Vol. 7 No. 35
August 14, 2006

Copyright © 2006
NCI Inc., All Rights Reserved

Destination:Freedom
The E-Zine of the National Corridors Initiative, Inc.
President and CEO - Jim RePass
Publisher - Jim RePass      Editor - Molly McKay
Webmaster - Dennis Kirkpatrick

A weekly North American rail and transit update

For railroad professionals
Political leaders at all levels of government
Journalists from all media

* Now in our Seventh Year *

This page is best viewed at 800 X 600 screen resolution

 

IN THIS EDITION...  In this edition...

  News Items... 
FRA admin Boardman launches national grade crossing safety talks
Amtrak ups police patrols makes no change in carry-on baggage
  Commuter lines… 
State pushes “Coast Daylight” train as gas prices soar in California, U.S.
News from Atlantic Northeast: Amtrak: Vermonter on DMUs?
  Safety lines… 
Rebuilt Corridor Clipperback in service
Amtrak train slams vehicle, two die
  Off the Main Line… 
More stations offer entertainment rentals
  Friday closing quotes… 
  Across the pond… 
Eurotunnel enters court supervised bankruptcy protection
Investigation continues into attempted bombing of German
   train and rail station
Deutsche Bahn tickets via mobile phone display
  Opinion… 
Host railroads put Amtrak on wrong track
  Editorial… 
Grade crossing madness redux
  End notes… 

NEWS ITEMS...  News Items...

FRA admin Boardman launches
national grade crossing safety talks

By DF Staff

WASHINGTON---The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will hold a series of public meetings across the country this month on improving safety at the nation’s largely unregulated private highway-rail grade crossings, FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman announced.

The National Corridors Initiative, which has advocated for more than a decade for such a program, praised the move.

“Joe Boardman of the FRA has taken an important first step in addressing a critical issue, the safety of privately-owned railway crossings, which number in the tens of thousands in America,” said NCI President James RePass. “We welcome this, and hope that it will lead to major structural reform of the nation’s freight and passenger rail system.”

“The lack of a common safety approach at private crossings unnecessarily puts certain motorists at risk,” Boardman said in an FRA statement. “We need to learn all we can about private crossings in order to consider possible methods of reducing collisions and fatalities in the future.”

“Establishing responsibility for safety at private crossings is one of the primary goals of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing and Trespass Prevention Action Plan issued in 2004,” Boardman said. “Increased focus on private crossings will compliment FRA’s ongoing comprehensive program to improve safety at public crossings.”

“Private crossings are owned by private property owners primarily to allow roadway access over railroad tracks to residential, commercial, or agricultural areas not meant for general public use,” Boardman explained. “Each year, about 400 accidents, and between 30 and 40 fatalities, occur at the over 94,000 private crossings used by both freight and passenger trains.”

There are a total of 240,000 at-grade rail crossings in America. Most, some 146,000 are publicly (municipally)-owned. Some are protected with only cross-bucks or signs; others have gates or flashing signals, or a combination of those. Some 400 deaths occur each year, in total, most at publicly owned crossings.

The FRA is seeking comments on topics such as determining when a private crossing has a public purpose and whether the State or Federal government should assume a greater role in setting safety standards. The first public meeting will be held in Fort Snelling, Minnesota with others tentatively planned for North Carolina, California, and Louisiana later this year, the FRA said.

In an editorial reprinted in this issue of Destination:Freedom, NCI demanded that all grade crossings in America be bridged, tunneled, or closed. “No one in their right mind would propose that a loaded gasoline tanker truck be allowed to cut across the runway when a 747 is taking off --- and yet, 240,000 times a day in America, that’s essentially what we allow. When it comes to rail grade crossings: bridge it, tunnel it, or close it. But don’t keep ignoring the problem, because one day the accident will be with an ammonia or chlorine gas tanker in a populated area, and then, thousands will die.”

Boardman made the announcement as he joined law enforcement officials on a special train in Cleveland, Ohio, organized by Operation Lifesaver to educate police officers about the seriousness of grade crossing and trespass violations. He said increased police activity will encourage motorists and pedestrians ‘to make the right decision to play it safe and not illegally drive around lowered crossing gates or use the tracks as a dangerous short cut.”

