Happening Now

Hotline #1,079

August 10, 2018

Amtrak Ends Toys for Tots Partnership; New Acela Interiors Revealed; CHSRA Defends HSR Before Rail Committee; Pittsburgh Narrowly Missed Light Rail Disaster

We Need Your ‘Nose For News’! When you see rail-related news stories, op-eds, editorials, or letters to the editor in your communities, send them along to us! We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Send your news items to Bob Brady, [email protected], and we will share it with members. Are you holding a rally, a community meeting, or another kind of rail-advocacy event? We can help spread the word if you send them to us. We can put them on the website, here. Please follow Rail Passengers Association on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on all things passenger rail.

A poignant and unexpected casualty of Amtrak’s new policies limiting charter train operations emerged late last week -- annual charter trains for the Toys for Tots campaign. The railroad formally notified the Toys for Tots charity that while it will continue to support toy collection at Amtrak stations, it will no longer operate charter trains for Toys for Tots, including one such trip Amtrak has operated in eastern New York State for the past 19 years.

Marine Lt. Gen. Pete Osman (Ret.), President and CEO of Toys for Tots, said Amtrak has helped Toys for Tots deliver millions of toys to “less fortunate children all across the country” for Christmas and that the partnership will be missed. Toys for Tots is organized by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and is one of the most visible and well-known holiday charities in the United States.

"Consistent with Amtrak's mandate to provide efficient, safe, and effective intercity passenger rail transportation, Amtrak has established a new policy for the operation of charter trains,” Amtrak said in its formal statement about the suspension of the multi-year partnership. “Amtrak's objective is to operate its core, scheduled train service safely, on time, and efficiently, and must therefore decline to operate this charter. Amtrak will continue to proudly support the Toys for Tots program through the collection of toys at participating stations."

Under the new charter train policies from Amtrak:

  • Charter Trains must operate on existing Amtrak routes;
  • Charter Trains must not be one-time trips;
  • Charter Trains proposing to use Amtrak resources such as equipment and crews are subject to the availability of those Amtrak resources without impact on regularly scheduled operations
  • Charter Trains must generate sufficient financial benefit for Amtrak to justify the Amtrak resources and assets;
  • All Charter Train terms and conditions are subject to a final written agreement signed by Amtrak and the commercial charter customer.

“Our members are shocked,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. Faced with myriad operational challenges in running a safe, on-time railroad, Amtrak decided earlier this year that until operations are running smoothly and effectively, it would have to limit its support for charters of all types, “and we can certainly understand the need to focus on getting better at its core mission.”

However, Mathews continued, “while we realize that Amtrak has a lot to do to put its operational house in order, Amtrak has also said it would consider charters and special trains on an individual basis. Abruptly terminating a unique program that simultaneously supports needy kids and our veterans seems unnecessarily harsh. Some other solution should have been worked out. What better example of a worthy beneficiary for ‘case-by-case’ consideration could there be?”

Gunnery Sgt. Albert Roman Jr., the Toys for Tots coordinator for the Capital Region in New York, said this would have been the organization's 20th anniversary of running a Christmas train. Last year, Toys for Tots served more than 150,000 children in the area, but the end of service will hurt the nonprofit “logistically, financially.”

"That train is where we tell our story. It's about the kids, the delivery, the community coming together ... they just left us on the sidelines,” Roman Jr. said. "At the end of the day Marines don't fail, these are challenges but these are challenges that I don't know if I can overcome at least not by myself."

Osman also shared optimism for the organization, even with the the closure of toy partner Toys R Us.

Osman said, “There will be other toy companies that will be able to fill the void and we’re confident that we’ll make it work. That’s all there is to it.”

Digital renderings of the interiors being developed for Amtrak’s new Acela Express fleet highlight significant amenity upgrades, from seats to restrooms. “The next generation of Acela trains will set a new standard for rail service in the U.S., providing our customers with a superior travel experience,” Vice President of Amtrak Northeast Corridor Service Line Caroline Decker said in a press release.

