NCI: Leo KingAll the trains, like all Acela Expresses, need to go into the barn at the ends of their runs so they can be repaired, cleaned and restocked. The hope is that will continue after July 1. Amtrak needs cash now, says President and CEO David Gunn, and, for better or worse, the White House has finally published a passenger rail policy, vocalized by USDOT Secretary Norman Y. Mineta last week.
White House sets rail policy
Amtrak's future remains obscured, but changing
By the time you read this, Amtrak may be taking the first steps toward bankruptcy and a shutdown - or it could be yet again saved temporarily by the skin of its teeth.
Either way, the five-week old regime of Amtrak President David Gunn has caught the focused attention of official Washington.
On Friday night, Gunn told Amtrak employees that as of that date, he had not obtained a loan, and was working on three options, one being a USDOT loan guarantee, another being Congressional action authorizing DOT to issue a loan guarantee, or a bridge appropriation of $200 million.
When Congress adjourns for the Fourth of July recess in the coming week, Gunn noted, "options two and three will disappear."
While noting that bankruptcy and shutdown were "real possibilities," he believed wisdom "will prevail."
The Amtrak boss exhorted his "co-workers" and reminded them they have "a role to play." Given a chance, he said, Amtrak will be an efficient, cost-conscious company," a reputation he acknowledged it does not now enjoy.
Noting Amtrak has fervent supporters and strong critics, Gunn admonished, "Individuals who do their best are doing their part to preserve Amtrak and our jobs. Non-performers are risking not only their own jobs, but also all of our jobs."
It was a grim Senate hearing that took place Thursday when Gunn made his premiere Congressional appearance.
Either Amtrak gets approval of a $200 million loan guarantee from the Bush administration or from Congress - or it is shut-down time, not just on the long distance trains, as once suggested by Gunn's predecessor George Warrington. ("Chump change," in the view of the witnesses lined up before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.)
It appears that it will be early in the week of June 24 before Gunn will get an answer from the Bush administration, which had just announced its own program - basically to cut off the Northeast Corridor for some undefined separate corporation, and turn the long distance trains over to the states and or private franchisees. In his prepared testimony, Gunn described similar proposals as "problem avoidance."
Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told Federal Railroad Administration's boss, Allan Rutter, that the Bush administration's insistence that the loan guarantee be contingent on the "reforms" outlined by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was a non-starter.
"After all," she said, "we have no administration program. No administration plan has been submitted to Congress," despite repeated pleadings by committee chairmen to submit one.
"All we have here is a (Mineta) speech to the Chamber of Commerce," which was attached to Rutter's testimony, "That is not a presentation to Congress."
Such a program, Murray and other senators said, would require debate and testimony before the relevant legislative committees of both the House and Senate. Obviously, there is no time for that. The senators made it clear that in their judgment, Mineta - having spent 20 years as a Democratic Congressman (from California) - knows this very well. Thus, they made clear they regarded holding approval of the life-or-death loan guarantee hostage to the White House plan as very disingenuous.
"I want to make one thing clear, the Washington Democrat committee chairwoman told Rutter and Donna McLean, DOT's chief financial officer, "The administration has not submitted any reform legislation to this committee or to any other committee. All they have done is make a speech," with proposals that are "controversial."
Bottom line (again): The Bush proposal does not exist before it is submitted to the authorizing committees.
"Both Congress and the administration are playing a game of chicken with Amtrak's future," NCI President James RePass told D:F Thursday night. National Corridors Initiative is the parent organization of Destination: Freedom.
If a game of chicken is indeed going on here, it is clear that Gunn, who is new on the job, considers himself caught in the middle.
"The urgency of this is enormous," the new Amtrak boss told the senators. "We are near the point of no return."
Outside auditor KPMG has refused to declare Amtrak a "going concern." Without that seal of approval, a bank loan is hard to come by. Amtrak has discovered that it lost about $200 million more than previously believed.
Gunn has been critical of Amtrak's bookkeeping and is instituting reforms. Rutter said the Administration was unaware of the discrepancy until very recently. FRA spokesman Rob Gould told D:F that Assistant Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson did not take control of the books until March 18. A source close to the Amtrak board, in a discussion with D:F, scoffed at the idea that DOT could have been so ignorant of the financial facts.
USDOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead said Amtrak's financial statements for 2001 are in order. What auditors need, he said, is assurance that Amtrak has access to the credit markets.
That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to define the current situation as a "doomsday scenario."
Reaction to the administration plan and to the financial crush was not long in coming. Much of it was predictable. Some of it added new thought to the debate process.
Comes now a column by conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr.
The argument of "Let the rail passengers pay for their own conveniences," he writes on his National Review Online website, is "a pretty fair rule, but it's not a violation of it to remark the complexities."
Buckley examines the publicly funded infrastructures of highway and air transport, as compared with the unique circumstances of rail, whose infrastructure does not enjoy a "trust fund" or other mechanism for publicly underwriting these costs.
Noting there is "no [passenger] railroad service in any industrial country that pays for itself," the conservative, whose writings and broadcasts have stirred debate for more than five decades, asks, "Do we have here an example of an organic exception to the rule that services should pay their own way? That may in fact be the case, but in any event, conservatives need to climb onto a higher level from which to seek a broader perspective.
"The urbanization of America and the volatility of American travel need to be accepted as a part of the American culture that shouldn't be constrained, let alone aborted, by dogmatic enforcements of otherwise useful rules of procedure."
Buckley then says the Hollings bill seeks to persuade Congress and the public that "however uneven the infrastructures of rail travel to different parts of America, a national endowment is economically defensible, culturally desirable, and tangentially useful to the common defense."
