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Amtrak Long Distance, Commentary

STATEMENT Of UNITED RAIL PASSENGER ALLIANCE To the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Hearing on Amtrak Response to Covid-19 September 9, 2020

United Rail Passenger Alliance (URPA) respectfully submits this Statement to the Subcommittee. URPA is an independent national research and education organization on rail passenger transportation issues.

Amtrak’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic has been schizophrenic. At the same time it undertook a campaign to clean its stations and trains to reduce the risk of virus propagation, and a masking requirement for employees and customers, it has also prejudiced the mobility needs of the American public by announcing the withdrawal of the majority of its train services in the only part of its business where Americans have returned to using trains in large numbers. It makes no sense to reduce operations in its largest, most productive and most commercially-successful business segment, the national system of inter-regional trains, just as demand for these services has rebounded more than anywhere else in the system.

URPA applauds Amtrak’s cleaning and masking (and social distancing) initiatives. But URPA condemns Amtrak’s abandonment of the demonstrated transport needs of the American public at a time of crisis brought about by the Covid-19 epidemic.

Amtrak has deceived the Subcommittee in respect to the performance and prospects of its three operating divisions, the Inter-regional trains, the state-sponsored intra-regional corridors, and the federally-subsidized Northeast Corridor (NEC).

Contrary to Amtrak’s misrepresentations, the inter-regional group of trains is Amtrak’s largest, most productive and most commercially-successful segment. These are the trains to which Americans have turned during the Covid-19 epidemic.

The inter-regional group of trains (sometimes referred to as “long-distance” trains) is Amtrak’s largest business—it carries the most intercity passengers of any segment of Amtrak’s operation. NEC trains’ passengers consist predominantly of customers who are classified by the Department of Transportation as commuters, not intercity passengers; the intercity component of Amtrak’s NEC traffic is no more numerous than the intercity component of the inter-regional trains, and in some years, less. (In many years, the state-sponsored corridor trains also carry more intercity passengers than do Amtrak’s NEC trains, leaving the NEC—in terms of true intercity passengers carried—as Amtrak’s smallest division.)

The inter-regional trains are also Amtrak’s most productive. They have the highest load factors in the entire system (50-60+%, in operations where an annual load factor of 65% is a sold-out condition due to the large number of stations served and the regular turnover of passengers en route; on the western inter-regional trains, it is customary for each seat and berth to turn over on average 2 ½ times per trip). The load factor in the NEC by contrast rarely exceeds 50%, and south of Philadelphia and east of New Haven Amtrak’s NEC trains arithmetically cannot have load factors that exceed 28%–more than two-thirds of their proffered inventory goes unsold, a most unproductive use of scarce federal subsidy capital. In the traffic vacuum in the NEC during the Covid-19 epidemic, these NEC load factors are even lower.

The inter-regional trains also always produce 150-200% more transportation output annually than do the NEC or state-sponsored corridor trains. Output is measured in annual revenue passenger miles (not “ridership,” which merely measure transactions). This is the most important index of size and productivity of a passenger transportation network, and nothing else that Amtrak does comes even close to the inter-regional trains in producing annual passenger miles. This is doubly so in the Covid-19 epidemic. (The state-sponsored corridors produce about the same output each year as does the NEC.)

The interregional trains are also the most commercially successful trains that Amtrak operates, measured by their market share for intercity passenger transport. In their respective corridors, the inter-regional trains ordinarily generate market shares of 5 to 6%. In the NEC, Amtrak’s market share (not the air-rail modal split that Amtrak sometimes publishes) for intercity passenger transport in the region rarely reaches as high as 1 1/2 %, and that has shrunk for decades. Today, intercity buses carry more passengers in the NEC than do Amtrak’s trains.

In the current Covid-19 epidemic, Amtrak’s transaction volume (“ridership”) and output plummeted. But they did not do so uniformly across the system. Amtrak has tried to deceive the public and the federal government by emphasizing its system totals rather than breaking out the separate performance in the epidemic of its three operating divisions. The inter-regional trains fell far less than did the shorter corridor trains, and the NEC fell the furthest. At the same time that Acela demand dropped to zero, the inter-regional trains initially retained 15% of their demand, and then quickly rebounded, in some cases to near-normal levels.