The new interiors include:

  • Leather seats with integrated in-seat lighting;
  • Personal outlets and USB ports;
  • Two tray tables for each seat;
  • Handles on each seat back;
  • Improved onboard information system with six LED screens in each train car;
  • Streamlined overhead luggage compartments;
  • Enhanced Wi-Fi; and
  • ADA-compliant restrooms with a 60-inch diameter turning radius.

“Based on the early looks of the new Acela interiors, it’s apparent that Amtrak is taking passenger comfort and passenger needs seriously,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “Amtrak trains, and not just Acela, have been in need of major upgrades for years. It is reassuring to see that Amtrak is putting money towards new Acela trains, as well as recently completing a $4 million renovation to the current Acela fleet on the heels of rapid, responsive refreshes of the Amfleet I cars systemwide. We’re eager to see how this new focus on passenger comfort is reflected in the planned refreshes of Amfleet II and Superliner cars.”

Amtrak overall is investing $2.4 billion in upgrading the customer experience. The money is going towards the new Acela fleet, renovating the current fleet, and major renovations to D.C.’s Union Station. The new train sets are in production now, and are being manufactured at the Alstom facility in Hornell, NY. They will begin testing in 2019 and be ready for service by the end of 2022.

Support The Southwest Chief and The National Network

Long-distance rail, including the Southwest Chief, has received significant support in the Senate for FY 2019.

Even with the new bill, our advocacy work will continue and your generous donations can help fund forthcoming campaigns that will help us keep the National Network intact.

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

Looking for other ways to take action? We could not have secured this month’s win without the help of key allies in the Senate--please join us in saying “thank you!”

The Rail Passengers Association recognizes that the U.S. Senate’s 2019 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill was a major victory for the national passenger rail network, including the Southwest Chief.

We, along with other advocates however, also know that the fight to preserve and expand passenger rail service in the U.S. is not over. Amtrak could continue to revise service and amenities for passenger rail as it has over the course of the year, dropping hot meals on certain routes or terminating ticket agent positions at select stations nationwide.

Your support, and support from other advocacy groups, will be important to ensure that the President signs the bill into law and Amtrak does not eliminate any service on the national network.

Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma, said in an Op-Ed to the Santa Fe New Mexican that “saving the Southwest Chief and refreshing equipment is not enough. All levels of government must look anew at the rail line between Newton, Kan., and Dalies, N.M. They must embrace the need for service growth over this existing infrastructure.”

Stair also said, “We are learning as a society that the automobile is not as freeing as once considered. Young and old are giving passenger rail service a second chance. A reversal of the downward spiral in services can revive small to midsized economies such as in Las Vegas, N.M., and Raton. Passenger rail service is vital to the burgeoning heritage tourism industry in Lamy and Las Vegas, spurred by Allan Affeldt’s restoration efforts at the Legal Tender Restaurant, and La Castañeda and Plaza Hotels. The color of tourism money is still green, and it should be carried in part by passenger trains to New Mexico destinations.”

So remember, this is an ongoing battle that can affect not only how people travel and commute, but also local economies along Amtrak routes.

As we look to preserve the national network, our advocacy work will continue and your generous donations can help support our efforts and future campaigns.

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.

Construction of California’s high-speed rail line is under threat of delay due to issues between contractor Tutor Perini and freight railroad Union Pacific (UP). Tutor Perini and other companies that are building a 31-mile stretch of the HSR line have complained that UP is causing delays and cost increases. UP has a right-of-way along the portion of track in the Central Valley under construction, but the railroad sent a letter to the state in 2010 that said it would not let HSR development impede its right-of-way or service to customers.

However, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) made a deal with UP for $69 million in 2015 to cover UP’s costs during HSR construction. Yet the issue persists. In a recent letter to CHSRA, obtained by The Los Angeles Times, Tutor Perini said that the construction delays are “solely due to [UP’s] unreasonable rigid demands and unwillingness to cooperate.”

