NCI: Leo KingIs Amtrak nearing the end of the line? With up to 1,000 jobs to be lost and some long-distance, money-losing trains to disappear, perhaps the Congress will finally fund Amtrak as fully as it needs to be. After some financial battles, particularly ideas developed by the Amtrak Reform Council and the USDOT's Inspector General, a new, revised Amtrak may emerge - or it may disappear.
Amtrak cuts 1,000 jobs;
intercity services slashed
Amtrak made a blockbuster disclosure on Friday - up to 1,000 jobs will be lost, and money-losing long-distance trains will be cut from the schedule.
Amtrak's president and CEO George Warrington said the draconian measures are being taken to try to make ends meet.
In a press release Friday morning, Warrington said, "Facing long-standing problems with its federal policy framework and recent events that have posed new financial challenges, a $285 million package of spending cuts and capital investment deferrals" has begun. He also warned that the national passenger railroad "may be forced to suspend all of its money-losing routes in October."
His February 1 announcement gives the routes to be affected more than six months warning.
"Everyone knows that you can't make a profit while running a network of unprofitable trains, but that is exactly what we're expected to do," Warrington said, and added, "On top of that, several recent events - including the recession, September 11 and the Amtrak Reform Council decision - have created new uncertainties in our business. The business actions we are taking today are intended to protect our operations and financial partners from existing political uncertainty. The time has come for Congress and the Administration to put passenger rail on a solid foundation for the future."
Late Friday afternoon, in a brief interview with D:F, Leonardo Alcivar, USDOT's Deputy director for public affairs, said "Amtrak faces serious financial challenges in the short term." He added that Friday's announcement "further underscores the need for all parties to participate in a thorough reassessment of national rail passenger policy," and that "All of us must continue our efforts to create an economically viable intercity passenger rail system."
The railroad is cutting 10 percent of its managers and 3 percent in labor-agreement covered positions. Warrington said overall, Amtrak's current base of 24,600 positions will be cut by 1,000, or about four percent. The intent is to reduce $110 million in the current fiscal year's operating expenses. The company will also freeze or reduce spending in numerous categories such as hiring, travel, vehicles, discretionary training, marketing and advertising, computers, materials and supplies.
Amtrak said the business actions disclosed on Friday "are necessary to counter $120 million in less-than-anticipated revenue in 2001-2002 due to the recession, loss of $52 million in financing as a consequence of the recent action by the Amtrak Reform Council, additional security costs since September 11, and other factors beyond the company's control."
Warrington said Amtrak will "defer approximately $175 million in capital investments in FY 2002, or about 23 percent of its capital program." Deferred projects will include equipment refurbishment and overhauls, capacity and reliability improvements, as well as technology, station and facility upgrades, but. Warrington said, "There will be no deferral of projects for required safety, environmental or reliability purposes, including fire- and life-safety improvements in New York City-area tunnels."
NCI President Jim RePass viewed Warrington as throwing down a gauntlet to Congress. He described Warrington's actions as "a gauntlet he's been holding in his hand since his much-remarked National Press Club speech of last May, wherein he said, 'We can be a business, or we can be a service, but unless you fund us, we can't do both.'"
"Since May," RePass, said, "Congress has dithered. Since September 11 Congress has, unforgivably, dithered still more."
In addition to outlining budget savings for the current fiscal year, Amtrak said it will ask Congress to appropriate $1.2 billion for basic needs to manage and operate today's system in Fiscal Year 2003, which begins next October 1.
"The appropriation would cover $840 million in basic and mandatory capital investments, $200 million to subsidize unprofitable long-distance service, and $160 million to cover excess railroad retirement taxes. Amtrak warned, however, that this level of appropriation is insufficient to address the system's $5.8 billion capital investment backlog, improve service, or reduce trip times. Moreover, an appropriation below this level will require the elimination of unprofitable long-distance service as early as October 1, 2002. For contingency purposes, legally required notification of this action will be made March 29, 2002," the press release stated.
Additionally, Warrington said that "an on-time legislative reauthorization of Amtrak's operations is necessary this year to define the scope of the system and to align funding with it."
Warrington noted that the actions reported on Friday are in addition to $258 million in savings in fiscal 2002-2003 under measures already underway in equipment, facility and vehicle-related expense reductions, corporate restructuring and other efforts.
Warrington stressed that Amtrak has sustained a five-years' growth, increased its ridership by 19 percent, ticket revenue by 40 percent and overall revenue by 38 percent to a record $2.1 billion in 2001, but he also cautioned that "chronic under-investment in passenger rail has driven up maintenance and interest expenses, as well as capital debt service, to unacceptable levels."
Warrington again urged federal policymakers to resolve the conflicting policy mandates that expect Amtrak to operate many unprofitable routes while also meeting the test of self-sufficiency.
"Policymakers need to decide what kind of passenger rail system America needs, how much the system requires in capital and operating support and how the government will pay for the system," he said.
Amtrak vice-president Bill Schultz said, "Amtrak will defer certain capital investments and further reduce operating costs by a combined total of $285 million in fiscal 2002," but the railroad's communications chief did not specify which plans the company would defer.
Schulz told D:F "Money-losing routes are those that don't meet their operational costs. If Congress funds Amtrak at $1.2 billion in fiscal 2003, that will fund those routes. The 300 management cuts represent about 10 percent and the 700 agreement-covered cuts about three percent."
He said those capital deferrals "of $175 million represent a 23 percent cut in planned spending and affect equipment refurbishment, capacity and reliability improvements, technology, station and facility upgrades. However, these deferrals will not affect spending to ensure current levels of reliability and safety."
Schulz said, "The operating budget will be cut by $110 million through a 4 percent staff reduction, reduced staffing at small-volume stations, and freezes or reductions in all areas of the business including hiring, travel, vehicles, discretionary training, marketing and advertising, computers, materials and supplies."
He explained, "The business actions are the result of both long-standing policy flaws and several recent events beyond Amtrak's control. The long-term policy problems include conflicting policy mandates (public service vs. commercial goals) and inadequate federal capital investment. The recent factors include the economic recession, which has lowered Amtrak's revenue forecasts for this fiscal year by approximately $120 million; additional security costs since September 11, which will cost $16.5 million in our current fiscal year; and the recent action of the Amtrak Reform Council, which has had an adverse cash impact of $52 million."
He said services will be unaffected between now and September 30, when the current fiscal year ends.
"There will be no changes in train schedules and operations. However, if Congress and the Administration do not appropriate adequate funds for fiscal year 2003, Amtrak may be forced to discontinue all long-distance train service effective October 1. Given the uncertainty about the appropriation level and the 180-day notice required by law, Amtrak will post a contingency notice on the entire long-distance network on March 29."
Schulz said, "Amtrak is requesting $1.2 billion for its federal appropriation in fiscal 2003. This appropriation would cover $840 million in basic and mandatory capital investments, $200 million net subsidy for unprofitable long-distance service, and $160 million to cover excess railroad retirement taxes. Should Amtrak receive a funding amount below this level, unprofitable long-distance service will be suspended as early as October 1, 2002."
For the record, Amtrak operates a 22,000-mile intercity passenger rail system, serving more than 500 communities in 46 states.
Amtrak is online at http://amtrak.com.
