Hotline #987

California HSR Revises Capacity Plans, Amtrak Bans Samsung Phone, NYC Readies Second Ave. Line, Oversight Committee Meeting Held for NJ Transit

In important news for California high-speed rail, the state’s high-speed rail authority has announced it will cut planned capacity to manage costs. The change by California's High Speed Rail Authority will result in the HSR system running fewer cars per train than originally proposed, 10 cars instead of 20 cars. This change is significant as it will reduce cost, time and labor for development and construction of the network and rail stations. Currently, construction is underway for the Initial Operating Segment between the San Joaquin Valley and at least to San Jose, but when reviewing the plans, CAHSRA revised plans as the early segments will not need 20 cars. However, as ridership grows platforms at stations can be lengthened for longer trains. This change also reflects how the agency has learned, since 2012, how to build an effective and appropriate HSR system in California. Alterations in HSR plans since 2012 have helped the agency to lower construction costs.

An additional change also took place regarding HSR in California, when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that he no longer opposes the state’s rail plan. This new support comes two years after Newsom withdrew his support support for the project due to the authority’s changing business plan. Newsom became the highest-profile Democratic opponent of the project when he told a conservative Seattle radio show host in February 2014: “I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs, and I am not the only Democrat that feels this way. And I’ve got to tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly.” This time around however, Newsom declared his support at the Sacramento Press Club, and noted that he would “100 percent” seek a solid public funding source for the train project if he’s elected governor in 2018.

With the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) expected to reveal its decision on proposals for upgrading the Northeast Corridor before the end of the year, residents in eight states along the Amtrak Acela route between Boston and Washington, D.C., have voiced both support and concern about how the decision will affect their communities. Comments have come from residents and leaders in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Overall, the FRA has reviewed three major alternatives, along with a fourth option of doing nothing. Some proposals generated more concerns than others, while still others were received with enthusiasm. The proposed Northeast Corridor Future plan is the first time since 1978 that federal officials have proposed a new blueprint for prioritizing improvements along the nearly 500-mile-long rail transportation route for the Northeast United States, which serves 750,000 riders and 2,000 trains daily. The effort for revitalizing the route began in 2010, when a commission from the eight states and D.C. asked the FRA to create a plan to improve passenger rail service through 2040. The effort was made to help the rail corridor modernize its century-old infrastructure, outdated technology and insufficient capacity to meet ridership demands. Some have also warned that tracks, which in many spots in New England hug the coastline, could flood as climate change raises sea levels.

Some concepts have been applauded by commuters, business groups, and others calling for faster, more frequent and reliable trains. However, the proposal that has suffered the most pushback is centered in Connecticut, where residents in Old Lyme and neighboring shoreline towns fear that construction of a 50-mile bypass to avoid the current curvy route hugging the coast would ruin their communities. The proposal includes a bypass between Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and Richmond, Rhode Island, that would run new high-speed Amtrak trains — in some places, on elevated tracks — through historic neighborhoods, an arts college, marshlands, commercial districts and tourist attractions, including the Florence Griswold Museum. The route would be farther inland, running roughly parallel to the existing rail line and mostly following Interstate 95. If implemented, the bypass has been projected to help reduce a trip by about 25 minutes.

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The End of the Year is Near!
This has been a very encouraging year for passenger rail, with real progress on a number of major projects ranging from high-speed trains to transit. It’s especially significant that these new transportation projects are being funded with both public and private money.

It’s no coincidence that NARP has also had a good year … a very good year. Key congressional staff people regularly call us for information and advice. Federal regulatory agencies are now asking us to suggest changes and improvements to regulations. We now have a seat at the table. NARP has finally become a player!

Contributions above and beyond normal dues have made all that possible. Now the challenge is to press our advantage, redoubling our efforts to promote “A Connected America” with more and better and faster trains.

Without a doubt, it’s the extra end-of-the-year gifts from members like you that have made this break-through year of progress possible. As we approach the end of 2016, please consider making a special donation to NARP. Donations can be made online at: www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate/

Thank you for your support!

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In an effort to look at the cost and the benefits of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which runs through cities in Texas and Oklahoma, Oklahoma’s Senate Transportation Committee held a public meeting this week. The study was requested by Oklahoma Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, who raised concerns about why the state pays more in state contributions than Texas for the Amtrak line. Simpson noted that each state used to pay 50/50, but now it’s closer to 60/40, with communities in Oklahoma investing millions of dollars in infrastructure investments in their railway stations and other related improvements to capitalize on the rail line. As a result, Texas receives many of the economic benefits. Simpson also raised concerns about how the daily schedule of the Heartland Flyer favors Texas, as well as the importance to having a longer term contract than just a year for economic development. In addition, committee members were also told that initial research had shown continuing the Heartland Flyer to Newton, Kan., would more than double ridership, and connect Oklahomans to additional destinations via passenger rail.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) unveiled its new train layover facility in Brunswick last weekend, an important win in improving service on the Amtrak Downeaster that comes after years of hard-fought advocacy.

