Destination: Freedom

The newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative

Vol. 1 No. 4 ©2000, NCI, Inc. April 1, 2000


Briefs at deadline

Daylight Time Begins Sunday, April 2

Most of the nation will return to daylight saving time at 2 a.m. on April 2, when clocks will be set ahead one hour. The change will provide an additional hour of daylight in the evening. We will return to standard time on Oct. 29.
 
 

Moneypenny to get new role

Transportation Workers United president Charles Moneypenny is slated to be appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council, Destination: Freedom has learned. He will replace Clarence Monin, former Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers chief, who is resigning from the ARC.
 
 

Next stop...Bridgeport, Conn.

Beginning April 2, Amtrak reports it will make an additional stop at Bridgeport, Conn., bringing the total number of daily trains to 11, and will soon provide Acela Regional service to the city. Westward NortheastDirect train No. 175 from Boston to Washington will stop in the Connecticut city at 6:02 p.m. Amtrak said it was able to add the stop following construction work by Metro North Railroad, which owns the tracks. Bridgeport will become a part of Amtrak's new Acela Regional service this summer as additional trains join the fleet.


GAO report 'nitpicks'

Financial tussles again loom ahead for Amtrak

By Wes Vernon

The battle used to be between those who supported Amtrak and those who wanted all passenger train funding eliminated.

Now the fight is between those who want Amtrak structured pretty much as it is today and those who see the rail passenger service as a vehicle for enabling the U.S. to play catch-up by leapfrogging a generation or two where rail technology and operations in this country remained stagnant, while Europe and Japan forged ahead with train service that was accorded at least equal respect with highways and air transport.

One reason the second group of Amtrak supporters has emerged is a gradual realization in our profit-driven society that there is money to be made in passenger trains, provided (and this is pivotal) we understand and accept that passenger trains will require the same public capital investments that are routinely lavished on air and highway travel. Of course, the other side of that coin is that high-speed rail systems will have to be operationally solvent.

Another reason is that more political figures such as Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Amtrak chairman, and former FRA Administrator and onetime "highway guy" Gil Carmichael, now chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC), [both of whom will be speaking at NCI's June 26-27 conference in Washington, as will Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson ? ed.] have convinced many of their fellow Americans that "capacity" problems in the air and highway modes have left policy makers little choice but to give some consideration to the rail alternative. The years-long debate over whether and where to build Chicago's long anticipated third airport has involved all the issues that have come into play here.

One veteran highwayman told me at a Washington luncheon that the U.S. could best deal with the capacity problem on the road by double-decking its highways. I responded that I doubted the body politic would tolerate it. The body politic will tolerate boring if it means getting from here to there on an interstate freeway. The public is not likely to tolerate ugly, as in double-decked highways. It also misses the point that a huge part of the highway congestion equation is found on the local streets that feed an Interstate

The "abolish Amtrak" crowd still exists, but its numbers have declined and most of its members are not focused on this particular issue to the point of developing expertise on its intricacies. Author Joseph Vranich is a glaring exception.

Several developments have come into play that tend to shape the debate on Amtrak's future, a debate that will resonate in the halls of Congress in 2000.

One is a report by Congress√ watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office (GAO). The green eyeshade analysts at GAO are remarkably mild in their criticism when you compare this latest document to some of their Amtrak reports in years past.

Nonetheless, in what they concede is a "limited" sampling, the GAO found that 18 of 23 items making up about $10 million, were spent in a manner consistent with the 1997 Amtrak legislation that put the passenger rail service on a glide path to operational self-sufficiency by the end of 2002. Two expenditures were in the question mark column because GAO could not determine whether they were "eligible" for such funding. However, the GAO says "We determined that Amtrak improperly used $9 millionó for three expenditures because it erroneously concluded that the act's restrictions did not apply to them." Amtrak is asking the IRS (which is involved through provisions of the 1997 legislation) to settle the issue of whether the five expenditures in question "are qualified expenses under the act."

Initial media reports left the impression that there was some nit-picking involved in the GAO finding. As examples: Less than $2,000 to search for a Vice President for a position that, as it turns out, was never filled. $775 for 100 one-day corporate guest passes for use at a gym facility in New Jersey. Less than $2,000 for working lunches for employees in Philadelphia. $3,300 for remedial reading for some Amtrak Employees, a "tribute," perhaps, to the status of education in this country. Some of these projects were "morale boosters" for employees who had to be out on the road for many days at a time, and one could ask what's $9 million out of the $2.2 billion in capital or "TRA" money?; but when the document was released, it was found that the $10 million examined was just a sample. GAO auditors had not attempted to tackle the entire budget line-by-line. Which begs the question: Is this sampling representative?

TRA money, named after the Taxpayers Relief Act, is supposed to fund Amtrak's capital needs during the five-year period of reaching operating self-sufficiency. Capital needs include things like new cars, locomotives, and new track where it is needed; big ticket items to put Amtrak on a sound competitive footing.

In releasing the GAO report, House Ground Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster said he was "surprised and troubled" that Amtrak would use TRA money for non-TRA purposes "with Amtrak's huge capital needs."

That same reference to the need to spend money on the "big picture" was expressed by Gil Carmichael, the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) Chairman.

Unlike his fellow ARC member Joe Vranich who was widely quoted as being harshly critical of Amtrak's plans to expand its routes by 10 percent over three years, Carmichael is cheering Amtrak on in this venture.