As the system struggles to recover—as Americans regain their confidence to make intercity trips—the inter-regional trains have recovered far faster than the corridors, and especially the business travel-dependent NEC, which remains severely depressed. URPA research suggests that the western inter-regional trains, by sharp contrast, recovered to normal, pre-epidemic, traffic levels during the late Spring and Summer peak period.

This finding is corroborated by the fact that in the four months ending July 31, 2020, the inter-regional trains brought Amtrak more revenue, and URPA believes more revenue passenger miles, than all of the other trains (including in the NEC) combined.

Based on these objective and relevant criteria, therefore, the inter-regional trains are, and remain during the epidemic, Amtrak’s largest, strongest, most successful, and most relevant group of trains. The inter-regional trains, in fact, appear to be the trains that serve the demonstrated demand of a clear majority of American travelers for rail transport during the Covid-19 epidemic, just as in more normal times..

Against this background, Amtrak’s decision to charge ahead with procurement, testing and deployment of costly new high-speed Avelia trains in the NEC—a market for which demand has dropped to and remained near zero—while eliminating even once-a-day services in its largest, most productive, and highest-demand segment, the inter-regional routes (except Auto Train), is bizarre, biased, political and irrational. Amtrak could not have more disserved the American public during the Covid-19 epidemic than by reducing the frequencies of its inter-regional trains.

Amtrak’s coy hints that the interregional trains might be retained if only congress appropriates massive new subsidies is exactly the same ploy, in almost exactly the same terminology, that Amtrak used in 2002 after the roll-out of the Acela program in the NEC exhausted the company’s cash and rendered it insolvent. Congress should not allow itself to be taken in again. Instead, congress should insist that Amtrak use its existing resources first to sustain the trains that customers are actually using:  the heavily-used national network of inter-regional trains.

Respectfully Submitted,

United Rail Passenger Alliance

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Andrew C. Selden, President

612.229.9592

NCL25@yahoo.com

Amtrak Long Distance, Arizona, Caltrain, Commentary, Editorials, High Speed Rail, Metrolink/SCCRA, Orange County, San Diego County, Steel Wheels Conference, The Steel Wheels Column

Steel Wheels, 3rd quarter 2020 available online

Download the pdf of Steel Wheels magazine, 3rd quarter 2020 by clicking here.

In this issue:

  • RailPAC and Steel Wheels Coalition to Amtrak: “Daily is Minimum Acceptable Standard for Long Distance Trains”, and Amtrak’s reply, with Russ Jackson’s reply to Amtrak, Paul Dyson response.
  • High Speed Rail update
  • Tri Weekly and the Heartland Flyer
  • Orange County developments
  • Arizona news
  • and more!
Amtrak Long Distance, Antelope Valley Line, Arizona, CA Rail Statistics, Caltrain, Commentary, Editorials, Electrification, eNewsletter, High Speed Rail, LA Metro, LOSSAN, Metrolink/SCCRA, Metrolink/SCRRA, Nevada, Rail Technology, San Joaquin, SMART, Technical and Rolling Stock

Steel Wheels magazine, 2nd quarter 2020 available online

Download the pdf version of Steel Wheels, 2nd Quarter 2020 by clicking here.

In this issue:

  • RailPAC President’s Commentary on COVID-19 and passenger rail
  • California High Speed Rail Update
  • Amtrak pandemic “Lessons Learned” commentary
  • RailPAC recommendations for Nevada State Rail Plan
  • RailPAC’s recommended priority rail investments for California
  • California company makes progress with zero-emissions locomotives
  • Dick Spotswood commentary on SMART
  • Arizona News
  • “From the Real Platform” – Editor’s Column
  • LA Union Station – looking for a lower cost solution

Amtrak Long Distance, Commentary

Amtrak long distance trains: does less than daily make any sense?