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IG reports Amtrak lost $1.4 billion;
outlook has few bright spots
The USDOT's inspector general last week issued his fourth report as mandated by the requirements in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, and once again, the outlook is not bright, but neither is it entirely bleak, in Kenneth Mead's view. The brightest spot appears to be Amtrak's growing traffic on its Acela Express trains. In view of the railroad's actions on Friday, however, that may be the only bright spot.
In his report to USDOT transportation secretary Norman Y, Mineta, who had not commented publicly by Friday on the report nor Amtrak's actions to cut jobs and services, Mead stated, "Since Amtrak received its mandate in December 1997 to become operationally self-sufficient, it has significantly improved passenger revenues and ridership, however, Amtrak has not been successful in slowing its expense growth." Mead also observed it is not clear whether Amtrak or any other entity "could ever operate a linked national system such as that in place today without operating subsidies."
Mead stated the result is that "Amtrak's cash losses have not decreased and Amtrak is no closer to operating self-sufficiency now than it was in 1997." He added, "With less than a year remaining in its mandate, there is not sufficient time for Amtrak to implement the kinds of sustainable improvements necessary to meet its deadline for self-sufficiency."
Amtrak's expenses resulted in an operating loss of $1.1 billion, which the IG stated, was a record loss. It was "$129 million more than the 2000 loss and the largest in Amtrak's history. Amtrak's 2001 cash loss was $585 million, $24 million higher than its 2000 cash loss."
Mead said Amtrak now faces "a formidable challenge in 2002 just managing its cash resources - be they from operating revenues or federal subsidies - to make ends meet without further borrowing."
He was also critical about Amtrak mortgaging Penn Station in New York City, and he warned that action would eventually become a problem in itself.
"Last summer, Amtrak generated a significant amount of cash by mortgaging portions of one of its most valuable assets, Penn Station, New York. It is possible that Amtrak could perform similar transactions in 2002 to improve its cash position, potentially even enabling Amtrak to meet its self-sufficiency deadline."
Mead noted, "While Amtrak would technically meet the letter of the law, the victory would be hollow. Not only would Amtrak's financial position be unsustainable - Amtrak's assets are finite - but more importantly, the cannibalization of the railroad's assets would compromise the future of our intercity passenger rail network, regardless of who provides rail service."
The IG warned, "Actions such as the sale or mortgaging of assets, or widespread service or personnel cuts, would constrain the options available to the Congress and the Administration as they deliberate Amtrak's future and the future of intercity passenger rail."
He noted the debate over Amtrak has primarily focused on its inability to eliminate the need for federal operating subsidies, and opined, "Even if Amtrak is successful in becoming operationally self-sufficient, it will still rely heavily on the federal government for funding of its capital needs."
Amtrak's annual capital needs are currently estimated at between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. In large part, these needs are inherent to the underlying rail infrastructure - stations, yards, track, etc.
"If the nation is to have a networked system of intercity passenger rail in the future, these needs will still have to be addressed, regardless of whether it is Amtrak or some other entity or entities providing rail service."
Looking to the future, Mead stated, "Amtrak's authorization expires in 2002 and the debate is likely to begin soon concerning the future of intercity passenger rail in the United States and Amtrak's role within it. During the course of the debate, a number of issues will need to be addressed, including whether or not a linked national system of intercity passenger rail is desirable, the operating subsidies that would likely be needed to sustain such a system, the capital investment requirements associated with the resulting rail network, and the appropriate source or sources of any operating or capital subsidies."
He also observed, "Factors other than Amtrak's financial performance should be considered during these discussions, including the role Amtrak has played since September 11 in providing an alternative to airline travel."
The IG is required to perform an annual assessment of Amtrak's financial requirements in each year that Amtrak requests federal funds, which, in practice, means annually. He said his office expects to begin its assessment "within the next few weeks," and added, "Since this is the last year of Amtrak's current authorization, our efforts... will focus on reauthorization issues, including potential route restructuring, future development of new high-speed corridors, and issues related to the security and safety of passenger train operations. We will issue our report this summer, although we will be prepared in the interim to provide information that might be useful to the DOT and Congress as reauthorization proceedings begin."
Looking deeper into the inspector general's report, it is clear from his remarks that "Amtrak has not succeeded in implementing enduring financial improvements of the magnitude necessary to attain and sustain self-sufficiency in and beyond 2003."
Mead said since receiving its mandate in December 1997, "Amtrak's passenger revenues and ridership have shown marked growth, rising 26.1 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively. However, expense growth has more than kept pace, so that for every $1 Amtrak realized in additional revenue, cash expenses increased by $1.05."
The bean counters were specific.
"Interest expenses related to borrowing will account for $225 million of Amtrak's total expenses by 2005, a growth of over 400 percent since 1995 when interest expenses totaled $43 million," and added, "Amtrak's operating loss in 2001 of $1.1 billion was $129 million higher than the 2000 loss and the largest in Amtrak's history. Amtrak's cash losses, which are the basis for measuring Amtrak's progress towards self-sufficiency, were $585 million in 2001. This was $24 million worse than Amtrak's cash loss in 1998, the first year of Amtrak's self-sufficiency mandate. By 2003, Amtrak must reduce its cash losses by more than $300 million in order to meet its deadline for achieving self-sufficiency."
Mead stated flatly, "There simply is not sufficient time left for Amtrak to develop, implement, and realize results from meaningful and sustainable improvement plans. At this point in time, Amtrak will face a formidable challenge in 2002 just managing its cash resources - be they from operating revenues or Federal subsidies - to make ends meet without further borrowing."
A bright spot was the Northeast Corridor. He said that 400-mile line "experienced the strongest growth in 2001 with passenger revenues and ridership increasing 13.5 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively. It was also the only business unit to post a cash profit in 2001, contributing $89 million before depreciation expense."
Amtrak West "posted passenger revenue growth of 7.1 percent and ridership growth of 13.4 percent, and while Intercity passenger revenues improved slightly over last year, its ridership actually declined by 2.9 percent."
He said both Amtrak West and Intercity "posted cash losses in 2001 totaling $52 million and $188 million, respectively. Amtrak Corporate, which includes much of the railroad's overhead and management costs, accounted for the remaining cash loss."
The IG is estimating, based on the railroad's 2001 Strategic Business plan, that Amtrak's cash losses in 2003 "will be $511 million, which is $263 million greater than it would need to be for Amtrak to meet its self-sufficiency mandate."
Mead observed Amtrak sought to compensate for cash shortfalls last year "through a variety of means, including mortgaging portions of one of its most valuable assets, Penn Station, New York. It would be possible for Amtrak to pursue additional transactions of this nature in the coming year and meet the letter of the self-sufficiency law," and, he added, the carrier "could also take other draconian measures, such as widespread employee or service cuts. Both strategies are questionable. While Amtrak would technically meet the letter of the law, the victory would be hollow. Not only would Amtrak's financial position be unsustainable - Amtrak's assets are finite - but more importantly, the cannibalization of the railroad's assets would compromise the future of our intercity passenger rail network, regardless of who provides rail service. Such actions would also constrain the options available to the Congress and the Administration as they deliberate Amtrak's future and the future of intercity passenger rail."
The World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters are playing a significant part in U.S. transportation policies and planning, he said, including increased ridership on Amtrak trains.
"Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, new airport security measures have made air travel less convenient for intercity travelers. Amtrak has benefited from these changes, although the duration and magnitude of the changes may not be clear for several months. While our preliminary analysis indicates that Amtrak could realize between $72 million and $150 million in additional passenger revenues in the Northeast Corridor in 2002, this would still not be sufficient to reduce cash losses to the extent necessary to meet the self-sufficiency mandate."