"I√m very pleased they√re moving in this direction," he told Destination:Freedom. "Amtrak can√t shrink itself into solvency."

While much of the media quoted Vranich's criticism of the plan in an understandable effort to get "the other side," the fact is that Carmichael carries more weight as to where the Amtrak Reform Council is actually going.

But his only worry is the age-old problem of new equipment. Carmichael says TRA money should be spent to lease equipment from ABB or any number of companies that can help them, so that Amtrak can expand its core passenger business and deliver mail and express to more cities.

The ARC chairman hopes Amtrak makes a go of its new expansion plans, notwithstanding that there are hurdles to be overcome, including reports that the freight carriers who own the tracks involved have yet to weigh in with their perspective on the projected new route map.

Add to that the fact that the nation's governors, at their mid-winter meeting in Washington, raised their collective voices in support of the development of high-speed rail corridors in the states nationwide, and you can appreciate the pressure that is mounting to bring rail service onto a par with other passenger conveyances.

Yet, the controversies remain. Congress is divided as to whether Amtrak is pursuing the short-term goal of operational solvency in late 2002 at the expense of long term viability with new equipment. Some folks who have to carry out congressional mandates are wishing Congress would "make up its mind" on that point.

The GAO report said Amtrak spent $1.3 billion in TRA money, with $804 million in capital improvements, $427 million for equipment maintenance, and $48 million for debt service. Much of the money has gone toward upgrading infrastructure in preparation for the high-speed Acela Express trains later this year.

Much of the debate in Congress will center around not whether, but how the U.S. should prepare itself for the high-speed rail era.
 
 

High-speed electric prototype travels to Boston

By Leo King

D:F editor

Its number is 651, and it is the second of its class delivered so far, but the shiny, new 8,000 horsepower electric engine represents the new wave in locomotive power for the United States. The engine traveled to New England for the first time on March 20.

Another engine 650, which had been testing at the AAR-DOT test track in Pueblo, Colo., is now on Amtrak property in Philadelphia, but, said Amtrak spokesman Rick Remington, neither have been formally accepted from Bombardier yet. Bombardier has a contract to build 15 engines. Workers make repairs in Boston

These first two engines are housed in Philadelphia where they are undergoing more testing, but the 651 went to Boston and was to spend three days testing between Boston and New Haven, Conn., at speeds up to 135 mph, then return to Philadelphia, but its return trip was delayed until Friday after some modulators failed on Tuesday. The test bed was laid up in Southampton Street yard on March 22 awaiting replacement parts.

Several regulated input-output modulators were damaged, and replacements were sent to Boston on Acela Regional train 130 Wednesday afternoon. The train arrived in Boston in the early afternoon, and repairs began shortly thereafter. The failure occurred after successfully testing on Tuesday when the locomotive traveled up to 125 mph and six inches of cant deficiency. Apparently it happened when crews were putting the train on ground power in the yard.

By Thursday, repairs were completed, and the four-car train was tugged over to South Station that evening by F-40 No. 245 where it stayed overnight, and left early Friday morning on its journey back to Philadelphia. The electric engine led the train, followed by dinettes 48905, 48156, 48221, and Metroliner control car coach 9643. The diesel stayed in Boston. Much of the catenary is in place in Southampton Street yard, but the overhead wires are not yet energized, so electric engines have to be towed to and from South Station.

Bombardier's Jeanine Ipsen said that the electric locomotive's "power comes from four 1,500 kilowatt motors for a total of 6,000 kilowatts. Each motor develops 2,000 horsepower, or a total of 8,000 hp for tractive effort, while an 800 kw static inverter provides head-end power." In revenue service, the locomotive will be permitted to travel up to 125 miles an hour.

Each engine is 67 feet, 1-inch long over the couplers; 10 feet, 5-1/2 inches wide; and 14 feet, 2 inches high. It has dual cabs, one at each end, and their leading ends are identically shaped, somewhat like a bullet, but flat on the bottom. Except for being double-ended, it is remarkably similar to the Acela Express trains also under construction. Its gross weight is 223,000 pounds, she said, and is "able to haul longer trains and operate in direct release mode with an end-of-train device to support Northeast corridor mail and express," according to Amtrak. The trains can be up to 14 cars long, rather than the currently normal nine cars. The engines will be used in Acela Regional service, supplanting AEM-7 electric engines.

Alstom is manufacturing the new power plant ? four traction motors and the head-end power unit ? while Transtech, of Piedmont, S.C., is making both pantographs atop each engine, and Standard Steel Valdunes of Milledgeville, Ga., is casting the wheels.

Ipsen explained that the pans "collect the power from the catenary wire (25,000 volts from Boston to New-Haven, 12.5 kv from New Haven to Bowery N.Y., and 12 kv from Bowery to Washington. The voltage is then reduced by a transformer followed by rectifiers. The obtained DC bus feeds the four traction motor inverters."

There are four traction motors (one per axle), and one head-end power inverter.

"An inverter," she said, "is a complex electronic system that converts a DC current source into an AC current source."

So, how much tractive effort is developed?

"The tractive effort is dependent on the locomotive speed. At the start, the effort is approximately 70,000 pound-feet."

Ipsen said, "Passenger train braking is controlled in a so-called Ďgraduated release√ mode while freight train braking is controlled by the so-called Ďdirect release√ mode. Our locomotive provides both operating modes."

