Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Atlanta Keeps Beltline Free From HSR

High-speed passenger trains will not enter Atlanta via a segment of the old Beltline that planners want to use as a recreation corridor. The Atlanta City Council Monday signed an agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation to protect the corridor, which was once used so freight trains could bypass downtown Atlanta.

Instead, passenger trains in the future would reach downtown Atlanta via the Western trunkline. However, that decision does not sit well with residents in the Marietta Street Corridor.

Greetings from the Dysfunctional State of New York

Tomorrow, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors is expected to approve a budget containing fares hikes average 23 percent as well as massive service cuts on its bus, subway and commuter rail lines. There is plenty of blame to be shared among Gov. David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos for their failure to work out a rescue plan.

Although there is always the possible that these "leaders" could cobble a deal together in the weeks ahead, the clock will soon strike midnight. There is nothing more to say at this time. The details of the fare plan have been known for some time. It's a sad day for New York.

Extension Proposed for Saved Vermont Passenger Train

First, passenger rail advocates in Vermont persuaded their governor to continue to fund Amtrak's New York - Burlington Ethan Allen Express. Now they are looking to extend the run north to Burlington, the Green Mountain State's largest city.

"There is a groundswell and momentum building around this issue," Tom Torti, the director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, told WCAX-TV. Torti says the move would promote tourism and decrease pollution.

The idea has the support of an important state legislator, Sen. Dick Mazza, the chair of the senate transportation committee, who led the fight to save the train. "If you ever want passenger rail in Vermont, this is going to be the successful passenger rail. People have been waiting for it. The infrastructure is here."

"Mazza points out that the rails have already been upgraded for a failed commuter service from Burlington to Charlotte. Extending passenger service to Burlington will still need rail upgrades from Vergennes to Rutland costing $30 million, but the federal funding is already approved."

Don't look for a start-up anytime soon. If all goes according to plan, it could be three years before the first run to Burlington.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New Virginia Services

Several on-line newspapers have reported that locally funded services between Linchburg VA and Wash and Wash-Richmond are as good as a done deal. Here is reporting of such from the Richmond Times Dispatch:

http://www.timesdispatch.com/rtd/business/transportation/article/CTBO20_20090319-221103/236377/

Brief passage:
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While firm schedules and fares have yet to be worked out, the Richmond train will tentatively pull out of Staples Mill about 7 a.m. daily and arrive at Washington's Union Station about 9:30 a.m., then leave Union Station about 4 p.m. and arrive back at Staples Mill at 6-6:30 p.m., according to the Rail and Public Transportation Department. It would be the ninth daily round trip between Richmond and Washington. Northbound trains currently leave Richmond at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., among other times.
The Lynchburg train will leave the Kemper Street Station about 7:45 a.m. and reach Union Station at 11:20-11:30 a.m., the department said. It will depart Washington about 5 p.m. and return to Lynchburg at about 8:30 p.m.
Each train will consist of up to eight passenger coaches, a business-class coach and a café car, Page said

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The consist noted appears to be quite consistent with that of the typical NE Regional train, and in the interest of operational efficiency, Amtrak should want such to be continuing trains. So would the sponsoring agency as a better 'draw for itineraries such as Stamford-Charlottesville would be available.

Given the normal station time allowed at Wash, it would appear the NB Lynchburg train would continue to Boston as 176; the Richmond train as 174. SB things are somewhat "muddier'. There already is a 93 departing Wash for Richmond from Wash at 550P AND an 85 departing 7PM. Possibly 171 arriving Wash 410P could be the continuation but the next available Regional presently terminating at Wash is 173 arriving 645P. However since the Lynchburg train has greater distance; it should be a continuation of 93 and the Richmond of 173.

Trust everyone is clear; hope you all were taking notes as it is now time for a pop quiz (LOL)

Sun to Shine on Sunset Limited?

The Sunset Limited, a perennial whipping boy for Amtrak critics because of its high losses and low ridership, may be getting an overhaul. Trains for America has a report that the train will be upgraded as part of Amtrak's RPI project. It cites a report in Amtrak Ink, the company's employee newsletter, which points out that ridership and revenue were up 20 percent and that a management team has created a punch list with 200 items for change or improvement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Understanding the MTA Train Wreck

Newsday reporter Dan Janison offers an insightful analysis into how nine years ago the late investment banking firm of Bear Stearns and the administration of Gov. George Pataki sent New York's Metropolitan Transportation Agency down a track that would put the agency in its current financial pickle.
"Lee Sander, the MTA's executive director, said: "In 2000, Albany put our entire capital program on a credit card."

New Haven Deja Vu?

In the 1960s, service on the bankrupt New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, one of the largest commuter lines serving metropolitan New York, had deteriorated for the point where it had replaced the Long Island Rail Road as the region's poster child for sick railroad syndrome.

The railroad's fortunes continued to wane after it was merged into the ill-fated Penn Central and later became a part of Conrail. However, things started to improve with the formation of Metro-North, which invested heavily in improving the infrastructure. On-time percentages reached levels high enough to get your kid into an Ivy League college, and ridership soared, partly due to a burgeoning reverse commute from New York to employment centers in Stamford and Greenwich.

Now service seems to have taken a serious turn for the worse, according to the blog Station Stops:
"...in the past few months, its gotten MUCH worse.