Before the long-term capital investment needs for intercity passenger rail can be determined, "decisions need to be made about the scope, size, and structure of our future passenger rail network. It is not clear whether Amtrak or any other entity could ever operate a linked national system such as that in place today without operating subsidies," Mead stated in his report.
"Congress will need to weigh the likely costs of subsidizing a linked national system against the merits of preserving such a system. The alternatives to such subsidies would be restructuring of the national system into a smaller system or systems that would be self-sustaining and not require federal operating assistance."
He said decisions concerning continued operating assistance "will establish the framework for determining future capital investment needs, and said as it is currently structured, "Amtrak will require significant capital investment on the order of $1 billion or more each year for the foreseeable future. These needs reflect deteriorated conditions in the railroad infrastructure that will need to be addressed if rail service is to continue, regardless of who operates that service. Restructuring or abandoning the linked national network to reduce operating losses will likely reduce the capital investment needs."
Regarding Acela Express service, Mead pointed out that despite delays in starting the service, Amtrak "continues to see marked growth in revenues and ridership, especially on the south end of the Northeast Corridor." In October and November of 2001, combined Acela Express and Metroliner ridership "was 40 percent higher than in 2000, and associated ticket revenue increased by 66 percent. In the first three months of Fiscal Year 2002, Acela Express load factors averaged 54 percent, which is consistent with performance over the same period in 2001, despite the downturn in the economy."
The airlines, he added, "in contrast, have lowered average fares and reduced capacity in order to sustain load factors."
The entire 90-page document can be found online at the USDOT website. Its address is http://www.oig.dot.gov/.
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NCI: Leo KingSeveral tunnels begin in Queens and guide trains some two miles under the East River to Manhattan and Pennsylvania "Penn" Station - "NYP" in Amtrak shorthand.
|Tunnels get financial help|
The Inspector General's report of last week went into great detail about New York City's tunnels. The IG's office noted that Amtrak's available funding "since 1998 has not been sufficient to invest in both high rate-of-return projects and reinvest sufficiently in existing infrastructure. The projects that support self-sufficiency, while not frivolous, have come at the expense of other, less visible reinvestment and operational reliability projects."
The writers noted the "most notable of these needs is an estimated $3.0 billion backlog of "state of good repair" needs in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak has not been able to invest sufficiently in operational reliability or other kinds of projects that would begin to address these needs. The results of this deferred spending are becoming apparent. Total minutes of delay for Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor rose nearly 75 percent between 1998 and 2001."
The report did not state, however, that during that period, the electrification project was in full swing as catenary was erected between New Haven, Conn., and Boston.
Facing constrained federal capital funding, combined with continued large operating losses, Amtrak has turned to external financing as a means for funding procurement of new equipment. While this practice has freed up Federal funds for other uses, the debt associated with these purchases will become a significant burden to Amtrak in the next few years. Principal payments on the debt, which are capital costs, are anticipated to more than double in the next 4 years, growing from $64 million in 2001 to $136 million in 2005.
The report reiterated the IG's concerns about the longstanding fire and life-safety needs in the Penn Station tunnels. The writers stated "Almost $900 million is needed to fully address the range of needs, which include the replacement of narrow, winding, spiral staircases and crumbling benchwalls and ventilation systems that cannot remove sufficient amounts of smoke or heat."
Amtrak and the other users of the tunnels, they reported again, "have been investing in the life-safety program since 1976, but their efforts have focused on prevention, such as keeping track, signals, and equipment in a state of good repair rather than emergency [fixes]. The total includes delays caused by equipment, infrastructure, train operations, and outside interference (weather, police, and trespassers) as well as delays incurred by Amtrak operating along its own right-of-way and trains operating over territory in which Amtrak neither owns nor is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure.
"These investments may be effective in preparing for known risks, but it is unlikely that these efforts would have been satisfactory in responding to a terrorist attack.
"On September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center claimed thousands of lives both as a result of the initial airplane attacks and then the collapse of the towers as workers attempted to evacuate the building. While the number of casualties was devastating, it would have been far worse if the World Trade Center had not had adequate evacuation facilities.
"Newspaper reports in recent months have suggested that the World Trade Center's stair system allowed thousands of people to safely evacuate despite panic and smoke. Despite being built 30 years ago, the World Trade Center's stair system exceeded current building codes, with two stairways 44 inches wide and a central stairway 56 inches wide. In a 44-inch stairway, a person must turn sideways to let others pass - for example, a fireman or paramedic. With the 56-inch stairway, two people can pass comfortably.
"The existing staircases in the Penn Station tunnels are only 27 inches wide, extend 10 stories, and are winding spiral staircases. They do not allow two-way traffic - evacuation and emergency response cannot occur simultaneously.
"There are no landings to catch someone if they fall, or to allow individuals to rest. These spiral staircases are not necessarily the only means out of the tunnels, and are certainly not the preferred evacuation route, but depending on the location and severity of the incident, they may prove to be the only feasible option. Each of the six tunnels is approximately 2.5 miles long, and the distance between portals and escape shafts is a minimum of three-quarters of a mile.
"Amtrak owns Penn Station and the tunnels, but New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road are heavy users for their daily commuter operations. In the past, work in the tunnels and Penn Station has been jointly funded by all three entities. While joint funding may be the most equitable solution to addressing existing needs, it may not be the most efficient one. All three users have different funding cycles and mechanisms, and in the past, projects have been postponed when one or more entities have not been able to meet their share of responsibility.
"Providing full funding, earmarked for these projects, is the best option for ensuring that these projects are expedited. Earmarking would ensure that the funds are not diverted for other needs, and that they would be available when needed.
Amtrak received $105 million in the 2002 Department of Defense Appropriation, which was signed into law on January 10, 2002. Of these funds, Amtrak is directed to use $100 million, "solely to enhance the safety and security of the aged Amtrak-owned rail tunnels under the East and Hudson Rivers." The remaining funds are to be used to offset costs associated with post-September 11 enhanced safety and security operations."
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On January 24, the USDOT's Inspector General opined that Amtrak was no closer to breaking even than it was in 1997, when the Amtrak Reform Act was passed.
A few days ago, on February 1, Amtrak President George Warrington threw down the gauntlet to Congress - a gauntlet he has been holding in his hand since his much-remarked National Press Club Speech of last May, wherein he said, "We can be a business, or we can be a service, but unless you fund us, we can't do both." Since May, Congress has dithered. Since September 11, Congress has, unforgivably, dithered still more.
This week, the Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress to study Amtrak and come up with ideas for reform, will deliver its final report to Congress, with its own set of recommendations that include splitting apart Amtrak, franchising out or selling individual components of the system, and separating the operating side of the railroad from the infrastructure (track and stations) side; but since the ARC has no statutory power other than the power to recommend, the decision on what to do lands squarely back in Congress' lap.
Congress is unlikely to be pleased, either with the Office of the Inspector General, George Warrington or with the Amtrak Reform Council, yet in an odd way they are, all three, right.
Both the OIG and George Warrington are right when they say no rail system can operate without government support, any more than the Interstate system or air traffic system could operate without it.
The ARC is right when it says that new ideas are needed, although, in our view, ARC is simply misguided in suggesting splitting off infrastructure and operations. That would actually make things worse, but the ARC has some good people involved, as we have said before.