Bombardier's woman in New York City added, "This locomotive is the first passenger electric locomotive to use asynchronous traction motors." The high-tech power plant also "is fitted with a state-of-the-art system monitoring and cab display screens."

The 15 engines will get their "care and feeding" at the railroad's three new high-speed and high horsepower maintenance shops in Southampton Yard in Boston, Mass., Sunnyside Yard in New York City, and Ivy City Yard in Washington, D.C. Remington said the order won√t be completed until Amtrak says okay ? "It depends on when we accept delivery."

Bombardier is also building 20 high-speed Acela Express trains, but no word yet for an in-revenue-service start-up date. Remington said, "Express service is expected to start mid-2000, but we still have no firm delivery date from the manufacturer," which is also Bombardier.

He added, "There are now four trainsets. Numbers 2 and 3 are in Philadelphia, No. 4 is in Washington, and No. 1 is to be towed from Pueblo back to Plattsburgh, N.Y. shortly." That's where the Bombardier and Alstom consortium are building the trainsets. The engines are being built in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and coaches and café cars in Barre, Vermont.

Each consist will include an eight-car trainset with an engine at each end, two end coaches (one standard, one first class), three middle coach cars, and a café car.

The locomotives will develop 12,500 hp with 9,200 kw traction effort, and, like the HHP-8s, 800 KW static inverters for head-end power.

Its maximum speed capability will be 165 MPH, but will operate up to 150 MPH in revenue service, Amtrak said.

Each engine (or "power car," as the consortium calls them) is 69 feet, 7-3/8-inches long, and each coach is 87-feet, 5 inches, so the total train length is about 650 feet. The gross weight for each engine is 204,348 pounds, and 142,354 pounds for the end coaches, 139,268 pounds for the middle coaches, and 136,908 pounds for the café car.

Remington said the "trainsets will be the first to meet upcoming Federal Railroad Administration Tier II standards for crashworthiness, braking systems, and truck and suspension designs."
 
 

Locomotive horns at crossings

could be a noise of the past, but...

By Wes Vernon

Those who have faith that good old free enterprise can build "a better mousetrap" when the need arises undoubtedly would have felt vindicated had they attended a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) hearing in Washington March 6.

This was to be the first in a series of hearings around the country on the FRA's move to countermand local bans on train horns and whistles, especially during night hours. (See "Safety First" previously posted on D:F).

We wandered into the session expecting the predictable, and there was some of that.

But then up to the witness table strode two executives from a fledgling company in Fort Worth, Texas. Richard M. Campbell, President of Railroad Controls Limited (RCL) set the stage for what his company had to offer as a possible solution to the problem. His director of AHS division, Kurt Anderson, outlined exactly how the company proposes to install an automated horn system, known as the Wayside (installed at the crossing itself).

"The idea," Anderson told Destination:Freedom, "is to direct the level down the roadway approach, as opposed to having the noise from the locomotive horn affecting all of the communities that live adjacent to the tracks."

Loud enough so that the motorists and pedestrians can hear, and yet quiet enough so as not to wake the neighborhood. The Wayside is a horn system "that provides a decibel level that the motorist can hear," a directional horn that is focused down the roadway approach. Anderson makes the case that this is far superior to "the train trying to get the decibel level from a quarter mile away," and waking perhaps half the town in the process.

The device is not merely on the drawing boards. First installed at three crossings in Gering (pronounced Gearing), Neb., the device was tried at three other crossings in Parsons, Kans. Eight also recently went up in Wichita, then at three locations in Ames, Iowa and Marysville, Kans., within the last six months.

The FRA's Volpe Center has monitored the success rate of the Wayside at the Nebraska installations, "and it was proved that once the horns were put in, the gate violations dropped over 50 percent."

The FRA study also "raised some issues" prompting additional study. The Iowa DOT conducted a research report after the horns were installed at the Ames locations. It was found that there was overwhelming support from the residents in reducing the noise problem. And 78 percent of the motorists felt the system "was an effective device in lieu of the train horn." 92 percent of the locomotive engineers felt the automated horn system was "as safe or safer than the train horn."

Not that the train horn would disappear. "If the engineer sees a dangerous situation, trespassers on the right of way, or someone attempting to drive around the gates, the locomotive engineer would still sound his horn."

Also remaining are the bells, gates, lights and other trappings of a good grade crossing.

Anderson argued before the FRA panel that the Wayside horn would be more effective than so-called "quiet zones," and he questioned whether "photo enforcement" (automatic photographing the license plates of violators) would work because those who look through all that film on some days would have other things to do and let it slide.

Among the "other issues" FRA is considering is the cost of the automated horn. It is not cheap at $30,000 to $35,000 to install, but is "virtually maintenance free," according to Campbell, the RCL president. And then, who will put up the money? The local community? The state? Operation Lifesaver? The railroad? A combination of any or all of the above? But then, could this be a cheaper alternative to eliminating all grade crossings so that high-speed rail can go forward?

Until this "better mousetrap" is "ready for prime time," the tried-and-true precautions still hold. A statement submitted by AAR President Edward R. Hamberger noted "FRA studies demonstrate that the sounding of the locomotive horn remains an indispensable tool for preventing grade-crossing collisions," and that there was "a 62 percent increase in grade-crossing collisions at crossings equipped with active warning devices" but with a local whistle ban.