The Buckley column served as an antidote to a Father's Day article in The New York Times magazine titled "Let Amtrak Die." (For an analysis of that piece, see our opinion column elsewhere in this issue.)
As for Senator Fritz Hollings himself, the South Carolinian expressed his usual lack of reserve in a declaration that "the timing of this (Bush) proposal stinks." The senator noted that his legislation had passed the Senate Commerce Committee on a strong bipartisan 20-3 vote.
One of the three senators on that panel to vote no, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fired off a letter to Mineta commending the Administration for its plan. However, even the Arizonan acknowledged that "a shut-down of Amtrak's entire system in the next few weeks would not be in the national interest."
In his testimony, Gunn figured it would cost some$40-50 billion just to shut down, store the cars, maintain security to avoid vandalism, and keep the catenary in condition and that it would take several times that to start up again.
"The longer we're out of business, the longer it'll take to bring us back," he said.
"Do you understand the gravity of ceasing Amtrak operations?" Senator Durbin asked McLean.
"I certainly do," she replied.
Gil Carmichael, former FRA Administrator for the first President Bush and Chairman of the soon-to-be-defunct Amtrak Reform Council (ARC), said his first reaction, based on news reports of the Bush proposal, "is to congratulate the Administration on a job well done in developing an approach to rail passenger reform," a plan which he noted is similar to what his panel had advocated.
Carmichael recalled the ARC statement last February that "there is a bright future for passenger rail in America. But Amtrak, as it is structured, managed, and operated under existing law, cannot achieve that promise."
Considerably less charitable to the DOT plan was James Coston, another ARC member.
"The Bush administration just flunked Transportation 101," said the Democrat who was appointed to ARC by Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)
"They've had 18 months in office in which to prepare for their responsibilities for building a modern passenger-rail system, and they didn't open the textbook until the night before the exam. Now they're trying to finesse their way through a major public-policy challenge that takes a lot of hard work."
The National Association of Railroad passengers (NARP) said ending operating grants "is tantamount to ending all service because not even the Northeast Corridor breaks even when the below-the-rail costs are considered."
Thus, said NARP, "It is absurd, on its face, to simultaneously talk of eliminating operating grants and putting Amtrak on a sound economic footing."
The rail passenger group pleaded with Congress to give the "highly-regarded" Gunn "the time and resources to demonstrate the same 'turnaround artist' abilities he has shown at various transit agencies."
Speaking for rail labor, Sonny Hall, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said an Amtrak shutdown would end up "stranding 23,000 workers in virtually every community in America."
The Bush plan, opined Hall, "won't work and assures Amtrak's eventual cannibalization."
Amtrak was warning late Friday that if a shutdown occurs, it could affect commuter service in the northeast where state-owned commuter trains run on tracks that Amtrak owns.
This writer and his wife, with sleeping car space booked for a round-trip from Washington to Salt Lake City in August, joins the rest of the nation in anxious anticipation of the next few days of high drama. By the time you read this, more may be known than what is understood at this writing on late Friday afternoon, June 21.
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|Mails prepare for Amtrak shutdown|
The U.S. Postal Service says it has contingency plans for the 5 percent of its mail volume shipped via Amtrak should the rail line follow through on a threat to stop operating if it doesn't get a $200 million loan by the end of June.
"We have redundant service to all of those places with things like surface trucking," said Paul Vogel, vice president of network operations management at the USPS, "so if anything does go wrong with Amtrak, there are other opportunities to move mail."
Most of the mail Amtrak handles is first-class and periodicals that move along the Eastern corridor.
Vogel said that one way the USPS uses Amtrak is when there are shifts in mail flow.
"At certain times of the year we have more mail going from north to south, from Boston or New York to Florida, or the other way around, when all the snowbirds move," he said, "so, rather than putting a truck into the system that is improperly utilized for a return trip, we will buy footage on Amtrak for one-way moves. It is a very good balancing tool."
The printing industry also uses Amtrak regularly in conjunction with the USPS for shipping periodicals. For example, Brown Printing of Waseca, Minn., sends about 20 percent of its periodical volume on Amtrak to as many as 70 USPS distribution centers nationwide.
"In a lot of cases, the post office has been able to reduce their costs as a result of using Amtrak because it buys rail usage for first-class mail, and the periodicals mail rides in the space that they have already purchased," said Frank Lynn, distribution manager at Brown, who noted, "It is an effective use of the space they have purchased." Lynn said that on average periodicals arrive in-house one to two days earlier when transported this way.
"We are anxious to see that this will be resolved for our customers' sake," Lynn said, "but if it doesn't, we'll continue to give our mail to the post office. There are some inherent difficulties the post office will have due to the additional handling costs. They won't be able to take advantage of optimizing their volumes that they have purchased on those trains, and our customers may not get their mail as fast."
Lynn, however, was confident that there would be no work stoppage.
"There is no way [Amtrak] is going to stop working." he said. "Amtrak is very confident that everything will be worked out."
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|Amtrak, MARC collide; six hurt|
A low-speed collision between a northbound Amtrak passenger train and a southbound Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train near Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station in Wednesday disrupted rail service between Philadelphia and Washington.
Amtrak Train No. 90, the northbound Palmetto, collided with the MARC train at B&P Interlocking, south of Penn Station, at about 5:45 p.m. It was beneath the Howard Street bridge, and left the lead Amtrak engine and two empty commuter train cars derailed but standing.
Six people suffered minor injuries, authorities said.
A crew specializing in re-railing cars began arriving early Thursday morning. As investigators for Amtrak, the NTSB and FRA began their work, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black acknowledged that the MARC train had the right-of-way as it was pulling away from the downtown rail station.