Amtrak has recently requested additional funds to cover operating costs and reduced revenue because of the Covid-19 pandemic. A corollary to this request is a plan to reduce long distance service from daily (in most cases) to three or four times a week.

RailPAC President Steve Roberts replies:

Amtrak’s request for funds – How should advocates respond?

Identifying and defining the costs will be critical. Advocates should start first by strictly defining the assumptions and timeframe. The time frame Amtrak says it is addressing is a 9-12 month period (FY21) where overall travel demand remains substantially lower than normal and discretionary travel is dramatically less than has been seen historically. Ridership on the trains will average about 50% of historic norms. Assuming the roll-out of a vaccine or more consistent social protections and the slow continuation of an economic rebound in late winter/spring of 2021, there should be a steady growth in ridership by Summer of 2021. In short, we are looking at a one year event.

On the cost side there is a reason why this is important. It means the estimates of cost savings need to focus on short-term avoidable costs without allocated additives. (Additives are added to direct costs to account for overheads directly link with an activity, i.e. the cost of crew base management shared by many routes accounted for with an additive on for example a conductors salary cost, a specific known cost). When you make a change for only a year you save the cost of the conductor’s salary but the cost of the crew base remains. Any proposal to reduce service needs to focus on short-term avoidable costs – fuel, on-train wages, train supplies, turn around maintenance, etc. The decision should not be made based on fully allocate costs, i.e. backbone costs, that are allocated to train routes as part of the accounting process (A perfectly fine academic accounting exercise but totally useless for deciding tri-weekly vs daily).

Two revenue areas that are important.

The first is connections. It varies by route, but looking at arrivals at the major hubs around 30% of the riders are connecting to other trains. Many are connecting to corridor trains but many are also connecting to other long-distance trains. It is impossible to have all the long-distance trains operate tri-weekly and still have connectivity in Washington, Chicago, LA and Seattle. So that is a big loss in revenue from breaking those schedules. Only daily service can maintain the utility of the National Network.

The second is what is called “claw-back”. Claw back is the percentage of riders who will shift their travel date to match a tri-weekly schedule. Longer distance vacation/leisure travelers are those where the greatest percentage of riders will shift their travel days. For those traveling strictly for transportation, a lower percentage will shift. Sleeping car riders are more likely to shift, 300 to 500 mile coach travelers are the riders least likely to shift but will choose another mode. The key difference driving these differences is that leisure travelers are making longer duration trips with more options for layover days. Shorter distance travelers are making shorter duration trips where adding a day to match a train schedule can add 30% or more to the trip duration. Because there have been numerous instances of LD trains moving from daily to tri-weekly and then daily again Amtrak has data to correctly calculate “claw-back” should it choose to use it.

So why is this important? The answer is who is going to be traveling in FY 21? Will it be seniors taking long circle trips in sleeping cars around America or will it be coach passengers traveling between 300-500 miles on the long-distance trains, strictly for essential transportation, to handle personal business, a medical treatment, to help elderly parents, etc. The level of service required for this type of market in FY 21 is daily service. A tri-weekly train is exactly the wrong kind of service for the market in FY21.

Steve Roberts – RailPAC President

Commentary, LOSSAN, Metrolink/SCRRA, San Diego County

RailPAC comments at Metrolink special board meeting, May 29, 2020

Click here for Metrolink May 29, 2020 meet agenda link showing the Item 8, draft recovery plan.

May 28, 2020

Chair Brian Humphries and Board
Southern California Regional Rail Authority
Los Angeles, CA

SPECIAL BOARD MEETING FRIDAY 29 MAY, 2020 PUBLIC COMMENT

RailPAC, the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada has been a consistent supporter of regional rail service since 1978. We particularly welcomed the SCORE program, although we would rather have seen begun it in 1995 . We believe that CEO. Wiggins has put together a strong team capable of finally making Metrolink into a powerful regional transportation service, only to be frustrated and blown off course by Covid 19. But now is not the time to give up. The region still needs mobility and we cannot go back to the 60s.

