In this edition...
Editor Leo King continues on his post-nuptial travels and is without a connection to the internet this week. So, the rest of us have answered the call and are offering this somewhat abbreviated edition of Destination: Freedom. Leo should be back at the computer in another week or so.
Next week, Destination: Freedom will publish on Tuesday, July 5th as we honor Independence Day.
Proposed Amtrak budget may
The House Appropriations Committee has voted $550 million for Amtrak in the coming fiscal year that starts on October. 1. This is down from $1.2 billion that was provided in the current operating year. The proposed budget would require Amtrak to eliminate its 21 long-distance routes that the committee says receive a subsidy of more than $30 per passenger.
Early this year the Bush administration proposed eliminating Amtraks budget as a way of forcing changes to how passenger rail service operates including getting states to pay much more for train service, setting financial standards for long-distance trains and putting operations out to private bid. The administrations recommendations, along with an increasing federal budget crunch, places the continuation of Amtraks present service levels in serious question.
Congress will no longer sanction the use of federal funds to subsidize these unprofitable routes,, said Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that covers transportation.
Knollenberg says he wants the committees action, which probably will be upheld in the full House, to serve as a negotiating chip in talks with the Senate.
This will keep it alive on a short-term basis to begin talking about reforms with our Senate counterparts, he said.
He also said that Amtrak might be able to keep its long-distance trains operating by cutting daily service to three days a week, eliminating sleeping cars and ending losses on food and beverage service.
Rep. John Olver, D- Mass., warned, If it prevails, Amtrak will be history, and very quickly. after the committee approved the budget.
There will be no passenger rail service next year at this time if it is enacted, Olver added, because the proposed appropriation isnt enough to cover Amtraks debt service and the labor contract costs of shutting down routes.
Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., whose state would lose its only train service on the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder under the proposed budget cuts, said the committees proposal would have repercussions for his rural state.
I dont believe there is enough money in the bill, and its not going to get through Congress that way, he said.
The committees bare-bones budget could lead to a shutdown of the entire national passenger rail system. In comparison the Senate is considered much more amenable to Amtrak than the House, and has yet to consider the agencys needs.
Despite calls for change from the White House, Amtrak is considered in some circles to have faired pretty well during this presidency. Its budget has grown from $1.05 billion in 2003 to $1.2 billion in 2005. Amtrak wants $2 billion a year, which officials say would allow the rail service to start working on a backlog of maintenance and reconstruction work along its busy Washington to Boston route, where it owns the right of way. Elsewhere, Amtrak operates trains on trackage owned by private railroads.
The committee defeated amendments designed at restoring some or all of the stricken long-distance service.
Across the country concerns are being vocalized.
In Michigan, Celeste Shoulders a supervisor in the Eli Broad College of Business, said she uses the Amtrak train about 2 to 3 dozen times a year to visit family and friends
The train is doing what its supposed to be doing and people are taking it, Shoulders said. It would be a great loss to Michigan if they were to eliminate the funding.
Some students who take the train said they feel the train is vital to East Lansing and Michigan State University.
I think its important to get our voice out there. Some people take this train daily, said business junior Michael Macal. We need to make sure that we keep this resource. If you dont do anything about it, itll go away.
Michigan provided $7.1 million last year in state subsidies for two Amtrak rail lines: the Blue Water, which goes from Port Huron to East Lansing to Chicago, and the Pere Marquette, which goes from Grand Rapids to Chicago.
From the standpoint of the line from Flint that begins in Port Huron, (the train) is an economic stimulant for the entire region, said Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint Township. We can attract some tourism from Chicago coming into Michigan.
The ridership was up considerably in 2004, Gonzales said. It was up about 20 percent from the previous year, and this year its up 12 to 14 percent so far.
Director of Save Our Trains Michigan Matt Marderosian said, Ill be honest, its not looking real good. If Amtrak has to start shutting down in Michigan, its going to lose 133 jobs... and I dont think Michigan can stand to lose more jobs.
In North Carolina, some 36,000 passengers use the Charlottesville station each year. There are two different Amtrak lines that travel through the station, the Crescent and the Cardinal line. Both of these lines would be on the chopping block if the bill passes the full Congress.
Well, I obviously would not be able to travel down here anymore on the train and I think that would be a shame, said Washington, DC resident Jerry Kress.
[I think] its terrible if we dont have a choice to take train if we want to--if were left with only buses, driving yourself, or planes, said Lafayette, Indiana resident Jane Ratcliff.
While the feds are trying to cut Amtrak, a citizens group is looking to establish a commuter service from Washington, DC. by extending the Virginia Railway Express all the way to Charlottesville.
There is a future for rail in Virginia and we would like to be on the cutting edge of that in this area by having inner city rail service to access Washington, said Meredith Richards.
I love the train. You are not cramped in your seat and you can stand up and walk around when you need to, said Paul Walker of Charlottesville.