Speaking for rail labor, James Stem of the Legislative Director's office of the United Transportation Union cited what he called a "loophole" in the FRA-proposed rule that would allow communities three years to upgrade their crossings for the so-called "quiet zones." That is "much too long," he said. He also said there should be equal enforcement of adequate safety devices at private and public crossings. When someone is killed, he's dead whether the crossing was private or public.

If the Wayside ? or whatever inevitable copycat horn becomes nationally popular ? another feature of rail nostalgia (the lonesome whistle) may be a thing of the pastó but the result is more people will be alive.
 
 

Amtrak fires some managers;

cites 'underperformance'

By Leo King

D:F editor

Some people were calling it "Black Thursday," and March 14, 2000 will be a day some Amtrak managers around the country will never forget: they lost their jobs.

Railroad officials were unable to state exactly how many people were let go, but estimates of the lower-level managers ranged from 150, which the Washington Post reported, down to 108 from some railroaders who claimed to have knowledge, including about 15 in New England.

Amtrak spokesman John Wolf, in Washington, said on Monday following the firings ? none of which were layoffs ? that the railroad's Washington public affairs office had published a brief statement.

"In 1999, Amtrak beat its business plan by $8 million and set a record for revenue. Rewarding this strong effort under Amtrak's performance management incentive program, more that 2,000 eligible management employees will receive an incentive award. Additionally, as a part of the recent annual management employee evaluation process, some individuals have had their employment ended for under-performance. Recognizing that this is a difficult moment for these employees, the employment terminations were carried out with highest degree of sensitivity, compassion and respect."

Wolf said the plan to let a number of people go "was unveiled at a management conference about a year ago" in Philadelphia.

When he was asked, "Who gave the order for the firings," Wolf took exception to the term.

"That's not the way I would term it. This was an incentive plan that was unveiled as part of the performance evaluation process." He added that, "This is a review that we will do every year," and noted that, "This is a new evaluation system. It is something that is used routinely in private business." He did not say who gave to order.

Apparently "golden parachutes" were not offered nor were the managers given any notice nor time to prepare for their departure. Most of them had come from rank-and-file jobs and crafts, so had been able to continue to pay monthly union dues which protected their rights should they ever wish to give up their management job, or, in this case, be removed from their jobs.

Unconfirmed but persistent reports from various locations around Amtrak said railroad police officers were present or nearby at each location where the purges were carried out, but much of that remained unproven. One manager with whom we spoke, who works at a large terminal, said he had "noticed an increased police presence, and saw officers in places where normally one would not be located," but, he added, "the officers kept a low profile." Other unconfirmed reports said the employees were given a box to put their belongings in, and they had one hour to leave the property.

On the condition of speaking off the record, an Amtrak official in Washington noted that it would be incorrect to say that police officers accompanied managers whose duty it was to carry out the firing order. Who actually gave the order remained murky.

The official said it would be a "gross overstatement, and it would be completely wrong. In fact, I can tell you of an instance where a police officer was told specifically not to come inside. That would really shoot your credibility there" to report otherwise.

A source in Washington said Amtrak reported it had gotten calls from the Washington Post and WTOP (an all-news station) saying that people were being led out in handcuffs at the REA Building and the W Street Annex, and that they were being escorted by police. Both of those instances were false, the source said, and added, in fact, there was no police officer inside the REA Building.

In Boston, one of the managers who was let go was a 55-year-old rules examiner who had been an Amtrak employee for 25 years. Most of the dismissed employees had more than 20 years service. Robert Moyer, who lives in the Dorchester section of Boston, said he was stunned when he got the news.

"I was in Steve Jones's office with Paul Carroll," his immediate supervisor, "and Steve Allman." It was around 6:45 a.m. Jones is the New England Division's Centralized Electrification and Train Control manager and is in charge of all the dispatchers, and the handful of train directors and block operators that remain on the division. Carroll is the division's operating rules manager, and Allman is the division's assistant general manager.

"I didn√t get hysterical, but I was in shock for a while. I√m thankful I paid the union dues all those years."

Moyer said he hired out in New York City as a ticket agent at Penn Station on Oct. 31, 1975. He transferred to Boston as a block operator in June 1978, "took the dispatcher's test in late 1979, and became a Ďspecial duty√ rules examiner in spring 1980." He said he began earning the management rate in June 1987.

The chief rules examiner of the time, Henry Vincent, was so impressed with Moyer's test scores on the written dispatcher's exam that within two weeks after taking the test, he asked Moyer to go to the rules department. Moyer had begun training for a dispatcher's job, but never completed instruction, and never became a member of the American Train Dispatcher's Assn., the dispatchers√ labor organization.

Rules examiners teach and test conductors, engineers, dispatchers, train directors block operators, track department and signal department people NORAC operating rules. NORAC is an acronym for the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee, a cooperative effort which governs train and track car operations over several northeastern railroads, including Amtrak, the former Conrail lines, New Jersey Transit, Providence & Worcester, other regional freight carriers, and nearly 30 short lines.

Moyer was able to exercise his seniority rights and "bumped" into a clerical job at South Station. He is a member of the Transportation-Communications International Union. He said the only item in his performance review that could have been construed as negative was a response to a question that asked, in essence, how does this employee contribute to the corporate bottom line?

He handled no funding or other cash-related items as a rules examiner, so he got a less that sterling grade for that question. He said none of his ratings were below average.