The letter also detailed UP’s refusal to approve 75 Tutor Perini design documents, denying them “with little explanation,” and that efforts by the CHSRA to foster cooperation with the railroad “have not been fruitful.” Tutor Perini also said there were 20 instances where UP has interfered with construction of shoe-flies, utility relocations and staging areas, and that UP officials will not meet to resolve issues. The letter also says that UP has repeatedly violated a broad engineering and construction management agreement, and that the Authority’s failure to enforce the terms of that agreement “continues to severely impact the project cost and schedule.”

Justin Jacobs, a Union Pacific spokesman said that UP and CHSRA “maintain open lines of communication.“ He also said, “Any proposed design or project details that do not meet the standards and requirements outlined in the original agreement may require re-submission. Union Pacific and CHSRA will continue our good working relationship and proactive coordination on this project.”

Thomas Fellenz, CHSRA chief counsel also said that there isn’t “any specific tension that is occurring” with UP.

With the letter, Tutor Perini may file another delay claim against the state. The contracting team has already received a $50 million settlement on a previous delay claim and last year a letter indicated it had another delay dispute worth more than $200 million.

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!

Starting September 5, NJ Transit will suspend service on the Atlantic City Rail Line (ACRL) for positive train control (PTC) installation. The suspension of service will allow the transit agency to implement the technology on its rail fleet, with service expected to resume in 2019. NJ Transit crews will also begin installing PTC on the Raritan Valley Line (RVL) on September 10 during off-peak one-seat RVL service. The temporary suspension on RVL will require passengers to transfer to and from New York trains at Newark Penn Station.

“We regret the inconvenience this will cause our customers on the RVL and ACRL. That’s why we’ve maintained the same level of RVL service to/from Penn Station New York with connections at Newark Penn, and are offering a range of options with discounted fares to and from Philadelphia to continue meeting the travel needs of our ACRL customers,’’ Executive Director Kevin Corbett said in a press release.

Corbett also said in the press release that NJ Transit has made significant progress on installing PTC, which can remotely monitor, slow and stop trains that are speeding. The agency has increased its PTC percentage completion from 13 percent to 52 percent over the last three months. Despite the progress, NJ Transit said it plans to request a two-year extension from the Federal Railroad Administration as the agency does not expect to meet the December 31, 2018 deadline.

First responders conducted an emergency training exercise with the forthcoming Milwaukee streetcar. The scenario involved a motor vehicle being hit by the streetcar with an individual becoming trapped underneath, and tested how emergency teams will respond. The exercise included four fire departments, emergency response crews, utility providers and more, all of which are not familiar with the streetcar service. It required teams to shut off the power grid and attempt to get the streetcar off the dummy.

"It all went off pretty darn good," said Deputy Chief Aaron Lipski, with the Milwaukee Fire Department. "They are never perfect, never will be, but it was really, really a vast improvement even over a few months ago."

This was the final training exercise for the response teams. A previous drill involved a mock explosive device going off near the streetcar.

The streetcar, known as The Hop, is set to open this fall.

#ViewsFromATrain Social Media Contest Continues

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 or #ViewsFromATrain and tagging @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!

Brian Kelly, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) defended the agency’s recent business plan to move the high-speed rail line forward during a House rail subcommittee hearing Thursday. The hearing, called by chairman of the House rail subcommittee Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), allowed for questions about the project’s progress, financing and delays, and environmental reviews on different segments of the HSR line.

“This is a poster child for mismanagement,” Denham said of the project, which has missed deadlines and run into cost overruns. Denham added, “There is no reason to believe that anything with regard to this project will go according to plan.”

Despite missing construction deadlines, Kelly said that CHSRA has met all federal funding deadlines for the project. Although two segments of the line have not procured funding yet, Kelly said that there is enough money to complete several other segments that will soon see economic benefits.

During the hearing, the environmental review process was a major topic. Members of the hearing asked why the HSR project has not been given the the same streamlined environmental reviews that it has allowed for other projects, such as a new arena. Overall eight of the 10 segments are still under environmental review proceedings.