They all are right in that the OIG, Amtrak, and ARC have handed the ball back to Congress and said, "Okay, it has been 30 years since you created this creature, Amtrak, and it is not healthy. Do you want it, or do you not?
At the National Corridors Initiative we have always believed that a series of high-speed corridors for the East, Midwest, and West, linked by long distance trains that serve the small and medium sized cities of the South and West, should comprise the national rail system. In poll after poll, most Americans agree with that. In fact, they have been asking for more rail service, not less.
Congress has refused to come up with a formula to fund the national passenger rail system, opting instead for patchwork, piecemeal legislation.
Before September 11, perhaps we could get away with that approach. After September 11, it is unconscionable. Amtrak and the national rail system may need reform, revision, and advice. But before all else, it needs money. Any debate about Amtrak must start with that fact. Otherwise, it is pure posturing.
This is a time for leadership. Congress must move, either through reserving a portion of the gas tax for intercity rail, raising it, or creating tax credits that recognize and pay for rail benefits, and it must integrate that action with strong and increased support for public transportation systems that link to the rail, air, and highway networks.
If Congress finds itself riven again with factional or ideological disputes, one more person should step forward, and that is the President.
President Bush has demonstrated leadership abilities far beyond those demanded even of extraordinary men, and he has done so with grace and courage.
The national ground transportation system, freight as well as passenger, is an integral element of the new structure we must build to survive the anti-terrorist war in which we are now engaged. That war, you may be sure, will hit us at home as well as abroad, and we must have transportation redundancy so that if one element is disrupted, the others may function. For many years, we have gotten by on a two-legged transportation system, highway and air.
That third leg, rail, must now be built up, and fast; but since Congress has been so slow to act, even in the face of danger, we ask that the President demonstrate the same leadership towards the nation's essential transportation infrastructure as he has the defense and intelligence structures that must protect us. All are essential; all are in jeopardy; action is required.
Take it, Mr. President, and lead.
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|Amtrak adds Acela Express trains|
Amtrak expanded its Acela Express high-speed rail service on January 28 between Washington, New York and Boston.
The expanded service includes an earlier weekday departure from Boston that puts commuters in New York at 8:45 a.m. to allow time to make 9 a.m. meetings. Six more weekend trains between New York and Boston and seven additional roundtrips between New York and Washington were added.
Acela Express No. 2151 departs Boston weekdays at 5:15 a.m., and , but that train has been "temporarily eliminated," the carrier stated.
Six more Acela Express weekend trains between Boston and New York were added.
With the additional express trains, service expands from eleven to thirteen weekday departures from Washington, and nine weekday departures from Boston.
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|Rail link helps New Jersey commuters|
By springtime, thousands of rail commuters in and around Morris County stand to benefit from new, direct train access into midtown Manhattan, thanks to a stretch of railroad just 1,500 feet long that cost $60 million and took 73 years to build.
Known as the "Montclair Connection," the new rail line will link the Boonton and the Morris & Essex lines, both of which pass through Montclair but, until this year, have, never met, reports the January 31 Morristown Daily Record.
The rail link will open Midtown Direct, which carries about 11,000 New Jersey commuters into the city each rush hour, to commuters in northeast Morris County who use the Boonton Line and must transfer to Port Authority trains in Hoboken in order to cross the Hudson River. The result will be a quicker commute aboard the Midtown Direct line.
Many riders will be able to bypass a 20-minute PATH trip but riders still will have to transfer, because the Hudson River tunnel cannot accommodate the Boonton Line's diesel locomotives. Riders will have to get off in Montclair or at Newark's Broad Street and wait for an electric train.
The project has been on the books since 1929 but was stymied for years because the lines it would connect were owned by competing railroads, a rail spokesman said. That obstacle was removed in 1961 with the merger of the Erie Railroad with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad to form Erie Lackawanna.
Meanwhile, the lower level of a two-story park-and-ride bus center on Howard Boulevard will open in early April as part of a project that eventually will include parking for 735 cars and a train station linked to the Midtown Direct line. Construction workers are building a detention basin and realigning entrance and exit ramps to Route 80, resulting in a maze of barricades along Howard Boulevard.
In mid-March, a construction firm will begin a 235 parking space lower level. The park-and-ride is being built on state-owned land near NJ Transit tracks. An upper level will have 500 parking spaces, which should be ready by 2004, an NJDOT spokesman said.
Also in 2004, a new $4 million rail station on NJ Transit's Boonton line, the centerpiece of the park-and-ride plan, should be ready.
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Photo: Colorado Rail CarCould MN buy coaches like these? On which lines would they operate? Would double-deckers be too close to the catenary on electrified lines?
|Double-deckers for Metro-North?|
Metro-North Railroad is considering buying double-decker commuter coaches that can each carry 146 people instead of the 110 that the current paired trainsets carry.
First, though, civil engineers must figure out how to fit the 16-foot-tall bi-levels into the tunnels and sheds between 97th Street and Grand Central Terminal. Those tunnels and sheds are at least eight inches too low for the double-deckers.
A "bi-level clearance study" will examine whether pipes, electrical boxes, and other obstacles can be relocated to accommodate the double-deckers according to The New York Times. MN trains are running close to capacity, so the double-deckers would ease congestion. The study is scheduled to be completed in July.
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Trains move at 90 in Michigan;
Amtrak trains are now traveling at higher speeds along segments of the Chicago-Detroit corridor since the operation of a new, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approved state-of-the-art communications-based positive train control system earlier this month. Now operating up to 90 miles an hour over a 45-miles of Amtrak-owned track in southwest Michigan, this is the first significant increase in passenger rail speed above 80 miles per hour outside the Northeast in 20 years.
The new technology provides high-speed automatic and continuous train protection through radio communications and global positioning satellite technology. Implementation of this new technology was a joint effort among Amtrak, FRA, Michigan DOT and General Electric Transportation Systems Global Signaling (GETS GS), and is considered a pilot program that could be used for high-speed rail across the country. By directly addressing safety concerns about train-to-train collisions, speed enforcement and the status of grade crossing warning systems at higher speeds, this new system represents a significant advancement in high-speed rail transportation in the Midwest and other sections of the country.
"This is a history-making hurdle that we've cleared in Michigan," said Michael W. Franke, Amtrak's Assistant Vice President and Program Director for high-speed rail in the Midwest.
"We have moved a step closer to our shared vision of fast, safe and more reliable passenger rail service in the Midwest."
The technology is known as Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) and was developed by Harmon Industries Inc. of Blue Springs, Mo. With the majority of funding coming from MDOT and FRA, Amtrak, MDOT and GETS GS (formerly Harmon Industries) cooperated in designing and subsequent operation of ITCS over track owned by Amtrak between New Buffalo, N.Y. and Kalamazoo, Mich.
During 2001, Amtrak tested the system with locomotives packed with on-board computers. Those machines communicate with wayside signals and highway-railroad grade crossings throughout the route. A Global Positioning System (GPS) uses satellite signals to establish a train's precise location.
"I am proud that this partnership has brought high-speed rail travel to Michigan," said MDOT Director Greg Rosine. "We've shown that collaboration and investment can pay off for our customers. This exciting new technology is a great first step we can build upon."
The ITCS technology serves as an overlay to the existing signal system. The locomotive's on-board computer collects data from all sources and turns it into operating instructions for the engineer. The computer can also act directly on the train's power control and brakes, providing what is known as "automatic train protection, " which includes automatically stopping the train, if necessary.