Moyer said that he was astonished at the number of people "who came from nowhere to say how sorry they were that this had happened to me." Most people simply could not understand how Moyer could have been targeted. He was respected, if not downright liked, by the rank-and-file with whom he had dealt with over the years.

Management rating range from a high of 7 to a low of 1 in their profiles, as their rating reports are called. "4" is considered to be the midpoint, but Destination: Freedom has learned that the cutoff was 4.67 and covered all ranks of managers.

This was not the first time Amtrak made mass firings, but it is the first time in recent memory. As my colleague Wes Vernon pointed out, "Amtrak has engaged in this type of mass firing before. I specifically remember one time in the Spring of 1981 when Cliff Black's predecessor, Jim Bryant, was among quite a few who were ousted in an Ďeconomy√ move under Alan Boyd." Black is now Amtrak's media relations chief.
 
 

Federal plan would add cash for trains

USDOT has sent proposed legislation to the Congress that would authorize use of $468 million in federal transportation funds to support expanded passenger rail services, including improvements necessary for high-speed rail service on intercity corridors nationwide. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater forwarded the plan on Feb. 28.

"High-speed passenger rail is a cost-effective transportation investment that will help provide the mobility necessary to sustain the longest economic expansion in this country's history," Slater said. "It will also contribute to reducing highway congestion."

The legislation submitted by the administration would authorize a new program proposed in the President's fiscal 2001 budget. The DOT plan would allow the secretary to make grants to states, consortia of states or Amtrak for up to 50 percent of the cost of capital investments improving intercity rail passenger service, "including those investments necessary to promote development of high-speed service."

Funding would come from the "Revenue Aligned Budget Authority," which is increased funding that was not anticipated in the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, Slater said. That law authorized federal surface transportation programs.
 
 

Acela Regional trains gain many riders, says carrier

Amtrak reports that its new Acela Regional service attracted more than 43,000 new customers during its first month of service, "far surpassing ridership expectations, and has steadily improved its on-time performance."

A total of 43,028 customers boarded the four Acela Regional trains ? drawn by electric engines ? during February, about a 50 percent increase over typical NortheastDirect ridership during February 1999, said Russ Hall, an Amtrak spokesman in Boston.

"On-time performance for the month was 85 percent, but over the last three weeks of the month consistently exceeded 90 percent."

Newly electrified tracks between Boston and New Haven, Conn., allow the trains to accelerate more quickly, and eliminate a 10- to 20-minute locomotive change from diesel to electric (for New York-bound trains) in New Haven. The reverse happens when traveling eastward.

During February, an average of 1,300 people rode the four regional trains each weekday, an increase of between 45 and 65 percent over February 1999 ridership aboard NortheastDirect trains. The success also helped drive a 6.7 percent increase in Amtrak's New England ridership total. Newly opened Route 128 station in Dedham, Mass. showed a 30 percent increase in ridership to New York.
 
 

Penn Station tunnels present safety hazards;

dilemma for riders, railroads, landowners, city

By Wes Vernon

"Fairly alarming" is a federal official's word for the deteriorating tunnels at New York's Penn Station.

In his long-awaited study, DOT Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead says one of Amtrak's "most serious (capital) needs relates to $654 million in unaddressed fire and life safety needs in Penn Station and the six adjoining river tunnels."

Mead says although the three railroads using the tunnels (Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit) have already invested $150 million in the project, the remaining problems (estimated at $654 million in 1997 dollars) "will not be fixed before 2014 under the current plan."

Part of the reason for the lengthy timing is the fact that it is difficult to do the necessary construction without impairing the operations of the three railroads, and, in part "because of assumed funding constraints".

The IG has asked Amtrak, LIRR, and NJT for an estimate of "how much the plan could be accelerated, especially the most serious needs for ventilation and evacuation, if its timing were" no longer constrained by perceived funding problems, with only the need to avoid intolerable disruptions as a factor.

"When this accelerated plan is available," said Mead, "the Administration and Congress should explore ways to implement this new accelerated plan."

Mead's investigators have told him the fire and excavation systems in the two tunnels under the Hudson River and four under the East River leading in and out of Penn Station are in such a state that "it's just a matter of time" before disaster strikes with tragic loss of life.

The tunnels carry thousands of passengers each day. In a hearing before the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in early March, the Inspector General showed pictures of a narrow dingy circular staircase which he said is the only escape route from one of the tunnels. Ten stories up to the surface with no place for the passengers to rest. Compounding that inadequacy is the fact that this is the only entrance for fire and rescue workers. So in a split second decision, how do you get the two groups through when hundreds of lives are at stake and the staircase is too narrow for them to pass each other?

The ventilation system dates back to the 1930's when the Pennsylvania Railroad installed it concurrent with its electrification of New York-Washington service.

Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is concerned that the matter is still unresolved after years of planning.

The argument comes down to who is going to pay for it. Amtrak President George Warrington agrees the need is urgent. Part of the problem, he said, is that the railroads and commuter authorities and local governments can√t agree on how to divvy up the cost.

Add to that a NIMBY problem. Property owners above the tunnel have objected to new vent outlets. In other words, you may have thought all that was settled in the early 20th Century when the Pennsy quietly bought up the real estate of the area now occupied by Penn Station and then demolished the old buildings to make room for the historic new terminal (since torn down and replaced by the glorified subway station that sits beneath Madison Square Garden). However, the current landowners above the tunnels have no desire to be a part of the solution if it means their property values go south. Obviously, that obstacle could end up adding to the bill.