2009 Metro-North New Haven Line service has just been third-worldly. Breakdowns, delays, dirty, stinky cars, short trains with no available seats - day after day I hear about it, from friends - on Twitter (follow us @stationstops ) but with a frequency like never before."

Blogger Chris maintains the problem is the result of rolling stock reaching the end of its useful life. While passenger cars purchased circa 1970 have been removed from service on the Long Island and Metro North's Hudson and Harlem lines, they still soldier on on the New Haven line. That's because Connecticut hasn't been willing to purchase new rolling stock. Perhaps Fairfield County commuters will keep that in mind the next time their governor is up for election.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bureaucrats Hold Up Transit Security Funds

Since September 11, 2001, Congress has appropriated $1.5 billion to pay for security and safety improvements in the nation's transit systems. To date just $200 million of that figure had been paid out, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

The revelation has angered Congressmen on both sides of the aisle. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican charged "the taxpayers are getting screwed." Steven Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, demanded the dismissals of the heads of the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Florida Snoozes on Regional Rail

Florida is the nation's fourth largest state. It has sizable metropolitan areas in the north (Jacksonville), south (Miami - Fort Lauderdale - West Palm Beach), central region (Orlando) and west coast (Tampa - St. Petersburg). Yet it is considered a laggard in developing regional rail, and some officials fear its tardiness could cost it opportunities to tap federal aid, according to the Sarasota Times-Herald.

Although 30 years ago state lawmakers promised to build a network of commuter lines, only one, Tri-Rail, which runs from Miami to West Palm Beach, is in operation. A second line, SunRail, which would serve the Orlando area, has been waiting for the legislature to sign off on the project for two years.
“What’s amazing to me is the federal government just looks at Florida and they just shake their heads,” said Jeff Koons is a Palm Beach County commissioner and longtime member of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority that runs Tri-Rail. “You need leadership and we just don’t have it."
The problem is a mix of money issues and parochialism. State legislatures are loathe to ask their constituents to pay for a commuter rail system on the other side of the state.
“The bottom line is that people in my district, if ever one or two of them use Tri-Rail, it’ll be few and far between,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations committee who is from New Port Richey north of Tampa. “Why would the people in my district or the Panhandle or Jacksonville have to pay for a train system they’ll never use and that’s in the red?”
Meanwhile, as Florida sleeps the federal money that could have gotten more regional rail lines off the ground is going to Utah, North Carolina and New Mexico.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

South Shore to Reduce Weekend Service

In times of recession, it is not surprising to see operating agencies reduce service on account of fiscal woes, usually caused by declining subsidies. However, the explanation given by the CEO of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICDT), which operates the South Shore line from South Bend to Chicago, strikes us as odd.

According to WSBT-TV, the rail line wants to reduce weekend service to improve the reliability of its operations. This begs the question: if they can't run the trains on time during the weekend, when trains run every two hours, what must weekday operations be like, given that so many more trains are scheduled. Somebody isn't shooting straight.

Group Fights for Gun Rights on MARTA

As a veteran New York commuter, the thought of allowing passengers to carry guns on trains is terrifying. [Think Bernie Goetz, Colin Ferguson.] Yet down in Atlanta a pro-gun group is trying to secure the right to bear arms aboard MARTA trains. WAGA-TV reports the group, known as GeorgiaCarry.org, contends one of its members was illegally stopped by transit police when they realized he was carrying a gun in a train station.

The same group recently tried, unsucessfully, to force Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to allow guns in unsecured areas.

"The legal feud erupted when a new state law took effect in July that allows people with gun permits to carry guns into restaurants and state parks and on public transportation.

Atlanta officials quickly declared the airport a "gun-free zone" and warned that anyone carrying a gun there would be arrested. GeorgiaCarry.org sued the city and the airport, claiming the airport qualifies as public transportation under the new state law."

In all likelihood this case, too, will wind up in the courts. If it does, it is not clear who would prevail. Nevertheless, the fact that the Georgia legislature enacted such a law tells us a lot about Georgia. But, knowing the state's history and prevailing political philosophy, it should come as no surprise.

NJ Transit River Line Gets Money to Grow

When NJ Transit's River Line, a diesel light rail line that connects Trenton and Camden, was being planned, cynics charged that it would be a white elephant; that it would generate minimal usage and that it was being built for political expediency, i.e. to win the support of southern New Jersey legislators for light rail and other transit projects in the north.

Five years after its opening, it has become the little rail line that could, handling 9,000 riders a day and reaching the limits of its capacity. That's something I know about from personal experience, having been left at the Trenton station once because there was no more room on the train. Now, two capital projects, funded with economic stimulus money, are in the works to increase that capacity and expand connectivity, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

"Ridership on the River Line has grown significantly, and we've really maxed out the infrastructure," NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said.

NJ Transit is spending $24 million to upgrade the line's signal system. According to Stessel, this will allow the single-track line to operate an additional express train from Florence to Trenton. The signal upgrade would be a step toward "positive train control" in the future.

Positive train control, which would automatically apply the brakes if an engineer misses a stop signal, must be in use by 2015. That ruling was an outcome of last year's fatal collision between a Metrolink commuter train and Union Pacific freight in Chatsworth, CA. Having positive train control would allow River Line trains to run past 10 p.m., when it now has to cede to the line to Conrail freight trains.

In addition, NJ Transit will spend $40 million on a new station in Pennsauken, where NJ Transit's Atlantic City Line crosses over the River Line. The two level station, which should take 2 1/2 - 3 years to complete, would provide River Line passengers with connections to Atlantic City and Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, a major hub for Amtrak and SEPTA.