“Under the Action Plan, the FRA also supports closing unneeded grade crossings, is using video of actual grade crossing collisions to identify common causes, and is performing a trespasser demographic study to develop more effective prevention programs,” the FRA reported.

Journalists seeking further information may contact FRA spokesmen Steve Kulm or Warren Flatau, at:  (202) 493-6024, the FRA said.

(Editor’s note: Pertinent to this issue, DF has reprinted below a version of Jim RePass’s previous editorial on grade-crossings.)


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Amtrak ups police patrols makes
no change in carry-on baggage

Source: The Register-Mail

GALESBURG, IL – August 11 - Amtrak increased police visibility and extended police tours of duty from eight to 12 hours following the news of a plot by terrorists to blow up several planes flying from London to the U.S., reported the Register-Mail in a brief article by John Pulliam. The plot was foiled by British police and intelligence, but other security measures are being taken as well.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari in Chicago sent a prepared statement about changes in security.

“While there is no specific threat against Amtrak or other U.S. ground-based transportation, the passenger rail service is complying with the Department of Homeland Security alert level for non-aviation transportation, which remains at yellow.

“The alert level for planes flying from the United Kingdom to the United States is at the highest level, red, while planes going from the United States to the United Kingdom are on orange alert.

Amtrak is patrolling with K-9 detection teams at major stations. Customers are required to provide a photo I.D. and a ticket verification system is in use, the report continued. “Using a ticket verification system issued in 2004 by the Transportation Security Administration, 10 percent of Amtrak passengers have been asked since the directive to produce valid ID on board trains. The name on the ticket is then compared to the name on the I.D. [On] Thursday, Amtrak raised to 50 percent the percentage of passengers aboard trains who will be asked for ticket verification.”

Carry-on luggage is still allowed, but Amtrak is more vigorously enforcing its existing policy, according to the prepared release, which requires all checked and carry-on baggage to be tagged with the owner’s name and address. Random sweeps of both carry-on and checked baggage by K-9 detection teams is continuing.

“The company also has reminded its 19,000 employees to remain vigilant and to report suspicious activity.”


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COMMUTER LINES...  Commuter lines...

State pushes “Coast Daylight” train as
gas prices soar in California, U.S.

From The Internet
By Genevieve Bookwalter
Santa Cruz Sentinel Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, CA ---The Coast Daylight, an iconic train in American railroad history that traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in America, may be on the way back.

“The suggestion of passenger train service in Santa Cruz County typically sparks fiery debate among transportation leaders. But they were all on board last Thursday, supporting a proposed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles that would stop in Pajaro, across the river from Watsonville,” reports the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“The county Regional Transportation Commission approved a resolution supporting a state plan to connect Northern and Southern California with a new Amtrak Coast Daylight train, scheduled to start in 2007 or 2008, and urging the governor and legislators to finance the deal,” reported Sentinel reporter Genevieve Bookwalter.

The train would run on the same track as Amtrak’s existing Coast Starlight, which rolls from Los Angeles to Seattle in 35 hours and stops in Salinas, the Sentinel said. “Officials estimate it would cost about $7 million annually to run, and the route could need between $20 million and $80 million in repairs,” it reported.

“Santa Cruz County residents ‘really don’t have much Amtrak service except if we go to San Jose or Salinas,’” said Karena Pushnik, senior planner for the county’s transportation agency. “ ‘The Daylight could attract state and federal money for a new station in Pajaro, which would benefit not only that train, but proposed commuter service between Gilroy and Salinas and any potential passenger rail service on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. Money for track restoration could flow in, too’”, Pushnik said.

“The new Daylight is a top goal of the Coast Rail Coordinating Council, comprised of transportation planning agencies and local governments along the coast, along with Caltrans, Amtrak and Union Pacific. The group proposed the train in 2000, aiming to have it running in fiscal year 2007-08,” the Sentinel reported.

“Pete Rodgers, administrative director with San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, said he’s excited to try reviving a route that was popular 50 years ago. Travel time between San Francisco and L.A. would be 111/2 hours, with one train leaving in each direction in the morning and arriving about 7 p.m.” the paper reported.