In addition, the ITCS determines a train's arrival at grade crossings well in advance, and confirms to the locomotive engineer that the grade crossing system is operating properly.
FRA Administrator Allan Rutter noted, "PTC systems have promise for increased safety and more efficient use of rail capacity."
Amtrak, the FRA, and the Michigan are working with eight other states on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI), a cooperative, multi-agency effort to develop an improved and expanded regional passenger rail system for the 21st century. It is expected to lead to reduced travel times, additional train frequencies, modern technology and guest-friendly amenities with downtown-to-downtown connections to major Midwest urban centers.
On January 7, train 351 from traveling from Detroit to Chicago was the first revenue train to operate at 90 mph controlled by the new signaling system. On January 14, eight daily trains (four in each direction) began operating at the increased speed.
"This is a very important step in the development of a Midwest rail network," said Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition. "This system will allow trains to operate more safely while providing a clear time savings over driving."
A similar computer and satellite system is being designed in Illinois and will begin testing later this year.
This is a major milestone in the development of faster, more frequent trains in the Midwest. While other signaling technologies have been approved for train operations in excess of 79 mph, this system can be installed with less expense and provides more information to the operators.
Conventional Amtrak passenger trains are operating at 90 mph between Niles and Kalamazoo, Mich. The new signaling system has been installed on 63 miles of Amtrak owned track in Michigan.
Beginning in the 1930s, railroads throughout the Midwest routinely operated passenger trains in excess of 100 mph. In 1947, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated railroad safety, established that trains operating at 80 mph and above required that upcoming signal indications be displayed in the locomotive cab. Trains operating in excess of 90 mph required Automatic Train Stop (ATS) - the ability to enforce a stop signal, should the engineer ignore it. In most cases, train speeds were reduced to avoid installing the expensive ATS systems.
Several ATS systems have been developed in the United States and overseas. ATS systems still control train operations between Chicago and Los Angeles and on three Metra routes in Chicago. Acela Express, Amtrak's fastest trains, are controlled by an "ACSES" system, an acronym from Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System. All the hard-wired systems, like ACSES, are expensive to install and maintain, but the new technology being developed in Michigan and Illinois will provide the same level of safety as hard-wired systems at a fraction of the cost.
At 281 miles, Amtrak's Chicago to Detroit route compares favorably to the 304 mile Paris to Lyon route, France's first high-speed line. The Detroit line is more densely populated with 4.2 million residents vs. 2.6 million between Paris and Lyon.
The January 24 report by the USDOT Inspector General found that the Chicago to Detroit line has the potential to gain ridership because of increased security measures at airports. An FRA report released in September 1997 also concluded that the line could compete with air travel, in addition to serving ten intermediate communities.
Taking advantage of the opportunities on the line will require substantial new track capacity in Indiana, modest track upgrades in Michigan and Illinois and new, state of the art trains. Twenty-three states have joined to ask Congress to create a program, structured like the highway and aviation programs, to fund these and other railroad infrastructure improvements.
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|Texans prepare rail corridors|
Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants the Lone Star State to build a $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of toll roads and rail corridors next to current interstates, a major shift in statewide transportation policy.
The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor would roughly parallel major highways used for transporting influx of goods generated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on January 29.
It would consist of six mostly toll lanes; high-speed passenger and freight rail; regional freight and commuter rail; and room underground for water, gas, electric, telecommunication and other utility lines.
Construction of such a network would refocus much of the state's transportation efforts toward travel between and around major cities. It could also be a unifying force between Perry and potential private users of the corridors, such as electric companies, pipeline companies, freight railroads, and toll authorities.
"We need a transportation system that meets the needs of tomorrow, not one that struggles to keep up with the needs of yesterday," Perry said. "This plan is as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people, and I think Texans deserve nothing less."
Building a parallel transportation system is also a departure from earlier statements by Perry and others associated with new financial tools, such as the Texas Mobility Fund. The fund had been touted as a way to help close the gap between ongoing highway construction needs and funding shortfalls. Officials said they are unsure how much money placed in the Texas Mobility Fund would be devoted to the Trans-Texas Corridor plan.
Democrats who are vying to face Perry in the November election suggested that his plan misses the mark.
"I support Gov. Perry's efforts to improve transportation in Texas," said Democratic candidate Dan Morales, a former state attorney general. "However, any concept that calls for using broad swaths of new land should be of concern to all Texans. There are historic farms and ranches all across our state and any transportation plan should first respect the rights of property owners."
Glenn Smith, who heads the gubernatorial campaign of Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, said, "His plan doesn't even address the potential $600 million shortfall in federal highway funds. We wish we had more faith that Mr. Perry fully understands his own $175 billion transportation proposal."
Regional transportation officials have been looking for some time at better NAFTA highways, including considering rail to as many routes as possible. At the same time, planners have been trying to devise a system of highways for transporting hazardous materials that avoided busy urban areas, but most of the discussion has focused on transporting freight, not people.
"I think it's a wakening of the state that they need to look out and pay as much attention to intercity travel as the metropolitan planning organizations have paid to urban centers," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
"Skeptics will say there's too much intercity in the proposal and not enough attention paid to the urban. The only way that will be answered is to see how this is all implemented."
Perry has asked the Texas Transportation Commission to develop an action plan by this summer.
Pictures suggest that the corridors may be as wide as 1,000 feet. State transportation officials acknowledged that the proposal does not include a method to ensure that a private operator will not simply walk away if the investment proves unprofitable.
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|ACE feels a money squeeze|
Just three months ago, the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) in California was being touted as a model transit program, but instead of basking in the glow of kudos, the train system that rolls through Fremont each weekday on its way to and from the Silicon Valley is feeling the pinch of the slowing economy and the sting of a local political skirmish.
The Fremont Argus reports a freeze in federal funding for Bay Area transportation projects announced recently could delay $10 million worth of improvements to the ACE tracks, while the implosion of the technology sector has stalled growth on the trains, which are heavily dependent on their Silicon Valley ridership.
In addition, the newspaper reported on January 30, protracted negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad, which owns some of the tracks on which the ACE trains run, have pushed back the addition of a fourth train to the schedule, executive director Stacey Mortensen said.
Ridership numbers on the current three-train system have remained stagnant at about 2,000 riders each way since the high-tech crash, Mortensen said.
Eighty-three percent of all ACE riders board the evening return trains from a Santa Clara County station, according to a new rider survey.
The leveling off is a first for a system that had become accustomed to exponential growth since it began carting commuters between Stockton and San Jose three years ago; but the system still is ripe for a fourth train, originally scheduled to debut late last year, Mortensen said. The new train will hit the tracks this year, she said, although she would not predict when.
"We have a couple of issues we're still trying to work out with the railroad," she said, referring to Union Pacific, and added, the ACE authority wants to nail down perpetual access, or the right to continue using the tracks. Once that is done, the fourth train can be added almost immediately, because the authority will remove a few cars off each of the current trains to make up the fourth.
That could make busy trains a little more crowded until ridership evens out, Mortensen said.
The extra train should help with scheduling concerns, which commuters identified as a top priority in a recently released survey. Most want to see an earlier evening return train, leaving San Jose sometime before the current 4:15 p.m. run.
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|On-time performance shows little improvement|
The latest Amtrak on-time performance numbers for December show little improvement from the previous month, but the Michigan line is making headway.