Court Ruling Could Revive Dumbarton Caltrain Plan

The Dumbarton Rail Corridor is a planned project to extend Caltrain service from Redwood Junction to Union City, CA, via a freight branch abandoned by the Southern Pacific Railroad that crossed the lower reached on San Francisco Bay via a trestle and swing bridge known as the Dumbarton Bridge. The terminal for the new branch would be a "union" station where passengers could transfer to Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, Altamont Commuter Express and BART, as well as East Bay bus routes. The line's purpose is to improve connecticity and give East Bay residents a new alternative for commuting to jobs in Silicon Valley.

The San Mateo County Transportation Authority website says the service will commence in 2012. However, in January the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a regional planning organization, transferred $91 million earmarked for the Dumbarton line to a project to extend a BART route from Fremont to Warm Springs, "which put the Dumbarton plan on hold indefinitely."

That decision didn't sit well with the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (Transdef), which file suit to block the transfer of funds. A judge is expected to rule on the case this week.

Transdef contends MTC's action was illegal since the BART extension was not among the projects funded by
Regional Measure 2, a 2004 voter-approved $1 toll increase to Bay Area bridges to fund local transportation projects. "The Dumbarton Rail project meets the regional connection needs outlined in Measure 2, whereas the "dead-end" Warm Springs project does not, the suit says."

MTC responding brief contends "
the Warm Springs project is "shovel ready" and has a much smaller funding gap than the Dumbarton Rail project." According to the San Jose Mercurcy News, the agency has no plans to fund Dumbarton until 2019.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amtrak Stimulus Money to Support Rolling Stock and Infrastructure Repairs

Delaware had plenty to smile about when its favorite son came calling at the Amtrak depot in Wilmington. Vice President "Amtrak" Joe Biden, who for over three decades commuted by train from the same station to his desk in The Capitol, Friday unveiled the $1.3 billion to be given to Amtrak from the economic stimulus package: approximately $100 million of that figure is to be spent in Delaware, according to the Wilmington News-Journal.
"The stimulus package outlay announced by Vice President Joe Biden includes $21 million to restore Amtrak's historic Wilmington station, along with $58.5 million for railroad car restorations and repairs in Amtrak's Bear maintenance facility and other spending on improvements to tracks, power supplies and other rail facilities."
Additional cars will be built repaired at Amtrak's Beech Grove, Ind., shops. The largest project funded through the economic stimulus will be the $102 million replacement of a drawbridge overthe Niantic River in Connecticut on the Northeast Corridor.

Other elements of the spending include a new Auto Train station in Sanford, FL, rebuildings a critical power supply facility in Chester, PA, and signal system upgrades on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington and in Michigan.

Amtrak is a major employer in Delaware, with 450 persons on the payroll at the Bear car repair shops and 500 at the Wilmington locomotive repair facility. According to Sen. Tom Carper, D-DEL, the project will put 59 passenger cars back into service.

Amtrak Communications Director Cliff Black said the funds could create up to 6,000 new jobs.
"Today's announcement is about jobs -- both for Delaware's Amtrak shops and those businesses associated with refurbishing the Wilmington train station," said Carper, who served on Amtrak's board and commutes daily by train to Washington.

"In the short term, this money will put a lot of Delawareans to work. In the long run, these upgrades will help reduce traffic, oil consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions, and household transportation costs," Carper said.
Rebuilding the passenger cars will enable Amtrak enter new markets and increase frequencies on some existing routes. Previously these cars were sitting idle because the railroad lacked the funds to repair them. Thus, the economic stimulus will not only create jobs by enabling Amtrak to hire people to fix the cars, but also generate revenue by providing increased service, which, in turn, will create jobs in train operations, e.g. engineers, conductors and service attendants.

In Pennsylvania, rolling stock shortages have been an obstacle to increased service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, according to Eric Bugaile, executive director of the state House Transportation Committee.

"Amtrak is ''kind of maxed out'' on its service schedule because of equipment limitations, he said, adding that the current one train a day each way past Altoona is ''dismal.''

''We would like four or five round trips,'' he said. ''At least one more.''

The funding is roughly double what Amtrak receives from Congress for capital projects, and Vice President Biden had strong words for Amtrak critics, mainly conservative Republicans, who have pointed company's failure to turn a profit and its inefficient operations

"It is "a necessity for a great nation to have a great [rail] passenger system," Biden said. "I'm tired of apologizing for help for Amtrak. ... It's an absolute national treasure and necessity."

In his remarks Friday, Biden argued that every modern passenger rail service in the world depends on subsidies. He also claimed that U.S. highways and airports are actually subsidized more than the railway system.

"So let's get something straight here. Amtrak has not been at the trough. Amtrak has been left out," he said."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Amtrak Cascades Line Marks 10th Anniversary

Ridership on Amtrak's Cascades line, which is funded by the states of Washington and Oregon, has risen by 71 percent since the service began 10 years ago, according to a Washington Department of Transportation news release. Last year, the line served a record 775,000 passengers.

Amtrak introduced the service 10 years using five Talgo trainsets, three of which are owned by Washington and the others by Amtrak. In addition, the Washington Department of Transportation has invested $137 million in rail infrastructue and other improvements. The service has grown to four daily roundtrips between Seattle and Portland, with two continuing south to Eugene and one continuing north to Bellingham. In addition, the line offers a daily roundtrip between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, with plans in the works for a second daily train to Vancouver.