“‘We still feel it’s a critical service,’” Rodgers said. “There’s plenty of people who don’t want to fly and don’t want to take a bus and don’t drive,’” he said.

“Rodgers hopes support from Santa Cruz County’s transportation leaders, as well as others on the coast, will persuade state and federal legislators to help pay for the new route. Trains like the Starlight typically recoup 50 to 60 percent of operating costs with passenger fares, and he said he expects the Daylight would do the same. The Starlight averages between 65,000 and 70,000 riders each year,” the Sentinel said.

“Unexpectedly high state gas-tax revenue, earmarked for public transportation, could help underwrite the service,” he said. Federal money labeled for new alternative transit projects could pay for part of it, too.

“While funding for the project is not included in the giant state transportation bond before voters in November, Rodgers said that bond could free money that now would go to other projects to instead pay for the new train,” the paper said.

David Wright with Friends of the Rail Trail predicted the train, running on a track with famously breathtaking views, would be popular with visitors who now visit Watsonville for its ecotourism, such as next month’s Monterey Bay Birding Festival.

“When you talk about economic development in Pajaro,” Wright said, “what could be better than a train station that gives us access to the rest of the state?”

Contact Genevieve Bookwalter of the Sentinel at gbookwalter@santacruzsentinel.com.


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News from Atlantic Northeast…

Amtrak: Vermonter on DMUs?

From Chop Hardenbergh
www.atlanticnortheast.com

WATERBURY, AUGUST 7 - AMTRAK suggests running the Vermonter with Diesel-Multiple Units or DMUs, as a demonstration project. The railway briefed about 25 legislators, as it would like approval by September. Transportation officials promised to provide lawmakers, many of whom were intrigued with the possibility, with more information over the coming weeks. They will ask the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee to approve the purchase plan at its 19 September meeting.

The operation

Sam Lewis, Vermont Agency of Transportation’s director of operations, noted that currently Amtrak operates the Vermonter as two locomotives and train cars with seats for 400 passengers for its run to St. Albans, because that configuration is needed on the

southern end of the line as it travels to New York and Washington. In Vermont, Lewis said, “We are pulling empty seats with more power than is needed.” In the demonstration, passengers for the Vermont leg of the trip would switch in New Haven to DMUs.

Funding.

Amtrak would provide the state with $2 million to help with transition costs, retooling a maintenance facility, and marketing. The Federal Rail Administration has said it would loan the state the $17.5 million to buy five cars, with no payments due for the first three years.

Use Colorado Rail Car DMUs or refurbished Budd cars?

VAOT considered two sources of cars: Oklahoma based Farmrail which would provide refurbished 50-year-old self-propelled cars originally made by Budd; or Colorado Rail Car which would provide new equipment consisting of a self-propelled car and the trailer each seating 60 people.

Lewis said the refurbished cars represented more risk in costs on rebuilt equipment and Amtrak would not provide the $2 million grant if the state bought those cars. Colorado Rail Car would need 14 months to fill Vermont’s order for five cars. If ordered promptly, service with the new equipment could start in late 2007.

For more details, refer to Chop Hardenbergh’s web site www.atlanticnortheast.com.


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SAFETY LINES...  Safety lines...

Rebuilt Corridor Clipper
back in service

Source: Amtrak Ink

The 10002 Track Geometry Car that operates with Northeast Corridor Regional trains is back in service, following a complete remanufacture performed by Bear Car Shop and Engineering Track employees last month.

Known as the Corridor Clipper, the 10002 assesses track conditions. It generates data used to monitor the rate of track degradation and evaluates the quality of maintenance work by using gyroscopes and accelerometers similar to an airplane navigation system to measure how the car runs across the track.

Track Geometry Car - Corridor Clipper

Photo: Amtrak Ink

Inside the Track Geometry Car, Engineer of Rail Stress Management Marty Perkins sets parameters on the computer rack to display track measurement data for Maintenance-of-Way personnel. The computer rack contains the processing system that records track geometry measurements collected as the car operates on the system.

It also includes a second system of optical sensors and distance transducers that locate the rail. These systems work together to measure the track while the car operates as part of revenue trains that travel at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour.

To perform these and other functions, the rebuilt car is equipped with 17 new computers that collect, interpret and display track and catenary measurements.