Amtrak's Palmetto had two engines, eight coaches and three mail cars, and was emerging from a tunnel and entering the same middle track on which the MARC train was moving.
"The Amtrak train should have held, should have waited until that MARC made its move," he said, adding that the speeds were about 15 mph.
Investigators are looking into what indications the signals displayed for both trains.
The Amtrak train carried 147 people, and 60 were aboard the MARC train, with six passenger cars, but no one was riding in the MARC cars that derailed, and that likely averted serious injury. Black noted that the end of the worst-damaged MARC car "just dove in" from the impact.
According to railroad officials, there were slight injuries to four MARC passengers, and a conductor and passenger on the Palmetto, and the few who were taken to hospitals were treated and released, officials said.
"There is never a good time for this kind of thing, but this was the worst time because it was rush hour and so many people were traveling," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn in Philadelphia.
The accident forced Amtrak to briefly halt service between Washington and Wilmington. It resumed Wednesday night but entailed substantial delays as riders were bused between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Baltimore stations.
Amtrak sent a customer care team to assist passengers with medical needs and transportation arrangements.
MARC service was interrupted between West Baltimore Station and the Perryville station north of the city. The Maryland Transit Administration also turned to buses to get stranded riders to BWI and Perryville.
Investigators with NTSB were downloading data from the "black box" in the cabs of each train, which records speed, throttle and brake settings. If the findings from the data are inconclusive, the agency planned to send a team back for a full examination.
The most likely causes of the collision are signal failure or operator failure, Black said.
One short section of track was turned on its side, which was repaired overnight.
Amtrak adjusted its schedule so that Metroliner 123 turned and became a Passenger Extra (PX) from Wilmington, Del. to New York.
Elsewhere, Acela Express 2167 turned for Acela Express 2182 from Philadelphia to Boston; regional train No. 173 turned in Philadelphia to become No. 178 to New York, where it terminated.
Metroliner 125 operated as a PX from Philadelphia to New York; Regional 196 became Regional 85 from Washington to Richmond; Intercity Three Rivers, No. 40's crew, was instructed to pick up passengers between Philadelphia and New York as needed.
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|Vancouver station, 60, gets spruced up|
We hear that in Vancouver, Washington, they are starting the permit process to renovate the upstairs at the classic Amtrak depot.
NCI friend and former The Oregonian transportation writer Bill Stewart tells us the station "has been closed since 1939 or 1940. The 3,600 square feet will be rented to architects and perhaps railfans, with the rent paying for depot upkeep."
Stewart still works for the Portland newspaper, but he recently took on a new post in Washington State.
"Not a huge project at $600,000," he writes regarding the station, "but the interesting delay was that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) sold the depot a couple years ago for $1, then misplaced the paperwork. No paperwork, no grant. It would have been quicker to sell the depot for another $1."
Railroading runs in his family.
"My grandfather was a lazy, worthless brakeman on the Missouri Pacific. From my childhood I remember many days off he milked out of 'cinder in the eye' in the days of steam."
His other grandfather "opened up South Florida for Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast in 1911. Free land if you grew veggies for his hotshot freights to New York City. When they went south, they had to revert to steamships three times because the rails had not been punched all the way through."
So, about that station in Vancouver.
Interior renovation of the community's Amtrak depot, urged by a citizen team in 1993, is being put back on track after a two-year search for a bill of sale.
Once Amtrak is satisfied with planned changes, the $650,000 project will go through the city's permit pipeline, a process that is expected to take three months. Construction should take about nine months because crews will be working while railroad business continues.
Last year, an average of 174 persons boarded or left the trains in Vancouver each day. That's more than 63,000 passengers a year, said Jeff Schultz of the state rail division.
Most of the work will be in the 93-year-old depot's upstairs offices, an area seldom seen since about 1940, said Karen Ciocia, project manager for the J. D. White Co., which is doing the project for the city.
"I don't think the upstairs has been touched since the station was built in the early 1900s," Ciocia said.
She added, "There's about 3,600 square feet of space upstairs. From the interest we've gotten from architects and train enthusiasts, I don't think we will have any trouble renting it."
Those rents, plus money from Amtrak, provide the income to care for the depot.
The Vancouver depot, third-busiest train station in the state, was hailed as the only "two-sided" depot - with two front doors facing different main line routes - on the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Ry. when it opened in 1909. The reason was that some trains head north-south, and others turn east at Vancouver to head for Chicago. It's still the only two-sided depot, according to the Washington State Rail Division.
The city bought the building for $1 from BNSF in April 1999.
"We knew we had purchased the depot, but BNSF could not find the papers. It really did take more than two years," Ciocia said.
The railroad-owned parking lot is under a 25-year lease with a renewal option, she said. Construction will start as soon as Amtrak approves the city replacing the railroad as depot owner.
Renovating the upstairs will be a headache, Ciocia said. The building has one wide but steep stairway; it needs two stairways to meet federal disabilities law. That law also requires an elevator.
Because this is a federal grant with no local match requirement, the project takes no money from the city's treasury. Original plans tied the interior renovation to $1 million in work by Amtrak. The rail agency spent its portion fixing the depot roof and installing 1,400 feet of platform to serve the Talgo trains of the Amtrak Cascades, which run between Eugene and Seattle.
The depot serves 12 trains a day: eight Cascades trains, two Coast Starlight Seattle-to-Los Angeles trains, and two of the Empire Builder. One section of the Empire Builder runs between Portland and Spokane, where it connects with the Seattle-Spokane half of the train. The combined train continues to Chicago.