We support the draft recovery plan in in general and would like to suggest a few additional points.

Health and safety – Consider the removal of some seat rows, b ot h to provide for greater physical separation between passengers and to off er more legroom. As load factors will be down there is no need for the cramped seating we currently “enjoy ”. RailPAC has received many complaints, especially about the Rotem cars, for longer journeys. Making the cars more comfortable will help win back passengers as well as improving separation.

Service coordination – Metrolink’s objective should be to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every train mile. To accomplish this, we need improvements in coordination between agencies to reduce service overlap and to increase the service available to prospective passengers. This includes coordination with LOSSAN and Amtrak on the coast route, and NCTD Coaster connections at Oceanside.

Increasing service options- One of the big failings of Metrolink is the lack of connections at Los Angeles Union Station (“LAUS”). The necessary reduction in service can be an opportunity to expand the number of stations served from each origin point by timing trains to connect at LAUS, or by combining routes and offering through trains. The same train miles can thus be more productive. The statistics quoted in the recovery plan confirm that Metrolink cannot rely on its “classic” commute patrons alone. The market in Southern California is “everywhere to everywhere”, and Metrolink must start to use its network to better serve the region.

Yours sincerely,
SIGNED
Paul Dyson
Vice President, Southern California.

Commentary, High Speed Rail, San Joaquin

RailPAC submits comment letter on California High Speed Rail Authority’s Draft 2020 Business Plan

California High Speed Rail Authority’s Draft 2020 Business Plan was issued February 12, 2020.

The public comment period is open until June 1, 2020

RailPAC’s submitted public comment letter is below:

California High-Speed Rail Authority 
770 L Street, Suite 620
Sacramento, CA 95814

May 21, 2020

Dear CHSRA Board Members:

After review of the 2020 California High Speed Rail Business Plan and the proposed Interim Operating Plan, the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) recommends the Board adopt both the 2020 Business Plan and proposed Interim Operating Plan at its June Board Meeting.  RailPAC compliments CHSRA on their continued focus on delivering a broad integrated California transportation network with high-speed rail service as its core link.  

RailPAC applauds the statewide reach of the proposed network and the increase in frequencies that will make the rail mode more competitive with the automobile.  The improved and expanded ACE/San Joaquin/HSR network will reach all of California and leverage substantial synergies beyond the current individual systems.  This network also creates the most financially viable option for increased service reducing the required operating subsidy compared to the current standalone ACE and San Joaquin services. 

In addition, the Interim Operating Plan brings true high-speed service to California sooner than any alternative option.  It also demonstrates the potential of high-speed rail while facilitating early testing of equipment and operating systems speeding future expansion of service as future segments are constructed.  Finally, the construction and operation of high-speed rail Merced to Bakersfield will greatly benefit communities and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and allow them to move forward on re-visioning themselves as city center focused transit oriented cityscapes.

Outlined below are a few comments on plan details:

•             Page 64, third bullet, as part of system connectivity at Merced and Bakersfield also note connectivity at the Kings-Tulare HSR station to the Central Coast and eastern San Joaquin cities such as Visalia via the future Cross Valley Corridor plan;

•             Page 72, top column title, should be Memoranda not Memorandums;

•             Page 84, Faster Bay Area Initiative, given the recent pull-back this should be deleted or rewritten into a more generic “Future Funding via Local Initiatives” discussion.

The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada is a two-state organization with membership throughout California and Nevada. RailPAC is a strong advocate for an expanded comprehensive public transportation network serving the entire state of California as well as Nevada.. RailPAC is an all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group, founded in 1978.

Thank you.