Attempts have been made in Congress to insert the money into the mammoth ISTEA legislation. Upon reaching the Senate floor in 1997, the bill was ultimately pulled after a filibuster on another issue. The item was never included in the House bill that year.

Thus, the question remains: At a time when Amtrak is reaching a watershed point in its nearly thirty years of operations, with high speed rail making its debut in the showcase Northeast Corridor, how do you think its future would be affected if there were a spectacular fire and resultant deaths on a large scale right in the heart of that same showcase corridor line? Over and above the tragedy, how do you think the national publicity for something like that would affect plans for a passenger train renaissance throughout the country?

We intend to revisit this issue in the future.
 
 

Now, let's see, about those Talgos...

In last month's issue, we told you about the "Surf Board" having a devil of a time with someone who had filed Freedom of Information Act requests regarding Amtrak and its Talgo trains in the Pacific Northwest. Through the pages of the Washington Association of Railroad Passengers√ bi-monthly publication, Washington Rail News, member Jim Hamre shed some light on the topic.

It seems that the Talgo trainsets Amtrak and Washington State's DOT bought three years ago "met or exceeded all Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety requirements that existed when they were ordered. During construction, FRA increased some safety requirements and added new ones."

Hamre wrote, "Provisions in the new rules allow existing equipment to be Ďgrandfathered,√ so Amtrak "petitioned FRA to grandfather the Talgo trainsets, but FRA has continually delayed a decision. If FRA makes no decision by May 8 the Talgo trainsets will no longer be able to legally operate in the U. S."

The main issue in all of this, Hamre said, "is buff strength, a measure of the compressive forces placed on each end of a rail car. The higher the minimum requirement, the less likely a car will crush longitudinally in an accident."

Before the new rules were issued, FRA had no buff strength requirement, he wrote, but the Association of American Railroads "had an 800,000 pound buff strength requirement for rail cars interchanged between railroads." He noted that North American freight and passenger cars have traditionally been built to this standard ? which the FRA has now adopted.

"The existing Talgo trainsets have a buff strength of at least 440,000 pounds," Hamre wrote, and "Amtrak, Talgo and an independent engineering firm, LTK, have provided FRA with extensive documentation (Amtrak's petition is 314 pages) showing the Talgo trainsets are as safe as any equipment now operating in North America."

"So why the FRA dithering?" he asked.

"Bombardier of Montreal," says Hamre, "has continually filed briefs ? it appears its lawyers are paid by the word ? asking for more and more information on the design and testing of the Talgo equipment, including data Talgo considers proprietary. Talgo has released much of the requested information, yet Bombardier continues to push its delaying tactics."

Hamre opined that "Even to a casual observer, it is plainly obvious that altruistic motives are not in play here. Bombardier, the largest rail car manufacturer in North America, is simply attempting to drive a competitor out of the market."

Bombardier has always maintained that it is merely being competitive, and has denied any other motive.

"Without our [Pacific Northwest] corridor trains, most people would divert to Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland. Statistics show the chance of being killed in an automobile accident are about 15 times higher than the chance of being killed in a train accident. Also, as Washington ARP member Erik Griswold pointed out, the federal government has no qualms about standees on transit buses that are zipping down I-5 at 60 mph or more."

The latest and fifth extension of the comment period ended on February. 22.

"Amtrak, Talgo and WSDOT have been working tirelessly to get this issue settled. Perhaps a little Congressional pressure is needed," he noted.
 
 

A tax credit for Midwest freight railroads

may also aid high-speed passenger trains

By Wes Vernon

A federal tax credit for railroads?

To build high-speed capacity on their rights of way?

The seeds may have been planted at Washington hearings on freight rail mergers.

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) has put all rail mergers on ice for 15 months. After two problem consolidations (UP and SP, and the CSX-NS takeover of former Conrail lines), the board decided to call a "time out" while the commissioners sort things out and ponder new merger rules.

The decision came after four days of hearings which, in turn, were triggered by an announcement by CN and BNSF that they intended to petition the board to merge into a new entity to be named North American Railways.

Out of those hearings came testimony bearing on the future of passenger rail in general and high-speed trains in particular.

Thomas M. O√Leary, Deputy Director of the Ohio DOT, proposed a federal tax credit to enable the railroads to invest in their systems and deal with their "inadequate capacity" problems. The money could be used to help pay for the capital costs of the Midwest Regional Railroad Initiative (MWRRI).

"(Lack of) investment (in) the industry is one of the big hurdles to having it recover," O√Leary told Destination: Freedom.

"If the federal government would forego some tax from the railroads (they could) reinvest it in their system," he said.

This is not a handout, he added. If the railroads had "more of their (own) money to work with," they could create more capacity for their infrastructure that "will produce a more robust economy with greater flexibility." Let the railroads expand their capacity for freight and passenger, and you start to create a level playing field with highways, airways, and barge carriers whose infrastructures are funded by the government, mainly through "trust funds."

O√Leary, former executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, went right to the heart of the "coalition-building" long advocated by the National Corridors Initiative.

There are people who would be satisfied with a federal tax credit that had a lower tax for strictly freight capacity and handling, but this obviously seasoned politician and rail-savvy official sees the advantage in "dangling a larger, juicier carrot in front of the railroads (so they can) make capacity improvements that would allow higher speeds, primarily for passenger trains."

