Hotline #806 -- April 12, 2013


The Obama Administration released its budget request for Fiscal Year 2014 on April 10, with the President asking Congress for $40 billion in passenger rail investment over the next five years, an amount that could transform and expand train service in the United States.

The Administration’s budget includes $6.7 billion in rail funding for Fiscal Year 2014.  The request allocates $2.7 billion to upgrade existing service, including $675 million targeted at the Northeast Corridor, $300 million for state corridors, $800 million for Amtrak's long-distance routes, and $925 million for “national assets” (such as Positive Train Control for passenger rail, and improvements to rail station facilities, bringing stations into compliance with the American with Disabilities Act). The FY 2014 request also allocates $3.25 billion “to develop high performance passenger rail networks with new and substantially improved corridors.  This also includes funding to implement PTC on commuter railroads” [USDOT’s Budget Highlights: FY 2014, PDF page 35].  

 

At a Congressional hearing this week, Amtrak’s president hit back at suggestions that individual train routes can be selectively abandoned in the pursuit of “profitability,” and argued that a functioning rail system requires a truly national network.

The House Transportation & Committee Subcommittee on Rail’s hearing, Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget: The Starting Point for Reauthorization, set a much less strident tone than existed under the stewardship of former-Chairman John Mica, who was notorious for telling reporters he planned to “wage jihad” against Amtrak, which he was fond of calling a “Soviet-style railroad.”

However, while the Northeast Corridor and state supported trains were recognized as a public good by House Republicans, the national network was nevertheless the focus of attacks, with many Members suggesting federal investment in Western States—rural and small town communities specifically—was a waste.

“[Since the passenger rail authorization legislation] was enacted, Amtrak received $2.6 billion in operating appropriations, but actually only had $2.1 billion in losses,” said subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-CA). “While Amtrak did use this money on important projects like purchasing a new set of long distance train sets, imagine if Amtrak could have leveraged this half billion dollars for its infrastructure needs on the Northeast Corridor.”

Amtrak’s President and CEO Joe Boardman was quick to argue for the necessity of a truly national network, pointing out that the Northeast Corridor, state-supported corridors, and long-distance routes all worked in tandem to provide thousands of city-pair combinations.

“One of my big worries and concerns here is that what the concept may be in reauthorization is that we can split out the Northeast Corridor… and then operate or not operate the rest of the country,” Boardman told the Committee. “We bring over half a million people a year into the Northeast Corridor from the long-distance trains. That’s 1,300 and some odd people a day.” 

The Amtrak chief was joined by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who, in standing with rural communities, framed the choice starkly.

“I live in an urban area and I'll die there,” said Rep. Cummings. “But I'll fight like hell for somebody in rural South Dakota, or wherever, to have access to transportation."

While both Denham and full-Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) expressed a commitment to building a strong passenger rail network, there was a troubling trend to overstate the burden the long-distance trains placed on the transportation budget, and understate the true cost of the Northeast Corridor.  It seems the long-distance trains are penalized because of a singular focus on their net “operating” costs.  Boardman attempted to drive this fact home throughout the hearing.

While the Northeast Corridor turns an “operating profit,” it requires $350 million a year in capital just to keep track conditions from sliding backwards (as they did in both FY 2011 and 2012).  The Master Plan would take $52 billion (over several years) to address the Northeast Corridor backlog of deferred maintenance and provide limited capacity increases (not the NextGen new railroad that Amtrak has proposed).

“Over the last several years, that performance has been very good, but it hasn’t changed Amtrak’s basic situation,” said Boardman. “We’re a capital intensive business that does not generate sufficient revenues to cover our operating costs, let alone fund capital investment.”

Denham asked Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo why the government didn’t subsidize airlines or intercity bus companies.  Szabo countered that the government subsidizes both modes, and that the private sector was pulling out of rural communities even with this government support.

“I think you could argue that actually there is—if you take a look at the entire transportation picture, every mode is subsidized in one form or another, including the bus routes which are getting free use of a federally subsidized highway system,” said Szabo.  “And in the meantime, all of this bus service to rural America is going away, leaving Amtrak as the only alternative for these rural communities.”

 

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded North Dakota a $10 million grant on April 5 for improvements to the rail infrastructure in the Devils Lake region, part of an effort to address the rising level of Devils Lake and ensure the long-term viability of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, as well as freight rail operations.