A special event to commemorate the anniversal will be held May 9 at Seattle's King Street Station. The dates also marks the second annual National Train Day.

Major Fare Hikes Loom for Big City Transit Riders

Massive fare hikes are facing transit customers in major cities around the country. Higher fares could impact ridership trends, which set 50-year records last year.

In New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed raising fares on subways, buses and commuter railroads by as much as 30 percent, a proposal to mitigate that fare hike by imposing new bridge tolls and a payroll tax has hit roadblocks in the state legislature. According to the New York Daily News:
"Albany sources said Gov. Paterson and other backers of the revenue-raising package, crafted by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, are increasingly frustrated and concerned that time is running out for more than 8.5 million daily bus, subway and commuter train riders."
While Sheldon Silver, speaker of the state Assembly, says he has the votes needed to pass the Ravitch plan in that house, in the state Senate several Democratic members are joining with Republicans in opposing tolls on bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers that are now free. They have proposed higher vehicle registration fees, selling MTA-owned land and a commuter income tax to avoid raising tolls. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who until a few days ago was running for Mayor of New York, proposed cutting MTA administrative spending by 10 percent and transferring control of the agency from the state to the city.

The legislature's failure to act prompted an emergency MTA board meeting tomorrow to discuss the problem.

If the Ravitch plan is approved, it would also impose a payroll tax on counties in the MTA service region. Fares would still rise, but by eight percent rather than 23 percent or more. The legislature has until March 25 to act. On that day the MTA board is expected to vote to approve new fares, which would take effect June 1.

State legislature action will also determine what happens to fares on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subways, buses, ferries and commuter rail lines. The Boston Globe reports that the "T' preliminary budget "will include an "other revenues" line entry for $160 million, the size of the agency's budget deficit." The agency's board is required to approve the first draft by March 15.

The agency is counting on the legislature to help fill the money gap, but without state assistance the board will have to "reduce service and hike fares to make up the difference." Fares could rise by 25 percent, and off-peak and weekend service face substantial reductions that would take effect July 1.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed a 19 cents per gallon gasoline tax to keep MBTA fares low, reduce a recently imposed toll hike on the Massachusetts Turnpike and support transportation projects around the state. However, the plan is getting a cool reception in the legislature, according to the Globe.

In the Windy City, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board will probably impose higher fares and cost-cutting measures next month to help close a $155 million budget gap, The Chicago Tribune reports. Paul Fish, the CTA’s vice-president of budget and capital finance told the board earlier this week the agency could probably reduce expenses by $80 million but would still face a $75 million shortfall that would, most likely, have to be made up at the farebox.

One problem facing the agency is the reliability of sales tax revenue projections provided by its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). In mid February the RTA told CTA sales tax revenue was running $58 million below projections. CTA had estaimted the shortfall at $87 million. The RTA board meets April 2; the CTA board April 7.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is considering its second fare hike in two years because of a $45 million shortfall in sales tax revenue. The hike would take effect on some services in September and on others, including Trinity Railway Express, as late as December 2010, according to the Dallas Morning News. A day pass for local bus and light rail service would rise by $1 to $4.

Monday, March 9, 2009

New York Unveils 20-Year Rail Plan

At a press conference today held at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, New York Gov. David Paterson unveiled the Empire State's first statewide rail plan in 22 years. It calls for spending $10.7 billion over 20 years to upgrade intercity passenger and freight service, with $3 billion targeted for the so-called Third Track Initiative, which would reduce trip times and increase frequency and reliability along the Empire Corridor between Albany-Rensselaer and Buffalo.
"The Third Track Initiative aims to establish a dedicated third track for high speed passenger rail service across Upstate from Niagara Falls to Albany with a potential for reducing the travel time by 2 hours or more."
Other goals of the plan include:
  • Doubling train frequencies between New York and Albany-Rensselaer, Albany-Rensselaer and Niagara Falls and Albany-Rensselaer and Montreal.
  • Achieving on-time performance of at least 95 percent between Albany and New York City.
  • Shortening the travel time between Albany-Rensselaer and Montreal to 6 1/2 hours from eight hours.
  • Establishing new passenger service, where viable, such as between Saratoga and Albany, Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and Binghamton and New York City

California High-Speed Rail Agency Faces Cash Crunch

Despite passage of a $9.9 billion bond initiative last November and $8 billion for high-speed rail in President Obama's economic stimulus package, the California High-Speed Rail Authority could come to a crashing halt. The agency is facing a cash crunch, according to a Fresno Bee editorial, because state spending on infrastructure projects has been frozen.

It has pegged its hopes on a $29.1 million bridge loan to sustain its operations through June in hope that it can access some of the federal funds and bond sale proceeds. If the agency is forced to shut down and suspend its planning activities, California could lose out on tapping the federal high-speed rail money pool: it needs federal funds to build its rail line, which has a $30 billion pricetag just for the Los Angeles - San Francisco mainline.

"California is currently ahead of the rest of the states in planning its high-speed system. We're the only state whose voters have approved spending our own money on such a project, and the environmental and engineering studies required for the massive project are already well begun.

"But that lead could evaporate quickly if California's efforts are stalled by money woes. Not a day passes without news of the enthusiasm that's rising in other states and regions to build high-speed systems -- the Midwest, the Northeast corridor, Texas, Florida."