State officials have dreamed for years of running 13 Cascades trains in each direction daily. That target is 2018, and officials hope to have travel time between Vancouver and Seattle trimmed to less than two-and-one-half hours by then.
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|CZ get third sleeper - again|
Amtrak reports that the third sleeper will return to the California Zephyr on August 1.
The carrier told travel agents, "Equipment repair will allow the restoration of between Chicago and Denver" on trains 5 and 6.
The carrier noted, though, "At the moment, sleeping car space on trains 5 and 6 is closed for sale, to allow reaccommodating passengers previously booked on that car who were displaced from it earlier this month - and who can now get space back."
Once that is done, "Sleepers will be open for normal sale, most likely sometime this weekend."
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|Michigan service reduced for trackwork|
Two Michigan trains will not run for a good part of the summer.
Amtrak stated, starting June 24, "Trains 350 and 353 will not operate Mondays through Thursdays. They won't return until September 30.
The good news is the trains will operate normally Fridays through Sundays.
No. 350 is the Wolverine and 353 is the Lake Cities.
The service curtailment is needed to allow necessary trackwork to be done.
Train No. 355, the International, will originate in Pontiac instead of Port Huron on the days that trains 350 and 353 do not operate. The carrier advised, "Passengers connecting in Chicago to western trains should take train 351 in order to make the connection."
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|Marinas, boaters, say Amtrak not living up to agreement|
Marina and boat owners in the New London, Conn., area told Amtrak officials with the last fortnight that their failure to keep the region's bridges open when trains are not coming is hurting the boating industry, according to an article in New London's The Day, a daily newspaper.
In addition, Amtrak is violating its agreement with the state that allowed the railroad to electrify the rail lines along the coastline by keeping the bridges closed, according to the marina and boat owners.
State Department of Environmental Protection analyst Tom Ouelette told the newspaper that Amtrak is indeed in violation of that agreement and the state could take enforcement action.
Amtrak operates five movable bridges - all in Connecticut - at the Connecticut River (Conn to railroaders, Old Lyme Draw to boaters) at MP 107, between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme; Niantic (Nan, MP 116.7) over the Niantic River between Niantic and Waterford; Shaw's Cove (MP 122.5), in New London; Thames River bridge (MP 124.2, between New London and Groton; and Mystic River bridge (MP 132), between Groton and Mystic.
Boaters say they are tired of the delays to get to marinas north of the bridges, Douglas Domenie of the Brewer Dauntless Shipyard in Essex told the New London Day, and would like to find a place to dock south of the railroad bridge, a move that would hurt his business.
While Domenie said slips currently are full because of the strong economy, if the economy falters and fewer boaters are renting slips, he believes people will leave marinas to the north of the bridges for available slips down river.
"Our property values will be zero if there is no reliability with the bridges," he said.
An information card that Amtrak passes out to boaters states that from May 15 to October 15, "all railroad bridges will reopen immediately after trains pass and will close in sufficient time for approaching trains," a pledge to which Amtrak is not adhering, sources said.
Amtrak officials promised to address the bridge opening problems and the group's complaint about rude and uncooperative bridge operators, stated the newspaper; however, they also outlined a major obstacle: some of the bridges in the region are old and need to be replaced.
Until there is funding for that, Amtrak has to constantly maintain the spans and can't have the bridges open all the time, despite the promises officials made, stated the newspaper.
Amtrak officials told the group there is money in the Amtrak reauthorization bills before Congress to begin the design and replacement of the Niantic and Thames river bridges, but completion of the projects would be several years away even if the projects are funded each year.
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New York strikes it rich in transit funding
Two grants worth nearly $20 million will go to New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and another $1.5 million is earmarked for Westchester County.
Jennifer L. Dorn, administrator of the USDOT'S Federal Transit Administration, announced the grants last week.
$14.95 million will be used for design activities for the proposed East Side Access project. A second grant of $4.98 million will be used to fund preliminary engineering work on the proposed Second Avenue Subway.
The East Side Access project will provide commuters on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) direct access to the east side of Manhattan. It will relieve congestion at Penn Station, which is currently LIRR's sole Manhattan stop, and will provide a one-seat ride to Grand Central Station. It will also provide access to the growing Long Island City business district.
The proposed Second Avenue Subway project will alleviate severe overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue Line, which currently provides the only rapid transit service along the entire length of the east side of Manhattan. The project will reduce travel times and improve accessibility to the east side.
The third grant, for $1.48 million, will go to the Westchester DOT to construct an intermodal transportation center in the city of New Rochelle. It will link intercity bus service, local bus service, taxis, and a 900-space parking garage.
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Here are some other transit headlines, from the pages of Passenger Transport, the weekly newspaper of the public transportation industry published by the non-profit American Public Transportation Assn. For subscription information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. - Ed.
'Urban Challenge' race is ahead
Public transportation agencies in cities across the U.S. will be in the spotlight with the arrival of "Urban Challenge" this summer and fall.
The Urban Challenge competition is designed as a mixture of a road race with problem-solving techniques, which allows participants to use transit as well as their feet to get around the city. Other forms of transportation, such as roller skates or private automobiles, are not permitted.
Urban Challenge events are scheduled in 22 U.S. cities from Los Angeles and Seattle to Cleveland, Washington, New Orleans, and Raleigh, N.C. The winning teams will compete for $50,000 at the national championship, Nov. 2 in Las Vegas.
Urban Challenge is online at http://www.urbanchallenge.com.
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Tuccillo appointed to FTA post
Robert J. Tuccillo has been named deputy associate administrator for budget and policy at the Federal Transit Administration. He will oversee a team responsible for policy development, strategic and program planning, program evaluation, budgeting, and accounting. The office manages overall FTA policy and prepares and coordinates statutory reports to Congress. Other duties inlcude developing strategic plans and conducting program evaluations.
