NCI: Leo KingPerhaps Amtrak's Acela Express trains will finally emerge from the shadows.
Administration backs bonding bill
The long-awaited Amtrak 150 mph Acela Express now appears to be close to reality. We have had so many "false alarms" before that we almost hesitate to break this news.
But on a tip from D:F Editor Leo King who had been informed by a trusted source that there would be a "big announcement" today (October 16) regarding the high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor, I talked to Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn who confirmed that the "big announcement" was in the works, if not on Monday. She said an advisory was "imminent," likely on Tuesday. That "advisory" would deal with the timing of a "big announcement" about the Acela Express, complete with a news conference and all attendant fanfare.
Dunn said it was not likely the Acela Express would be ready to roll on October 29, with the timetable change, though she left the door open just a crack to that possibility.
By Christmas? Yes, definitely.
Thanksgiving? "We're hoping it will be ready to go by Thanksgiving." What's holding it up? There is the need to familiarize the crews with the operation in a "dress rehearsal." No trains will carry a single revenue passenger until that process is completed.
There will likely be some VIP special Acela Express trains operating before regular service kicks in.
That's the latest from Amtrak.
As to the "issues" which remained to be dealt with before the Federal Railroad Administration gives its unqualified green light to start carrying passengers on the brand new trains on the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, a tight-lipped FRA spokeswoman, Yvette Lester would only say the matter remains "under review." She refused to identify the "issues" that remained to be resolved and was unaware of Amtrak's plans for an announcement.
As we headed into the weekend, we had to ask ourselves if this was all really happening. It has been well over a year since Amtrak first targeted the Acela Express trains in spring 1999. Then September 1, 1999. And then... Well, they were pushed back farther and farther because of mechanical shortcomings that were discovered.
At last June's NCI Conference, a frustrated Amtrak Chairman Tommy Thompson declared he was "damn mad" at the Bombardier-Alstom consortium that was under contract to build and deliver the trains. In the next few days from this writing (late Friday), we will we know if this time is "for real."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, not only the Northeast but also other regions of the country hoping for high-speed rail service in their states received some good news on Friday. The $10 billion rail-bonding bill got a crucial boost with last-minute support from the Clinton administration. The White House had been torn between its Transportation department, which favored the measure, and the Treasury department, which had some objections.
All that is in the past, however, because Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and White House Budget Director Jack Lew sent a letter to the three key sponsors of the legislation, Senate Finance Chairman Bill Roth (R-Del.), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) urging passage of the legislation before the lawmakers adjourn in a few days.
Obviously, administration help earlier in the game would have smoothed the path, perhaps to the point where it would have been a "slam dunk" by now. But the lawmakers were not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. No time for that in these waning days of the 106th Congress.
With Lautenberg and Moynihan retiring at the end of the year, and Roth in a tough re-election fight, the president was told in effect, it's now - or maybe never.
This could be the make-or-break point for the legislation, which would get the plans for high-speed rail corridors around the country off dead center.
Mindful of what was at stake, NARP had sent out an alert to its members on Wednesday urging them to contact Democratic U.S. Senators from their states to lean on the White House to end the "bickering" within its ranks and throw its weight behind the High Speed Rail Investment Act (HSRIA).
Chairman Roth attached the measure to an urban revitalization bill that the administration likes. Democrat lawmakers were telling the White House that the main reason they were willing to vote for that measure was its high-speed rail component.
That apparently tilted the scales as far as the president was concerned. And it enhanced HSRIA's chances of final passage from difficult to possible. If and when it is enacted before the congressmen and senators go home, it will likely be part of some "catch-all" omnibus budget legislation. This "everything but the kitchen sink" approach is par for the course when Congress is hurrying to wrap up a session. No political analyst or "good government" advocate regards it as an ideal way to legislate, but given the myriad of conflicting pressures Congress faces, this just may be a price we pay for a free society.
No doubt Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater played a major role in swinging the president behind the bill. Only a couple of days earlier, the secretary had designated more miles of high-speed rail corridors in the South, Midwest, and New England.
Two new corridors were added. In Northern New England, a newly designated corridor would operate from Boston to Montreal, and to Portland and Auburn, Maine. A South-Central corridor would connect San Antonio-Austin-Dallas and Fort Worth, with branches to Little Rock and Tulsa. [Read more details in following story - Ed.].