MARTA Ridership Gains Gone With the Wind

MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta public transit agency, reported an 8.6 gain in ridership on its subway system for 2008, the third highest among the nation's subway operators, according to American Public Transportation Association figures. But the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports a reversal of fortune for the agency this year, with ridership off four percent, year over year, in January. That's the start of MARTA's troubles:

"Despite getting about $65 million from the federal economic stimulus package for repairs, renovations and equipment replacements, MARTA is projected to have a $65 million to $67 million operating budget shortfall this year because its share of public sales tax revenues has declined dramatically along with the economy.

"And with lower gasoline prices and fewer people now commuting to work because they no longer have jobs, ridership is falling once again, too."

MARTA CEO Beverly Scott says the drop in sales tax revenue could mean service reductions of 10 to 30 percent, depending on what the Georgia legislature does to come to the agency's aid. Also a 25-cent fare hike to $2 for a single ride is in store for riders.

New Mexico Tribes Declare Shutter-Free Zones on Rail Runner

Officials of the Santo Domingo and San Felipe pueblos have asked conductors on New Mexico Rail Runner trains to request that their passengers refrain from taking photos while crossing their territories, Associated Press reports. A 12-mile stretch of the Albuquerque - Santa Fe rail route just north of Bernalillo crosses Native American lands, and the residents want to maintain their privacy.
“We know that we probably can’t enforce it legally,” said Lawrence Rael, director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. “It’s just a matter of agreement to say we would respect their request. I think it’s pretty reasonable. Those of us who were raised in New Mexico know that when you drive into a pueblo there are signs posted that say ‘no picture taking.’ ... This is just an extension of that.’’

Transit Ridership Sets 52-Year High

Is America's love affair with the automobile coming to an end? Americans took 10.7 billion rides on public transit in 2008, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). That is the most in 52 years and a four percent gain over 2007. The increase came despite a falloff in gasoline prices and rising unemployment, a critical factor for transit, since 60 percent of transit usage is work related.
"The APTA survey found that ridership increased last year on all modes of transit all across the country. Ridership rose on 14 of the nation's subway systems (3.5 percent), 20 of 21 commuter rail systems (4.7 percent) and 20 of 26 light-rail systems (8.3 percent). Some of the big increases were in places such as South Florida, Dallas and Salt Lake City, not necessarily among the largest communities served by transit, officials said."
Transit advocates say the gains provide a rationale for increased investment in public travel modes. The spending would not only help the economy but address environmental and energy issues. APTA President William W. Millar told The Washington Post:

"Now, more than ever, the value of public transportation is evident, and the public has clearly demonstrated that they want and need more public transit services. These are investments that pay off for decades and decades to come. Boston opened the nation's first subway in 1897. More than a century later I can still ride it today."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Economic Stimulus Projects in New Jersey, Massachusetts

Several NJ Transit projects will receive $423 million in economic stimulus money, with the biggest chunk, $130 million, going toward the $9 billion Access to the Region's Cor project to construct a new tunnel under the Hudson River and new passenger rail terminal in Midtown Manhattan. Other funded projects include a $40 million transfer station in Pennsauken connecting the Atlantic City Line and River Line (light rail), signal improvements for the River Line ($24 million) and bidirectional operation on the Morris & Essex line ($25 million.)

Economic stimulus money will fund a $37 million project to restore a second track to a former Boston & Maine line through Andover and Haverhill, Mass., now used by MBTA's Haverhill and Fitchburg Lines as well as Amtrak's Downeaster. According to the Andover Townsman, the project "would allow more commuter rail trips through Andover, especially during peak commuter hours."

California Rail Plan Report Premature

A published report that the first leg of California's high-speed rail network would operate between Bakersfield and Merced may have been premature. Check out this notice published by the Los Angeles Times.

New York Central Legacy Gives Empire State a Leg Up in High-Speed Money Chase


In a cost-cutting move in the 1960s, the erstwhile New York Central System reduced its mainline across Upstate New York from two tracks to four. Nearly 50 years later, that decision could give New York State an advantage in competing for high-speed rail money contained in the recently enacted economic stimulus package.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told The Buffalo News his department is giving serious consideration to funding a high-speed rail project from Buffalo to Albany.
“This is a very bipartisan effort that includes a project that represents 60 percent of the state,” LaHood said after a meeting with the state’s upstate congressional delegation. “This part of the state is hurting, and obviously this would be an economic engine, and we obviously will take all of that into consideration.”
The Empire Corridor, which extends to New York City, is one of 11 routes declared eligible for high-speed rail money by Uncle Sam. A proposal to upgrade the line using diesel-powered trains running at speeds in the 110 m.p.h. - 150 m.p.h. range would cut Buffalo - Albany trip times to three hours from the current five - six hours.

According to an aide to U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, part of the project is shovel-ready since it would follow use the unused portion of the four-track right-of-way now used by CSX's Chicago Line. With its own track, passenger trains, which in all likelihood would be operated by Amtrak, would not be subject to delay from CSX freight traffic.

The upstate New York corridor has one huge advantage, said Rep. Eric Massa, D-Corning.

“We have the right of ways,” Massa said. “Everywhere else in the state, they have to be created."

The Obama administration is required to have criteria for funding high-speed rail projects complete by mid-April.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Amtrak Contemplates More Fare Cuts

Amtrak. which last month lowered fares for its Acela Express may soon reduce tariffs on other trains, Bloomberg reports. Acela ridership was done 14 percent in January. The Northeast Corridor, both Acela and conventional, saw business fall eight percent in February.