Yours truly,

Steve Roberts

President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada

cc: Brian Kelly, CEO California High-Speed Rail Authority
Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority
Dan Levitt, Manager of Regional Initiatives San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority

Caltrain, Commentary, San Francisco

RailPAC co-signs letter highlighting opportunities to cut the costs of extending Caltrain into the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco

    May 14, 2020

    Dear Mayor Breed,

    This letter comes from groups committed to the idea that that getting Caltrain connected to 10 other rail lines and over 40 bus lines in downtown San Francisco would be a major move toward seamless transit and therefore deserving of a high priority.  The attached report discusses opportunities to productively reduce capital costs…..thereby increasing the chances of obtaining the public and private funding needed to build the project. Your help in focusing attention on these cost cutting opportunities, which would neither delay the project nor adversely affect future rail service, would be much appreciated.

    Sincerely,

    Gerald Cauthen

    Co-Founder and President

    Bay Area Transportation Working Group

    Endorsed by:

    Steve Roberts, President of RailPAC

    David Schonbrunn, President of TRAC

    Bob Feinbaum, President of SaveMuni

Subject: Streamlining the Caltrain Extension Project

During these difficult times of shutdowns and reduced resources, it is both necessary and prudent to conserve transit resources wherever and whenever possible.

With that in mind the Bay Area Transportation Working Group (BATWG) has updated its previous statements about the DTX project. There appear to be opportunities to significantly reduce costs without cutting into or otherwise undermining the passenger rail service into the Sales Force Transit Center. We are joined in these recommendations by the two preeminent rail advocacy organizations of California; namely, RailPAC and the Train Riders Association of California as well as by TRANSDEF, SaveMuni and other DTX supporters. These opportunities relate to the 4th and King Station, the proposed Pennsylvania Avenue subway extension, the Tunnel Plug and the subway under Second Street:

1.) The Fourth and King Station: In places where there are busy streets and sidewalks and no private land available, it is usually necessary to create an intermediate fare collection level between street grade and the train level. However in the case of the Fourth and King Station, there is a generous amount of at-grade space including an attractive at-grade existing terminal available between King and Townsend Streets. In this situation it would not be difficult to route people through fare gates and then to an escalator or stairway leading directly to the train level. To access the west end of the station there could be one or more entries along Townsend Street frontage where travelers would pass through fare gates and then descend to train level. Since the first vertical 30 feet of air space at the site between King and Townsend is under Caltrain control, arranging this should not be difficult to arrange. This change would save an estimated $300,000,000.

2.) The Pennsylvania Avenue Subway Extension: At the February 7, 2020 meeting of the Caltrain Joint Powers Board one of the individuals testifying questioned the need for a two-mile long, “$2 billion+” Caltrain subway under a PennsylvaniaAvenue alignment. As the caller implied it would be much cheaper to depress 16th Street and perhaps also Mission Bay Blvd under the existing tracks than dig two additional miles of parallel subway and tunnel.

The SF Department of City Planning’s 4.5 year long RAB study was completed late in 2018. In the early years the RAB planners were loudly critical of all aspects of the TJPA’s design. However, their proposals were discredited one-by-one, and eventually virtually all of them were quietly dropped.

Reportedly intent on showing a positive result for its effort, the RAB team latched onto parochial demands that 16th Street remain at grade and therefore proposed that the existing Caltrain surface alignment be shifted from its current location under the elevated I-280 freeway to a new subway alignment under Pennsylvania Avenue. In an effort to justify this odd decision, the RAB group claimed that the 16th Street underpass would have to be 60′ deep and over 3/4 of a mile long. When asked why the underpass couldn’t be 25 feet deep and 1/4 mile long as most underpasses are, RAB’s Project Manager made a vague reference to sewers in the street, but refused to elaborate. Subsequent written questions and comments on the subject were ignored. The official price put on RAB’s subway extension was “$2+ billion”. An auto underpass at 16th would provide the necessary grade separation without the need of building an entirely new two-mile long rail subway. Building the underpass, with elevated pedestrian/bicycle paths separated from traffic, would allow the surface mainline Caltrain and future high speed rail alignment to remain at grade.. Estimated savings: $1,800,000,000+.