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Two agencies add fuel cell buses
Two California public transportation agencies, AC Transit of Oakland and the SunLine Transit Agency in Thousand Palms, are preparing to become the first public transportation agencies in the U.S. to place fuel cell buses into regular service as part of their fleets.
Both agencies are members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. The primary objective of this program is to work in partnership with the private sector to commercialize fuel cell technology for the transit industry.
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|LIRR trackwork disrupts service|
The Long Island Rail Road began summer work last week in its annual track rehabilitation program.
The railroad is inserting long-lasting concrete ties, replacing wooden crossties, and the job will continue all summer, until about September 2. It also runs concurrently with the St. Albans and Rosedale stations Rehabilitation.
Trains will be off their timetables for the duration. The commuter carrier said "St. Albans will have no weekday service during off-peak hours and all hours weekends and holidays."
Buses will be substitute between Valley Stream and Jamaica.
St. Albans will have weekday train service during peak hours.
The eastbound track is now out of service from the mainline flyover at the Hillside Maintenance Complex the split west of Rosedale, and westbounds are running on the eastbound track, according to a rider.
Meanwhile, the third rail had been removed in the Hillside and St. Albans vicinity, and welded rail dropped between existing rails.
MOW track cars and LORAM equipment are occupying out-of-service track and a siding adjacent to the out-of-service track across from Holban Yard.
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|Bullock leaves 'Sound' Transit|
Former Amtrak Intercity President Lee Bullock, who was transferred out of that job by George Warrington, and who finally left Amtrak as Vice President - Freight Railroad Affairs, has resigned from his subsequent job as commuter rail director at Sound Transit, the commuter service in the Seattle-Tacoma area, according to Sound Transit deputy director Vernon Stoner.
Bullock stated, in his resignation letter, "Although we thoroughly explored the elements of the job prior to my accepting it, it is now clear to me that I did not fully appreciate the extent to which the portfolio reaches beyond just operations."
He said his background was principally in rail operations, but he "simply did not anticipate that the construction management portion of the job would be as significant as it is. It is important that the agency has a commuter rail director with the full set of skills necessary to do the job successfully."
Martin Minkoff, the Executive Director of North San Diego County Transit Development Board, will be the new director, effective September 6, although sources noted it could be August 5, depending on Minkoff's agreement with his board.
Minkoff joined the county transit board as executive director in 1997 and oversees a multi-modal, regional transit district serving North San Diego County.
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UTU demands Amtrak support
"If railroads want Congress to eliminate a costly tax on locomotive diesel fuel, then railroads will have to demonstrate greater support for a national rail passenger network and legislation guaranteeing adequate rest for train crews," United Transportation Union International (UTU) President Byron A. Boyd declared June 14 in a talk to journalists, rail lobbyists and congressional staff at the National Press Club in Washington.
Boyd's comments were in response to a plea by railroads that the UTU support eliminating a 4.3-cents-per-gallon federal tax on locomotive diesel fuel. The annual rebate to railroads could exceed $170 million. Railroads want the money to improve profitability.
Boyd said the UTU "would consider supporting repeal of that tax if railroads demonstrate support for preserving and expanding a national intercity rail passenger network as well as legislation scrapping availability policies that require operating crews be available for work 30 days each month."
He said, "Freight railroads have exhibited but lukewarm support for a national intercity rail passenger network, and many have failed to cancel harsh availability policies."
The fuel tax was imposed by Congress in 1993 as a deficit reduction measure and is paid into the general fund. A similar tax on airlines and truckers subsequently was transferred into the Aviation and Highway Trust Funds, while the railroad fuel tax still goes into the general fund.
"No railroad-related legislation has passed Congress in modern history without support of rail labor," Boyd said.
A significant reason is the UTU's Transportation Political Education League (TPEL).
"During the past Congressional election cycle, Union Pacific's political action committee (the largest among carriers), contributed more than $900,000 to Congressional candidates," Boyd said, "but UTU's TPEL made $1.4 million available to Congressional candidates supportive of UTU positions, and that kind of clout is what helps to keep the UTU in the driver's seat on Capitol Hill," Boyd said.
Summarizing his recent Congressional testimony, Boyd emphasized that UTU is pressing lawmakers to pass legislation guaranteeing train and engine service employees adequate and uninterrupted rest.
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Three UP trains collide
Three Union Pacific freight trains collided June 19, and started a fire that forced part of a highway to close.
No hazardous materials were involved in the fire, which may have been caused by diesel fuel from the locomotives, railroad spokesman Mark Davis said. The fire continued to burn more than two hours after the 4:30 a.m. accident.
There were no reports of injuries.
The accident happened five miles east of North Platte in southwestern Nebraska. Authorities closed 13 miles of the two-lane U.S. Highway 30 near the accident.
According to Davis, an empty westbound coal train was rear-ended by another empty coal train, then an eastbound train carrying auto parts on and adjacent track apparently hit a derailed car, he said.
Union Pacific runs about 130 trains each day on that track.
On Monday, a 225-passenger Amtrak train going 70 mph cut a gravel truck in half in a collision at a rural crossing west of Omaha. The truck driver and three others were treated for minor injuries.
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Pennsylvania shuts down motel
The Red Caboose Motel, a Pennsylvania tourism landmark, has been abruptly shut down and fined $10,000 by the state.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said the 32-year-old Lancaster County attraction outside Strasburg repeatedly ignored orders over 20 months to correct unsafe nitrates in its drinking water supply and placed the public at risk reports the New Era.