The bright spot in Amtrak's business is long-distance travel, up 6.1 percent so far in the current fiscal year and 3.5 percent. However, Amtrak CEO Joseph Bpardman says it is premature to forecast whether the trend will hold up for the rest of the year.

The long-distance are heartening because, as Trains for America notes: "It is important for Congress and journalists to know that there is an Amtrak out beyond the Northeast Corridor...Amtrak long distance service is proving its worth in tough economic times."

Palo Alto Council Flip-Flops on High-Speed Rail

Last fall, the Palo Alto, Calif., City Council unanimously endorsed the California High-Speed Rail bond proposition. Monday night it passed a resolution calling for the line to run through its city in a tunnel or consider alternative routes that would not see the trains operate in the San Francisco Peninsula.

The San Jose Mercury News reports residents having issues with the route the trains would take through their city, which is home to Stanford University.
"One possible alignment would put the tracks on a 20-foot-high concrete platform so the trains wouldn't intersect with cross streets. Residents, inflamed by the prospect of a "Berlin Wall" dividing their neighborhoods, have been packing public meetings on the topic."
But it doesn't have to be so bleak. At the California High-Speed Rail Blog, Robert Cruikshank presents examples from Europe of elevated railway structures that actually enhance the character of the surrounding by placing stores and other businesses under the arches that support the rails.

Here on Long Island, where I live, there are many examples of elevated structures that avoid the "Berlin Wall" effect feared in California. In the vicinity of stations the roadbed is supported by concrete or steel piers. Most of the space is used for parking. However, depots are placed under the tracks, as well. Recently, the Long Island Rail Road has upgraded the structures with new brick or stucco facades. In Merrick, a new depot was built and the original building, which dates to the mid-1970s, was converted into a branch library.

I would suggest that Palo Alto officials should heed the advice of California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Member Rod Diridon and "
focus on how to make the train work now that it has been approved by the state's voters." There is too much upside to let this project be derailed by a bunch of NIMBYs.

All Aboard the Merced Bullet Train

In a hurry to get from Bakersfield, Calif., to Merced?

By 2015, bullet trains capable of reaching 220 mph could whisk you there in just 45 minutes, less than one-third the time it takes to drive the 175-mile distance. The Visalia Times-Delta reports the first leg of the California High-Speed Rail system will connect those cities.

The segment, which would be built parallel to state Highway 99, traverses the flat San Joaquin Valley, where mountain passes and urban congestion won't restrict track speeds. But just how many people want to travel from Bakersfield to Merced?

Plans call for the high-speed line to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles with branches to Sacramento and San Diego. However service between California's two largest cities isn't likely to begin before 2018.

Plans Revealed for Metro North Service to Meadowlands

The Railfan Window Blog has details about Metro North's planned service to New York Giant and Jet football games, which is slated to begin in August. Two trains from New Haven and one from Stamford will run to Secaucus Junction, where passengers will transfer to a shuttle train running from Hoboken Terminal to Giants Stadium. The three return trains will run through to New Haven.

The trains will use NJ Transit rolling stock and locomotives because Metro North equipment is incompatible with the power system used on Amtrak-owned portions of the Northeast Corridor line the NJ Transit operates over. West of Penn Station, the trains will operate as regular NJ Transit schedules, continuing onto Trenton, Dover or Long Branch.

The service is a historic "first" for regional rail in the New York region. It marks the first regional rail trains to operate through New York rather than terminate there. In addition, the football specials will be the first regional rail service over the Hellgate Bridge, which heretofore has been used exclusively for intercity rail and freight.

Overcroded, Malfunctioning Trains Help Fox Blogger Make Case for Transit

Fox Business News blogger Brian Sullivan provides an interesting look at a calamitous day commuting to New York from Morristown, NJ, aboard NJ Transit. In a manner that can be considered truly Foxian, he says his woes make the case for increased investment in transit: "Consider rail improvements an investment … something we can’t say about much of the other parts of the “stimulus.” However, I disagree with his suggestion to privatize. I'm sure patrons of the MBTA commuter lines serving Boston and Metrolink in Los Angeles, while rely on privatized operators feel the same way.

33rd Street Underground Passageway May Reopen

The "Gimbels Passageway," an underground corridor along W. 33rd Street linking Penn Station with the Herald Square subway station complex could soon reopen after being closed for more than 20 years, according to Mobilizing the Region, the newsletter of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

A real estate developer wants to reopen it after more than 20 years since it was sealed off as part of a project to redevelop the Hotel Pennsylvania and Manhattan Mall, which occupies the site of the former Gimbel's department store for which the corridor was named. The reopening would make it easier for commuters to get to and from the rail lines using Penn Station (Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, NJ Transit, 7th Avenue subway, 8th Avenue subway) and those at Herald Square (6th Avenue subway, Broadway subway and PATH) since it would obviate the need to climb stairs or use escalators to get to the street. It would reduce pedestrian congestion along W. 32nd and W. 33rd Street and it would most appreciated during the winter months and on rainy days.

The passageway closed not long after Gimbel's went out of business in 1987. By that time it had become overrun with derelicts, junkie and other unsavory characters, making it seem a depressing and threatening. Its reopening would be a powerful symbol of New York's recovery from the bleak times of the 1970s and 1980s.

