Passenger Rail News Wrap-Up


City wants shot at downtown bullet train stop.  A planned high-speed rail line remains a popular project with city officials, many of whom are holding onto hope for an eventual downtown terminal.

Sen. Casey pushes $1.9 billion funding for Amtrak.  Sen. Bob Casey called on his fellow lawmakers to keep Amtrak trains on track and on time by providing the full $1.9 billion requested for 2017.

Amtrak Trains Fight to Go First.  Which train should go first—an Amtrak passenger train or a cargo train? That’s the question federal regulators are trying to resolve.  For more than 40 years, Amtrak says it has had the right to go first under law, meaning freight railroads have to pull over their trains whenever possible to let a passenger train pass or hold their trains in station to prioritize an Amtrak departure, except in emergencies.  Freight railroads want that to change, but Amtrak, whose long-haul national trains are chronically late, is fighting it.

Editorial: All aboard: Boost Amtrak service between here and Harrisburg.  … Let’s bellow “All aboard” to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s effort to increase the number of Amtrak trains traveling between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Right now, it’s a lonely one trip a day between here and the state capital. The Downtown group wants PennDOT to push for three a day, which would cost $10 million to $13 million a year — pocket change that would yield many benefits.  The goal is not to allow greater access to the bustling nerve center of the Keystone State. It’s to link to the excellent rail service that rolls out of its station, to Philadelphia and on to Manhattan. Further, the Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh line serves communities from Greensburg to Altoona and beyond. Their citizens should have more opportunities to pop into the Golden Triangle and see what the fuss is all about.

Effort seeks to start Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line.  The Regional Transit Authority board approved a plan to create a long-stalled commuter rail line that would link downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit along lines used by Amtrak’s passenger rail service.  The 38-mile line has been discussed for more than a decade but lacked funding, The Detroit News reported. The RTA plans to fold the cost of the service into a November property tax request.


ELPC’s Dexter in Duluth News Tribune: NLX Rail Line Good for Economy, Environment


As published in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

This is a great time for Minnesotans to contact state legislators in support of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) rail project that’s expected to result in about $1.4 billion in benefits to the state over 40 years. That’s a handsome return on an estimated total construction cost of about$500 million. The Legislature has the opportunity this session to make a down payment on that investment, yielding important dividends in years to come.

My Environmental Law & Policy Center advocates for projects that are good for the economy and environment. The NLX rail line is a great example.

An estimated 3,100 jobs would be created during construction, plus permanent jobs later. About $355 million in state and local tax revenue would be generated over 40 years of increased economic activity. Tourism revenue would grow by $378 million, and wages related to new tourism would jump by $233 million over 40 years. Trains are safer than cars, and using the NLX would be a relief to travelers during harsh Minnesota winters. Finally, an estimated 750,000 people would ride the train each year, and that’s projected to increase to 1 million by 2040. That’s a lot of cars off the road, resulting in a dramatic decrease in carbon dioxide emissions that are harmful to the planet.

This is an important project for Duluth and is among those that could receive funding before May 23 when the legislative session ends. The project already is on the long-term work plan for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In addition to Duluth, NLX stops are planned in Superior, Hinckley, Cambridge, Coon Rapids and Minneapolis.

Let’s tell elected officials we want this high-speed rail line so we can grow Minnesota’s economy, improve travel safety, and reduce harmful emissions.

If we build it, they will come.

Quad City Times Editorial: Rauner must act on Amtrak buildout


U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos brought home the bacon, but Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner would rather watch it rot.

A hugely important Amtrak expansion that would reinstate passenger service between the Quad-Cities and Chicago is suddenly in doubt due to years of state inaction. The federal funds are still available, in no small part to the two-term Democrat’s work on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But Gov. Bruce Rauner’s freeze on state funds, amid the budgetary turmoil, could doom the project.

The economically significant rail expansion could be out $177 million in federal cash if the June 30 sunset comes and goes unless Illinois releases some of its $78 million share.

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Reuters: U.S. court rules Amtrak has too much power over freight carriers


U.S. government-owned passenger rail company Amtrak wields improper and coercive regulatory power over private freight carriers under a law that lets it help set rules that competing railroads must follow, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down parts of the 2008 law, called the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, saying it infringes on the rights of private freight carriers.

The court said the problem stems from the fact that Amtrak, a government-owned, nominally for-profit entity, has regulatory authority over the industry in which it participates. Freight carriers and Amtrak compete for the use of the same tracks, the court noted. The railroad law allows Amtrak and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration to work jointly on the regulations.

Freight carriers own the tracks that Amtrak uses. They have objected to Amtrak’s regulatory role because they can be forced to pay damages if Amtrak trains fail to meet performance targets. Under the 1970 arrangement with private rail companies that led to Amtrak’s creation, Amtrak trains get top priority on the tracks.

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Columbus Dispatch: If Columbus Castings folds, rail-car makers would suffer


A shutdown at Columbus Castings would send ripples through the U.S. rail industry, forcing rail-car manufacturers to scramble for new parts suppliers in a market with few options, according to industry sources.