New wiring was installed throughout the car that connects these computer systems to a Global Positioning System and an instrumentation beam, which is equipped with a laser and digital camera sensors to survey and measure the track.


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Amtrak train slams vehicle, two die

From the Internet

COLUMBIA, S. C., JULY 30 -- Two people were killed after their car was hit by an Amtrak train on Sunday, July 30, officials reported.

Sgt. Florence McCants with the Columbia Police Department told News 10 the driver tried to bypass the level crossing gates and ignored the flashing lights and ringing bells before being struck. The accident happened near Koon Drive close to Farrow Road.

Wendy Jennings, a regular Amtrak passenger, was on the way to catch another train when she came up on the scene. “I’ve never even scene a car accident look that bad before.”

Jennings says the train dragged the 1982 BMW at least 1,000 feet before stopping. She says it took emergency vehicles close to an hour to extract the victims.

Jennings told News 10 she wisheD the public could see what that car looked liked. Perhaps it would raise awareness of the dangers of grade crossings.

This is the third train accident in the Columbia metro area in just over a week. On July 22, a man who was trespassing on the trains was struck and killed by a train.

Then, on July 27, an 18-wheeler hauling a fleet of vehicles became stuck on some tracks in Lexington County and was then hit by a train. No injuries were reported with that accident.

From January 2005 through mid-2006, close to 25 people have died in train-related accidents in South Carolina. Twenty-five of those involved a vehicle and a train.

While those numbers have dropped over the years, non-profit organizations like Operation Lifesaver continue vigorous campaigns to reduce the numbers even further.


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OFF THE MAIN LINE...  Off the main line...

More Stations Offer
Entertainment Rentals

Source: Amtrak Ink

The digEplayer ™ portable entertainment unit, first enjoyed exclusively by Auto Train passengers, is now available to passengers departing from five more stations. The player, which comes loaded with 12 of the latest movies, 10 popular TV shows, music and music videos, is being offered for a nominal rental charge to passengers traveling from Chicago, Los Angeles, Emeryville, Portland and Seattle.

Amtrak introduces the digEplayer

Photo: Amtrak Ink

A Railway Media employee introduces Amtrak customers to the digEplayer, a personal entertainment unit that is available to passengers traveling on select long-distance trains departing from Sanford, Lorton, Chicago, Los Angeles, Emeryville, Portland and Seattle.

Travelers may rent digEplayers at station kiosks staffed by Railway Media employees before departing for a trip and return the unit to the kiosk when they reach their destination — the players should not be returned to Amtrak employees. Passengers traveling to stations without a Railway Media kiosk pay an additional shipping charge and return the unit in a pre-paid FedEx package provided at the time of rental.

The hand-held unit is about the size of a portable DVD player, contains a 40 gigabyte hard drive, and utilizes the latest digital technology. Movies are rated G, PG or edited to be PG in compliance with Amtrak’s current standards for onboard movies. All entertainment options are updated every 30 days.

The cost for travelers to rent the player from Chicago to Los Angeles is about $22, while passengers taking a five-hour trip from Chicago to St. Louis will pay approximately $13 for the rental, plus an $8 shipping charge.

Plans are in place to equip Superliner lounge cars with a special drop box to allow passengers to return the units before leaving the train.


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STOCKS...  Selected Friday closing quotes...

Source: MarketWatch.com

  Friday One Week
Earlier
Burlington Northern & Santa Fe(BNI)64.8469.04
Canadian National (CNI)40.1440.59
Canadian Pacific (CP)47.0147.80
CSX (CSX)58.9361.94
Florida East Coast (FLA)50.6750.79
Genessee & Wyoming (GWR)23.6326.64
Kansas City Southern (KSU)25.0525.97
Norfolk Southern (NSC)40.9341.93
Providence & Worcester (PWX)16.8018.11
Union Pacific (UNP)79.2183.85


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ACROSS THE POND...  Across the pond...

From David Beale
NCI Foreign Correspondent
Sources: N24 News and HAZ newspaper

 

Eurotunnel enters court supervised
bankruptcy protection

PARIS, France -- On Wednesday, August 2, a French court approved a request for protection from creditors by heavily indebted Eurotunnel, the company which operates the rail tunnels under the English Channel between France and England commonly known as the Chunnel. The court-sanctioned protection is similar to Chapter 11 reorganization in the USA. The court decision comes after 15 months of failed negotiations to restructure the company’s €  9 billion (US $11.53 billion) debt.