Armed with an order from Commonwealth Court on June 13, DEP closed the complex, which features a restaurant, gift shop and 47 cabooses that serve as motel rooms. The motel, in Paradise Township, was fully booked last weekend.
The lone staffer on the premises, a receptionist, said she was told there were mechanical difficulties.
DEP rejected a last-minute appeal Thursday from Red Caboose attorney James N. Clymer to let the facility remain open.
"As you are probably aware, this time of year virtually every motel in Lancaster County is filled to capacity and there will be a lot of people with no other lodging available if we can not remedy this," Clymer wrote to DEP on behalf of owners Wayne Jackson and Scott Fix.
However, DEP counsel Charles B. Haws quickly fired back, "The parties have spent several years working toward an amicable resolution of Red Caboose's compliance problems, however, as the court again found today, Red Caboose has consistently placed the public at risk and demonstrated contempt for the law and the orders of (DEP) and the Commonwealth Court.
Red Caboose spokesman Clymer this morning accused DEP of being "heavy-handed." Clymer said, "It's not true (the owners) were ignoring it. They were working at it - probably just not at the speed DEP requested." He said DEP rejected the owners' proposal Thursday to provide bottled water to each adult guest and to operate the facility on purchased tank water until the nitrate problem is corrected to DEP's satisfaction.
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To our friends in the Bush Administration:
Please put down your Ayn Rand long enough to lead the country
Someone needs to tell the rigid free-market ideologues in the Bush Administration that the Gingrich era is over, or assuredly the voters will do that for them.
As Amtrak's David Gunn, known for straight-shooting all of his storied career, desperately seeks to find $200 million to keep the system running through October 1 (by which time a longer range strategy can and will be emerging), the Administration has strait-jacketed its own very capable transportation leadership (USDOT Secretary Norman Mineta, Deputy Michael Jackson, and FRA Administrator Alan Rutter) with an ideologically-based "plan" for Amtrak that is about as far removed from reality as it might get.
Let's illuminate the subject so that anyone can understand it:
All transportation systems are net absorbers of public capital.
Unless you redefine the meaning of a lot of accounting terms, Amtrak does not and will never show a "profit." Neither do highways, nor does the airline system. It is possible to disguise tax subsidies so that some elements of a transportation system can appear to show a profit: taxpayers build highways, so truckers can run trucks. Taxpayers build airports, so airlines can (occasionally) make a buck by flying airplanes; but in all cases, the public puts up a huge chunk of the money before the first truck rolls or airplane flies. User fees cover a big fraction of the costs, but nowhere near 100 percent. Guess who recovers the highest percentage of its costs: Amtrak, at 80 percent.
Let's stop destroying the village in order to save it.
Separating its largest cash-flow generator, the Northeast Corridor, from Amtrak, as the Administration has forced DOT to suggest, is like applying leeches to a man with anemia. Why do we keep doing that?
Why does the Bush Administration want to copy a proven mistake?
Splitting Northeast Corridor operations from its underlying infrastructure is exactly the same idiotic decision that the British took at the tail-end of the highly ideological Thatcher regime 10 years ago, and the results for British Rail have been catastrophic, from a safety and reliability standpoint.
We are and must be one nation.
Smashing the national rail system to make an ideological point about free markets is the height of irresponsibility, especially when we are trying to knit together a robust, resource-in-depth national transportation system that can resist and survive terrorist attacks. Amazingly, the Administration's ideologues apparently don't care about that. Well, they should, or they may find themselves rediscovering the joys of one-term incumbency. Most Americans want a national rail system, and will vote accordingly. If you don't think so, look at the 2000 election in Florida, where the President won by a handful of votes even as a citizen-led initiative resulted in a 58 percent plurality mandating a statewide rail system - after Gov. Jeb Bush had publicly killed the long-planned FOX high-speed rail project.
The Congress must act immediately to preserve the national passenger rail system by providing, through supplemental appropriation or some other means, $200 million for Amtrak's immediate operational needs. It then must provide, for the new fiscal year beginning October 1, an annual appropriation to sustain Amtrak and allow it to begin (with the states as partners, not separate mini-Amtrak rail bureaucracies as the Administration would create).
To permit the national rail system to expire in the manner it will without Congressional action will be to abdicate our responsibility to ourselves and to our own economic and environmental future, to invest in and sustain a strong transportation infrastructure. This debate can't be about ideological purity. We all need to be patriots right now, think of our country first, and make the national passenger rail system strong once again. Assuredly, we are going to need it.
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The New York Times gets it wrong again
The New York Times chose Fathers Day to lie about transportation history in this country.
The "gray lady," which has designated itself "the newspaper of record" (more or less in its own mind), has left a paper trail of distorted history down through the decades.
Examples range from Walter Duranty, whose dispatches from the Soviet Union in the 'thirties assured us that this land of paradise was not starving its middle class (while millions of middle class farmers were driven off their land and hauled off to Siberia and shot in work camps, their children left to starve and die in the streets, the result of Stalin's government induced famine), to Herbert Mathews, who wrote from Cuba in the 'fifties that Fidel Castro (now plotting with terrorists to destroy the U.S.) was that country's benign version of George Washington, to any one of a number of Times book reviewers and writers who told us in the late 'forties that Chairman Mao and his bandits (whose successors are now preparing for war with the U.S.) were "simple agrarian reformers."
One would think that any newspaper that prides itself on publishing "all the news that's fit to print" would be highly embarrassed at botching events that influenced world history for generations to come. Surely, when they sat down to write out something as relatively mundane as transportation patterns in the U.S., they would conscientiously endeavor to get it right this time.
