Happening Now

Hotline #1,077

July 27, 2018

Senate Adopts Passenger Rail Amendments; Senators Opposed Amtrak Bustitition; Shuster Introduces Draft Infrastructure Plan; Americans Support Congress Funding Transportation Infrastructure; Alaska Railroad Conductor to Retire After 50 Years

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The U.S. Senate has listened to rail passengers and advocates with the adoption of several amendments to appropriations bill H.R.6147 that support rail service in the U.S.. Passage of the amendments highlight Congress’s support for Amtrak’s long-distance trains nationwide, including the Southwest Chief, for Fiscal Year 2019.

“The passengers and rail advocates who voiced their opposition to Amtrak’s recent proposed changes to Southwest Chief service, which threatened the stability of the national network, should be proud of their effort,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “This is an important step in keeping long-distance train service whole.”

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) was joined by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Michael Bennett (D-CO), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) to file Amendment #3414, which states:

"It is the sense of Congress that 1) long-distance passenger rail routes provide much-need transportation access for 4,700,000 riders in 325 communities in 40 States and are particularly important in rural areas; and 2) long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network"

With advocates fighting efforts to fragment the National Network, this amendment--which passed 95-4--will provide a clear sense of the Congressional mandate Amtrak is operating under. In June, Amtrak said it would consider implementing bus service on the Southwest Chief between Dodge City, KS and Albuquerque, NM.

The Senate also passed Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) Amendment #3422 by a vote of 99-0, which requires that the Amtrak Inspector General update a report entitled "Effects of Amtrak's Poor On-Time Performance" and make it available to the public. Given the delays plaguing Amtrak passengers, this should prove to be a valuable tool that helps capture the full extent of the problem.

Several senators penned a letter in opposition to Amtrak’s “bustituition” plan for the Southwest Chief. The senators said they are concerned that the implementation of bus service could lead to the elimination of rail service to rural communities nationwide.

“The potential suspension of rail service has raised serious concerns among our constituents who depend on the Southwest Chief,” the senators wrote. “We strongly disagree with such a decision and urge you to uphold Amtrak’s commitment to intercity rail service across the entire national network, particularly through our rural communities.”

The senators also asked Amtrak to stand behind its commitment to contribute $3 million towards a TIGER grant.

The letter is signed by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan), Pat Roberts (R-Kan), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.)

Heinrich added, “We have a disconnect in this country between the rural and the urban economies, between the center and the heartland and the coasts in this country — particularly economically. And if we're going to combat that, we have to invest in the transportation infrastructure and the information infrastructure that can make a difference in rural communities.”

Although we would like to think that moving forward we will see the end of such proposals that look to end or reduce service on the National Network, we know full-well that this won’t be the case and we have to continue to share our voice loud in opposition.

Whether it is a threat to the federal budget that makes Amtrak possible or a threat to part of the National Network, we have to take action. This is why we will re-launch our “Rally For Trains” grassroots campaign this year with a focus on the Southwest Chief and the National Network.

The Southwest Chief is an essential aspect of the National Network that connects passengers from a three-state region to the rest of America.

The campaign is still in development. It will be policy-based and will enable our members to make their individual and collective voices heard.

Your support is vital to our effort to protect the Southwest Chief and preserve the National Network, and we cannot do this work without you.

To get involved, please visit www.railpassengers.org/swc to view a host of materials and participate in the up-to-the-minute needs of the campaign.

Support The Southwest Chief and The National Network

Long-distance rail has received recent support in the Senate, but we don’t expect the fight to end anytime soon.

The work of the Rail Passengers Association will continue and your generous donations help fund advocacy campaigns, such as the one we are launching to protect the Southwest Chief and the National Network.

Please help us keep up the fight on behalf of America’s passengers.

Other ways in which you can support our advocacy work include:

Another amendment introduced to the appropriations bill would require Amtrak to staff any station that has averaged at least 25 passengers per day in the last five years. The stations that this amendment would apply to include: Cincinnati, OH, Hammond, LA, Havre, MT, Lamy, NM, Ottumwa, IA, Shelby, MT, Charleston, WV, Marshall, TX, Meridian, MS, Topeka, KS, and Tuscaloosa, AL.