The bill is now slated to move from the appropriations committee all the way to the House floor for a vote. Amtrak says that if this indeed does go through, it will probably mean the end, leaving tracks like those in Charlottesville empty. If the cuts go through, Amtrak may be limited to serving only parts of the midwest, California, and the Northeast Corridor.
A federal judge has ruled that Amtrak may charge groups of wheelchair users extra to ride in the same car together.
Members of Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania , a lobby group for the handicapped, regularly travel to Washington DC. They initiated a law suit after Amtrak told them that they could only ride together on a Philadelphia-to-Washington coach if they paid an additional $200 more than the customary ticket price to cover the cost of removing seats.
The group believed the policy violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III ruled that under federal law, Amtrak must have one space per coach to park a wheelchair and one space to store an unoccupied chair in the same coach. It can charge extra for anything beyond that.
About three-quarters of those who were slated to go on a February trip to Washington are on fixed incomes of about $600 a month. Executive director of the organization Nancy Salandra, said the additional charge on top of the $90 round-trip ticket price was too much for them.
If you and your family and friends and sisters and brothers and cousins, more than 20, wanted to travel to Washington, you would get a discount as a group, said Stephen Gold, an attorney for the group.
Spokeswoman Marcie Golgoski of Amtrak said the policy of charging for the removal of seats does not apply to just the disabled. If people wanted to have party on a train with seats removed, they would be assessed the fee as well.
Heat kinks, bad locks
slow the VRE on CSX
Speed restrictions along CSX-owned railroad tracks have caused substantial delays to Virginia Railway Express trains over the last month, resulting in irritation to passengers and VRE officials.
Its unacceptable to me and to the passengers, and weve got to do something quick, said VRE chief executive officer Dale Zehner, who has authored an angry and pointed letter to CSX this week. It just cannot continue to deteriorate.
The issue reached a head on Monday after a solar-powered charger on an electric lock on a CSX track-switch device malfunctioned preventing passenger trains from getting around a slower-moving freight train. As a result, two VRE passenger trains got stuck behind a CSX train going 6 mph for 18 miles between Fredericksburg and Quantico.
VRE trains were delayed in some instances more than two hours.
Adding insult to injury, CSX dispatchers also sent a freight train and an Amtrak passenger train onto a parallel track, where they could run between 60 and 70 mph, while the VRE trains were stuck with the slower moving freight.
In the end, VRE passengers on the Fredericksburg line suffered long delays, and the agency didnt know enough about the problem in advance to warn them ahead of time, Zehner said.
We like to be able to say, Heres the situation, heres the time delay, so [passengers] can say, Im going to wait or Im going to get in the car and go, he said. We like to give them the story so they can make a decision. We didnt have the right story [on Monday] and we couldnt get it.
This weeks problems are somewhat reminiscent of last summer, when the VRE had to confront CSX-imposed heat-related restrictions that slowed passenger trains down by 20 mph when temperatures were forecast to be in the vicinity of 90 degrees.
Such restrictions are a pre-caution to avoid dangerous kinks that occur as steel rails expand and contract as temperatures rise and fall which can cause trains to derail.
In early June of this year, CSX lowered its heat threshold to 85 degrees, according to VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. Almost every single day there were slow orders on the Fredericksburg line, he said.
Besides his strongly worded message to CSX, the VRE chief released a letter to his customers saying, When youre not happy, were not happy. Right now, we are downright frustrated.
Zehner did offer CSX a possible solution to change the long-standing issues between VRE and CSX: Assign a full-time CSX supervisor -- paid for by the Virginia Railway Express -- to be assigned to the Fredericksburg-Washington area.
The delays, Zehner said, could have been resolved more quickly with adequate field supervision.
We certainly regret the service delays that have inconvenienced VRE passengers, CSXs Misty Skipper said. Were unhappy with the performance of those passenger trains.
She added, Some of the delays are the result of a high volume of traffic moving through the area. About two-thirds of trains along those tracks carry commuter or Amtrak passengers.
Thats why weve been working with the Virginia Railway Express and the Commonwealth of Virginia to address these issues, Skipper said.
CSX is presently studying Zehner s proposal.
She noted ongoing and upcoming rail improvement projects, including a rail interlocking that allows trains to switch from one track to another in any direction. The latest interlocking project near Aquia Harbour in Stafford County is set to be finished by this fall and will provide more options to put trains on open trackage.
Also, a new bridge will add a second track at Quantico Creek. The $26 million project should be completed by early 2007.
According to Skipper, these and other upgrades should help alleviate the present congestion and really give our dispatchers greater flexibility.
Amtrak, which operates 20 trains a day in Virginia, also has felt some of the CSX issues, per spokesman Cliff Black. Amtrak passenger trains also run on CSX lines in the state.
NCI: Dennis KirkpatrickHere an aging F40 class engine pulls a Needham-bound commuter train at Roslindale Square station in Boston, Ma. Commuter consists of the MBTA have a mixture of single level and bi-level coaches in push-pull service. Rebuilt F40s and GP40s are the horsepower throughout the system. Massachusetts MBTA is a state-subsidized subway, bus, and commuter rail system.