Stretching out past the length of two football fields, the expansive facility allows NNEPRA to provide overnight service for Downeaster equipment, clearing the way for a third daily round-trip train. “It's an impressive building—not just as a place for the Downeaster crews to hang their hats, but as a place to service Amtrak trains with the latest technology,” wrote NARP Council member Wayne Davis, who also chairs the Board of TrainRiders/Northeast. “It's also a perfect example of fine planning for expansion of our Downeaster service, and NNEPRA and Amtrak deserve ‘kudos.’”

Amtrak is giving riders more options for travel this fall between San Diego and Los Angeles, and has started promoting the service on its website. Starting November 7, Amtrak will expand morning and evening service with the addition of two new trips between the two cities on the Pacific Surfliner, and from October 31 - December 4, Amtrak will increase the number of Business Class seats available. Connecting San Luis Obispo and San Diego through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Pacific Surfliner route offers a unique vantage on the Southern California seascape. Amtrak quips that “to get a closer look, you'd have to be on a surfboard, which, believe it or not, you're welcome to bring onboard, since Pacific Surfliner trains have special racks to accommodate the bikes and boards of our more outdoor-minded riders.”

The woes continue for Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, which over the past few months has been banned from flights by airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration due to catching fire. Amtrak has joined the list of those banning the devices, and says the Samsung phones are no longer allowed on trains, in stations or on platforms due to safety concerns. Passengers traveling with the phones will not be allowed to board or if they have boarded, will be asked to leave the train at the next stop. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there have been nearly 100 reports of batteries in the devices overheating. In September, Samsung issued a global recall offering replacement phones to owners who turned in their faulty devices. But after reports that the replacement phones also were catching fire, the company halted production of the phones altogether and urged consumers to turn in the devices. The recall covers more than 2.5 million phones. Amtrak noted that, “This ban includes Amtrak trains, Thruway buses, facilities, stations, platforms, Amtrak vehicles, and as an item carried within a vehicle on Auto Train.”

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There are still openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives in several states, including one each in Alabama; Arizona; Delaware; Hawaii; Idaho; Louisiana; Missouri; Nebraska; Nevada; North Carolina; North Dakota: Ohio (2 Seats) and Wyoming. Check out the full, up-to-date, list of current vacancies here.

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.

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Following a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee meeting this past Friday, the New Jersey Transit has until October 28 to disclose the transit agency’s progress on implementing new safety technology, such as Positive Train Control (PTC) that can help prevent accidents, such as the one from September 29. Lawmakers have also requested that NJ Transit provide figures on substance-abuse-related accidents and detail penalties for violating federal regulations. The joint state legislative panel, which holds subpoena power, is examining safety and operations at NJ Transit, which is the nation’s third-largest mass-transportation provider. Notably, the increased pressure on NJ Transit coincides with declines in service and increased breakdowns amid higher fares and ongoing raids of the capital budget to pay for day-to-day expenses

In addition, newly appointed NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro failed to attend the hearing, provoking ire from several lawmakers. Santoro apologized to legislators Wednesday for not appearing at the meeting, but several characterized his absence as disrespectful. Santoro said he did not mean to be disrespectful, and confirmed that he will testify at a legislative hearing on Nov. 4.

Come December 2016, the first segment of the Second Avenue subway line in New York City is set to open. The opening of the new line in New York is a major milestone, as the project has been in the works for nearly 100 years. Development of the Second Avenue line has began in the 1920s, but fell into multiple delays and construction issues. The prolonged wait underscores the challenges transit systems across the United States face as they struggle to repair aging infrastructure while expanding to meet rising demand, which New York is experiencing. Once a global leader, New York’s subway has largely stayed the same size as other cities, particularly in Asia, have built expansive new systems.

However, the project is now looked at as the most ambitious expansion of the subway system in a half-century. It will also be a critical milestone for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at a time when both New York’s population and the number of tourists flooding the city have reached record levels, placing enormous pressure on public transit. The authority notes that there is still work left to complete, such as finishing stations, testing fire alarm systems, and testing escalators. However, crews are testing trains on tracks. Once the first segment is complete, the line will operate three stations on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

This week, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board voted to finance two rail expansions and an update of the bus service for the area. The new plans include a rail line that connects DFW Airport to several cities in Texas, which is seen a prime example of what urban areas can achieve when cities act in tandem. DART’s new long-term plan calls for borrowing about $1 billion to build the Cotton Belt suburban rail line and depends on federal officials giving the agency $650 million for a downtown subway that could cost up to $1.3 billion. The board voted 12-3 to approve the plan. Despite the votes and support the plan as received from suburban officials, critics in Dallas stated that the transit agency is ignoring much-needed improvements to its widely criticized bus system and jeopardizing plans for a downtown subway. Part of the criticism also stems from the agency’s strategy, which critics say is structured to prioritize the Cotton Belt, which isn’t among a list of projects the Dallas council unanimously said should come first.