3.) The Tunnel Plug: A few years ago it was decided to add $100,000,000 to the DTX budget to make things easier and less costly if the Pennsylvania alignment were ever built. In the event that it were determined that the Pennsylvania Avenue subway was not necessary the Tunnel Plug could be deleted for an additional savings of $100,000,000.

4.) Subway under Second Street: Second Street is not a particularly busy or fast- moving street, certainly not as jammed with traffic as First and Fremont are. Even so the plan has always been to tunnel most of the Second Street subway. However at the north end of the line where the tracks turn right into the six-track train terminal, the width of the trackway gradually increases to 165 feet. It would be extremely expensive and risky to attempt to tunnel this short section leading into the Sales Force Transit Center. It is estimated that cut and cover excavation at this location could be staged in a manner requiring that only half the street be closed at any one time…and then only until temporary street decking could be put in place. It is estimated that using cut-and-cover methods to excavate this northerly section of Second, as well as the section immediately to the east of the Fourth and King Station where it is too shallow to tunnel, would drop the cost by another $200,000,000.

It goes without saying that the more cost-effective the project the better the chances of attracting the capital needed to build it. We urge you to explore these possibilities.

Sincerely,

Gerald Cauthen

Antelope Valley Line, CalSTA TIRCP, Commentary, Metrolink/SCRRA

RailPAC Commentary on Metrolink Antelope Valley Line Improvements

RailPAC has been urging LA Metro and Metrolink to double truck the line between Burbank and Santa Clarita for more than two decades.  We finally have a down payment from the State, with some matching funds from other sources.  Why am I less than excited by this news?  Two and a half decades have passed since the start of Antelope Valley service after the Northridge earthquake, during which time hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into widening Interstate 5 and State Route 14.  This weekend (April 25) Burbank Boulevard is closed while the bridge over I-5 is demolished for the second time to accommodate two more freeway lanes.  Meanwhile Metrolink has struggled for over twenty years with a predominantly single track railroad with consequent lack of capacity to build a robust, reliable service.

The 2020 Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) award still leaves single track between Sheldon Street and San Fernando/Sylmar station.  Between Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Metro intends to build the East Valley light rail in the Metrolink right of way, and I am very concerned that they will use this as an excuse to defer this last bottleneck indefinitely.  In my view the Light Rail route is a mistake and a high risk idea, given that the route also hosts 15,000 ton Union Pacific rock trains from Little Rock on the Palmdale cutoff.  No doubt the consultants have demonstrated that it is possible, in theory, to run a certain number of frequencies over that single track, just as they have with Raymer Bernson on the Coast route through the San Fernando Valley.  The problem is that Metrolink has demonstrated that it is almost impossible to run an on time service in an urban area with poorly protected grade crossings and unreliable equipment.  Thus an early delay to the service will result in late trains all day.

In the report presented to the Metro Board in 2019, the route is broken up into sections for costing purposes.  The two gaps in double track that will be left after this round of construction are priced as follows:

Sheldon to Van Nuys Blvd.: $67 million.

Sylmar to Van Nuys Blvd. including Sylmar station: $47 million

It’s a lot of money for a little over 5 miles of track with no property acquisition.  One certainly wonders if it would be less if the contract were to be let as a single project from Burbank to Sylmar now, rather than break it into segments and then come back in a few years to bridge the gap.  I can only guess at the mobilization, demobilization and general overhead costs of multiple stages versus a continuous program.

But still, it’s a step forward.  It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Mike McGinley and his team threw up some “instant” stations and bootstrapped a service while Caltrans rebuilt the 5/14 interchange.  These 25 years have been wasted, the agencies failing to capitalize on growing rail traffic and instead continuing the failed policy of investing in more lanes on the parallel freeway.  Let’s hope this investment will be successful in growing the passenger count, and not be too little, too late.

Paul Dyson

Vice President, South, RailPAC

Commentary

Coronavirus Relief Package Includes $1 Billion for Amtrak, $25 Billion for Transit Agencies

In late March 2020, RailPAC was one of over 240 signers from across the country (including elected officials, cities and organizations) on a letter written by Transportation for America (T4America) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).  The letter urged Congress to provide $13 billion in emergency funding for public transportation and passenger rail service.