Built between 1987 and 1993, the project faced massive cost overruns while revenues have missed expectations, in part due to a lack of anticipated freight train traffic ever since homeless immigrants housed in a French refugee camp several years ago began disrupting freight train operations as they attempted to illegally travel to the English side of the tunnel.

“The court has given as much time as possible for the creditors and the company to come to a solution before deciding to put the company under its protection,” said the court president, Brette Rey.

With a legal procedure similar to Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States, the court is now expected to appoint an administrator to develop a debt repayment plan. During an initial period of six months, which could be extended twice, Eurotunnel will not be required to make payments on the debt.

A number of bond owners representing €  2.8 billion of debt want participation in a proposed €  1.8 billion hybrid bond, which will be converted into shares of the restructured company. The bond owners also want to reduce the 13 percent of the company offered to shareholders under a previous plan, because that leaves them with a smaller stake of the future company, the source said.

Chairman and CEO Jacques Gounon said he expected an agreement could be reached within six months, in order to avoid bankruptcy proceedings. He said last month the company would be insolvent by January if no agreement were reached by September.

Passenger trains will continue to run in the Channel Tunnel during the court-supervised reorganization of the company. Eurostar trains operating between Paris; Brussels and London continue to enjoy a larger market share of travelers than airlines flying between the British capital city and its continental counter parts, although Eurostar’s reputation has been marred repeatedly by media reports of several spectacular train delays and cancellations in the past year due to maintenance problems with the TGV inspired high speed trains, which left thousands of angry travelers in a bind.


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Investigation continues into attempted bombing
of German train and rail station

BERLIN - German prosecutors began an investigation on Tuesday (1st of August) after a suitcase and another item of luggage with explosive material were found on a train in Dortmund and in a railway station in Koblenz in northwestern Germany.

In the first case, which was discovered Monday, July 31 on a regional train, luggage handed over to authorities at the Dortmund’s central station contained a propane tank, a detonator, batteries and three bottles of gasoline, prosecutors said.

An examination of the materials determined that they were potentially explosive, but authorities could not say why they did not explode or if they were intended to do so, Dortmund prosecutor Henner Kruse told The Associated Press. Both pieces of luggage and their contents were being examined in an attempt to determine how they were linked and whether they were intended to be crude bombs or whether they were explosive materials intended for other uses, prosecutors said.

The second piece of luggage, which was also found on July 31 in the main station in Koblenz, also contained a propane gas cylinder, prosecutors said. Investigators later disclosed that the explosive device was surrounded by some sort of biological or chemical agent in the form of white powder, but did not identify what exactly the material was. The luggage found in Koblenz also held a detonator and batteries and appeared to be similar to the explosives found in the Dortmund suitcase. The device failed to detonate because, as a bomb expert explained, the device produced an overly rich mixture of propane gas within the suitcase, which therefore could not ignite.

German federal prosecutors assumed control of both cases and launched an investigation into possible terrorist activities, the office of Prosecutor Monika Harms said in a press release. Police are searching for possible suspects.

In summer 2003, a suitcase containing a fully functional bomb with a propane gas tank was found on a platform in Dresden’s central station during a busy holiday weekend. A German engineer was tried and found guilty of planting the explosives and sentenced to 12 years in prison.


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Deutsche Bahn tickets via
mobile phone display

Starting on September 1st, passengers will be able to purchase train tickets for journeys of 51 km or longer from Deutsche Bahn - German Railways - with Internet capable mobile phones. DB’s director of E-Commerce - Passenger Trains, Reinhold Pohl, stated that DB is creating a new world for tickets and reservations. DB has allegedly invested several hundred thousand euros into the project.

Passengers will be able to book and purchase DB tickets via web-enabled cell phones between 90 days and 10 minutes prior to departure. The DB E-commerce server will process the request and then upon completion will send a MMS (multimedia message service) message to the passenger’s cell phone with booking information and reservation codes. Once on board, the passenger can call up the MMS message on his or her cell phone for viewing by the train staff, along with his or her personal photo identification. The train staff will enter the reservation codes displayed in the MMS on the passengers cell phone display into a hand-held ticketing terminal, which verifies the booking via wireless communication with DB’s computer network.