The amendment was introduced by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) after Amtrak removed ticket agent staff at various stations throughout the country that served less than an average of 40 passengers per day. Rail advocates said however that Cincinnati Union Terminal’s decline in ridership can be attributed to the renovations that the station is currently undergoing, and the move to a temporary facility coined by passengers as “Cincinnati Union Trailer.” The current conditions mid-renovations can be described as dangerous, and passengers need additional assistance, not less.

As Union Terminal makes its much-anticipated renovations, Amtrak passengers should not be punished for their continued ridership,” Senator Portman said in a press release. “The services Amtrak staff provide are important to all passengers at the Cardinal station, but this is particularly true for elderly and disabled individuals who may have to carry baggage down to the train platform unassisted, often late at night. Ensuring that Union Terminal is fully staffed will be essential the welfare of the Cardinal line and the well-being of its passengers.”

Rail Passengers Association member Mark Meyer has also taken action against Amtrak’s recent changes through the launch of a new website that supports the Empire Builder. The goal of the website is to provide information about the Empire Builder, including its history, feature articles on towns the train serves, and how people can reach out to Congress to voice their support of the train.

“Someone needs to promote the (long-distance trains) and explain what they do and why they're needed,” Meyer said in an interview with Trains.

Jim Souby, also with the Rail Passengers Association and President of ColoRail, said that the local grassroots efforts are important for saving and promoting the national network with local officials and Congress.

“These local folks have the ears of their legislature and congressional leaders and that makes all the difference,” Souby said.

Rail Passengers To Launch Station Volunteer Program

Ever since Amtrak de-staffed train stations this year, there has been enormous outcry and opposition to the decision. We understand that Amtrak ticket agents provide more than just customer service.

They are a friendly face that can provide helpful information and directions for travelers, assist those who need help with luggage, and provide an insightful conversation about train travel.

This is why we are organizing a Station Volunteer Program (SVP).

Through a pilot program that will launch in August at various Amtrak stations, a focused volunteer program can continue to provide a connection to the community as well as continue to be a friendly face for Amtrak passengers.

As the pilot program moves forward, we hope that it will provide a service that so many people have come to rely on over the years.

Please stay tuned for additional information and ways to become a station volunteer.

A new draft infrastructure plan has been introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) in an effort to bring funding to the country’s transportation infrastructure. Federal support for the nation’s infrastructure has not lived up to the promises made by President Trump during his presidential campaign, but Shuster’s draft plan calls for federal support for infrastructure projects and grant programs at least through 2021. It also includes a plan to fund the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).

"The 2016 presidential campaign shined a spotlight on America's crumbling infrastructure. Since election day, the American people have waited for action by their federal elected representatives, and I am just as frustrated as they are that we have yet to seriously consider a responsible, thoughtful proposal," Shuster said in a statement following the release of the proposed draft plan.

The plan--which is unlikely to move in this Congress, but could frame the debate in 2019--would be funded partly by an increase in fuel taxes of 15 percent on gasoline and 20 percent on diesel over three years.

Shuster also said that the draft plan is meant to “reignite discussions” with his colleagues before a bill is prepared over the next few weeks or months.

“Keeping the federal government focused on the infrastructure needs of the country is critical to our transit and economic needs,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “From railway to highway projects, passing a bill with appropriate levels of funding is essential to keeping our country running now and into the future.”

The draft plan is available online for review here.

The Northeast Corridor (NEC) will receive a $370 million investment from Amtrak over the next three years. The goal of the funding is to provide passengers with a better ride and experience traveling through the NEC, as well as improving trains’ on-time performance. Amtrak said in a press release that this includes “one track laying system, two undercutters, five high-speed surfacing machines, reference surfacing, heavy lift cranes for New York Penn Station and the necessary freight cars and locomotive power to help sufficiently advance the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair.”