Due to critical social distancing practices required to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, public transit and passenger rail agencies are experiencing significant decreases in ridership and farebox revenue while simultaneously incurring increased costs for additional cleaning.

The full letter is available to view here.  , and click here for more information on T4America’s admirable efforts to help secure this funding.  

Thankfully, the emergency funding which has since been awarded by Congress for transit and passenger rail meets or exceeds the amounts requested by both the national Rail Passenger Association and the American Public Transit Association.  It also includes help for states to offset lost ticket revenue from their state-supported passenger rail services.

Below is a good summary of the CARES act, quoted from the Rail Passengers Association’s March 27th weekly news:

Coronavirus Relief Package Includes $1 Billion for Amtrak, $25 Billion for Transit Agencies

The U.S. House voted to send the CARES Act to the president’s desk this afternoon, enacting a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package into law and providing critically needed financial assistance to rail and transit operators across the country. The bill (H.R. 748) provides Amtrak over $1 billion in aid to weather the precipitous drop in ridership, and directs $25 billion to the nation’s struggling transit providers—the largest single-year transit appropriation in U.S. history.

“I want to thank the members of Congress who supported this aid package for rail transportation on behalf of the more than 40 million passengers in the U.S. who depend on passenger rail to work and travel—whether it’s intercity, commuter, or transit,” said Rail Passengers President & CEO Jim Mathews. “While addressing the health crisis will always be the most important part of our response, it’s important that we all understand the gravity of the current moment for our nation’s infrastructure. If we want these services to be there when we start traveling and commuting normally, then the time to act is now.”

The funding directed by Congress to intercity rail operators and transit agencies in Phase 3 legislation meets or exceeds the levels outlined in the Rail Passengers’ COVID19 request. This financial aid includes:

Amtrak Grants – $1.018 billion

Northeast Corridor – $492 million;

National Network – $526 million;

State Supported Corridors: $239 million

Mass Transit Grants – $25 billion

Urban Area – 13.9 billion

Rural Area – $1.8 billion

State of Good Repair – $7.6 billion

Fast-Growth & High-Density State – $1.7 billion

We’re actively tracking any additional needs at RailPassengers.org/COVID19 , and will continue to work with Congress to ensure that these systems are able to return to full service once travel restrictions are eventually eased.

CA Rail Statistics, Commentary, Editorials, High Speed Rail, Issues, Rail Technology, Technical and Rolling Stock, Tracking Rail News

President’s Commentary – Key RailPAC priorities for 2020

By Steve Roberts – RailPAC President

[Originally published in Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2020]

Greetings!

In early January, members of the RailPAC Board developed options and came to a consensus on RailPAC’s policy priorities for 2020.  The two major ground rules were that the priorities had to be focused and actionable in 2020.  A list of about a dozen initiatives was consolidated and prioritized into four key priorities with two additional initiatives RailPAC will be following, but don’t appear to require RailPAC to take the lead.  RailPAC can offer support if the opportunity arises.

The four key 2020 RailPAC priorities are:

Surfliner Service Crisis and Vision – The recent collapse of the cliff at Del Mar clearly shows the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms to Surfliner/Coaster service.  There is no future for the Surfliner/Coaster route at its current location.  Given the magnitude of relocation project, it needs to start now.  And the collapse of the cliff at Del Mar is not the only threat. The route is also threatened by the same forces at San Clemente.  In addition, the Surfliner route has not developed an expansive vision that would deal with both the climate change issue along with dramatically re-imaging the rail line as an faster, electrified, high-frequency, high capacity service that would incent transit oriented development, generate maximum ridership and contribute to enhancing travel capacity within the Southern California megaregion. Southern California RailPAC’s members are focused on calling attention to the immediate threat to the route as well as championing the development of a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive passenger rail system. 