This development is the latest in a series of actions by Deutsche Bahn to expand passenger train ticket sales and reservations into non-traditional outlets, such as the internet, ticket-by-mail, discount supermarkets, McDonalds and other fast food chains, and automated digital ticket machines, while at the same time reducing the number of manned ticketing counters in its stations. Currently DB sells 1/3 of all train tickets at its station ticket counters, 23 percent from automated ticket machines, 21 percent via travel agents, and about 10 percent via the Internet.

I had planned to give you all my translation of a feature article in the HAZ about the start of operations in early July of a brand-new automated freight car marshalling and control system installed during the past two years at Railion’s (DB Logistik) Seelze rail freight yard located between Hannover and Wunstorf. But apparently my wife has already thrown that issue away.


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OPINION...  Opinion...

Host railroads put Amtrak on wrong track

By Guy Darst
Former Deputy Editorial Page Editor
The Boston Herald
Reprinted with permission

Amtrak increasingly is getting shafted by most of the railroads whose track its passenger trains must use. This ought to be better known, both to stimulate some government investigations and to shame the offending companies. It’s hard to see why anybody will want to ride long-distance trains whose schedules have become laughable.

Grounds for a probe are clear: Federal law requires that Amtrak get preference over freights “except in an emergency” or where the secretary of transportation has granted a railroad’s petition for other rules. Too often, passenger trains are stuck in sidings to wait for freights to pass.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers complained to the Surface Transportation Board last month that the on-time performance of Amtrak using the tracks of other railroads had fallen by 50 percent from 1999 to 2005. Association head Ross Capon said it seemed “things are worse this year.”

Amtrak says 70 percent of its trains were on time (that is, within a half-hour of scheduled arrival) in May, no change from the same month of 2005. But long-distance trains were on time for only 32 percent of arrivals, down 10 points from May 2005.

The five trains running exclusively on the tracks of CSX Corp. were punctual only 2 percent to 35 percent of the time. Delays aren’t trivial: Capon said only 15 percent of the Coast Starlight runs (most of the time on Union Pacific) between Los Angeles and Seattle reached their destination better than four hours late.

I have just completed a 7,792-mile meander to San Francisco and back, stopping in three cities. Amtrak’s cars were comfortable, the crews were helpful and affable (and bitter about what their host railroads were doing), the scenery spectacular, other passengers engaging, the microwaved food not that bad (though you do get tired of the same seven-dish dinner menu) and the drinks reasonably priced. But some grossly late trains marred the trip.

On the San Francisco-Chicago California Zephyr, a crew member told me, “For the past three weeks, we have been between 5 and 10 hours late into Chicago every day.” That day he was 5 hours 2 minutes late, or 27 minutes past the scheduled departure of the connecting train to Boston (whose departure was delayed to await San Francisco passengers). If we had been a bit later, the Boston train would have had to leave, and I’d have had to trudge to the dining car to see Amtrak representatives who boarded 162 miles from Chicago in case anybody needed hotel and meal vouchers (indeed, some did).

The Buffalo-Albany, N.Y., segment of that connecting train is listed at 5 hours 20 minutes for 290 miles over tracks of CSX; we took 9 hours 17 minutes. Eight times we were sidetracked for freights, once for more than an hour, for a total delay of at least 3 hours 35 minutes.

“It’s always like this,” moaned the car attendant.

The railroads can do better. My segment on the Empire Builder, 2,206 miles from Chicago to Seattle on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, ended up only 5 minutes 30 seconds late. This train has an 87 percent on-time record. The Chicago-Los Angeles train on BNSF makes it 76 percent of the time and the Chicago-New Orleans train over a Canadian National subsidiary had a 94 percent record. Every other train is dismal. BNSF and CN seem to be the only professional railroads Amtrak is dealing with.


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EDITORIAL...  Editorial...

Grade crossing madness redux

(Versions of this editorial have appeared in Destination:Freedom)

By Jim RePass
P> The tragic death of a toddler at a dangerous rail crossing (San Jose Mercury, November 24) points up once again the madness of allowing at-grade highway crossings on heavily traveled rail corridors.

