Happening Now

Hotline #964

May 20, 2016

NTSB Findings on Train 188; CHSRA Receives Grant Extension; NARP Intern Travels Across U.S. by Rail

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its investigative findings regarding Amtrak Train 188, which derailed last May. The results of the investigation state that the Amtrak engineer was mostly likely distracted by radio discussions regarding an emergency situation on a different train that was stuck by rocks. Due to that emergency radio traffic, the engineer lost track of where he was and did not realize the train was heading into a curve with reduced speed limits. Train 188 derailed through the turn, traveling 106 MPH. NTSB investigators also highlighted the fact the section of track did not have Positive Train Control (PTC) installed - a technology that would have been able to stop the train automatically and prevented it from derailing.

Following the release of the NTSB’s findings, NARP CEO and President Jim Mathews issued the following statement:

The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) investigative findings on May 17, confirmed what we already suspected: that the Amtrak Train 188 derailment would have been avoided had Positive Train Control (PTC) technology been in place. That means if the U.S. had a rational infrastructure investment policy – like every expert and transportation official recommends – the eight passengers killed in the incident would still be alive today, and 125 passengers would have avoided significant pain and injury.

The NTSB determined that the Amtrak engineer’s loss of situational awareness led to the derailment. An otherwise exemplary employee with no history of impairments, the engineer’s serious error is yet another argument for implementation of this life-saving technology. PTC was designed and exists to guard against such mistakes in human error.

While Amtrak has fully-implemented PTC along the Northeast Corridor, host railroads that Amtrak relies on, along with commuter rail systems across the country, are still operating without this critical safety technology. Congress extended the deadline for PTC installation three years to 2018 – a move we accepted on the condition that Congress provide adequate funding to accelerate installation. So far, Congress has failed to live up to their side of the bargain. The American Public Transit Association has stated there are more than $3 billion in unfunded PTC capital costs. In light of yesterday's findings, it is time for Congress to act.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) received a grant from the federal government, which will allow the agency to extend the completion of the Central Valley segment from 2018 to 2022. The grant is part of the 2012 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which originally required the completion of a segment of rail structures from Madera to Shafter by 2017. Though many view this change as a delay of the project, CHSRA stated the modification was largely a technical fix necessary to accommodate recent changes to its business plan. Notably, the grant modification comes shortly after the Obama administration sent a letter to the rail authority calling for an immediate acceleration of construction activity in the Central Valley. The letter demanded that the state take “aggressive steps” to improve its lagging performance or risk losing a portion of the federal funding.

With regular issues and political gridlock in the development of California’s high-speed rail and other major transportation infrastructure projects throughout the U.S., many business leaders and transportation officials are looking to private funding. However, it may not be as easy as many groups and agencies believe. A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center suggests that an investment model that encourages more transparency and less regulatory challenges will be required if projects are to be successful. The report included a set of recommendations that outlined a long-term funding plan for the country’s infrastructure woes, which includes an estimated $1.4 trillion shortfall in infrastructure through 2025. The report notes that partnerships with the private sector can help share the costs and risks associated with a project, as well as enhance visions for a project’s design, construction and maintenance.

Notably, Central Japan Railway Co. (JRC), which is partnering with Texas Central Railways, will open an office in Dallas to help with the proposed high-speed rail network. JRC, will establish 20 employees in Dallas to help Texas Central move forward with the rail system that will run from Dallas to Houston. JRC is the developer of the Shinkansen high-speed rail network in Japan.

Wednesday was an eventful day on the Hill for passenger rail, with the U.S. Senate and House pushing forward different Transportation, Housing & Urban Development (THUD) funding bills. In a sign that the broad, bipartisan support of FAST Act, the news was far more positive than in years past -- demonstrating the power of grassroots advocates to move the needle!

You can read the full summary of legislative action here. NARP is working to raise investment levels in passenger rail and transit. Click here to join NARP in asking your Representative to invest in Amtrak and passenger rail!

Dedicated lanes for streetcars are incredibly important to ensure that passengers get from point A to B as easily and as quickly as possible, without having to deal with traffic congestion. With this idea in mind, city planners for Washington, D.C.’s Department of Transportation proposed options for the extension of the city’s streetcar from H Street to Georgetown. The options included providing the streetcar with dedicated lanes, which experts agree would provide value to the city’s streetcar. If plans are to move forward, the current budget provides funding for construction starting in 2022, with a line opening at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s.