The grant, part of the Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, will be matched by $10 million each from the state of North Dakota, Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad, and Amtrak. It supports the work of the North Dakota Department of Transportation and BNSF to make improvements to 20 miles of track owned by the freight railroad.  Workers will raise the level of the rail bed, protecting the right of way from the rising waters of DevilsLake, and will replace the current bolted rail on the subdivision with continuous welded rail, allowing for increased speeds and lowered maintenance costs.

"This investment is important not only for DevilsLake, but our state and the nation, as the region is an essential link between our market exports and the thousands of hard working individuals seeking opportunity," said Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND).

Work will begin this summer, and is scheduled to finish up in June of 2014.

 

The Indiana House is likely to deal with state Senate-passed language, by the end of April, that would amend the state’s budget bill to grant the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) the right—subject to approval by the state budget agency—to enter into a contract with Amtrak to provide service.

“I introduced an amendment ... which authorizes INDOT to spend money out of existing appropriations for passenger rail service with the review of the State Budget Committee, which I am on,” State Senator Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek) told the Journal & Courier.  “I’m not interested in funding a service that is losing money. But there is an opportunity to greatly grow this service by creating a friendlier schedule and increasing the frequency of trains.”

In the House, it’s likely an effort likely will be made to strengthen the language to require saving the service. That’s good news for passengers who are working on the effort to preserve the Hoosier State, a daily Chicago-Indianapolis train endangered by a 2008 federal law requiring Indiana to begin paying for the HoosierState in October 2013. 

The Hoosier State runs between Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer, Dyer, and Chicago on the four days a week when the Cardinal does not run.

NARP has launched a campaign for residents of Indiana to voice their support of trains in the Hoosier state.  The House is expected to act on the Amtrak provision no later than around April 23.

 

Michigan Tech, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Superior, is hosting the 4th annual Rail and Intermodal Transportation Summer Youth Program this July for high school students interested in trains, and is offering full scholarships to attend.

The Summer Youth Program, which runs July 7 to July 13, 2013, is a full scholarship, week long exploratory course to create awareness and interest in rail and intermodal transportation.  Participants will find answers to questions like “why are trains called the ‘green transportation alternative’?”, “how fast can high-speed passenger trains travel?”, and “how do containers find their way from China to the US?”  The program is intended for high school students, grades 9 through 11. 

Field visits to rail and intermodal sites in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, classroom modules and activities, and expert presentations are held on both the campuses of Michigan Tech and the University of Wisconsin-Superior.  You can find more information on our site, and on the Summer Youth Program pages.

 

Renovations to the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania Amtrak station began yesterday.  The $2.5 million project will create a new 80-space parking lot, improved lighting outside the facilities, a shelter where commuters can store bicycles, security cameras, improved pedestrian and bicycle pathways, and a storm water management system.

"We wanted to make people aware that this work is starting, because there have been people parking in the gravel lot at the end of Wilson Avenue," borough Manager Roni Ryan told Lancaster Online. "That area is going to be fenced off as work begins."

The project, which would demolish an abandoned Railway Express Agency station built in 1912—has sparked some controversy among local preservationists.

"We as a society are still working toward saving the freight station," said Kathleen Forney, president of the Elizabethtown Historical Society. "That is our goal, and we will work on it until it is no more."

 

The Illinois Department of Transportation and Union Pacific railroad are planning the next steps in upgrading the Chicago – St. Louis rail corridor, announcing an April 23 meeting for contractors interested in taking part in $154 million worth of upgrades to the corridor over the next five summers.

“It’s basically an information meeting on the opportunities and qualifications,” Ill-DOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin told the State Journal-Register.

The money will go towards track construction, bridge replacement, and other safety and separation improvements along the corridor.  The $143 million is part of $1.4 billion granted by the Federal Railroad Administration to bring 110 mph service between Chicago and St. Louis.

 

Passengers Advisory

The Amtrak Downeaster is running a special promotion that lets you ride the train for a mere $5.00 each way.  As part of the promotion, up to two children (ages 2-15) can accompany an adult for free.

The Downeaster promotion is available on the following dates:

  • April 27- 28, 2013: Between Brunswick, ME and Exeter, NH or points in between on trains 691, 692, 694, 695, 698, 699.
  • May 4-5, 2013: Between Brunswick, ME and Haverhill, MA or points in between on trains 691, 692, 694, 695, 698, 699.
  • May 11-12, 2013: Between Brunswick, ME and Haverhill, MA or points in between on trains 691, 692, 694, 695, 698, 699.

Find out more at AmtrakDowneaster.com.

 

Corrected April 15, 2013: An earlier version of Hotline #806 incorrectly referred to Elizabethtown, New Jersey.  The station renovation is taking place in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.