The statistics are according to DOT standards for on-time performance, and do not reflect punctuality enroute; only at the endpoints.
The overall performance is generally consistent with what was seen in November. As the season approached winter, it was expected that eastern train performance would drop some, but late autumn in the eastern U.S. was quite mild, and the on-time performance results didn't suffer much. The Michigan Corridor, with some track and signal work finished, is making some headway, with improvements in the Chicago-Detroit corridor pushing the OTP from 24 percent to 38 percent; still not good, but hopefully getting better still for January.
In the West, the Heartland Flyer, with implementation of a revised schedule, soared from about 44 percent in November to over 96 percent in December. Its record thus far in January is remarkable - by DOT standards, only one Heartland Flyer has been late all month.
The Texas Eagle's performance improved markedly toward the end of December, but early in the month its performance was poor, so the improvement doesn't show in the overall month's numbers.
The Southwest Chief improved from 80 percent to more than 90 percent.
On the other hand, the major improvement to the Coast Starlight's OTP, which resulted from a September schedule change, has vanished. That train's punctuality languishes among the worst in the entire company.
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WTC station reopens
In a sign that New York City is getting back to normal, the World Trade Center station of the E subway line reopened early January 28.
The lower Manhattan station, on the northeastern edge of the destroyed World Trade Center complex, was not damaged by the September 11 attack, but remained closed to the public "due to its location in or near the frozen zone during the recovery effort," New York City Transit President Lawrence Reuter said.
Some of the entrances to the station will remain closed, Reuter said, as reported by The Associated Press.
"Vesey Street is closed because it's still in the frozen zone. If you get out at the very end of the station WTC, you're going to have to walk out through some barricades."
The E train travels from lower Manhattan through midtown and into Queens. It has been starting at Canal Street, several blocks north of the trade center stop, since September 11.
The E train's World Trade Center stop is connected to the Chambers Street station on the A and C lines, and signs still identify the station as "Chambers-WTC."
Plans are underway to change the station's name, but "service is really the important issue," Marisa Baldeo, a spokeswoman for the transit agency, said.
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|Chapman advocates regional rail|
As the nation's Amtrak system threatens to go off the rails financially, transportation officials in Washington and Oregon are hoping to fashion a regional passenger rail line from the wreckage.
On February 7, the Amtrak Reform Council will present to Congress and the White House its proposal to reorganize the system.
Bruce Chapman, the council's only West Coast board member, and also president of Seattle-based Discovery Institute, said the council will advocate spinning off the more successful regional operations, such as the Northwest rail service running between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C.
"Our suggestion is that Amtrak be replaced with a series of corridor-based entities," Chapman said in an interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal and published on January 25.
He said, "Most people on the Amtrak Reform Council anticipate the Northwest would be an entity unto itself."
In many ways, the Northwest rail corridor is Amtrak's most successful. Ridership has been growing rapidly since modern, Spanish-built Talgo railcars were added several years ago, and ticket sales cover much of the system's costs. The Northeast Corridor is the other strong Amtrak corridor.
The possible conversion is supported by transportation officials in Washington and Oregon, who believe they can better meet the growing demand for north-south rail service without oversight from Washington, D.C. They envision a regionally controlled system, with operations supported by a combination of fares and subsidies from the governments of Oregon and Washington, while the federal government funds capital improvements.
"What we'd really like to do is to take the best from Amtrak, and turn it into a program that really allows us a great deal of flexibility and a whole new set of opportunities," said Jim Slakey, director of public transportation and rail for the Washington State DOT in Olympia.
The reform council's plan faces vehement opposition from the AFL-CIO, which claimed in a statement that the council has an "ideological agenda" to privatize the rail system. The union has filed suit against the council, seeking an injunction to bar it from submitting its recommendations to Congress.
The state of Washington currently spends $11 million a year to support five Amtrak Cascades trains daily between Seattle and Portland and one between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Ridership increased 9 percent last year to 600,000 people, and ticket sales covered about half the expenses, Slakey said.
The Oregon operation is smaller, costing the state $4.8 million a year for the operating costs of two trains between Eugene and Portland, with some backup from buses, said Claudia Howells, manager for the Oregon DOT rail division. Passenger volume has been growing at 10 percent to 20 percent a year, and about 100,000 people rode the Oregon leg of the journey last year.
"We're beginning to pick up people who otherwise would have flown, and are now finding the train to be a much better option," she said.
Both officials believe state funding will continue, despite the budget problems faced by Washington and Oregon.
"It's barely a ripple on the surface, when you compare with what we pay for highways," Howells said of Oregon's subsidies, pointing out that Oregon spends $1 billion annually on highways.
Slakey said the state's contribution to Amtrak Cascades is based on the investment's impacts on traffic volumes. Eventually he expects the system will operate 13 round trips daily between Seattle and Portland, and four between Seattle and Vancouver.
"We have car, rail and airline elements, and the state is saying we think rail passenger service, with that level of frequency, can really have an impact on the condition of Interstate 5, " he said.
One question being explored is what form a new regional passenger rail organization might take. Possibilities include a state-run service, an entity built from a piece of the current Amtrak system, or a private-sector company.
"If Amtrak at the national level is no longer what it is today, then one possible way we're pretty comfortable with is creating a separate Amtrak West," said Howells. She's "somewhat cautious" about the state simply taking over, but also feels "the leap to privatization is premature."
The Cascadia Project, affiliated with Chapman's Discovery Institute of Seattle, has been working with state and federal officials to develop a new framework for passenger rail.
The project is advocating a newly organized Amtrak West that would maintain regional responsibility for running the trains, while the federal government supplies funding for capital expenditures, said director Bruce Agnew.
"It's the answer to the conundrum we're facing in Washington, D.C., that people want to fund high-speed rail, but they're worried about Amtrak viability," he said.
One challenge with the corridor-based model is whether or not long-distance trains such as the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder will continue, and how they will be funded if they do.
Slakey said he is optimistic discussions in the Northwest and in Washington, D.C., will eventually lead to some sort of independent regional rail entity here.
"We consider our program the model of two states investing state dollars in the program, and trying to drive regional decisions based on the states' investment," he said. "We're very excited about having this conversation with people, because we think there's a real future for rail, and we would like to determine our own future."
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|Nebraskans to study commuter rail|
Supporters of a potential Nebraska commuter rail service between Lincoln and Omaha recently got some good news from Washington, D.C., according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
Congress has approved a $200,000 grant to help pay for a feasibility study to build the project.
"It's an exciting time," said Dan Lutz of Lincoln, president of ProRail Nebraska Inc., a nonprofit organization that is working with political subdivisions along the proposed rail corridor between the state's two largest cities.
Lutz said about $70,000 in additional funds is available to fund the comprehensive study, which will be conducted by a professional consulting firm. This money, held in escrow by the State Department of Roads, includes separate $5,000 pledges from Omaha and Lincoln and $1,206 contributed by ProRail Nebraska.
The Nebraska Transit and Rail Advisory Council, an 11-member group appointed by the governor and chaired by Lincoln resident Duane Eitel, will supervise the study.
Supporters said the proposed commuter rail service would use a separate track adjacent to the present Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks through Waverly, Greenwood, Ashland, Gretna, Millard, and Ralston en route to downtown Omaha. Eventually, the proposed route would extend past the proposed Omaha Area and Convention Center to Eppley Airfield.