California High Speed Rail Funding Strategy – Even though this initiative is one to watch rather than take the lead, Board members clearly felt it had high importance because of the magnitude of the HSR program. This initiative is both complex and challenging.  It is challenging because, unlike most discussions which often take place at the staff level (which RailPAC can influence with information), the high-speed rail funding discussion is taking place at the highest levels of the Newsom administration and legislature.  Add in the attempted “claw back” of funds from the administration in Washington and as they say “this is way above my pay grade”.  It is complex because all of the discussions and the power plays are happening legislator to legislator with only flashes of light as legislators on both sides make their cases or work behind the scenes for a compromise.  RailPAC will keep members updated and stand ready to weigh in on this issue at the appropriate time.

Daily Sunset Campaign – One thing I think all RailPAC members can agree on is tri-weekly service for a long-distance train route generates sub-par ridership and ticket revenue results.  So not surprisingly, this initiative was identified as a key priority for RailPAC in 2020.  Building on the grassroots outreach over the past few years by advocates along the I-10 corridor, 2020 will see a new phase of the daily Sunset Limited campaign.  Details are outlined in an article on page XX of this issue of Steel Wheels.                

SCORE/Metrolink Vision – SCORE, Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion program, is a $10 billion capital program that will upgrade the Metrolink system, adding additional tracks, grade separations, signal work and investments to facilitate zero-emissions operations.  Currently Metrolink is working on rail operations modeling; development of design alternatives, identifying and prioritizing proposed capacity improvements, undertaking preliminary engineering and the environmental assessment for the proposed projects.  SCORE service goals would deliver faster, more reliable service with greater frequencies system wide and high frequencies within the core network.  This initiative will be being championed by RailPAC’s Southern California members who are especially focused on developing a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive transit system.  Near-term goals for these members is advocating for the timely completion of the third main track Hobart to Fullerton including the Fullerton interlocking project, double tracking of the Antelope Valley and Ventura lines and a new station at Pacoima.

Initiatives being monitored:

Several initiatives proposed as 2020 priorities were not rated as highly as the others listed above but they still are important.  These are:

Dumbarton Transportation Corridor (Dumbarton Bridge) – The Dumbarton Transportation Corridor is a critical connection linking San Joaquin Valley and East Bay housing to job centers in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County.  The current highway bridge is at or near capacity with job growth continuing.  Building a replacement rail line and bridge utilizing the current rail right-of-way would add substantial cross bay capacity to this corridor while facilitating connections and/or direct service from several existing high-capacity transit operators – Bay Rapid Transit District (BART), Caltrain, Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Rail (ACE).  From the transit perspective the lack of service on this corridor represents a critical gap in network connectivity.  Because of these connectivity benefits, RailPAC considers this an important priority.  Currently the project is undergoing the Environmental Review Process so advocacy opportunities are limited until the report draft is completed.  RailPAC’s Northern California members will be monitoring this project.

Mental Health/Homelessness/Security – For riders on intercity and commuter rail their “final mile” is most likely on transit and/or walking.  In addition to being concerned about this as a social justice issue, RailPAC members are also concerned about how mental health and homelessness impacts the perception of security both on-board and around transit stations.  This perception results in lower ridership and thus reduces the community benefits from the large investments in transit systems.  There appear to be several initiatives underway in Sacramento in an attempt to address these issues.  While RailPAC has no expertise to offer solutions to mental health and homelessness, RailPAC can comment on the impacts of failing to address these issues.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

Freight Rail Carrier Cost Shifting – This priority focuses on actual and proposed changes in rail freight operations, long-mega trains and single person operator freight trains that potentially have significant negative public impacts.  The issue is not so much the changes to operations, but the implementation of these changes without the investments by the freight railroads to mitigate the potential public impacts of these changes; i.e. blocked crossings and delays to passenger trains.  In effect the freight railroads are shifting the costs of these operational changes, which should be internal and borne by the carriers, to the general public.  While RailPAC has no expertise in the specifics of rail freight operations and investments to mitigate the negative impact of these operational changes, RailPAC can attest to the public costs of these changes.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.