Hotline #949-A

Positive Train Control (PTC) technology has been an important discussion for passenger rail lines, freight railroads and government regulators for years. In essence, the technology is designed to slow or stop trains that are in danger of derailment or collisions due to high speeds, and it relies on GPS and computers to monitor the train’s speed and position. In December 2015, Amtrak began operating passenger rail service with versions of PTC in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, and other parts of the country. With its implementation, PTC is seen as a technology that can increase safety and prevent derailments like the one that occurred in Philadelphia last May.

Yet three of the biggest freight railroads in the U.S. have told the government that they won’t meet the 2018 deadline to start using this important safety technology. This is also not the first deadline railroads will miss. Following a 2008 accident between passenger and freight trains that killed 25 people, Congress passed a law that required all railroads to start using PTC. The original deadline for this change was December 31, 2015, but virtually all railroads missed the deadline. In October, Congress then extended the deadline to December 31, 2018.

Unfortunately, most of Amtrak's operations outside the Northeast take place on tracks belonging to freight railroads, making the passenger rail line dependent on them to install the technology. Many commuter railroads are in the same position.

PTC has and continues to be an important issue for NARP. Given the scope of the technical challenges of installing a seamless technology across 40 railroads covering 68,000 miles of track—coupled with a severe lack of funding for Amtrak and commuter railroads to implement the safety mandate—it has been long understood that most railroads would not meet the previous January 1, 2016 deadline. NARP even submitted a path for responsible extension of the deadline to Congress in February 2015, and has been warning about the consequences of failing to extend the original deadline.

Now, more than ever, it’s important for railroads to put safety first for passenger rail service. People rely on Amtrak and other rail services on a daily basis, and PTC would help protect the railroads from future tragic accidents.

Anticipation continues to grow around the Gulf Coast Inspection Trip that Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission are conducting on February18th and 19th. NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews will join a group of elected officials, industry representatives, community leaders and federal stakeholders on a tour of the rail route between New Orleans and Jacksonville, to gain perspective on reintroducing passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast.

Since 2005, NARP has consistently supported the return of passenger rail service along this route. Seven of the 12 communities between New Orleans and Jacksonville have no air service, and four have no intercity bus service, leaving these areas with no public transportation option.

It is critical that NARP members get out and show their support at each of the route’s 14 stops. Media coverage is expected all along the route, and a strong public showing will have a major impact on whether or not passenger rail service returns to the Gulf Coast. Signs and banners are encouraged. Be sure that your voice is heard- see the itinerary and other details here.

Amtrak confirmed this week that dining car service on the New York - Tampa - Miami Silver Star has been eliminated permanently. This ill-concieved cost saving measure leaves the Silver Star's Cafe Car as the only food service option for both sleeping car and coach passengers on this over 30-hour long route. Amtrak is emphasing that full dining car service continues to be offered on the Silver Meteor which serves many (but not all) of the same stops on this popular eact coast route. NARP continues to closely monitor Amtrak's planning and execution of efforts to reduce its food and beverage losses, as required by Congressional mandate. NARP will actively oppose the elimination of any other dining car service on other national network trains.

CityLab blog, from The Atlantic, discussed a new analysis of Amtrak ridership and revenue trends. The story points out that, though it’s not a shock, that low fuel prices account for a small decline in passenger trips in 2015. It’s no surprise that people would rather drive their own car when the cost of filling up equates to the cost of a train ticket. Yet the analysis also noted that low fuel prices account for as much of the overall problems facing train operations as on-time performance, if not more.

To understand the correlation better, Amtrak asked transport consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave to study the impact of punctuality and cheap fuel on its ridership and revenue. The SDG team analyzed 10 years of data on station-pairs throughout the Amtrak system (ultimately dropping the Northeast Corridor from the study). They modeled these figures alongside on-time rates and gas prices while adjusting for outside economic factors like employment.

Lateness and gas prices each led to a decline in ticket revenue of about four percent, but fuel costs played a much bigger role when it came to ridership. SDG found that worse on-time performance from 2013 to 2014 led to a 2.7 percent dip in overall system ridership (outside the Northeast Corridor, where trains tend to run on schedule). But the drop in average pump prices from 2014 to 2015 led to a 4.2 percent ridership plunge.


STB Public Comment

Let your voice be heard. For the first time ever, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) is asking for comments from the rail-riding public on two proposed rulemaking decisions regarding on-time performance standards and whether passenger trains can continue to be given preference in transit on host railroads. STP is seeking separate public comments on both proposals. The comment period ends February 8, 2016, for the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) concerning on-time performance, and on February 22, 2016, for STB’s proposed “policy statement” on how it intends to treat the definition of preference.