Denham said if the state can waive requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the stadium, similar “streamlining could be done if this [HSR project] were a real priority.”

Kelly said, “We have a request before the administration, and we’re waiting for approval” to combine CEQA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA has required its own regulations, separate from CEQA. As a result, transit agencies like CHSRA have to go through two environmental reviews - federal and state. Kelly said that if they were combined, the Authority could save significant time completing reviews.

Only a day after the rail hearing, California’s attorney general’s office argued that the HSR project is no longer subject to the state’s rigorous environmental laws following a decision in June by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The STB ruled that is has oversight of the HSR project in California, and the state claims the decision preempts the authority of CEQA.

“The STB’s decision concluding it has jurisdiction over the entire high-speed train system fundamentally affects the regulatory environment for the project going forward,” the state claims in a filing with the Third District Court of Appeals based in Sacramento.

With its filing, the state asked the court to dismiss a five-year-old lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Bay Area cities of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto that sought to block the HSR train through the Pacheco Pass south of San Francisco. Opponents said that the train would harm the environment. The suit was dismissed by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge in February, but they appealed to the federal court. The court then ordered both sides to answer the question “Does federal law preempt state environmental law with respect to California’s high-speed rail system?”

The $77.3 billion project will have to comply with stringent environmental laws regardless of the court’s decision in the Atherton lawsuit. But if the court sides with the state, it would mean complying only with NEPA, and any lawsuits would have to be filed in federal court.

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.

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) in New York completed installing safety enhancements at its 296 rail crossing five months ahead of schedule. LIRR’s railroad crossing safety initiative involved installing flexible, four-foot-tall reflective delineators as well as extended roadway markings and additional reflective devices to better alert drivers that they should not make a turn onto the tracks.

LIRR President Phillip Eng first announced the initiative in May as part of the LIRR Forward campaign and said it would take through the end of 2018 to complete the upgrades. LIRR crews however completed the last safety enhancement on July 28.

“Keeping our customers and our employees safe is at the forefront of our minds in everything that we do at the Long Island Rail Road. We are consistently implementing innovative approaches — both high-tech and low-tech — to enhance safety, including when it comes to those locations where motorists may encounter our railroad crossings,” Eng said in a press release. “I am pleased to say that it appears that these efforts are paying off, and I want to thank the hardworking LIRR staff who ensured this was done quickly and efficiently.”

LIRR has also seen a positive change with the new safety features. Since the effort began in May, LIRR has recorded only three incidents of vehicles-on-tracks. In the first two, there were no delineators installed at those locations. Comparatively, in 2017, LIRR recorded 29 reports of cars on tracks, in addition to 17 grade crossing accidents involving LIRR and motor vehicles. Through May 22 of this year, there were 2 grade crossing accidents and 21 reports of cars on tracks.

Concerns about riding the Cincinnati Bell Connector have been eased following reports that mold was discovered in the ventilation system of two streetcars. Officials from Cincinnati Metro, which runs the streetcar service, said that the mold, Cladosporium, is actually a harmless and plant-based mold. It was tested by a third-party mold expert.

"Results of an air quality test, conducted out of an abundance of caution, found that the air quality in the streetcar’s operator cabin, passenger compartment and maintenance facility was 'excellent,'" the agency said in a press release.

The mold was originally discovered last week during a routine inspection on two streetcars. Since that time, the entire fleet has been inspected and cleaned for passenger service. Cincinnati Metro is still working to determine the root cause of the mold, and plans to increase HVAC inspections to ensure the mold does not return.

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!

Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) light-rail line to Patapsco and Cromwell, and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport will reopen for service on August 20. The stations were closed due to heavy rainfall and flooding in July that caused severe erosion and damage to tracks. Several sections required extensive repairs, and the agency said crews need about two more weeks to complete the final repairs.

