Hotline #808 -- April 26, 2013

NARP had another successful Spring Council Meeting, with a full day of outreach to the U.S. Congress; Golden Spikes going to Oregon’s Representative Peter DeFazio and Illinois’ Senator Mark Kirk; and a presentation of the Burch Safety Award to Michael Tomas.

Now, with Congress out of session next week, it’s your turn!  Make sure to check in with the local offices of your Representative and your Senators, as there may well be opportunities for the public to meet with their legislators. With budget talks for Fiscal Year 2014 looming, Congress needs to hear from you how important trains are to their constituents.

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With the unveiling of our new membership drive, now’s the perfect time to join NARP!  Join now and earn up to 7,500 Amtrak Guest Rewards!

Enjoy bonus points, discounted travel and more

Earn up to 7,500 Amtrak Guest Rewards® points by becoming a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). As an Amtrak® partner and the largest advocacy organization for rail passengers, NARP works to increase the quantity and quality of passenger trains.    

Your membership entitles you to several great benefits, including a 10% discount on most Amtrak rail fares. Plus, if you sign up now through May 24, 2013, you’ll be automatically entered into a drawing to win a grand prize of 120,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points. You can even gain additional entries into the drawing by referring friends and family to NARP—even if you’re already a member.

 

The House voted 361 to 41 today to pass legislation addressing air travel delays brought about by the sequester.  The legislation grants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authority to transfer $253 million from other accounts to fund operations. The bill will now be signed by President Barack Obama.

The $85 billion in across-the-board cuts forced by sequestration has led to cuts in many government programs, including 47,000 FAA employees.  This legislative patch will allow the FAA to end those furloughs, and keep air traffic control towers open at smaller airports.  Notwithstanding some sloppy reporting, the “fix” only involves moving funds around within the FAA – from the Airport Improvement Program to operations.

Many have criticized Congress’ rush to fix this one small negative aspect of slashing government funding—that happens to directly impact most Members of Congress—while countless other programs that tens of millions of Americans depend upon are slashed.

"We ought not to be mitigating the sequester's effect on just one segment when children, the sick, the military and many other groups" are ignored, said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). "Let's deal with all the adverse consequences of sequester."

Amtrak has managed to weather the sequester relatively well.  Only 12 percent of Amtrak’s operating net costs came from federal funds in Fiscal 2012.  Amtrak said growth continued in Fiscal 2013 with March “the single best month ever in” Amtrak’s history, and October, December and January each setting individual monthly records.    

Meanwhile, about 29 percent of Federal Aviation Administration funding comes from federal general revenues, with 71 percent from aviation-related federal excise taxes on passengers, cargo and fuel.  The Transportation Security Administration is 67 percent funded from general funds.

While Amtrak’s operations are resilient, decreases in capital investment will be felt in the long term.  With the railroad struggling with aging equipment, capacity chokepoints, and soaring demand, cuts to the capital budget right now will have negative impacts that will be felt by train passengers for years to come.

Residents and officials gathered in Seattle, Washington for a ribbon cutting celebrating the newly renovated King Street Station—a transportation hub that will revitalize the surrounding downtown neighborhood.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was joined by Federal Railroad Administrator Kevin Thompson and Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) at the ceremony.  The $55 million restoration project received $32.9 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Providing people with centralized access to multiple modes of safe, affordable, efficient transportation serves as a catalyst for economic development and urban renewal,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We’ve seen it work in cities and towns across the country just as it will in Seattle.”

King Street Station serves Amtrak’s Cascades, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder services. After the new investments, the station has a safer, more comfortable passenger area; better connections to commuter rail, light rail, and bus lines operated by Sound Transit and King County Metro; and upgrades to seismic resiliency features. 

“Train stations can have a transformative effect on entire neighborhoods, while providing seamless connections to other modes,” said Thompson. “King Street Station is a great example of how rail investment can provide jobs, greater economic development and greater mobility.”

 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority unveiled three new bi-level commuter rail cars on April 24, the first of 75 new rail cars that will be delivered in the fall.

“We are constantly working to bring our customers a better experience,” said Beverly Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “These new coaches will do just that, with a cleaner, more informed, and more comfortable trip for all on board.”

The MBTA purchased the new equipment for $190 million.  They will provide 55 percent more seating capacity than the old cars, and feature a bevy of new features to enhance operations and customer comfort.

 

Travel on all US roads dropped 1.4 percent, or roughly 3.1 billion miles driven, in February 2013 compared with February 2012, according to Federal Highway Administration data. This while cumulative travel declined only 0.4 percent over the same period.

The NARP blog provided more coverage of this shift in travel behavior:

Since June 2005, VMT on all US roads has sunk an estimated 8.75 percent, according to Advisor Perspectives researcher Doug Short. Indications are that the recession is not the only cause of this trend. Gas prices have been fluctuating greatly over the past few years, but the correlation between gas prices and miles driven is actually rather weak.

More relevant factors include the aging population (seniors moving to areas where they don't need to drive as much), continuing high unemployment, the increased ability to telecommute made possible by the Internet, and the increased availablity of attractive and reliable public transportation (witness the growth of rail transit systems in such places as Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Seattle).

But what should be most encouraging to passenger train and transit advocates, and something NARP has been highlighting in our communications with those on Capitol Hill, is that car reliance is falling noticeably out of favor with young Americans. An April 2012 Frontier Group study notes, “From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent."