Slater also announced three extensions of presently planned corridors in the Midwest Hub, between Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland; Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland; and Louisville to Indianapolis. The Gulf Coast and Southeast Corridors would be linked by a Birmingham-Macon-Jessup, Ga. Line, and back in the Northeast, the Keystone route between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
For clarification purposes, more than anything else, Slater's map shows a new California line - Los Angeles-Sacramento via the Coast route (a beautiful ride on the Coast Starlight, by the way). Thus, a part of the route of that long distance train serves the purpose of welding together cities that someday may be served by a hoped-for future high-speed rail line.
A USDOT press release quotes the secretary as saying, "the Department's previous designation of the California Corridor is intended to connect the state's four largest metropolitan areasäand is not limited to a specific route."
When you look through all these routings, you realize at least some of them may be way off in the future, dependent on the rail bonding bill and the willingness of lawmakers in the states and in Washington to come up with more money for infrastructure, not to mention the necessity of protecting the best interests of the freight railroads that own the rights of way. $10 billion is, as my colleague Don Phillips of the Washington Post puts it, "hardly more than a splash in the bucket."
Amtrak Reform Council Chairman Gil Carmichael acknowledged as much in Senate testimony last month. But to a large extent, it will depend on whether, as Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson hopes, the Acela Express is such a smashing success that every other region in the country will say "We want one of those too." Thompson is also Amtrak's board chairman.
Amtrak last week reported that its revenue for fiscal year 2000 grew by 10 percent to $1.1 billion, and that its ridership grew to 22.5 million. That is an increase of one million people.
Although this is the second year that Amtrak revenues exceeded $1 billion, the rail passenger corporation did not report its costs. As noted in our previous reports of hearings by the Senate Commerce Committee, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead said climbing costs could prevent Amtrak from meeting its congressionally mandated obligation to become operationally self-sufficient by the beginning of FY 2003, just two years from now.
The Amtrak statement reported Boston-Washington revenue growing in double digits, thanks in no small part to the Acela Regional trains (the second tier on Acela service, not as fast as Acela Express, but faster than most current service), which scored a ridership increase of 77 percent above the trains they replaced.
Ridership on the Washington-New York Metroliner service was up 8 percent, with its revenue growing by 12 percent.
This could be the eve of a new era in passenger trains in these United States.
With the Acela Express apparently ready to start and with congressional legislation facilitating high-speed rail throughout the country gaining significant momentum, we could be on the way to the first class passenger rail system that has dominated the dreams and hopes of American passenger train advocates for at least three decades. This fall of the year 2000 could be the turning point on whether those dreams ultimately become reality or if disappointment visits us - yet again.
DOT creates two new high-speed rail corridors;
one north, one south
U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater Wednesday designated two new high-speed rail corridors, one in northern New England, and the other in the South Central states. He also said three existing designated corridors serving Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and Pennsylvania would be extended.
The new high-speed rail corridors include a Northern New England Corridor with a hub at Boston that will ultimately serve destinations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Montreal, Canada.
The South Central Corridor will have Dallas and Fort Worth as its hub, and will serve destinations in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. The designations are being made "pursuant to Section 1103 (c) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21)," a press release stated. The added designations make ten high-speed rail corridors in the U.S.
"President Clinton and Vice President Gore are committed to making high-speed rail a reality across the nation," said Slater. "I'm pleased to expand the market reach of the corridors that represent much of the future of rail passenger service in the United States."
Extensions to existing designated high-speed rail corridors include new routes from the Chicago hub corridor to Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio; a route from Indianapolis, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky; and a route linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton-Springfield, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
A new route is added between Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia linking the Gulf Coast and Southeast Corridors; and a new route from Atlanta and Macon to Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida.
Another new route to Pittsburgh on the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania was also created.
The Slater also noted that DOT's previous designation of the California High-Speed Rail Corridor "is intended to connect the state's four largest metropolitan areas, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and is not limited to a specific route."
"Today's designations will bring us much closer to achieving our rail passenger transportation objectives for the 21st Century," said FRA Jolene Molitoris. "Taken together, the existing and new designated corridors will serve 85 percent of the population of America's 100 largest metropolitan areas."