“More than 890,000 Amtrak customers and commuter passengers rely on the Northeast Corridor for transportation every weekday, and we are working to make their ride smoother and more reliable,” Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek said in a press release.

Amtrak also said that the railroad is focused on long-term upgrades that include purchasing modern train equipment, ongoing Concourse Management Strategy studies, and advancement of the critical Gateway Program.

Make plans to attend Rail Passengers Association’s RailNation Miami 2018 Advocacy Summit & Meeting in Miami, FL, Friday, October 19 through Sunday, October 21. The host hotel is the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Miami.

RailNation Miami Registration Is NOW Open! Don’t delay...space is limited...register today!

Friday will feature a series of local tours & activities, including an exclusive opportunity to ride a chartered trip on Brightline. Complete information & registration for this these fantastic tours and trips will be available by August 9th.

Saturday will include a full day of advocacy presentations, speakers and panels, followed by an evening reception at the MiamiCentral Station complex benefiting The Jim Hamre Scholarship Fund. A separate, Saturday evening concert with live entertainment will also benefit the Hamre Scholarship Fund.

Sunday will cap off the weekend with additional presentations in the morning and a closing lunch with a keynote speaker.

Discounted group-rate room reservations are now available via this link. In addition, the preliminary agenda, program and event information is posted on the RailNation Miami 2018 Event Page!

After 50 years of working with the Alaska Railroad, conductor Harry Ross is set to retire in September and say farewell to servicing passengers between Anchorage and Seward. Harry first began working with the railroad as a its first black brakeman in 1968. Over the years he’s worked his way to conductor on the Coastal Classic and has had an amazing time showing people the scenery that Alaska has to offer.

“It’s just an amazing job,” he said. “I really love working passenger trains. I love working with people. I love showing people what Alaska’s about and what I’m about.”

If anyone is traveling to Alaska before he retires and wants to take a ride on the train with Harry, people can join him on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays through the end of the season on September 16. However, Harry will be on his own vacation during the first half of August.

As of July 26, Amtrak Wolverine Service is now allowing bicycles on all 350 and 355 trains at all stations. To board the train with a bike, passengers must make reservations and pay a $10 charge. With the new service, passengers can travel with their bikes between Pontiac and Chicago, via Detroit, Dearborn, Jackson and other stops.

More information is available at Amtrak.com/bikes, including the bicycle capacity on Amtrak Wolverine, Blue Water and Pere Marquette trains.

Amtrak has suspended Coast Starlight service due to the Carr Fire in California. The fire began Monday afternoon following a malfunction with a vehicle and spread quickly over 28,000 acres in California. On Thursday night, the fire jumped the Sacramento River and moved into Redding’s city limits, killing one and injuring several others who were fighting the blaze.

Amtrak said that “customers with reservations on trains that are being modified will typically be accommodated on trains with similar departure times or another day.”

Amtrak said it would also waive charges for anyone wishing to change reservations; riders are encouraged to call Amtrak at 800-872-7245. To check on train statuses or getting more information about refunds, visit amtrak.com.

#ViewsFromATrain Social Media Contest Kicks Off

We had so many great submissions for our social media branding contest last year, we decided to open a second round for the summer.

The Rail Passengers Association is asking members, friends and family, and the general train-riding public, to share their #ViewsFromATrain on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #RailPassengers and @RailPassengers.

The pictures should be your own, and should depict what you see outside your train window, whether it’s a photo of countryside, oceans, forests or cities. People who submit photos will have an opportunity to win a variety of great prizes, including 10,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards® Points.

So, if you’re taking a train this summer, take a look out the window and snap a pic or two. We would love to see them!

Most subway stations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) New York City Transit (NYCT) are inaccessible for passengers with disabilities based on information collected by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Overall, only 24 percent of NYCT’s stations have the ability to adequately accommodate the needs of disabled riders.

The report found that this stat is the lowest among major rail systems in U.S. cities and prevents about 640,000 New York City residents from accessing the subway system. Of the 122 neighborhoods served by the subway, 62 do not have an accessible station.