Your comments are incredibly important to this rule-making process since regulators will be watching the total number of comments coming in. Generally the STB limits comments to those directly related to the industry, and you can be sure that industry has already weighed in – and continues to weigh in – on these very important points.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE (OTP)

The proposed definition would consider a train to be “on time” if it arrives at its final terminus no more than five minutes after its scheduled arrival time for each 100 miles the train operated, or 30 minutes after its scheduled arrival time, whichever is less. 30 minutes would be the maximum tolerance allowed, even for national network trains which can travel over 2,000 miles between end points.

More importantly, STB intends to measure OTP only at the endpoints rather than at all stations along a route: in effect, STB is telling Americans in 24 states (those without endpoints, or more than half the states served by Amtrak) that regulators don’t care if your train is on time. Under STB’s proposal, some 90% of Amtrak stations’ OTP would never be measured.

PREFERENCE

The STB overreached their administrative powers by issuing a “Policy Statement” on how it will view the need for a right to preference without any input from any outside parties – even though “preference” has already been defined, and periodically reaffirmed, by elected legislators who make the law on behalf of the voting public. The Dept. of Justice and the Dept. of Transportation have also addressed preference on numerous occasions.

This “statement,” which would have effects every bit as binding and far-reaching as an actual rule, was issued without hearing any evidence, without taking any public testimony, and without even undergoing any kind of formal rulemaking procedure. Behind closed doors, regulators are trying to fundamentally change the rules of the game for how Amtrak can press host railroads to honor their legal obligations…going around the intent of Congress as expressed some 30 years ago and consistently reaffirmed in law and court rulings.

NARP is urging its members and the rail-riding public to call for this “policy statement” to be withdrawn, because we believe changing what laws say and how they’re applied should be done by elected lawmakers and not by bureaucrats behind closed doors.


The last budget President Obama will submit to Congress will include a new $10 dollar per barrel fee on oil companies for every barrel of oil they produce, reports the New York Times. The money from the fee, estimated to be up to $32 billion a year, would be spent on transportation and infrastructure projects,including bridges and highways, high-speed rail and research on advanced vehicles such as electric and self-driving cars.

Amtrak has not restored through coach and sleeping car service on the Lake Shore Limited to & from points east of Albany-Rensselaer on the route to Boston, as had been previously anticipated. Passengers on stub trains #448 & #449 must continue to transfer from or to the main New York - Chicago train at Albany-Rensselaer. If or when Amtrak intends to re-introduce through service is currently unclear.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a new streetcar line that would connect Brooklyn and Queens along the East River. The plan was unveiled this week during the mayor’s State of the City speech, and it calls for a line that runs above ground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic. By winding along the East River, the streetcars would vastly expand transportation access to a bustling stretch of the city that has undergone rapid development

Additional information on the planning for the new NY - NJ Gateway Tunnel project was released last week. As reported by newjersey.com, the massive project will take 15 years to complete and will cost a total of $23.9 billion. Indivudual aspects of the project will be undertaken during two distinct phases, with the consrtuction of the new Hudson River tunnels starting as quickly as possible (though no specific date has been released) and expected to take 10 years to finish.

The Philadelphia Inquirer shared what is was like to be an Amtrak crew member during the derailment of Amtrak Train #188 last May. The National Transportation Safety Board documents released Monday on the May 12, 2015, fatal crash included interviews with the three conductors working that night, and an Amtrak dispatcher hitching a ride to work in New York City. The accounts, taken within days of the crash, capture the confusion and chaos that filled the wreckage after one of Amtrak's worst train derailments in 40 years.


In the past two years, passengers on Texas Eagle trains have experienced delays or been forced to ride on buses due to construction of a third north-south mainline track in the Fort Worth, Texas, Tower 55 project, the higher speed rail construction between Chicago and St. Louis and significant weather events on the route.

So to celebrate the completion of track upgrades and anticipated reduction in track delays in 2016, the Texas Eagle Local Revenue Management team, in conjunction with the Texas Eagle Route Director and Amtrak Central Division Marketing, will begin a special promotion for passengers between January and March 2016.

Passengers will receive a free companion rail fare when they buy one regular (adult) fare. The ticket must be purchased at least one day in advance of travel between January 5 and March 15, 2016, for travel between January 6 and March 20, 2016.

These fares may be upgraded to a sleeper after paying for an accommodation charge. The promotion is valid for travel only on the Texas Eagle. It is not valid for local travel between Chicago and St. Louis, or for local travel between San Antonio and Los Angeles. Fares are subject to availability, and seating is limited. Please use discount code V344 when booking the fare.


Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, gave a first look at what will be the nerve center for the forthcoming rail line as well as safety features, chiefly a new-to-passenger-rail system. SMART unveiled the newly completed Rail Operations Center, or ROC, located where the tracks cross Airport Boulevard. Notably, the SMART train will be among the first passenger rail lines in the U.S. to deploy positive train control, which will help improve safety for passenger trains.