John Tierney - someone I'd never heard of until a New York friend of mine explained he is a local reporter there - followed in the grand Duranty-Mathews tradition that says lies, distortions, half truths, and wild hunches are okay as long as they sound good and make a juicy story.
He bemoans the lagging schedules of long distance trains, ignoring the fact that time-sensitive business travel left overnight sleepers a long time ago. Apparently, in Tierney's world, that alone justifies their abandonment. The people in rural areas who need rail travel where there is little or no air service; families who are vacationing and wish to see the country; those who have taken due note of the fact that whatever Amtrak's problems, not a single one of its trains has been hijacked and crashed into a building; the millions who have a phobia about flying - these human beings are but flyspecks, as viewed from the vantage point of an Ivory Tower at Times Square.
But that isn't enough for the writer. The rail service that does carry time-sensitive business passengers should also be denied passenger trains. He says if the Northeast Corridor shuts down - What the hey! Just fly jumbo Jets every ten minutes out of LaGuardia and Reagan National; and what are another few dozen cars out on the Jersey Turnpike? So what if you have to wait in even longer traffic jams getting into the Holland or Lincoln Tunnels! Isn't that everyone's favorite thing next to poisoned apples?
Projections of huge population increases? Who's thinking about tomorrow? To the next generation: Tough beans, we had a deadline to meet for a magazine piece.
"Virtually all" of air and highway infrastructure is paid for by passengers [and] motorists, Tierney tells us. This ignores a rather long UN-virtual laundry list such as the billions doled out to the airlines after September 11 or the "federalizing" of airport security leading to those passenger-cherished long lines at the gates where the politically correct gendarmes go after the baggage of blond Norwegians and nail clippers of little old ladies, all the while taking care not to offend some angry young man from Saudi Arabia with two aliases, three fake IDs and no job.
Another "virtual" subsidy, as D:F has thoroughly documented, is the Essential Air Service, or EAS. This is a curious phenomenon. It is often essential in the sense that the same senator who moans that he needs the taxpayer-subsidized half-empty planes running into his state will go over the Amtrak balance sheets and demand to know why trains operating in the same area are not "self-sufficient."
Then Tierney delivers the ultimate insult.
Bottom line, he says, "it's not fair that taxpayers subsidize our hobby."
He should speak for himself.
Some of us are serious, and most of us do not confuse the importance of getting from here to there with viewing a vintage steam locomotive that The New York Times writer says elicited his reaction at age 11-months, of "Gaga choo-choo."
The Times writer does like the American Orient Express (AOE) which he praises at Amtrak's expense - a little like comparing a no frills airline to a deluxe corporate jet.
The AOE, he recounts, featured "a line of smiling porters in crisp blue uniforms is waiting there, and they will not take 'no' for an answer when they offer to carry your bag."
I rode the AOE (See D:F of January 7). It has great potential and is working hard to clean up its act. But for all the thousands of dollars a customer will spend on one trip (other than those from The New York Times who, no doubt, can get a freebie) there was still room for improvement on my ride.
As I reported at the time, coming back from an overnight stay at a western park, the "smiling porters" waved at us when our connecting buses arrived, but we had to fend for ourselves in carrying our overnight bags from car to car, whose doors were not even left open to make the trudge all the easier. Melted ice (from two days ago) awaited us in our bedrooms.
Here's what Tierney leaves out (and he would do well to recognize that transportation history really did start sometime before the day someone at the Times handed him this assignment):
After World War II, government made a conscious decision to pour resources - make that taxpayer-subsidized resources, Mr. Tierney - into air and highway transport. A good part of that money went into building up the infrastructure for air and highway transport.
Funding to build up air transport, in fact, went as far back as the Coolidge administration. Post-World War II, it gained momentum in earnest.
Highway funding started in the early part of the 20th Century, as well. In fact, about 100 years ago, the federal government created a department with the sole responsibility of developing just that infrastructure, but what gave it its real start in the 'fifties was President Eisenhower's determination that Americans would not end up out on the street in soup lines.
Bear in mind, Ike was the first Republican in the White House since Herbert Hoover, whose regime is best remembered for the Great Depression. It doesn't matter whether it was his fault. It happened on his watch, so he and his party took the rap for it.
In the mid-'fifties, Ike's relatively young administration had already taken political heat for two recessions, and every demagogue and political opportunist was casting him in the role of another Hoover. That's when he decided he would do whatever it took to see there absolutely would not be another Great Depression. Not on his watch, by God!
Enter the idea of an Interstate Highway system. Just the ticket to keep Americans employed - big time. Congress cooperated by ramming it through with one hearing.
The most significant transportation decision to change the landscape of America since the transcontinental railroad of the 19th Century, and it gets all of one hearing on a Capitol Hill that normally legislates at a pace comparable to watching grass grow.
Much of the taxpayer's money that went into building air and highway transport in the post-war era was extracted from railroad passengers. Not "virtually all" rail passengers, Mr. Tierney. All railroad passengers. Between 1942 and 1962, according to the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for Fiscal Years 1942 through 1962, train passengers kicked in a total of $3.9 billion.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago says in 2001 dollars, that amounts to $30 billion.
This research prompted Amtrak Reform Council member James Coston to propose that rail passengers get their money back. He believes this money "confiscated and used to fund infrastructure for rail's competitors rather than to improve the infrastructure the nation needed to run faster, safer, more comfortable and more economically valuable passenger trains" should be 'repatriate(d)'... to its rightful recipient, the nation's obsolete and inadequate rail infrastructure."