Fifty-five of the stations that do not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. These areas however, are home to 200,000 disabled residents and more than 341,400 seniors above age 65.

Stringer said in the new report that if the city improved access for disabled riders, it could also help relieve overcrowding at ADA compliant stations that serve a high level of mobility-impaired riders.

The quiet zone on the Brightline route through Boynton Beach will go into effect by the end of August. The city has been awaiting the quiet zone approval for more than two years. The process first began in April 2016 and involved safety upgrades at 11 railroad crossings within the city that cost several million dollars. The city however, did not pay for the upgrades since funding was provided through federal and state support.

“This has been a long time coming, and I think it’s going to be great once the zone is finally enacted,” City Engineer Gary Dunmyer said. “People living near the tracks have been dealing with this for a long time. I’m grateful we were finally able to get this done for them.”

Along the Brightline route, Boynton is one of the last cities in Palm Beach County to establish the quiet zones. When the quiet zone is in place, it will also be important for pedestrians and motorists to continue to pay attention to the railroad crossings and stop when a Brightline train is coming. The new safety upgrades include updated signage, lighting and improved barriers at all of the city’s railroad crossings.

Member Forum Now Open

Rail Passengers Association has opened a new forum for members on Google Groups. Members can share their gripes and their applause, and trade information on the latest passenger rail-related issues.

Click THIS LINK to sign up. It's free and open to the public, but users must join the group before they are able to post messages.

Member Benefit: Newsletter Archives Complete

A new feature for Members: every monthly Newsletter this organization has produced since the beginning of publication in 1969, can be accessed by logging in here. If you have trouble logging in, or cannot reset your password, please contact membership services.

In a new poll, 74 percent of Americans said that Congress should increase funding for public transit projects. The poll was conducted by the the Mineta Transportation Institute for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

“Americans understand that investment in public transportation is an essential element to help their communities grow,” APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said in a press release. “Public transit garners this overwhelming support because it is an important link to connect employees to jobs, customers to businesses, and to the things that improve people's quality of life.”

The new report also revealed:

  • 80 percent of respondents support using tax dollars for creating, expanding and improving public transportation in their communities.
  • 80 percent of Americans say public transportation is important to communities because it helps businesses flourish, by bringing both workers and customers to businesses.
  • 80 percent said public transit is valuable to communities because it provides people with vital connections to fundamental resources such as jobs, schools, and medical facilities.
  • 75 percent of Americans say public transportation remains an important option for daily commuters concerned with issues of costs and traffic.

The survey polled 1,201 people across the U.S. and APTA said the results show that there's agreement among the public and both houses of Congress to increase public transit investment.

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) in New York launched a new program to help disabled riders access trains. The program is called LIRR Care and is an expansion of the LIRR’s Call Ahead program, which required customers to call in for help three hours ahead for assistance. LIRR Care however is available to riders 24 hours a day. LIRR is stationing customer service ambassadors at its main terminals, where riders may request assistance in person 15 minutes prior to departure.

"My focus each and every day is to find ways to improve our customer service. We take customer feedback seriously, and I'm proud to deliver this service to help customers have a more seamless trip," LIRR President Phillip Eng said in a press release. "I'd like to thank the hard working staff of the Long Island Rail Road who coordinated together to deliver this quickly and efficiently. We look forward to hearing from all our passengers on ways we can continue to improve their experience with us."

This service is available to, but not limited to, seniors, and people with disabilities, including those who use wheeled devices.

Upcoming Regional Rail Passenger & State Association Member Meetings and Other Events:

Please contact Bruce Becker to have a state or regional event or meeting added to the Rail Passengers Association calendar of upcoming events!

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approved Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) allowing it to move forward with the next phase of testing the G Line commuter line. The line has been repeatedly delayed from commencing full passenger service, but the approval brings it one step closer by allowing multiple trains to run more frequently as of July 20, 2018.