Tip of the hat to Brian W. at "The Railfan Window Blog." He had the story weeks ahead of the Tri-State Transportation Committee.

Open Drawbridges Blocking Shore Line East Expansion

Three open drawbridges may be standing in the way of more Shore Line East commuter rail service to New London, CT, from New Haven, the New London Day reports.

The state of Connecticut is willing to fund the service expansion and Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor tracks the trains will run over is willing to give operating slots. But the additional service, which would extend trains that now terminate or begin their runs on Old Saybrook, requires a new agreement between Amtrak and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) governing operation of three bridges over the Connecticut and Niantic Rivers and Shaw's Cove in New London.

Currently the bridges are left in the open position during recreational boating season (May 15 through October 15) and close when trains are approaching. The current policy limits daily train movements over the bridge to
39 Amtrak trains, two Shore Line East trains and two freight trains. If Amtrak wants to increase the number of trains that cross the bridges and close the bridges more often, it has to request authorization from the state DEP.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Transbay Terminal Design Called Inadequate

California transportation officials warn the design for a new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, the so-called Grand Central Terminal of the West, will be inadequate to the planned California High-Speed Rail line, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. In addition, they say there are serious engineering challenges to extend the Caltrain commuter line from its current terminal to Transbay in downtown San Francisco. Officials hope to resolve the problems so they can compete for funds from the recently enacted economic stimulus package.

NY Dems Squabble Over Bridge Tolls to Save MTA Fares

Leave it to New York State politicians to resort to posturing and obstruction when serious matters need to be resolved; in this case the need to mitigate a proposed 23 percent fare hike for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's various operating agencies.

Daily News political blogger Elizabeth Thompson reports that New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson steadfastly opposes putting tolls on the free bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers to raise money for the MTA to reduce the magnitude of proposed fare hikes. Joining his in opposition to the plan were state Assemblymen Adriano Espaillat, Rory Lancman, Jose Peralta and 17 other Democratic state legislators.

That puts them at odds with incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson and Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, who proposed pegging the tolls to the subway fare, which is currently $2. With the exception of Bloomberg, an independent, all of the story's characters are Democrats.

Mr. Silver says he has enough votes in the State Assembly to pass the proposal, but it's a different situation in the State Senate, where the Democrats have a razor-thin majority. Six Democratic Senators oppose the measure, and Silver says he won't act without a clear sense of where the Senate stands.

A new snag is MTA's willingness to accept a $2 toll on the bridges rather than the $5 originally proposed in Richard Ravitch's bailout plan. Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith wants an audit of the agency before the Senate votes.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sorry Charlie, This Ain't Pork

In his Sunday "newsmaker" presser, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, called for using economic stimulus funds to revive the moribund Moynihan Station project, which would convert the New York General Post Office across Eighth Avenue from Pennsylvania Station into a new station facility.

The project, which has been discussed since the 1990s, would certainly quality as "shovel-ready" and would help create jobs, especially in construction. Also, it would give New York a station with architectural features evocative of the original Penn Station that was demolished in the 1960s.

But, here's the rub. According to The New York Times, Sen. Schumer doesn't want to use New York State's share of the stimulus to pay for the project, a glorified commercial real estate development designed to attract upscale retailers and restaurants. He wants the money to come out of the piece of the pie designated for Amtrak or high-speed rail projects.

To quote a certain governor with great legs and a wardrobe to go bankrupt for, "Thanks, but no thanks." The Moynihan Station will do nothing to reduce travel times. If anything, it will lengthen them since the new facility will be further away from the heart of the Midtown business district and other key Manhattan locations. And, taking the money from Amtrak would essentially be robbing that perennially cash-strapped company, which has said it wants no part of Moynihan Station, preferring to stay put in Penn Station, where it is closer to the action.

So what the Senator, whom I consider a political ally, is doing is attempting to turn the economic stimulus into a porkfest for the sake of a little publicity. For shame. It is tantamount to playing into the hands of Louisana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who used the high-speed rail appropriation to make the case that President Obama's economic stimulus was laden with pork.

Sen. Schumer should have paid more attention in Hebrew School when the rabbi told him pork isn't kosher.

California Media Feed HSR Trolls

After the state's voters approved a $10 billion bond issue to help finance its new high-speed rail line, media reports are surfacing of rising opposition to the project in the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. California High-Speed Rail blogger Robert Cruikshank takes on the media frenzy this is raising and debunks some of the critics arguments.

What Does $8 Billion Buy?

The $8 billion included in President Obama's economic stimulus package is the largest figure ever designated by the federal government for high-speed rail. However, rail experts point out the figure won't get a single bullet train built.

So what will it buy? According to The New York Times, it will pay for long-delayed improvements to conventional rail lines and make a down payment on California's high-speed line, which would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in its first phase.

"In the short term, the money - inserted at the 11th hour by the White House - could put people to work improving tracks, crossings and signal systems.

That could help more trains reach speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, which is much faster than they currently go. It is much slower, however, than high-speed trains elsewhere, like the 180 mph of the newest Japanese bullet train."
Some rail advocates think the money will be spread too thinly to accomplish anything significant. Joseph Vranich, a long-time Amtrak critic and author of Supertrains, contends the money should have been put in one basket, upgrading the Northeast Corridor.
"If we really wanted to have high-speed rail in this country, and have it be a great success, then what we would do is concentrate the funds on the New York-Washington corridor, which is the top corridor in the country."
The United States has had a checkered history with respect to high-speed rail. While the federal government got involved in the mid-1960s with the passage of the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act, which funded the original Metroliner from New York to Washington and a turbo train from New York to Boston, proposals for high-speed lines in other parts of the country have met with fits and starts. They have remained stuck in a side track while countries like Japan, France, Germany and China have sped by us.

