an impressive record of rail investment over the past four years in the document outlining the President’s proposal: 6,000 miles of rail, 40 rail stations, 260 passenger rail cars and 105 locomotives purchased, more than 350 miles of new transit rail and bus rapid transit, and—for transit and commuter services—5,545 rail cars purchased.

The plan was met with skepticism on the Hill, with the President’s opponents critical of the scope and the funding mechanisms—or lack thereof.

“Our Nation has significant long-term infrastructure needs that must be addressed and responsibly paid for to improve our economic competitiveness, efficiency and quality of life,” said House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster. “I welcome the President’s interest in improving our infrastructure. However, the President’s plan appears to be only a short-term proposal for long-term challenges.

With the House and Senate out of session this week, and the March 1 sequestration deadline looming, the President’s proposal is likely to be placed on the back burner for the time being.

 

With drastic cuts to government subsidies for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) looking increasingly likely as a result of a March 1 sequestration deadline, concern continues to build over how America’s travel network will fare. 

"FAA is going to face a cut of roughly $600 million under sequester," said Danny Werfel of the Office of Management and Budget at a Senate hearing held last week.  "A vast majority of their 47,000 employees will be furloughed for one day per pay period for the rest of the year, and, as importantly, this is going to reduce air traffic levels across the country, causing delays and disruptions for all travelers."

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta warned that FAA layoffs would require "a reduction in FAA services to levels that can be safely managed by remaining staff."

"If sequestration goes into effect, level-headed people all over this town, all over Washington, are saying, 'Yes, it will have a major effect on the aviation system,'"

Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, told NPR. “And this isn't doomsday; this isn't some sort of science-fiction plot that we're all talking about. This is reality, and it's reality coming up next month."

Amtrak, meanwhile, is facing its own severe cuts.  As we reported in the February NARP News, “Amtrak says that sequestration in early January, according to Office of Management and Budget estimates, would have cut Amtrak’s federal operating and capital/debt grants by 8.2% each—reductions of $38 million and $78 million, respectively.”

However, the railroad appears better positioned than the airlines to handle the budgetary drop-off.  In a conversation with Trains’ Fred Frailey, Amtrak stated that, at least in the near-term, they can weather sequestration’s cuts:

In response to questions I put to spokesman Steve Kulm, the corporation today said that so far in fiscal 2013, “Amtrak has been controlling costs and managing its budget at a spend rate less than the federal appropriated amounts. … Amtrak is also experiencing solid revenue growth so far this fiscal year.”

The statement added: “While Amtrak is confident we can withstand a funding cut without cutting service, the continued lack of predictable federal appropriations makes proper budgeting and future planning extremely difficult." 

So while train passengers may avoid long lines, sequestration will still inflict a toll on the nation’s rail network.  Reducing Amtrak’s budget would mean more backsliding on state of good repair work—for rolling stock and infrastructure—thus, in the future, inflating operating losses and reducing service quality.

 

A blizzard hit the Midwest this week, dumping as much as two feet of snow in certain states, grounding hundreds of flights and shutting down highways across the region.

Amtrak, however, maintained operations across the Midwest, with service on the Texas Eagle, the Southwest Chief, and the Missouri River Runner continuing through the blizzard—in most cases, on time.  The River Runner’s performance is particularly impressive, given that Interstate 70 was shut down across Missouri due to the severe conditions.

Amtrak’s resilience is yet another lesson on the importance of a healthy passenger system as part of a flexible, responsive transportation network.

 

Amtrak and the Idaho Department of Transportation have announced that the train depot in Sandpoint, Idaho is undergoing remodeling, and will be open to passengers by the end of the year.

The station, which serves the Empire Builder, has been closed since 2009.  Amtrak stated that the depot will be open by the end of this year, with construction of a new platform to occur sometime in 2013 or 2014.

 

CD-Traveller.com, a United Kingdom-based website for people looking to share their love of travel, turned to NARP Chairman Bob Stewart to understand the rapidly changing relationship between the Americans and passenger trains in the 21st Century.

In “America’s Love Affair With Rail,” the British website talked to Stewart to get a clearer perspective about the evolving passenger rail network in the U.S.  Stewart describes how the U.S. transportation network has become choked by congestion, dispels the myth that Americans only want to travel by car, and outlines the unique benefits of trains:

Over 33 states are investing in train options to try and relieve congestion. This nugget came from Bob Stewart who is chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

We haven’t got a similar body in the UK. NARP, founded in 1967, is a charitable body that lobbies and educates about the advantages of rail travel. Some states like South Dakota don’t even have a passenger rail system. While many of us think of the US as just a country of cars and freeways, at one stage rail travel was the main way travelers crossed the vast expanses. But after WWII, the car became dominant.

Today rail is having a resurgence. Why? Are Americans wearying of the delays, the petrol costs and the accidents that interrupt car journeys? The answer, according to Stewart, is yes.

It’s a fascinating perspective on the shifts in America’s relationship with transportation.  Read it in its entirety at CD-Traveller.com.

 

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee named Lynn Peterson as the new head of the Department of Transportation, continuing the state’s strong commitment to public transit, transportation efficiency, and intercity rail. 

Peterson will replace Paula Hammond as Secretary of WSDOT.  Hammond has been a strong leader for rail.  But Inslee has been working in Oregon to bring improved service between Portland, Salem, and Eugene, and should be well positioned to continue to develop the immensely popular Amtrak Cascades service, which connects Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

 

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association turned 20 years old today, capping two decades of work to support and develop a Midwest in which cities and local economies are truly interconnected by modern, high-performance trains.

With the recent introduction of 110 mph service to Illinois, and yet another Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) grade separation project getting under way, it’s clear that the Midwest is moving in the right direction.

NARP wishes MWHSRA another 20 years of fighting for fast, frequent and dependable trains linking the entire Midwest.

 

Travelers Advisory

--CSX Transportation announced that work to maintain track in Ashland, Virginia, will affect Amtrak's service between Washington, D.C. and Virginia stations, as well as points south:

Beginning February 24, CSX crews will replace both rails on one of its tracks in Ashland.  The work will cover about 1.8 miles of track, and involve the replacement of 18,718 feet of rail.  This work will be performed between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday through Thursday for two weeks, ending March 7.

Subsequent work to replace about 38,000 crossties on the line between Greendale and Ashland will begin March 17 and end on March 28. This work will also be performed between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. 

CSX, Amtrak and the Commonwealth of Virginia will work together to try to provide passengers with up-to-date information on the status of trains affected by any delays.

 

--Due to weekend bridge replacement project being performed north of Sanford by Central Florida Rail Corridor, Amtrak’s Auto Train service will be affected.

Northbound Train 52 will be canceled today through Sunday (February 22, 23 and 24). Southbound Train 53 is canceled through Saturday (February 21, 22 and 23).