Over that period, 16-to-35-year-olds took 24% more bicycle trips and were 16% more likely to walk to their destinations. And from 2000 to 2010, the share of those ages 14 to 34 without drivers' licenses grew by 5%.

 

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the availability of $474 million in multimodal transportation grant authority on April 22, providing an exciting source of potential new investment for passenger rail upgrades.

This will be the fifth round of funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, which has supported 218 transportation projects across all 50 states.  Demand has far outstripped the available funding, with 4,050 project proposals seeking more than $105.2 billion in the previous four rounds

The $474 million available for TIGER V will be targeted at projects that increase mobility for people and freight, build and upgrade transportation facilities, strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness, and create jobs.  For a list of projects funded in previous rounds, check out USDOT.govPlease make sure your state or local officials are considering valuable rail projects that may need this support.

The deadline for project applications is June 3.

 

New Jersey Transit has selected the Pascack Valley Line to unveil its MyTix smart phone app, which will allow passengers to purchase one-way tickets and monthly passes directly on their mobile device.

“The mobile ticketing app will give Pascack Valley Line customers, and eventually all of our rail customers, the ability to treat their smart phones as both a ticket vending machine and rail ticket or pass all in one, providing for a seamless travel experience,” James Weinstein, NJ Transit’s executive director, told the Record.

Initially, the pilot program will only operate on the Pascack Valley Line (although users will be able to access the Meadowlands rail station for special events).  Monthly passes activate on the first of the month, and expire at the end of the month.  One-way tickets expire two hours after they are activated.

After the three month trial period has ended, NJ Transit will look at the feasibility of expanding it to other lines. Passengers can download the app for free at the iTunes and Google Play stores.

 

The train station in Minot, North Dakota, is serving passengers for the first time since the devastating 2011 Souris River flood.

Passengers of Amtrak’s Empire Builder have been forced to use a temporary waiting room and ticket office since the main depot was flooded. Amtrak, working with the local community, has spent around $500,000 to restore the station.

Amtrak representative Marc Magliari outlined the developments at a press conference held in Minot on April 23:

“We're done using the baggage room as a ticket office… Technicians and other people are here working through the day so tonight we'll be back serving passengers in the proper place in the proper waiting room… This is an important stop on the Empire Builder route, and it was heartbreaking to us at Amtrak when the flood came, after everything the community had done to turn the station into a showcase here in this part of North Dakota. Those of you who do not recall, the station had been modernized and 'stuccolized' and was sort of this beigy-yellow thing setting here next to the tracks. But once the town engaged and took ownership of the station, like so many communities are doing around the country, and did what they did to beautify and demodernize, and make the station more historically accurate and attractive, [the flood damage] was heartbreaking to us both at Amtrak in Chicago and the corporate headquarters in Washington… We're happy to tell the folks in this part of North Dakota, folks across the border in Canada, folks from miles around who drive to Minot to hop aboard our trains that we are back in business in the main waiting room… We're so very grateful of the patience of the community which certainly knew what happened on that summer flood that did so much damage here that we were one of the victims, we're also one of those recovering, and we're happy to say we're back in business in the main waiting room. We have a goal of by May 11 of restoring checked baggage service so sportsmen and other people who are traveling to and from this part of North Dakota again can have the checked baggage service.”

 

Amtrak used Earth Day (April 22) to remind Americans that travel on Amtrak trains is 17 percent more energy efficient than air travel and 34 percent more energy efficient than travel by car (U.S. Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book [2012])

“Amtrak is committed to providing environmentally sustainable and energy efficient service across our national network,” President and CEO Joe Boardman said. “Amtrak is on the right path to balancing the nation’s travel and mobility needs with mitigating the impact of our operations on the environment.”

Amtrak’s announcement came the same week that the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) announced the San Francisco to Los Angeles high speed rail line is looking to renewable energy sources to power its operations. 

"The Authority is committed to build and operate a sustainable and innovative transportation system that will reduce greenhouse gases and provide environmental benefits,” said CAHSRA CEO Jeff Morales.

In addition to serving as a reminder about the superior energy-efficiency of trains—and the cleaner emissions—California officials are looking to the state’s solicitation for proposals to drive private sector innovation.

"This is the kind of innovative approach that keeps California leading the nation in clean energy and clean transportation,” said California Energy Commission chair Robert Weisenmiller.

Proposals must be submitted by May 31, 2013.

 

Amtrak is teaming up with Disney’s Chuggington Station to offer kid-friendly activities at select National Train Day events on Saturday, May 11, 2013.

“In addition to family-friendly activities and train-themed displays, select events will also feature an HO scale operating model train provided by Walthers,” revealed Amtrak in a public statement. “The model will feature Amtrak equipment including an Amtrak locomotive and passenger cars. The Chuggington Kids Depot and model train displays will be featured in 23 communities.”

You can find a list of those 23 events at Amtrak.com.

 

Travelers Advisory

—The New Jersey Transit Police Department will be conducting a multi-agency training exercise on Saturday, April 27 at the Newark Light Rail NJPAC/Center Street Station to test a response from multiple agencies to a simulated light rail incident.

The exercise will begin around 8 AM, and conclude around noon. During the exercise, Newark Light Rail service between Newark Penn and Newark Broad Street stations will operate on a single track.  Check out NJTransit.com for details on service adjustments.