Virginias to establish first ever rail fund
Governor Mark R. Warner has signed legislation establishing the Rail Enhancement Fund, a first-ever revenue stream dedicated to investment in rail infrastructure according to Richmond.Com. The fund, which takes form on on July 1 of this year, will aid in the support for rail improvements, inter-city commuters, and freight rail throughout the state.
According to the Governors formal statement, People have been talking for years about the critical need for us to re-invest in rail. Today, we are putting money behind the promise with a predictable, stable funding source for improvements to our rail infrastructure,. He further added, This legislation is an important step in helping to take trucks off the road, and it will provide more transportation options for Virginians as we work toward a more balanced transportation network.
The new rail fund was initially proposed as part of the Governors Transportation Partnership Act of 2005. The States General Assembly passed the fund with substantial bipartisan support. The Rail Enhancement Fund will provide as much as $23 million annually to Virginias railroads for passenger or freight rail improvements. The use of these funds will require a minimum matching contribution of at least 30 percent, which will need to come from non-state sources such as railroads, local governments, or regional authorities.
Seeking new partnerships with the private sector has been an important part of Governor Warners strategy to address Virginias transportation future in a more comprehensive fashion, added Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer. The Rail Enhancement Fund will be leveraged with private and local resources to deliver a greater return on investment for Virginians.
Much of the 3,400 miles of rail track in Virginia is privately owned by freight railroads with nearly three-quarters of that traffic being coal. Most of the freight moving in the state is through-traffic, bound for destinations outside its borders.
A Rail Advisory Board which comes into existence with the fund on July 1st will propose the projects to be funded.
Some possible uses of the Rail Enhancement Fund could include:
Karen J. Rae, Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation included, Virginia is a national leader with the establishment of this innovative fund. We also need sustained federal support for rail to achieve a viable national network for freight and passenger traffic.
Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak, the two passenger carriers in the state operate on approximately 616 miles of track. Statistics from 2002 suggest these railroads carried 3.8 million passengers.
|Burlington Northern & Santa Fe||(BNI)||46.68||50.62|
|Florida East Coast||(FLA)||43.25||42.47|
|Genessee & Wyoming||(GWR)||27.35||29.90|
|Kansas City Southern||(KSU)||19.90||20.08|
|Providence & Worcester||(PWX)||13.75||14.40|
The House UnAmerican Activities Committee?
Last week a House committee introduced an old idea to the political debate: that people who live in less populous states should do without some services, simply because they live where they do.
Its an isolationist concept that most folks had thought was long gone from the American scene. In 1933 in the midst of by far the worst economic crisis in American history, the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt adopted Nebraska Sen. Edward Norris longtime proposal to develop the Tennessee Valley by creating a public power authority. Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide power up into the hollows and creeks of the rural South, seven states in all. The notion was that all Americans deserved to have electric power and the means to a decent life, not just those who lived close enough to cities to get their power from investor-owned private utilities.
But Congress, or at least the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, seems to be revisiting that era. By voting last week to cut Amtrak funding to $550 million, barely a third of what is needed, the subcommittee has sent a message to the citizens of the 35 states that would lose passenger rail service starting this October 1st: You dont matter.
Unless funds are restored in conference committee when the Senate and House Appropriations Committee ultimately meet, that is the number of states, mostly rural and Southern or Western that would lose all service.
The argument no subsidies for rail is laughable compared to the billions spent to support failing airlines, or in the persistent overbuilding of the highway system. Highways do not even remotely pay their own way contrary to years of loud lying by the highway lobby.
The argument let them take the bus is also fallacious, as anyone knows who has watched Greyhound chop back on service year in, year out, and still struggle against bankruptcy, even in heavily populated states like Florida.
No, there is another problem here, and it reflects a disturbing message from Congress as well as the White House that seems aimed at middle class, ordinary Americans: Get rich or the devil take the hindmost. From bankruptcy reform legislation that targets the poor while allowing banks to charge 30 per cent interest rates on credit cards, from failure to stick up for American workers whose jobs are fleeing to countries with neither labor nor environmental laws, to an immigration policy that guarantees a ready supply of exploitable, desperate people who will take jobs at wages that wont feed a family, we are seeing increasing evidence that this Congress and this Administration just doesnt give a damn for the ordinary American.
And no action could be more illustrative of this than the House Appropriations Subcommittees eviscerating of the national passenger rail service, the one way people in much of the country have of traveling to see friends or family dispersed, as so many American families are, across this huge continent. No, the members of that committee who voted to gut Amtrak arent un-American. But they are callous, and they are short-sighted, and they are damaging to the very fiber of this country. We are and must be one country, not a passel of regions whose people live isolated one from the other. Amtrak is one of the few truly national entities we have that binds us all together as a people. To destroy Amtrak, as would the President and now the Congress Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, is an act of incredible irresponsibility and contempt for the average American family. It is to be hoped that the full committees of both houses of Congress, when gathered together in conference committee soon, will acknowledge that fact, and prevent this travesty.
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