Chicago Tribune: Study takes aim at rail gridlock in Chicago


More money alone will not solve the rail gridlock that is choking the flow of freight and passenger trains through northern Illinois and Indiana, a report released on Thursday concluded.

An array of improved operating strategies as well as some new investment are needed to remove the speed bumps from the busiest rail hub in the U.S., said the report, which was commissioned by Amtrak, whose passengers regularly face major delays traveling through the greater Chicago region.

One proposal said that rail dispatchers working for each of the six major freight railroads, as well as separate rail traffic dispatchers at Amtrak and Metra should be located in a unified control center to coordinate trains and improve on-time performance. It’s not the first time the idea has been put forth. Most of the track in the U.S. is owned by freight railroads and they generally oppose sharing control.

“If you had every airline at O’Hare airport with their own air traffic controller doing everything on their own, it would be a mess,” said Howard Learner, who served on a four-member panel appointed by Amtrak last year to produce the report with the help of consultants. Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

Amtrak, which owns Union Station in Chicago, said it is willing to provide space for a dispatching facility in the station to bring together rail dispatchers currently located thousands of miles apart in Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Chicago area.

The panel also said that several rail-modernization projects that have been awaiting funding for years should be prioritized.

One is the 75th Street improvement project near the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to eliminate rail conflicts at three rail junctions and one rail-roadway crossing. It involves building two flyover structures, almost 30 miles of new track and new bridges at four locations. The project would eliminate the most congested rail chokepoint in the Chicago terminal district, at Belt Junction, where more than 80 Metra and freight trains cross each other’s paths daily, officials said.

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The Sacramento Bee: Rail service shutdown could cost economy $30 billion, group says


A looming shutdown of the nation’s rail system could have a bigger economic impact than the 2013 government shutdown and could even trigger a recession, according to a new report.

Railroads have warned that they will suspend freight and passenger operations on Jan. 1 if Congress does not extend a year-end deadline for them to install a collision-avoidance system called positive train control.

The American Chemistry Council calculated that a month-long rail service disruption could cost the economy $30 billion. By comparison, the Standard & Poor’s credit ratings service estimated that the government shutdown two years ago cost $24 billion.

Cal Dooley, the chemistry council’s president and CEO and a former congressman from California, said in a statement that a freight service shutdown could harm the entire economy.

“A prolonged shutdown would be truly catastrophic, likely resulting in a recession,” he said. “We cannot afford to let this self-inflicted crisis happen.”

The top-ranking leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have introduced a bipartisan bill to give railroads until 2018 to complete the installation of the system, which Congress mandated in 2008.

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the panel’s chairman, “and we need to give them the necessary time to do so.”

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WTOP: A look at the worst bottlenecks on the Northeast Corridor


NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — As state and federal officials look for an estimated $15 billion for a new train tunnel between New York and New Jersey, passengers along the rail line known as the Northeast Corridor contend with regular disruptions caused by track configurations and infrastructure dating to the time of the Model T — or earlier.

These antiquated structures, which will cost billions to replace or upgrade, conspire to slow train travel in a variety of ways. They can limit the number and speed of trains that pass through at a given time, and aging parts can lead to malfunctions when bridges open to allow boats to pass under. Regular maintenance can be costly and time-consuming.

With Congress reluctant to fund major rail projects and states unable to foot the bills themselves, it paints a bleak picture for the Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest rail line, where annual passenger trips on Amtrak and eight commuter lines, currently at 260 million annually, are projected to double by 2040.

“It’s one of those things that when it happens, it really is scary,” Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said, referring to when one of his state’s aging bridges malfunctions. “There is no alternative. There’s no option for that. When it opens and it doesn’t shut, the whole Northeast corridor is shut down.”

Talk of how to pay for a tunnel under the Hudson River, which the governors of New York and New Jersey have asked the federal government to help pay for, has gotten the most media coverage. A look at some of the other big bottlenecks along the Washington-to-Boston line.