Recently the Federal Railroad Administration released its six-month report touting statistical improvements to grade crossing safety, yet the Administration has absolutely no effective national rail policy, and its passenger rail policy is to throw Amtrak into the hands of the states and walk away from the wreck. That is only slightly less irresponsible than the on-going failure to address grade crossing safety in the only way it can be addressed, which is to make plans --- NOW --- to bridge, tunnel, or close them all.

We know full well that it is impractical to do that in one fell swoop, or even over a decade. But we must get the process started, and to do that, Congress has to re-set America’s transportation priorities so that spending on rail infrastructure – that’s right, freight as well as passenger --- is brought to bear on curing the massive highway overspending that has lead to gridlock throughout America.

There are about a quarter of a million grade crossings in America. Only 60,000 have any protection at all other than a pair of crossbucks. With the 180,000 remaining --- you and your family are on their own! This state of affairs has been allowed to continue for decades because the rail constituency is poverty-stricken, weak, and fragmented. Even the best run freight railroad, BNSF, barely recovers its cost of capital in most years --- and that is with a pretty lean capital spending plan to begin with.

The reason, for those new to this subject, is that Federal and state laws have been carefully written to force highway spending, and to actively discourage expenditures on intercity rail or transit. For example, 30 of the 50 states have constitutional amendments, passed in the 1930’s and 1940’s through the efforts of the Highway Lobby, that prohibit the spending of any state gas tax money on anything but highways --- a completely indefensible act that has made sure even Governor’s who want to use state gas taxes as matching funds to spring Federal money for rail can’t do even that.

In Washington, Federal gas tax dollars go into a “Highway Trust Fund,” another anachronism that force-feeds the nation a diet of asphalt and concrete when what it needs is a transportation system. We need to change the “Highway” fund to a “Transportation Trust Fund”, and reconfigure Congressional committees such as the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee so that it is divided by region instead of by type of transportation modes. Only then can we can begin regional, systems-based transportation planning.

All of those things are hard to accomplish, but so was going to the moon --- or building the transcontinental railroad. But for starters, Congress could begin NOW to require the US Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to close, tunnel, or bridge every at-grade highway crossing, and then fund that plan. No, it wouldn’t require immediately spending 240,000 x $1 million (the average cost assumed to close, tunnel, or bridge each crossing). But we can begin by identifying all the grade crossings that intersect passenger train routes or Class I freight railroad, and then finding a way to fix those --- and then categorize the rest, and make plans to deal with them.

It seems like a tall order, and it is. But the situation should never have been allowed to deteriorate to this level: that each year, 400+ people die, and another 1200+ are injured, because they don’t see the train, don’t obey the sign, or go around the gates.

No one in their right mind would propose that a loaded gasoline tanker truck be allowed to cut across the runway when a 747 is taking off --- and yet, 240,000 times a day in America, that’s essentially what we allow. When it comes to rail grade crossings: bridge it, tunnel it, or close it. But don’t keep ignoring the problem, because one day the accident will be with an ammonia or chlorine gas tanker in a populated area, and then, thousands will die. When it does, no one should say it was a surprise, because it won’t be, at least to those who have thought seriously about it.


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End Notes...

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 editor at editor@nationalcorridors.org. Please include your name, and the community and state from which you write. For technical issues contact D. M. Kirkpatrick, NCI’s webmaster at webmaster@nationalcorridors.org.

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Photo submissions are welcome. NCI is always interested in images that demonstrate the positive aspects of rail, transit, and intermodalism, as well as of current newsworthy events associated with our mission. Please contact the webmaster in advance of sending images so we can recommend attachment by e-mail or grant direct file transfer protocols (FTP) access depending on size and number. Descriptive text which includes location, train name, and something about the content of the image is encouraged. We will credit the photographer and offer a return link to your e-mail address or web site.

Journalists and others who wish to receive high quality NCI-originated images by Leo King and other photo journalists should contact our webmaster@nationalcorridors.org for additional information.

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 transportation initiative 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 link, please send the uniform resource locator address (URL) our webmaster@nationalcorridors.org.


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