Rail service is in high demand for Metro-North's New Haven line Connecticut. Only two years after the passenger line was plagued by crashes, derailments, system-wide breakdowns and angry commuters, it posted its best ridership numbers in history. The rail line is the busiest commuter line in the country, and topped 40.3 million riders in 2015, up from 39.6 in 2014. This is the most since it was founded in 1983. Commuter advocates noted the remarkable turnaround for ridership since the line as plagued with operational shutdowns in 2012 and 2013, as well as cheaper fuel prices, which often work against public transit.


Group rate hotel room reservations are now available for the Spring Council and Membership Meeting being held Sunday, April 10 through Wednesday, April 13 at the Sheraton Silver Spring Hotel. Click here to make your room reservations. Complete current information on the meeting can be found here.


Announced this week, Siemens Mobility will expand its presence in Sacramento, California, with a new 60,000-square-foot plant dedicated to its rail service, maintenance and repair operations. The new site, located in McClellan Park, will be Siemens Mobility’s Customer Services U.S. headquarters and West Coast logistics hub. One of the first projects at the facility will be a $21 million contract to modernize 32 SD160 light rail vehicles for Calgary Transit in Alberta, Canada.

Connecticut has allocated $17.5 million in state funding for the design, engineering and construction of a new rail yard on the Metro-North Railroad Danbury Branch Line in Norwalk. The funding comes under Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy "Let's Go CT!" initiative, which is making investments to upgrade and modernize the state's transportation system.

In Illinois, Metra is moving forward with its 10-year, $2.4 billion modernization plan by requesting proposals for the design and production of 367 new railcars. The modernization plan, adopted in 2014, seeks to fund the purchase of new passenger cars and locomotives, a rehabilitation program for existing trains and a federally mandated safety system called Positive Train Control. Metra expects to pay for the plan with a regular schedule of fare increases, money from federal and state sources and $400 million in borrowing.


NARP is inviting members in good standing to consider running for 10 open seats on the Council of Representatives, the association’s volunteer governing body, for two-year terms. The next election for seats is for the term starting March 1, 2016.

Any NARP member who has paid dues for at least one year, is at least 18 years of age and is a U.S. resident is eligible to run. The Council consists of 112 elected state representatives. The Council of Representatives represents the overall NARP membership in setting and approving the overall policy and direction for the association. For more information, click here. For an 'At-Large' Representative Candidate Information Statement form, go here.

In addition, nominations are now being sought from those members interested and qualified in being elected as an Association Officer (Chair; 4 Vice-Chairs; Treasurer & Secretary) and for the 8 Director positions. The Officers and Directors are elected by the Council of Representatives at the April meeting. For more information on these positions including duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, go here. For an Officer & Director Candidate Information Statement form, go here.

The deadline for all submissions is 11:59 p.m. (local time) on March 31, 2016. It must be postmarked no later than March 31, 2016.


A railroad and transportation icon and visionary, Gil Carmichael, passed away this week. Carmichael was the former Federal Railroad Administrator from 1989 to 1993, and founder of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. “I still remember the day when the White House announced Gil’s nomination as FRA Administrator, and a bunch of Amtrakers with whom I worked discounted the Volkswagen dealer from Meridian as a political hack that would be a rubber tire advocate,” recalls Jim Michel, Senior Vice President, Global Rail Practice at Marsh USA and a former Amtrak executive. “It did not take Graham Claytor long to understand that Gil was different and recognize that Amtrak’s future for Boston electrification and new Northeast Corridor high speed trainsets rested with the car dealer from Mississippi. Gil wanted to know details and understand technology, not as a railfan but as a railway professional, both freight and passenger.”


NARP members in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia are reminded that the deadline to submit ballots for the election of State Represenatives from their repsective states to the NARP National Council of Represenatives is February 15th. NARP members in these three states have previously received their election and ballot information in either a e-mail message or by US Mail.


Amtrak announced that it will allow passengers to travel will small cats and dogs on select routes across the country, starting February 16. Amtrak previously ran a pilot program last year in Illinois and the East Coast, in which 2,700 pets traveled with their owners. Overall, Amtrak is adding the pet service to most long-distance routes lasting less than seven hours, and it costs $25 per pet each way. View Amtrak Press Release on the announcement and visit Amtrak's Pet Information page online for additional details.


NARP thanks those members who have sent in industry-related news stories, op-eds, editorials or letters to the editor from your communities. We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Please send your news items Will Hubbard, whubbard@xenophonstrategies.com, and we will continue share it with the membership. We also ask members to send events that we can put on the website, here. Finally, please follow NARP on Facebook and Twitter.

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