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PR Newswire: Two-Thirds of Americans are Likely to Use High-Speed Rail in America if Available, According to Survey


WASHINGTON, Sept. 24, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — If you build high-speed rail in America, they will come.  According to a 2015 survey released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), if high-speed rail were available today, two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans are likely to use high-speed trains and this jumps to nearly seventy (67) percent when respondents were informed of the costs and time saving benefits of high-speed rail service.

“People want high-speed rail in America and we are seeing support among various ages and in different regions of the country regardless of political party,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.  “In addition, the millennial generation and younger adults will lead the way with their preferences to have a multi-modal transportation system that supports their lifestyle.  It is critical that we include implementation of high-speed rail as we look to plan for the nation’s future transportation needs.”

In the survey “High-Speed Rail in America 2015“, conducted by TechnoMetrica for APTA, the likelihood of respondents using high-speed rail for their work and leisure travel increases as they were informed that it will be less expensive than flying and that it will take less time than driving to their destination.  When told of these cost and time saving benefits, Millennials and young people (18-44) strong likelihood of use at 71 percent jumps to 76 percent.  Those respondents who identify as Republican represent the largest growth of intended use, their likelihood of using high-speed rail increases from 58 to 65 percent, followed by Independents, 61 to 67 percent, and Democrats’ already strong likelihood of use goes from 73 to 75 percent when informed of the savings of time and costs.

“A high-speed rail network will have a tremendous benefit to our entire transportation system,” said Melaniphy.  “It will enable America’s air, rail, bus, ferry and highway systems to each function effectively and efficiently as we face a dramatic population growth that adds more travelers than our current capacity can accommodate.”

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Progressive Railroading: States give green light to Richmond-to-Raleigh high-speed rail line


The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the states of North Carolina and Virginia on Friday announced that they had signed off on the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the proposed high-speed rail line between Richmond, Va., and Raleigh, N.C.

Their approval of the document marks one of the last steps before construction can begin, although funding still must be secured, according to a press release from the FRA.

“Without a strong passenger rail system, the Southeast’s growth will be choked by congestion for a very long time,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “North Carolina, Virginia and the Department of Transportation have worked together to bring us closer to high-speed rail connecting Richmond and Raleigh, and I urge everyone involved to continue pushing this effort forward. High-speed rail in this region is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Planned to be free from grade crossings between tracks and roads, the 162-mile route would utilize existing rail lines for approximately 60 percent of the route, FRA officials said.

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Chicago Tribune: Railroads say shutdown likely as safety deadline looms


The Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway, two of the nation’s biggest railroads, say they plan to shut down much of their networks, including commuter service in Chicago and Amtrak passenger service, rather than violate a federal law mandating that a complex and expensive safety system be operational by Dec. 31.

The action by these freight railroads and other lines poses the likelihood of a national rail transportation crisis if Congress fails to extend the deadline for implementation of the positive train control system, or allows federal officials to grant the railroads temporary waivers.

Due to the cost and complexity of PTC, few if any railroads, including Metra, say they will have the system completely installed by the end of the year.

A stoppage by the railroads would have a wide-ranging impact on the flow of goods across the country — from farm products to coal and crude oil — as well as prevent operations on some of Metra’s busiest lines.

The BNSF and three UP lines carry more than 169,000 passengers a day on 288 trains to and from Downtown. About 5,400 Amtrak customers pass though the city each day. BNSF and UP own and operate the four Metra lines under contracts.

But without an extension, service on all 11 Metra lines — with some 300,000 trips a day — would be jeopardized because Metra would not operate in violation of the law, officials acknowledged Thursday.

“In the absence of an extension, there is a strong possibility that Metra will not be able to operate our trains beginning Jan. 1, 2016,” the agency said in a letter to U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, head of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Metra said it is preparing contingency plans and would ask the CTA and Pace to help accommodate customers.