(Note: One of the reasons the AOE porters on our trip could not stand by the doorway to each car to help us on board with our bags is the absence of much of a platform that no longer accommodated regular passenger trains at a depot that had gone to seed. The word for that, Mr. Tierney is - repeat after me - "infrastructure.")
He also makes a big deal of the fact that on AOE, "Our train would go slower than Amtrak" and "would meander on little used tracks." What he did not mention is that much of that trackage, with much fewer freight trains to blend in (not to mention slow orders), is in such rough shape (at least on our AOE trip) that the train had little choice to but "meander" at 10 mph. When it did speed up a little, the ride could get rough. (Again, Mr. Tierney, slowly now - "I-n-f-r-a-s-t-r-u-c-t-u-r-e").
You can do a lot of rehabilitating with the kinds of money that Coston says should be "repatriated to its rightful recipient."
Then we can busy ourselves "bringing the nation's long neglected intercity rail infrastructure up to date" (Coston's words).
At that point, having rejected Mr. Tierney's proposal to ignore history and compare apples with oranges, and once all modes of transport are up-to-date and adequately funded, we can start talking about who pays for what.
At that point, if we are to deny passenger trains infrastructure backing, for example, then surely in the interest of consistency, we would demand that only the private sector, absent a single taxpayer dim - either through a ticket tax, gasoline tax, or income tax - would pay for any highways, airports, air traffic controllers.
Every dime would come from the farebox.
All of it.
Until Ivory Tower writers at Times Square can seriously support this, let us hear no more about taxpayers of one mode subsidizing taxpayers of another conveyance. Only the eunuchs and recluses who go nowhere and see no one can claim to be uncontaminated by that.
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The author reports he has also sent copies of his letter to Senators Hatch and Bennett. - Ed.
In case you haven't heard, Congress is about to cut off its nose in spite of itself. In a day of spending lavishly to bail out the airline industry, of fretting endlessly over airline safety, and of never-ending motor vehicle pollutions on the nation's overcrowded freeways, some shortsighted Congressmen now want to cut out Amtrak - the only viable transportation alternative we have left in this great country.
Our airports are increasingly congested. The airline industry is overstretched and overpressed to meet demands. One cannot board a plane anymore without first being frisked, searched as if a criminal, and virtually made to undress in public. Last weekend I saw a young woman go through it all: take off her sweater, undo her belt, remove her shoes, unzip - well, it's going too far. Everyone wonders which plane will be next.
On the ground, car makers continue to pump out so many new cars and trucks that we barely have space to drive, let alone park, them. Our freeways are anything but free, congested, clogged, and ever under construction. Tractor-trailer semis prowl and roar at will everywhere as if they own the road. Vehicle-produced smog and pollution is contaminating the atmosphere, searing our eyes and ruining our lungs.
This is progress?
So now, to solve these problems, Congress is about to bend to the almighty lobbyists and eliminate whatever is left of the railroad passenger business.
Forget the fact that trains are the most fuel-efficient method of overland transportation in this country. Forget that trains are the most environmentally friendly method of travel. Forget that trains are a safe and reliable mode of getting around. To their way of thinking, it simply makes perfect sense to get rid of a money-losing alternative. Trains cost too much money, they say.
Amtrak is inefficient, they say, passenger trains just don't work in this society, they say, especially long-distance.
Well, how many billions did Congress just spend to bail out the airline industry? How many billions to the road-construction and improvement business? How many billions to clean up the environment? How many billions in lost wages and lost time to treat pulmonary disorders brought on by the air we breathe? How many billions in tax credits to the automobile industry?
The Europeans long ago showed the world that rail travel is better travel.
All I - and millions of others - are arguing for is a safe, clean, reliable alternative way to travel around this great land. Flying is becoming exceedingly frustrating, expensive and downright dangerous. The highways are increasingly clogged, and the bus is simply too uncomfortable. This is not the time to divest but to invest in the safest, cleanest, most efficient, and often the most enjoyable method of travel in this country: rail. Don't dismantle Amtrak. Amend it, improve it, streamline it. Wake up America: the future is on track.
Richard E. Bennett
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In "High-speed won't come overnight, but can streetcars pave the way?" there is a description of Don Young's legislation that is at least somewhat confusing. Particularly:
"Young's legislation would require elimination of grade crossings to accommodate trains of at least 125 mph. That's Metroliner speed."
Allowing trains to operate at speeds of up to 125 mph requires the FRA's Class 7 certification, which was the highest grade of track extant in the Metroliner's route for most of its pre-Acela life. While Class 8 and 9 certifications completely forbid at-grade crossings, they are (sparingly) permitted in Class 7. Will Young's legislation require that Class 7 tracks also be free of such crossings?
We cannot answer your question because we don't have the legal specifics. As reporter Wes Vernon pointed out, Rep. Don Young of Alaska has not written that specification into his legislation. - Ed.
Have been looking at your site for a while and just wanted to say it is great. Finally, a site that knows what's happening in the industry.' Good luck.
Thanks. It's always nice getting an "attaboy" from our readers. - Ed.
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NCI: Leo KingMail trains and accommodations
Away back in the 1950s, the Association of American Railroads published a set of 57 photographs for school kids and other who needed materials for "show and tell." Among those pictures was this one, which appears to be a New York Central accommodation train that also carried a mail car, and snagged the mail at speed from the hoop at Chappaqua, N.Y. The inset photos show how the letter handler took the mailbag off the arm. It was dangerous work. If the train was moving just at 50 mph, the arm would fly back into the car with incredible force - so it was not a place to be standing near when that event occurred. No matter, though, now. The mail trains are gone, all the cars have been retired - not to mention the postal workers - and the steam engine. Question: Is this station still standing today?
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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