Meanwhile, analysts say the rail downturn that is causing big problems for the company is likely to continue at least into winter, leaving little hope of a quick turnaround.

The upshot: Rail companies have a vital interest in the survival of Columbus Castings but are contributing to its demise by slashing their spending on new parts.

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Daily Free Press: MassDOT to fine Amtrak for disrupted service


The Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced that it would implement a system of fines for Amtrak when service on shared rails is disrupted, therefore impacting residents’ commutes, according to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokesperson Jason Johnson.

In the past several months, Amtrak has disrupted commuter rail service when workers “tripped computer systems that then disrupted service, thus inconveniencing T riders,” Johnson wrote in an email.

Johnson wrote that in February, commuter rails were so disrupted that riders were unable to access South Station, impacting the Fairmount Line, Framingham/Worcester Line, Franklin Line, Greenbush Line, Kingston/Plymouth Line and Middleborough/Lakeville Line. They were then forced to search for alternate routes.

“MassDOT Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack has said that Amtrak is responsible for signals, and that Amtrak must understand that when they take actions that disrupt our service, the T must be apprised,” Johnson wrote in the email. “Based on contracts, we are going to make sure there are penalties for such actions, when Amtrak fails to live up to their responsibilities.”

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Silicon Valley Business Journal: High-speed rail plans to add Merced, Bakersfield to its initial service


Two significant commitments toward reaching Merced and Bakersfield as soon as possible were announced Thursday in staff-proposed changes to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new business plan.

Both proposals were supported by delegations from those regions where public officials previously expressed concerns at legislative hearings after the draft plan was release in February.

The rail authority’s board, meeting in San Jose, did not vote on the finalized version of its draft business plan at the meeting but will do so before submitting the plan to the California Legislature by May 1, which is a deadline imposed by state law.

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Politico: Amtrak gets DOT’s support in new definition of on-time performance


GOOD NEWS FOR AMTRAK: As railroads argue with the Surface Transportation Board about the definition of “on-time performance,” the Department of Transportation is effectively siding with Amtrak by supporting policy that takes into account on-time arrivals at each station instead of looking solely at whether a train arrives on-time at the end of the line. Our Lauren Gardner outlines the history of ongoing battle: “The STB proposed in December defining on-time performance … by deeming a train on time if it reached its endpoint within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time for every 100 miles of travel, capped at 30 minutes. Amtrak and other parties objected, arguing that evaluating timeliness at all points along a route is crucial to providing oversight for the trips taken by the vast majority of passengers who don’t ride from one endpoint to the other.”

‘Shock waves through the industry’: The STB cares about these definitions because it’s tasked with investigating cases where a railroad service is chronically late — and is seeking to clarify in what instances it’s necessary for the regulatory body to step in. MT readers might also recall that the STB has been kicking up dust by suggesting that it may take away Amtrak’s right-of-way privileges that give the passenger rail service preference over freight rail. Together, Lauren writes, these two new controversies have “sent shock waves through the industry, and it’s unclear how the typically sleepy regulator will proceed.”

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Milwaukee Business Journal: Study to consider adding more round-trips on Amtrak Hiawatha line


The state this summer could hold hearings on the proposal to add three more round-trips a day to the Hiawatha passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The rail service run by Amtrak currently has seven round trips each weekday, and has seen strong ridership. It logged 804,861 rides in 2014, an 8.5 percent increase over 2009. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is preparing a study of increasing the number of daily trips to 10, said Arun Rao, Wisconsin DOT passenger rail manager.

A draft of the study could be made public this summer, prompting public hearings in late summer and potential federal sign-off later this year, Rao said. If federal officials approve that plan, the state will become eligible to apply for federal money for the additional routes, which likely would be operated by Amtrak.

Texas bullet train project pushing for Japan-friendly rules


DALLAS — Railway operator JR Tokai and an American partner will petition federal regulators to set new rules allowing an ultrahigh-speed line here to be built to Japanese bullet train specifications.

The roughly 400km line connecting Dallas and Houston would meet the same standards used by the Tokaido Shinkansen running between Tokyo and Osaka. That line is operated by JR Tokai, formally known as Central Japan Railway. A three- to four-hour trip by car between the two cities in Texas would take less than 90 minutes on shinkansen bullet trains with a top speed of 320kph.

Texas Central Partners, the company steering the enterprise, is plotting out the route and wooing investors. JR Tokai will set up a unit by year-end to lend the project technical support.

In the U.S., high-speed trains use the same tracks as freight cars and conventional passenger trains. There are no dedicated tracks for high-speed service. Regulations mandate strong, heavy rail cars to minimize casualties from collisions.

But the Tokaido Shinkansen has no railroad crossings, and centralized traffic control with an automatic braking system further reduces the odds of a collision. So its cars can be built lighter, enabling higher speeds and easing the impact on the environment.

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