Advocates for passenger rail pushed forward with their efforts to return service to central Maine. Known as the Maine Rail Group, members encouraged discussion between business and economic developers on the benefits for a new rail line. While city officials in both Augusta and Waterville have voted to show their support to consider the return of rail service to those cities, that’s only a very early step. Currently, state lawmakers have approved $400,000 in funding, matched by $50,000 each from Lewiston and Auburn, to examine the economic effects of a passenger rail line that links those communities to Portland.

Summer By Rail

Starting May 15th, Elena began a 38-day, 10,000 mile journey across the country, using only public transportation, mostly in the form of Amtrak and her bike, affectionately known as Stevie. Elena and Stevie began their adventure with a day of biking in New York City before a train ride to Chicago. She’ll continue on to the Pacific Northwest before traveling down the west coast, across the south and back up into the mid-Atlantic.

The trip is about more than having fun, however. Elena’s purpose on the journey is to observe and share the ways multi-modal travel using public transportation can be seamless and easy. Along the way, she’ll also share stories from the communities she visits on how they use and view public transportation options in their respective areas.

Through her exploration, key elements of connectivity by rail and support for rail in various communities, will be shared to her audience via social media channels on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RailPassengers) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/railpassengers) at the handle @RailPassengers, and her blog at www.summberbyrail.com. People interested in Elena’s travels can also follow the hashtags #ElenaAndStevie and #GetRail for regular updates. Follow along and cheer her on!

Kansas City’s Streetcar Authority expected an average daily ridership of 2,700 passengers per day during its first week of operations from May 6-13. Following the first week, however, expectations have been exceeded by thousands of passengers. Passenger numbers included 12,230 riders on opening day, Friday, May 6, and 14,648 on Saturday, May 7. During the first workweek, ridership ranged from 3,945 on Monday, May 9, to 6,975 on Friday, May 13.

Florida’s Brightline passenger rail line is progressing forward, as a ceremonial cement-pouring took place to celebrate the train station’s development outside Fort Lauderdale. Public officials carved their names in the cement poured for the first of the towering, 140,000-pound V-shaped columns that will frame the Fort Lauderdale station, a 60,000-square-foot structure going up north of Broward Boulevard and west of the central bus terminal. The rail service is currently engaged in construction work along the 67-mile initial route connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with stations rising in all three cities. The first train, consisting of two locomotives and four cars, will be delivered this fall, and service is expected to begin in 2017.

There are still openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives in several states. Check-out the full list of current vacancies here.

Of particular note, there are multiple vacancies in the states of California, Ohio and Texas. If you live in these states and want to become more active in NARP’s work, this is your opportunity to become involved. If you are interested in being considered for an appointment to an open state seat by the Board of Directors please complete this Candidate Information Statement.

In Michigan, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has expressed interest in developing a rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, which will span 38 miles. The proposed route has been discussed in the state for more than a decade, but never obtained a funding source. RTA plans to solve that issue by folding the cost of the service, which would use existing Amtrak lines, into its November millage request. If the millage passes this fall, RTA officials estimate the route could start around 2022, with annual operating costs between $11 million to $19 million.

NARP members are invited to register to participate in one of three on-line free webinars being held on June 1st, to introduce NARP’s new partnership with Amtrak Vacations, the operator of Amtrak’s package tour offerings. Starting June 1st, NARP members will be entitled to a 10% discount on the rail portion of all Amtrak Vacation packages!

The 45-minute webinars will highlight many of the great destinations offered by Amtrak Vacations, including information on trips to National Parks such as Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and more. All webinar participants will receive a special discount coupon for a future tour booking, in addition to being able to take advantage of the new 10% rail discount.

For more information and to register to participate in a free webinar, visit the Amtrak Vacations page on the NARP website.

Rail advocates are also making a push for increased Amtrak service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s recent study on increased service found that it would cost $10 million to $13 million a year to increase rail service from one trip a day to three, while it would cost nearly $8 million to build one mile of highway. The line has already found that the demand is there for increased service, as ridership has increased every year since 2005, when service was cut from two trips daily to one.

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 to Will Hubbard, [email protected], and we will continue to share it with the membership. We also ask members to send events that we can put on the website, here. And please follow NARP on Facebook and Twitter.