“The men and women of MDOT MTA are working tirelessly to get our Light RailLink service back up and running as quickly as possible,” MDOT MTA Chief Operations Officer Sean Adgerson said in a press release. “Despite the heavy rain that’s hammered the region, our crews are making progress and creating safe conditions for everyone who rides our system. We appreciate our customers’ patience and understanding.”

Work included the construction of a 36-inch drain pipe underneath the tracks at the Twin Oaks light rail station, as well as a 1,200-foot concrete drain. The installments are designed to help reduce any future flooding or erosion.

July was Baltimore’s second-wettest month ever, with 16.73 inches of rainfall recorded at BWI.

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.

The Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA) will have to replace faulty wiring on each of its new 7000 Series rail cars. WMATA began accepting the new cars in 2012 and will have to repair 548 rail cars in total. The replacement effort could take more than a year to complete as each car will have to be taken out of service and repaired in phases.

The revelation on the wiring was part of a review by Metro’s Quality Assurance, Internal Compliance & Oversight office, which also found several other issues related to the rail cars. The wiring was the major issue found, but cars arriving for service through May 2016 had up to 22 other issues and caused major delays on the agency’s Metro system. The review also found that WMATA officials did not require rail car manufacturer Kawasaki to perform appropriate quality checks and provide engineering design support. It was also revealed that the contract for the cars failed to provide specific consequences for failing to provide certain work that measured up to standards.

WMATA plans to receive the last of the 748 cars on order by summer 2019, but the wiring and other issues have delayed deliveries.

Do You Know a ‘Celebrity’?

Rail Passengers Association is looking for people with national star power who will agree to lend their names and faces to a campaign in support of more and better passenger trains. Dan Aykroyd has done a brief video for us, and we’re looking for more celebrities to turn this into an ongoing campaign.

If you personally know someone who has attained celebrity status—an old college roommate who’s become a movie star perhaps, or maybe a former next-door neighbor who’s now a big league ballplayer—let us know. Please email Jim Loomis at [email protected]

Extending its reach in New York state, Amtrak has partnered with intercity bus company Trailways of New York. The partnership allows passengers to buy one-ticket rides to and from smaller communities that don’t connect directly to Amtrak's main Empire Corridor and Adirondack Lines. Cities that will have Trailways connection service (using existing Trailways NY schedules) include Cooperstown, Cortland, Ithaca, Glens Falls, Lake George and Oneonta. The direct train / bus connections will be offered at Rochester (where the bus station is located across the street from the new Rochester Amtrak station); Syracuse, Utica & Saratoga Springs (all where the buses directly serve the Amtrak stations). Tickets are available through Amtrak's app, at amtrak.com, and through ticket agents at Amtrak stations.

A difference of two minutes is what determined that when a freight train derailed it did not fall into a passenger light rail train at the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s “T” station at Station Square. Two minutes prior to the freight train derailment, the light rail train left the station for downtown Pittsburgh. Norfolk Southern’s freight cars fell down a hillside and onto the passenger train tracks below, narrowly avoiding a major disaster and the potential loss of life.

“This could have been a catastrophe,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said. “Instead we don’t even have an injury. Right now, we were blessed.”

The derailment took place on Sunday, with Northfolk Southern crews cleaning up debris and the freight cars, which carried household products such as Listerine. Port Authority engineers also continue to assess the full extent of the damage caused by the derailment at Station Square, and crews have begun to remove sections of light rail track and other infrastructure that will need to be repaired or replaced.

Light rail officials said that In addition to significant repair work, an estimated 1,600 feet of light rail track and 4,000 feet of overhead power lines need to be replaced. As a result, it is uncertain when the station will reopen for service.

Direct Amtrak service to the New York State Fair in Syracuse, NY is again being offered from Wednesday, August 22 through Monday, September 3. Two daily eastbound Empire Corridor trains (#284 & #64) and three daily westbound trains (#63, #281 & #283) will stop at the special New York State Fair station (station code NYF) at the Fairgrounds. Amtrak is featuring a ‘Kids Ride Free’ promotion for travel to & from the State Fair Station on these specific trains.