An Amtrak spokesman said Thursday that it has received no notification that any railroad intends to suspend passenger service on tracks that are not PTC compliant by the Dec. 31 deadline.

The railroads’ threat is being taken seriously by many in the rail industry. Railroads fear that they will expose themselves to significant legal claims and punitive damages if an accident were to occur while they operate in violation of the law.

The Federal Railroad Administration has said it will fine the railroads up to $25,000 a day if they operate without PTC.

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Capital Times: Plain Talk: Killing passenger rail just another Scott Walker political ploy


Aren’t you glad that our governor and Legislature saved us taxpayers all that money when they killed passenger rail expansion in Wisconsin?

Remember we couldn’t afford what Scott Walker kept insisting would have been an annual $6 million to $7 million maintenance cost if we accepted the federal government’s gift of $810 million in stimulus funds to upgrade the tracks and rail facilities from Chicago to Milwaukee and on into Madison.

“We’re broke,” he kept insisting during the 2010 campaign, when he made killing passenger rail a key issue.

As usual, Walker was lying even back then about the maintenance tab, because it had been the federal government’s practice for years to pay 90 percent of a state’s maintenance bills on other passenger rail routes around the country. The true cost to the state would have been closer to perhaps $700,000 a year.

But if only it had been even that $7 million annual bill that the governor and his Milwaukee talk radio puppets claimed. Instead, in just the past five years the governor’s lamebrained decision has cost Wisconsin taxpayers at least 15 times that amount — and we haven’t a thing to show for it.

The news last week was that for an additional $9.7 million Talgo, the Spanish train manufacturer, had settled its suit against the state for reneging on its contract to buy two train sets that were to be used in the rail expansion. And that was just a fraction of what Walker and his Legislature have thrown away in their folly.

That $9.7 million was in addition to the $42 million already paid to the manufacturer, which, incidentally, had opened a plant in Milwaukee to build the trains with Wisconsin workers. That plant has since been closed.

Talgo filed the suit because the Legislature — led by that self-proclaimed guardian of the public treasury, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — doubled down on Walker’s gambit and even refused to accept delivery of the two train sets, which would have been used on the existing Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago. So now Wisconsin taxpayers have spent more than $50 million and have no expanded passenger rail.

But, hey, that’s just for starters.

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The American Conservative: Don’t Railroad Amtrak


At root, conservatism is about preserving good things from the past and, where they have been lost, restoring them. Conservatives know that life in the past was in many ways better than life at present; morals and manners both come to mind. So, as some of us are old enough to remember, was travel.

The word “travel” itself suggests a better time and better experiences getting from one place to another than those we now suffer. Travel, where the journey itself is part of the pleasure, has been displaced by “transportation.” Like so many bandboxes or birdcages, people too are now packages and shipped. Whether crammed into an airline seat designed for garden gnomes, your baggage thoroughly (or not) searched in case you are a terrorist, or stuck in heavy traffic behind the wheel of a car, enjoying the journey is not in the script. Your highest hope is to get through it quickly and safely and forget about it as soon as possible.

Yet strange to say, some Americans do still travel, and enjoy it. Who are these privileged souls? Not the 1 percent, but anyone who is traveling by train. Last year, they numbered just over 30 million, counting only passengers on Amtrak, not commuter trains.

Passenger trains offer comfortable travel the middle class can afford. On long-distance trains, most of which use Amtrak’s double-decker Superliner cars, a reasonable coach fare gets you a better seat than domestic flights offer in first class. You have a big window and interesting things to see from it. You can look out, read, work, or nap, all with plenty of room. You can get up and walk around, including to a lounge car with wraparound glass and, for now, to the dining car for a meal with real food. The train can be social if you want it to be; it is easy to meet people. If your trip is overnight, for a somewhat steeper fare, though usually less than first class by air, you can get a private room with a bed at night and a comfortable chair or sofa during the day.