Non-commuters also could use the rail service to visit the Strategic Air & Space Museum, Mahoney State Park and the Henry Doorly Zoo's Safari and Conservation Park. Shuttle buses would take visitors from a parking lot at Ashland to the three attractions.
Lutz said the commuter train would operate on conventional rail - neither high-speed rail nor light rail - at 79 mph if track conditions permit.
Public meetings are expected to begin shortly to debate costs, ridership, right-of-way acquisition, station locations, rolling stock and other components. The advisory council will meet on March 7 to take the next steps to initiate the study, and the results will be reported to the Nebraska Legislature.
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DM&E get okay to build 280 miles of new track
The Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad had gotten the federal okay to build a 280-mile rail line to tap into the coal mines of Wyoming's Powder River Basin. It will cost more than $1 billion.
Surface Transportation Board (STB) chairman Linda J. Morgan last week said the board gave its final approval for the DM&E's ambitious plan.
Morgan said a number of environmental concerns would need to be met, and requires DM&E use environmentally preferable routes.
The DM&E project represents the largest rail line construction proposal ever considered by the agency, "and the environmental review process and the environmental conditions imposed by the agency reflect the unique scope of the project," Morgan said.
DM&E applied to the STB in 1998 for authority to build the new line to gain access to the Powder River Basin and to generate revenues needed to upgrade approximately 600 miles of DM&E's existing rail line in Minnesota and South Dakota.
In a previous decision, issued in December 1998, the STB found that the new line, if it was to be built, should produce transportation benefits by giving DM&E an opportunity to compete with the Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe in the Wyoming coalfields.
The board voted that the project could not be finally approved until it conducted an extensive environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, and assess the potential environmental effects of the construction and the cost of any environmental mitigation that might be imposed on the project.
The STB's mitigation - 147 conditions in all - addresses issues ranging from safety, noise, water quality, and biological and cultural resources to establishing community and Tribal liaisons.
Twenty-four of the environmental conditions it imposed address safety concerns, including three grade-separated crossings will be required (one in Pierre, S.D., and two in Rochester, Minn.).
DM&E entered into mutually acceptable negotiated agreements with 51 of the 56 communities located on the existing line to address potential adverse environmental impacts and other local concerns.
The STB determined that an alternate route specifically designed by DM&E to avoid potential environmental impact, which differs from its originally proposed route by avoiding environmentally sensitive areas along the Cheyenne River, is the environmentally preferable alternative.
Turning to DM&E's existing line, some communities had suggested that the board require that the line's routing be modified so that it would bypass certain communities through which it now runs.
The STB determined that a proposed bypass around Rochester, Minn., could not be required because it would have its own potentially significant adverse effects due to the potential risk of sinkholes along that route, so the federal panel concluded that "The existing route through the city, coupled with the comprehensive mitigation measures it is imposing, would be environmentally preferable."
The board stated, in a press release, "There would be transportation benefits from the proposed construction and that "the public interest would be well served by this construction due to the potential for increased competition, lower costs, and improved service to shippers."
The entire construction cost of the project would be approximately $1.4 billion, in 1998 numbers, which includes $532 million to construct the approximately 280-mile new line and $876 million to rebuild and upgrade approximately 600 miles of DM&E's existing line. The STB said it now estimates that the "outer limits of the cost of environmental mitigation, including the mitigation that could be imposed by the cooperating agencies, is likely to total about $140 million," or about 10 percent of the $1.4 billion construction costs.
Compliance with the 51 community agreements could add up to $33.5 million in additional environmental mitigation costs, for a bottom line cost of $173.5 million.
In other construction actions, the STB approved Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's (BNSF) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the carrier's plan to construct a 7.5-mile rail line in Calhoun County, Texas.
The proposed line will connect a Union Carbide Corp. industrial complex at Seadrift, Tex., with a former Southern Pacific Transportation Co. (SP) line, now owned by Union Pacific between Placedo and Port Lavaca.
Construction is planned to begin in the first quarter of 2002 and is expected to be completed in 2003.
One year ago, BNSF entered into an agreement with Union Carbide to provide the company with competitive rail service to its petrochemical plant in Seadrift, about 120 miles southwest of Houston. BNSF said it intends to enter into a trackage rights agreement with UP.
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|Snowstorm disrupts freight lines|
Weather conditions were expected to improve in the Midwest and Northeast after winter storms move through over the weekend.
Norfolk Southern reported on Friday it "is working to restore normal operations as quickly as possible; however customers should expect delays due to line interruption resulting from commercial power outages and frozen switches throughout affect area."
A winter storm system crossing the Midwest and into the Northeast left ice, snow, sleet and bitter cold temperatures. NS advised its customers shipments moving through those regions, including key terminals in St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo and others "may experience delays due to this winter storm system."
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|P&W posts quarterly gains|
Providence & Worcester Railroad Co. reported at its regular quarterly meeting on January 30, 2002 that the freight carrier's directors declared a dividend of four cents per share on the firm's outstanding common stock, payable February 21 to shareholders of record on February 7.
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Open Letter to American Journalists
The National Corridors Initiative
Over the next few weeks, Washington will be the site of one of those classic battles we witness from time-to-time, when a major national issue is debated and, if we are lucky, resolved.
Unfortunately, it is an issue American journalists largely do not understand. Indeed, some would dispute the notion that this is an important issue, and dismiss it out of hand; and, as it will be debated in the shadow of Congressional investigations into the massive criminality of the Enron collapse, perhaps that view is understandable.
Yet we would assert that if we fail to address and resolve this matter, the consequences for our country will be as profound as failing to address the conditions that permitted an Enron, and with far greater long-term consequences than even that debacle. It is an issue at the core of our nation's economic and environmental health, and how we resolve it will determine our future in many ways.
I am speaking of the American passenger railroad system.
Bear with me.
As you may already know, on February 1 Amtrak announced $285 million in cuts, and further announced that it would, as required by law, notify employees on long-distance routes that in about six months, those services, too, would be cut.
Amtrak's action was in response to a number of factors, but the most central of those is Congress' unwillingness - for some 30 years - to do more than fund under-financed individual trains routes sought by individual Congressmen. It is also anticipating a final report by the Congressionally-created Amtrak Reform Council, which will advocate breaking up Amtrak, and splitting off operations from infrastructure management, a move which would cripple the nation's ability to move people by rail just as a similar move wrecked Britain's rail system six years ago - and is now being repaired at enormous taxpayer expense.
As a former daily journalist who has kept up many old acquaintances, I am fully aware that most journalists, if they think of Amtrak or passenger rail at all, think of it as the last shaky vestige of a once-proud passenger railroad system. If Amtrak makes the news, it is to report a wreck, or as part of a nostalgia story about a "lost, golden era of railroading."
As a businessman, I am also aware that travel is more and more of a burden, and that no matter the travel mode, I seem to be spending more and more of my time in transit to and from, rather than doing, business. If you live in the Northeast, you may be aware that some startling new trainsets, the first in a generation, are speeding up and down the Northeast Corridor.
If you live on the West Coast or Chicago, you may have noticed that rail service is substantially improving, but if you live anywhere else, or simply don't take the train, more than likely you share the conventional wisdom about passenger rail: it's old, it barely works, we don't need it.
And that is wrong, wrong, and wrong.
For the better part of three generations - 90 years - a highly sophisticated and successful highway lobby has convinced Americans that the automobile is the only way to travel anything but the longest distances... and then, you fly.