Freight railroads have a maximum need to operate at 70-80 MPH, rather than 110. "So encouraging them to invest above 80 miles an hour would be difficult without a higher tax credit.

"The way to build the necessary congressional consensus," opines O√Leary, "is take the rail lobby, the rail labor lobby, and the passenger rail lobby and find that they don√t have to be enemies with one another."

O√Leary believes you could theoretically get a tax credit just for freight or just for passenger, but that "the political realities" are that "if you brought all these coalitions together, you might be able to generate the necessary support."

Moreover, he offered it as an alternative to legislation by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). That bill authorizes Amtrak to sell $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds over ten years for the purpose of developing high speed rail "corridors of the future" across the nation. (See Destination: Freedom Vol.1).

That may make sense for New Jersey where Amtrak owns so much of the rail real estate. But for the Midwest and most of the rest of the country, O√Leary thinks it is better to give the tax benefit to the Class I railroads that own the tracks. There would have to be strings attached to make sure the money is spent on the purpose for which it is earmarked. For example, a lower tax credit in those "freight only" areas, larger credits in areas where high-speed rail is contemplated. O√Leary believes there is reason to suspect that flat-out subsidies for the $4.1 billion dollar estimated capital cost of the MWRRI or, for that matter, the Lautenberg bill, would have a harder time getting through Capitol Hill than his proposal would.

O√Leary sees the 15-month moratorium as an ideal time for the Surf Board to sit down and craft a piece of legislation encompassing his tax credit idea and then offer it to Congress for the lawmaker's consideration.

His purpose in advocating the idea was to challenge the STB to take "a leadership role." Too often, he believes, the board sees its focus as dealing only with railroads, rather than the customers, freight and passenger, and the economy. Here is a chance for the commissioners to deal with "the big picture."

The tax credit is not a formal position of the state of Ohio. It has been discussed, but O√Leary's willingness to express his personal opinion on the idea before a federal regulatory commission indicates the direction in which the state is moving in terms of serious consideration.

Ohio is one of the nine Midwestern states pushing for a far-flung, high-speed rail network radiating from Chicago.

Amtrak President George D. Warrington told the STB that it should not approve future rail mergers "unless the applicants clearly demonstrate that the mergerówill improve rail service for both passenger railroads and shippers, and are prepared to back their promises with appropriate guarantees."

Amtrak, which had offered no opposition to previous mergers, nonetheless complained of a loss of money and loss of ridership when egregious delays on freight railroads cause passengers to take up the cry of, "Never again!"

Under the Warrington regime, a special post of "Vice President-Freight Railroad Affairs" has been created, with longtime Amtrak official Lee Bullock occupying that position and reporting directly to Warrington. Relations between Amtrak and the Class Is have been improving. Amtrak management would like to keep it that way.
 
 

UTU leaves AFL-CIO; cites cash transfers to BLE

The United Transportation Union (UTU) reports it withdrew from the AFL-CIO on March 16. In announcing its "disaffiliation," UTU International President Charles L. Little said the "Federation demonstrated a lack of evenhandedness" in decisions as well as holding positions in national transportation policy that would hurt railroad employees."

The UTU represents most railroad conductors and brakemen, and some locomotive engineers.

Little cited UTU's differences with the AFL-CIO, which are "presently irreconcilable."

The UTU said it was unacceptable for the AFL-CIO to impose "improper after-the-fact" monetary sanctions against it in a representation dispute with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE). The UTU said it was not right for the federation to then give those funds to the BLE, which would then use the UTU's money to mount an organizing campaign against the UTU."

The UTU and BLE have historically been at odds. An idea last year to merge both operating craft unions failed.

In 1986, the UTU withdrew from the labor federation for three years "over a dispute concerning coal slurry policy that threatened the jobs of thousands of railroad workers."
 
 

Passenger rail coalition forms;

17 state DOTs offer support

A new coalition of state government leaders called "States for Passenger Rail" met for the first time in Washington, D.C., on March 17 to map out strategies to gain federal support for intercity passenger rail initiatives. Leaders of seventeen state departments of transportation from throughout the nation have pledged their support to the coalition, and several more states are maintaining a close interest in the group.

Terry Mulcahy, Deputy Secretary for the Wisconsin DOT, and soon to be named Secretary, said the coalition was formed to urge the federal government to work with states in expanding rail service.

"Intercity passenger rail is a viable and attractive transportation option for many regions, but states cannot and should not fund these services alone," Mulcahy said.

"We need a strong federal role to make these services a reality. Our coalition brings together multiple states to speak with one voice and show the federal government that passenger rail should be a priority."

The coalition issued a joint letter on March 17 signed by 14 state DOT directors to U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) calling for strong leadership from Congress to support passenger rail. The letter was issued in advance of the House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee hearing on Amtrak's budget. Obey is the ranking minority member of the full House Appropriations Committee.

In part, the letter stated that "states are working to develop passenger rail services to provide downtown business centers and other communities with fast, convenient, and economically viable transportation services."

It noted that states "are working in concert with Amtrak to implement regional initiatives, but that federal support is essential to making rail service a reality."

The letter asks Congress to support funding for regional passenger rail service in the federal fiscal year 2001 budget.

Seventeen state transportation agencies are members of States for Passenger Rail, including Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
 



 
 
 

Corridor lines...