These trains represent one of the good things from the past conservatives should work to conserve and expand: at present, passenger rail service in most of the country is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. All of which makes it passing strange that congressional Republicans are doing their utmost to kill Amtrak. Each year, they cut its budget further. They starve it of capital funds it needs to buy new cars so it can carry more people. Last year, House Republicans forced through a measure that drove a knife in Amtrak’s back. They put a legal requirement on Amtrak to end all losses on food and beverage services.

Even in the glory days of rail travel, dining cars lost money. Railroads provided diners anyway, and took pride in the excellence of the food served on their trains, because when people are traveling for a day or more they need real meals.

The only way Amtrak can meet the new mandate is to eliminate dining cars. Passengers would have to go on journeys of a thousand miles or more with nothing but a snack bar. Coach passengers may do that, but a great many sleeping car passengers will not. Amtrak makes a lot more money from sleeping cars than from coaches: by its own calculations, sleeping car passengers account for just 15 percent of long-distance passengers but contribute 36 percent of total revenue. Amtrak’s average yield per mile for coach passengers is 14.2 cents; for sleeping car passengers, 27.2 cents. As Jim Loomison wrote in a Consumer Traveler story last year: “Here’s the unvarnished truth, put in the simplest possible terms by a respected authority on passenger rail: ‘If the dining cars go, the sleepers go. If the sleepers go, the big revenue goes. If the big revenue goes, Amtrak goes’.”

Congressional Republicans explain their hostility to Amtrak with two arguments. First, Amtrak is subsidized, and second, it runs trains no one rides.

Yes, Amtrak is subsidized. So are all competing forms of transportation. Highways cover only 51 percent of their costs from all user fees, including the gas tax. The rest is paid by subsidies of one form or another, especially from local property taxes. Airlines receive massive subsidies in the form of airports and the air traffic control system. The day after 9/11, the airlines ran to Capitol Hill and were immediately given billions of dollars in additional taxpayer money, no questions asked.

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Arizona Daily Star: Study proposes routes for Tucson-Phoenix rail line


The Arizona Department of Transportation has completed the first draft of an environmental assessment examining the proposed route of a passenger rail line between Tucson and Phoenix.

The document is an early step in a process that could take years to complete even before construction is to start.

The proposed rail line would run from Tucson International Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, with extensions to Goodyear and Surprise in the Phoenix area.

The ADOT report looks at the potential environmental impact, the need for passenger rail, the effects on transportation, and analyzes cost and other aspects of building the railway.

The study notes the potential costs of construction for the rail line range from $4.5 billion to $7.5 billion.

Annual operations and maintenance costs also vary from $66.8 million to $85.9 million.

The per-mile operating costs varied from $557,668 to $669,240.

ADOT notes the need for transportation alternatives between Tucson and Phoenix continues to increase as the population grows.

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Providence Journal: $6.9-million upgrade to Amtrak station expected to be completed next spring


PROVIDENCE — A $6.9-million upgrade of the Amtrak station is expected to be finished next spring, opening the door to a city that will find public transportation easier to take.

For now, though, construction has restricted parking on Gaspee Street, between the State House and the Amtrak station, relocated the taxi stand, rerouted pedestrians, shut down one level of the parking garage under the train station, temporarily closed Railroad Street and will close Park Row West in October.

Because of the impediments, rail passengers are advised to allow an extra 45 minutes, arrange to be dropped off or picked up at the Gaspee Street entrance and seek alternative parking in the GTECH building or Providence Place mall on Francis Street or in surface lots around the city.

The work is designed to make it easier for people on foot or bicycles and in private vehicles, buses or taxis to use the train station, which is the 15th busiest of 500 Amtrak stations in the country, and third busiest in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority network.

“These improvements will help make transit a more appealing choice to commuters in Providence,” said Charles St. Martin, a spokesman for the R.I. Department of Transportation. Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state, yet its transit use is well below the national average, he said Friday.

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