The result has been a massive skewing of land use and development, so that the Levittown-suburb models, and variations on that post-World War II theme, have been the dominant residential choice of the 20th century. Simultaneously, the cities were drained of much of their tax-paying middle classes, and of much of their vitality.
These trends, and their consequences, are issues for another day, but the driver was transportation policy, and the result has been a degradation of the American city that threatens the very civilization which they spawned.
Civitas, after all, is the root Latin word for both "city" and "civilization." I want to make sure that every journalist thinks about that, because connecting the cities to each other, and to the suburbs, doesn't have to be a car-only phenomenon.
Flying between cities 100 to 500 miles apart just doesn't make sense, but in America, we have largely ignored rail as an option, except as an afterthought.
Lately, there has been a spate of stories about the Amtrak Reform Council, an advisory board created by Congress to analyze Amtrak and render an opinion on its future development. The ARC has been issuing a series of encyclicals lately, which will culminate in a report to Congress February 7. Then, Congress will be back where it started when it created the Reform Council: with the Amtrak ball squarely in its lap, once again... where, in fact, it belongs.
The sound and the fury accompanying the ARC's reports, and that which will issue from Capitol Hill when the Senate Commerce Committee begins its ARC-driven hearings, should not drown out the very real debate which needs to take place as America and its transportation system moves into the 21st Century.
If the news coverage is informed and solid, then the American people and their representatives in Congress will be able to understand, and act upon, the great opportunity that these hearings will present; but if we have the kind of shallow coverage Amtrak has largely had to date, the country will be in trouble.
Here is what every journalist needs to understand if Amtrak - and the country - are to turn this corner, and rail is to become a viable part of the nation's transportation system:
Amtrak is not the nation's subsidized transportation system, as it is invariably described in the opening paragraph of virtually every Amtrak story. That would be the highway system, which recovers a fraction of its costs through the gas-tax fueled Highway Trust Fund, and the airline system, which in its overall history has made no money, even with subsidies such as the FAA, which spends $5-6 billion in normal years. That and other subsidies have been rising, as well as the huge ($5 billion cash, $15 billion loan) airline bailout last September which, may I remind you, was for losses incurred before September 11.
In the budget, Amtrak got $521 million for an annual operating subsidy, the same as the year before.
Emergency funds for evacuation improvements to the New York City rail tunnels? Stalled in Congress...
Amtrak has never been awarded a steady source of capital, despite promises made 30 years ago when it was created out of the wreckage of the bankrupt freight railroads. Instead, it gets just enough money to operate certain routes and trains; usually those favored by a powerful Representative or Senator. Consequently, it has been nearly impossible for Amtrak to do any forward planning.
When Amtrak does get a chunk of money, we have seen great things. After more than 20 years of struggle, the Northeast Corridor was finally electrified to Boston, and new trains - the Acela Express - were purchased. The result has been a runaway success, despite basic rail infrastructure needs which have still not been met. Travel times between New York and Washington are well below three hours on a regular basis, and on the curvaceous Shore Line route between Boston-New York - one of the most beautiful routes in America, by the way, yet known to relatively few - time is 3 hours and 22 minutes, and will head south of that when Connecticut gets around to a long-delayed repair project on the New Haven-Cos Cob section of the Northeast Corridor that it owns.
All over America, state legislators and governors, as well as business groups, are demanding rail as an alternative to strangled highways, as the realization dawns that adding still more lanes to the Interstate you widened five years ago will only make your cities' main streets and highways even more impassable than they already are. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is all set to go with the start of a phased 3,000-mile, nine-state high-speed rail system. California and the Pacific Northwest are already adding routes and trains and raising speeds; the Southeast, lead by 13 vociferous Chambers of Commerce, are demanding that the Northeast Corridor be extended and modernized southward from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, the Carolinas, Atlanta, and Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush has just signed an $82 million program to upgrade Amtrak service in that state.
The list goes on. The Downeaster, the new train from Boston to Portland, Maine that naysayers debunked as a nostalgia trip, had to add an extra coach after three weeks of service, demand was so high - and in the dead of winter, yet.
So why not just kill Amtrak and start over? After all, isn't it typically American to start with a clean slate? Doesn't Amtrak have, well, a lot of baggage, so to speak?
Well, yes, it does; but no, it wouldn't be a good idea to blow it up.
Over the years, many people have had the experience of riding Amtrak, and it can, indeed, be exciting. When you take a collapsed passenger rail system from the almost-collapsed freight railroads, hand it over to a new company, renege on promises of capital so that new equipment is almost impossible to buy, and then send trains out over 25,000 miles of other people's track (except for that portion of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak owns), fun things can happen.
And they have.
What amazes me is how, under impossible circumstances, Amtrak employees manage to pull it off, and keep smiling. Well, usually; but there is an even more basic reason why Amtrak, as a legal entity, must survive: the law creating Amtrak gave it the legal right to operate over the freight railroad's tracks, a concession which the bankrupt and near-bankrupt freights, with oodles of excess capacity, cheerfully made in 1970. They will never make that concession again, especially in today's post-mergers, capacity-constrained world. Any wipe-out of Amtrak to "clean-slate" the future will create a balkanized passenger rail system at a time when America more than ever needs a unified, functioning transportation network. It is not smart.
It is not necessary.
Over 30 years, Amtrak has proved that it can operate on next to no money. Now is not the time to punish it for its success. Journalists who cover this story have to become instant experts, as usual.
Call us or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I actually like and understand journalists, and I was and maybe still am a journalist, trained at The Washington Post and The St. Petersburg Times. Despite me, both are still reputable papers. Visit our website, www.nationalcorridors.org, and sign up for our no-cost weekly e-zine and newsletter, Destination: Freedom.
Whatever you may think, the national rail system is not about nostalgia. It's a great story, about a way of life, and a way of traveling that 70 to 80 percent of Americans in poll after poll say they want again, and which are poised to come roaring back to life in the only industrialized society in the world that was foolish enough to allow rail to languish.
Get aboard and hang on, because it's going to be one hell of a ride.
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Amtrak Reform Council
Business Meeting - 9:30 a.m.
Phoenix Park Hotel, 580 N. Capitol Street NW., Washington, DC 20015 The Ballroom (first floor)
Business Meeting and Press Conference will disclose council-approved action plan "for a rationalized and restructured national rail passenger system. Open to the public.
NCI 2002 Conference
Washington, D.C. Marriott Hotel
Details to be announced
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NCI: Leo King CollectionRS-3 532 takes a spin on the New Haven Railroad's turntable at Charles Street Roundhouse in Providence, R.I. circa 1953.
We try to be accurate in the stories we write, but even seasoned pros err occasionally. If you read something you know to be amiss, or if you have a question about a topic, we'd like to hear from you. Please e-mail the crew at email@example.com. Please include your name, and the community and state from which you write.
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In an effort to expand the on-line experience at the National Corridors Initiative web site, we have added a page featuring links to other rail travel sites. We hope to provide links to those cities or states that are working on rail transportation initiatives - state DOTs, legislators, governor's offices, and transportation professionals - as well as some links for travelers, enthusiasts, and hobbyists.
If you have a favorite rail link, please send the uniform resource locator address (URL) to the webmaster in care of this web site. An e-mail link appears at the bottom of the NCI web site pages to get in touch with D. M. Kirkpatrick, NCI's webmaster in Boston.
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