U.S. Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) pointed out that the high-speed rail line between Boston and Burlington, Vt., will receive a $200,000 federal grant to help pay for a study into the feasibility of restoring rail service to the region.
"Improving rail service along this corridor will relieve congestion, improve commerce, and speed travel for tourists, business travelers, and students," he said.
Amtrak's Board Chairman Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R-Wis.) observed "With more Americans traveling by train today than any time in a generation, these are exciting times for passenger rail service in our nation. Today's designations continue our course to a comprehensive high-speed passenger rail system that is fully integrated into our national transportation system, alleviates congestion and serves the public's demand for transportation alternatives."
Thompson added, "Amtrak looks forward to the passage of legislation now pending in Congress that will enable us, working together with states and communities, to finance and build a world-class high speed rail system for America."
The formal designation of a "High-Speed Rail Corridor" makes those states with routes eligible for a portion of $5.25 million in dedicated annual federal funding for highway-rail grade crossing hazard elimination funds for such routes, "but designation entails more than federal funds. Designations continue to serve as catalysts for sustained state, local and public interest in corridor development. In cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation and Amtrak, numerous corridor development efforts between state and local stakeholders are underway," Slater and Molitoris explained.
"The designations apply to corridor regions, not just to specific routes because in some cases there are two or more existing alternate routes. The designations are intended to provide flexibility to each region before planning and financing commitments are made by key stakeholders," said DOT's spokesperson, Yvette Lester.
The corridors designated to date cover 8,306 miles of track and could ultimately serve about 150 million people in 30 states.
The New England route corridor connects Manchester and Concord in New Hampshire with White River Junction, Montpelier, Burlington, and St. Albans in Vermont. The route has not seen a passenger train in many years, and a portion of the right of way is currently used as a recreational trail.
"High-speed rail is the future of passenger railroads, and getting this corridor on the map will help on funding issues and on every other step in the decision-making process for rail in Vermont," said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Thanks also to Trains Online.
Editor's note - With this issue, Destination Freedom begins covering significant freight railroad news. If passenger carriers, whether they be Amtrak, an Amtrak-like entity, or a commuter rail system, freight trains are deep in the mix, so it is imperative that railroaders from all sides understand what the other's concerns are.
Intermodal traffic sets record pace
U.S. railroads moved more intermodal traffic during the last two weeks than during any other two-week period on record, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported Thursday.
The 195,589 trailers and containers loaded during the week ended October 7 was the second highest weekly total ever, trailing only the week ended September 30 when railroads loaded 200,391 trailers and containers. Compared with the corresponding week last year, intermodal traffic was up 3.9 percent. The record week for intermodal traffic came at the end of a month in which both carload and intermodal freight registered gains from the comparable 1999 month.
Overall, U.S. carload traffic rose 13,754 carloads to a total of 1.42 million carloads in September 2000 compared with September 1999.
Carload freight, which does not include the intermodal data, was off 1.6 percent in comparison with last year during the week ended October 7, totaling 339,595 cars. Carload traffic was off 1.6 percent in the East and 1.7 percent in the West. Total volume for the week was estimated at 29.6 billion ton-miles, down 0.3 percent from last year.
Leading the gainers were nonmetallic minerals, up 10.0 percent from last year; and motor vehicles and equipment, up 6.5 percent. On the downside were loadings of waste and scrap materials, down 14.7 percent from last year; coal, down 2.4 percent, and grain, off 4.0 percent.
Railroads reporting to AAR account for 92 percent of U.S. carload freight and 98 percent of rail intermodal volume.
|Maine Coast 'pulls pin'|
Freight and passenger excursion service will end December 4 on the Maine Coast (MC) Railroad in Maine, and the state's DOT said it would furnish a temporary operator until a long-term one is found to provide freight service. The railroad is headquartered in Wiscasset.
A statement from MC on Tuesday stated, "This is a business decision, based on the fact that the Maine DOT has chosen not to continue negotiations on a new lease, which would have replaced the existing one."
About 10 employees work for the railroad, but it was not clear how their jobs would be affected.
Freight service will continue after Dec. 4, but no passenger excursion service is expected to operate from Wiscasset's waterfront station.