Even today, the U.S. government defines 90 m.p.h. as high-speed rail. That's less than half what what trains like France's TGV and Germany's ICE do.

This doesn't mean improvements to bring speeds to the 90 - 110 mph range aren't worthwhile. They could give rail a time advantage over highway travel and make rail competitive with air for trips of 250 - 300 miles.

But speeds of that caliber won't cut it on the 450-mile distance separating Los Angeles from San Francisco. Thus, high-speed rail in the U.S. will require a variety of strategies contingent upon the markets being served.

As for Mr. Vranich's suggestion that the entire $8 billion go to the New York-Washington line, how much upside is there for a line that already dominates the air-rail market between the two cities? In the current state of affairs more good can be accomplished by advancing projects in other parts of the country where incremental improvements can yield significant gains, e.g. Chicago - St. Louis, Seattle - Portland.

Successes there will demonstrate that the Northeast Corridor is not an isolated phenomenon and debunk the arguments of skeptics who say this country has a car and air mentality. Our allegiance to those modes has as much to do with the lack of an attractive rail alternative as it has with the convenience of driving and the speed of air. Where multiple rail frequencies are offered at reasonably competitive trip times, Americans have climbed on board. Make the trains go a little faster and make them run on time and even more will ride.

Connecticut Commissioner Supports Rail

Highway-happy Connecticut has a new sheriff running its state transportation department. Commissioner Joseph Marie is pushing for new regional rail lines, a welcome change from past policies. Read more at The Transport Politic.

Metrolink Ridership Falls with Gas Prices

In July 2008, when gasoline prices in Southern California were north of $4.50 a gallon, ridership on Metrolink, the Los Angeles regional rail line hit a record 50,152 one-day trips. That figure has fallen back to 47,078, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

The drop is blamed on a combination of lower gasoline prices and rising unemployment. Also contributed to the decline was the September 2008 crash in Chatsworth that claimed 25 lives. For the first time since 2002, the railroad is conducting a proactive campaign to put more fannies in its seats.

Increased Transit Benefit Seen as Boon to DC Commuter Rail

Officials of Washington-area commuter rail lines think they may see a bump in ridership from the increased transit benefits that take effect this month, according to The Washington Post.

"I think there is a potential for an uptick in ridership because for anyone who is around rail lines, especially on the Manassas line, it becomes a free trip," said Dale Zehner, chief executive officer of Virginia Railway Express.

The economic stimulus package signed into law last month by President Obama raised the transit benefit from $120 a month to $230. A monthly pass on VRE from Manassas to Washington costs $220. Transit benefits are provided as a direct subsidy from employers, a pre-tax payroll deduction or a combination of both. According to the article in the Post, approximately 65 percent of VRE's 16,000 daily riders are federal employees who receive the transit benefit. Zehner said commuters from points further out on his system will now be more inclined to take the train instead of drive

Tri Rail's Financial Woes Offer Cautionary Tale

These should be glory days for South Florida's Tri-Rail line. Its route from West Palm Beach to Miami was recently double-tracked and last year it carried a record four million riders. Yet its future is in the air.

The reason is that Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, which subsidize its operations to the tune of $4 million a year, want to pare that figure to $1.5 million, the minimum required under state law. If that were to happen, Tri-Rail says it would be forced to cut its frequency by 60 percent and eliminate weekend and holiday service. But there's a "Catch 22." If Tri-Rail service levels were to fall below 48 trains a day, the federal government could sue to recoup the $333 million it spent on the double-tracking project.

To avoid having to cut service, Tri-Rail has proposed a $2/day tax on car rentals, which could generate $50 million a year, given the large numbers of tourists who visit the Sunshine State's attractions. I count myself among their numbers since I rent cars during my annual pilgrimage to visit the parents, who live not too far from Tri-Rail's tracks.

Tri-Rail tried to get the rental tax enacted one before, in 2006. But, it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. According to an editorial in the Palm Beach Post, "If it doesn't pass this year, Tri-Rail is basically dead."

There's lesson in Tri-Rail's woes for backers of a commuter line proposed for the Orlando area. The state legislature is prepared to sign off on a $1.2 billion plan to start up that line, known as Sun Rail.
"SunRail boosters in Orlando should know that paying for Tri-Rail has become a perennial crisis...Legislators need to make sure that Tri-Rail has a permanent source of operating money before starting a new rail service with no clear plans on where money will come from to operate it."
Tri-Rail's future might not be as bleak as the Post editorial suggests. Another option it is looking at is raising fares, which have been fixed for 14 years. Tri-Rail's fares are among the lowest in the country. A monthly ticket costs $80 dollar. By comparison. a monthly ticket from New Haven to Grand Central Terminal on Metro North, a distance comparable to West Palm Beach - Miami, costs $386 and could go up by as much as $100 this year.

No passenger rail operation can sustained without a reliable source of operating funds. There is no set formula for how much should come from the farebox versus state and local treasuries, but a reliable formula needs to be put in place. Federal officials should demand accountability from operating authorities that seek Uncle Sam's support for public transit projects. Without a reliable business
operating plan, no funds should be spent on new rail projects.