Florida

Amtrak wants to construct a facility in CSX's Rand Yard in Sanford, Fla., to accommodate the Auto Train, Florida-bound "Silver Service" passenger trains plus commuter rail, bus and airport shuttles, according to the Sanford Herald.

The expansions would require obtaining property from CSX, and would cost $30 million. About $18 million would be used for planning and construction, and to relocate tracks and utilities, while $12 million would go to building an "Amtrak Super Station."

State Rep. John Mica (R-Winter Park) is supporting the project and said he hopes to have it under way by the end of the year, and have it completed with two years.

Commuter rail is expected to be in place by late 2002 or early 2003, if plans bear fruit.
 
 

Louisiana

A proposed New Orleans-St. Tammany Parish maglev system got a big boost in March from the USDOT when nearly $2 million was added for planning work.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said additional funding of $1.96 million was transferred to the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission for pre-construction planning activities.

Slater said, "Maglev technology reflects" the administration's "commitment to increased mobility in the new millennium through new technology that will grow the economy and protect the environment." He suggested that "This program will provide efficient high-speed ground transportation in this new century and also help ensure increased safety, our highest transportation priority and the North Star by which we are guided."

The DOT said it selected seven organizations to receive matching funds for pre-construction planning for a magnetic levitation, high-speed ground transportation system last year. The Greater New Orleans project would connect Union Passenger Terminal to the airport and cross Lake Ponchartrain to reach the suburbs in St. Tammany Parish.

Maglev trains will operate faster than 240 mph while suspended above a guideway by magnetic fields.

Wisconsin

Fond du Lac and Janesville residents could be hopping onto trains to Chicago as soon as June, Amtrak announced March 10.

As part of a nationwide expansion of passenger rail service, the passenger railroad will extend its Chicago-Milwaukee route to Fond du Lac, and add a new train that will travel from Chicago to Janesville with service to the Lake Geneva resort area.

Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), who is also the Amtrak Reform Board chairman, said "through independent analysis we found that we could utilize the rails, plus the need was there."

Amtrak estimated that the changes, which include expanded passenger routes in 21 states as well as beefing up its mail and express business, will increase its revenue $65 million by 2003.

North Carolina

The NCDOT and Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) reported a consensus on rail issues on March 21 "which will allow TTA's regional rail system to move forward while also providing for future statewide freight, passenger and high-speed rail needs" between Raleigh and Durham, but in the meantime, the price tag for the 35-mile commuter rail line has doubled, the Raleigh News and Observer reported.
Cost estimates for four rail alternatives range from $408 million to $619 million, depending on such factors as whether to build double tracks and how many coaches to buy. A final design and construction schedule for one of the alternatives shows that service between downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham could start by 2007.
TTA officials had been saying for months that engineering demands by the freight railroads and the state DOT, as well as their own decision to consider a double-track system, would blow apart early projections.
General Manager Jim Ritchey told TTA board members that the agency could afford all but the most expensive proposition without new local funding sources such as taxes or user fees. The rail funding plan calls for the federal government to cover half the capital costs, with the state and the agency splitting the rest. The agency's share comes from a 5 percent tax on rental car receipts in Wake, Durham and Orange counties.
TTA Chairman Thomas Harrelson, a former state transportation secretary, was more worried about the state's contribution.
"The key issue is continuous, reliable state spending," he said.
Deputy Transportation Secretary David King said that the DOT is committed to funding the Triangle's rail plan, but that it also faces a hefty bill in Charlotte, which is building its own rail system, as well as huge shortfalls in highway construction and maintenance spending.
"The problem is that the current level of funding for transit in North Carolina doesn't allow us to cover the TTA at even the $250 million level," King said. "The only way we know to meet the commitment is to get some new resources."
A special legislative commission on transportation financing is expected to tackle funding for public transit this spring, he said.
Ritchey said federal funding was more certain, even though the Federal Transit Administration did not recommend the rail plan for funding in the coming fiscal year, in part because of the lack of cost estimates and the troubled negotiations over the rail corridor.
The TTA wants to build its own tracks in a rail corridor already used by CSX, NS, and Amtrak. The freight railroads and the DOT, which oversees Amtrak in North Carolina, have been insisting that the TTA make expensive improvements so commuter rail won't interfere with their operations.
On Tuesday, however, the TTA and the DOT worked out an agreement in which the transit agency agreed to widen gulfs between commuter and freight tracks but would not be required to build a $26 million flyover bridge at the intersection of a little-used freight track in East Durham.
The TTA still has to make agreements with the freight railroads before it can get approval to build from the Federal Transit Administration, which oversees federal funding for transit projects.
The TTA needs the FTA's approval by August 2001, or it risks losing $10 million in federal money already committed to the project.
Just the day before, officials said key issues were resolved, including the NCDOT, TTA and North Carolina Railroad agreeing that the regional rail tracks will be built 25-feet from freight tracks in most cases. The NCDOT, TTA, NCRR and freight railroads said they would discuss and evaluate any exceptions.
The NCDOT also determined that TTA's most recent downtown Raleigh station plan is acceptable, and both agencies will work with officials from the City of Raleigh to finalize details.
NCDOT will assist with the costs of straightening curves in about 19 locations in the "triangle" to allow for "more efficient freight and intercity rail services, and eventual development of high-speed rail."
Both NCDOT and TTA say they will work together "to develop engineering and cost sharing solutions that will have the least impact on communities, including relocating as few businesses and residences as possible, constructing retaining walls and managing noise and vibration impacts."

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