The company, which services 11 freight customers, was created in 1990. It reached an impasse in recent negotiations for a new lease from the DOT.
It has notified the STB of its decision, according to Alan Bartlett of the DOT transportation service.
"There was one big problem, a fatal flaw in the negotiations," he said.
He said there was a clause in the contract that required financial terms. "They could not say they were financially capable of upholding the terms of the contract." Bartlett said that an attorney for the company said that if it signed the contract as worded it would be in default immediately.
Maine's DOT alleged that MC failed to perform routine maintenance over the last 10 years, including replacing ties, broken rails, and cleaning culverts, as required by their contract. Maine's DOT also alleged that MC made money but never reported a profit so it didn't pay the state for use of the lines. Meanwhile, several Maine rail carriers have expressed interest in taking over, including St. Lawrence & Atlantic, Guilford, and B&ML.
Thanks to Portland Press Herald and Lincoln County News.
|'CDAC' takes part of Green Mountain|
The STB has given the Canadian American Railroad Co., "CDAC," a green light to take over part of the Green Mountain Railroad Co. (GMRC) in Vermont.
On September 19, 2000, CDAC filed paperwork to acquire and operate Green Mountain's exclusive freight rail operations over some 40-route miles owned by the State of Vermont, between White River Jct. and Wells River (between milepost 123.2 and MP 163.5).
The board waived a 60-day notice period and allowed the transaction to be consummated.
CDAC stated that GMRC employees who work on the line would not have the option of working for CDAC on that line but may remain with their current employer who intended to retain them.
CDAC also submitted letters supporting the waiver request from the United Transportation Union, Northern District and New England Lines, and from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, Northeastern System Federation, as representatives of CDAC employees.
As additional support for granting the motion, CDAC indicates that the line is in very poor physical condition and can be operated only as excepted track. CDAC further indicates that it has customers who desire immediate service on the line and that it is essential that CDAC be able to perform some urgently needed maintenance before the onset of cold weather conditions in northern Vermont, which can be expected to occur by mid-November.
The STB stated no opposition to the motion was filed.
|BLE at UP rejects work rules proposal|
The Brotherhood of Locomotive engineers reports it rejected "a plan designed to eliminate unpredictable work schedules and improve safety" on the Union Pacific Railroad in a North Platte, Neb., ratification vote last Wednesday.
A six-month trial agreement would have established scheduled reporting times for about 100 engineers who operate trains on the North Platte to South Morrill, Nebraska coal line. Engineers would have known weeks in advance of their scheduled work times and rest days.
Earlier this year its North Platte membership demanded development of a schedule for over-the-road engineers that would meet a balance between work and home life. This proposed agreement contained 146 guaranteed scheduled days off annually "and appeared to meet that challenge," said Michael Young, BLE General Chairman.
|Forbes names RailAmerica a 'best business'|
RailAmerica, Inc. said last week that Forbes magazine has chosen it as "as one of the 200 best small companies in America."
Forbes' 200 Best Small Companies in America list, which ranks small companies reporting sales between $5 and $350 million based on return on equity, sales growth, earnings per share growth and operating margin, is featured in its October 13, 2000 issue.
|Power company gets 220 hoppers|
|Northern States Power Co., headquartered in Minneapolis, has received 220 "AutoFlood II" hopper cars, according to the car builder, Johnstown America, of Johnstown, Pa. Northern States Power will use the cars to haul coal to its utility plants. The company's fleet numbers about 2,500 coal cars, 1,200 of which it owns. Delivery was completed in July.|
Erie Railroad: Collection of Leo King
|The Erie Railroad's first scheduled passenger train paused at Honesdale, Penna., in October 1900. We do not know the exact date, but this was the scene down by the tracks just one century ago. That 4-4-0 American type of locomotive, No. 310, was in the vanguard of bigger and more powerful steam engines, which were to follow. We cannot tell you who all those kids were, nor if the elderly gentleman in front was a Civil War veteran, nor if he was injured on the railroad property, but to be placed in such an honored spot, he certainly must have been respected by many people, including railroaders. Were those wooden coaches Pullman cars? Were they Wagner wagons? Perhaps one of our readers can let us know.|
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