Amtrak reinstated through sleeper and coach service to and from Boston on the Lake Shore Limited this week. A stub, coach-only, train had been operating between Boston and Albany/Rensselaer for the past two years as the construction of a new fourth track and extended platforms at the Rensselaer station progressed. In conjunction with this resumption of through service, Amtrak introduced Business Class service between Chicago and Boston this week also. At least initially, Business Class passengers are being accommodated with 2 & 1 seating in one end of the Chicago to Boston Cafe Car, similar to the Business Class seats offered on the Cardinal. This service enhancement fulfills Amtrak’s commitment to extend Business Class seats to the Lake Shore Limited before the end of 2016. It should be noted that Business Class seats are not available on the Lake Shore between New York and Albany/Rensselaer and that the current New York to Chicago Amfleet II ‘Diner-Lite’ car will provide all food & beverage services to passengers riding between New York and Albany.

Planning efforts for a new Amtrak station in Buffalo, NY took a major step forward this week when NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is making $1.0 million in state funds available for the necessary study which will determine a preferred location for such a new facility. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown agreed to lead the study committee, that is being tasked by Governor Cuomo with completing its work within six months of commencing.

This rapid study timeline is in stark contrast to the languishing Empire Corridor High Speed Rail Tier One Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Study, which was commenced by New York State in 2010, but which has seen no public release of information or conclusions since hearings on the Draft EIS document were held in the spring of 2014. This study will, when completed, identify a preferred alternative for future higher-speed rail improvements primarily, focused on the Empire Corridor west of Schenectady.

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You Win! And So Do We! Benefits Enhance Your Membership And Support Our Work!

VSP Individual Vision Care now offers specially discounted individual and family insurance plans exclusively for NARP members that typically save hundreds of dollars on your exams, glasses and contacts. In addition, as a VSP member you -- or any family member you designate -- can also enjoy savings of up to $1,200 per hearing aid through VSP’s TruHearing plan. When you sign up for a VSP plan through our website, you not only help yourself and your family with significant savings and great benefits, but you help support NARP’s work as well! Click here to enroll today!

If you buy anything from online retailer Amazon.com, sign up for Amazon Smile so that a portion of your purchase price is donated to support NARP! The price you pay for your items does not change, but every purchase helps your Association as we do the work you want done for A Connected America! Visit http://www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate to learn more.

Travelers United, the only non-profit membership organization that acts as a watchdog for traveler rights, now offers free reciprocal membership to all NARP members! To check out benefits and get the low-down on your passenger rights, visit https://TravelersUnited.org/welcome-narp/

Amtrak Vacations, a premier tour operator offering first-rate travel packages combining great destinations and train travel, is now offering all NARP members a 10% discount on the rail travel portion of any package booked, along with a 5% discount on parent company Yankee Leisure Group’s Unique Rail Journeys packages across Europe! Better yet, go watch a recorded webinar co-hosted by Amtrak Vacations and NARP to learn about a special offer worth up to an additional $400 off certain rail-travel packages! Click here to watch the recorded webinar, or copy and paste this URL into your web browser: https://youtu.be/uiETYMKziWA, and to learn more about Amtrak Vacations please visit http://www.amtrakvacations.com.

If you buy anything from online retailer Amazon.com, sign up for Amazon Smile so that a portion of your purchase price is donated to support NARP! The price you pay for your items does not change, but every purchase helps your Association as we do the work you want done for A Connected America! Visit http://www.narprail.org/get-involved/donate to learn more.

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If you have used the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard and have enjoyed many of its benefits, you have an opportunity to share your support for Amtrak’s program. The USA Today newspaper has nominated the credit card as one of its Readers’ Choice 2016 10 Best co-branded credit cards. If you want to show your support, Amtrak is urging customers to cast their votes online.

In several cities across the country, new or expanded passenger rail service is moving forward.

  • Trinity Railway Express is expanding its commuter routes between Fort Worth and Dallas, TX in an effort to provide more regular service during peak periods and also to offer riders more late-night options. Riders can now expect trains to run about every 30 minutes during peak periods, and about every hour during mid-days, evenings and Saturdays.

  • Following a clearance inspection, Arcadia Valley, MO will be cleared for Amtrak service in just a matter of weeks. Getting a stop in the area has been a project since 2011, and once implemented, there will be a stop going south at around 10:30 pm, and then another going north at around 4:30 am.

  • If you plan on traveling between Chicago and Michigan this Thanksgiving, Amtrak has you covered. Amtrak will offer additional trains in anticipation of one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. Ten extra trains will operate between Chicago and several locations in Michigan Nov. 23-27. Amtrak added the extra holiday service for the first time in 2014 and experienced a large spike in travelers.

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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 Bob Brady, bbrady@xenophonstrategies.com, 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

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