Prior to approval, RTD and its contractor, Denver Transit Partners (DTP), have only been running limited tests since last fall and started conducting tests between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays since the start of this year. Testing can now take place with up to three trains every half hour beginning as early as 3:30 a.m. and running through 1 a.m. the following day.

"We are pleased to have arrived at this phase in the testing schedule, and we continue to appreciate the patience of the public, businesses and leaders in the communities along the G Line as we work through all of the necessary details," said Dave Genova, RTD's chief executive officer and general manager.

Although the FRA has granted the next step in testing for RTD, there is no opening date yet for the G Line.

Construction crews on July 20 completed excavation of Sound Transit’s Bellevue tunnel five months ahead of schedule. The tunnel will eventually connect the East Main and Downtown Bellevue stations once the East Link starts passenger service in 2023.

"Today is a breakthrough in every sense of the word. This tunnel is the culmination of over a decade of vision, hard work and tenacity by local and regional leaders, planners, workers and many, many members of the public who all insisted on a great transit connection through downtown Bellevue,” Sound Transit Boardmember Claudia Balducci said in a press release. “East Link, and this tunnel, will connect our communities, support our economy and provide a fast and reliable way to get out of traffic for people all over the region.”

When the 14-mile East Link light rail service begins, eastbound trains will enter the tunnel north of the East Main station at 112th Avenue Northeast and travel approximately one-third of a mile, under 110th Avenue Northeast and turning east near Northeast Sixth Street to emerge at the future Downtown Bellevue Station. Following the 2023 opening of the project, in 2024 Link light rail will extend another 3.4 miles east to new stations in Southeast Redmond and downtown Redmond.

Openings Available For Rail Passengers Association State Council Representatives

The following vacancies now exist for state representatives on the Rail Passengers Association Council of Representatives: Alabama (1 opening); California (7 openings); Idaho (1 opening); Illinois (1 opening); Louisiana (1 opening); Massachusetts (1 opening); Minnesota (1 opening); North Dakota (1 opening); Ohio (2 openings); Pennsylvania (1 opening); Washington State (1 opening); Wyoming (1 opening)

If you are interested in becoming more involved in passenger rail advocacy and serving in a Rail Passengers Association leadership role, this is your opportunity to be considered for an appointment by the Board of Directors to an open state representative seat. There is no deadline to apply and submissions will be considered on a rolling basis as they are received.

Please review the position responsibilities & required qualifications and complete & submit a Candidate Information Statement if you would like to seek a position.

Phase 1 of the Charlotte Gateway Station (CGS) project began development with a groundbreaking event attended by North Carolina and local officials. With Phase 1 starting, work crews will begin $30 million worth of construction for 2,000 feet of rail track, signals, five new bridges, and a rail platform. This phase of the CGS is partially funded through a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, as well as a combination of state and local funds.

“This partnership will benefit our state for years to come,” Jim Trogdon, secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) said in a press release. “The Charlotte Gateway Station will help better support North Carolina’s economy and provide people safe, reliable and appealing transportation alternatives.”

Phase 1 of the CGS is estimated to be completed by 2022.

North Carolina officials also said that the city and NCDOT are working with consultant teams to procure a private partner for the development of the full station district. The formal Request for Proposals process is expected to begin in late summer 2018. A private partner could be selected as early as December 2018.

Transit-rail state safety oversight (SSO) programs in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin have been certified by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). With approval of these states’ systems 19 of 28 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico have received certification from the FTA.

"FTA is pleased that Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin have developed safety oversight programs that meet federal certification requirements and will strengthen rail transit safety," FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a press release. "With certification, transit agencies in these states can continue to receive federal funding."

Federal law requires states with transit-rail operation systems must obtain certification of their SSO programs by April 15, 2019. To earn the FTA's approval, an SSO program must meet federal statutory requirements, including identifying an SSO agency that's financially and legally independent from the transit agencies it oversees.

For Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin, this includes their respective streetcar systems. In Texas, the Texas Department of Transportation will provide safety oversight for light-rail systems operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Houston METRO. The department also will oversee streetcar systems in El Paso and Dallas, as well as a trolley line in Galveston.