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Mica Gets Transportation Subcommittee Posts

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

John Mica (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Representative John Mica (R-FL) will retain some influence in helping set transportation policy, even though Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster has taken over as chair of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Mica was appointed to three subcommittees:  Highways and Transit; Railroads Pipelines and Hazardous Materials; and Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. He was also named chair of the subcommittee on Government Operations under the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Winter Park Republican says he's proud of his legacy as chair of the Transportation Committee.

"My replacement is fortunate in that we passed a highway bill, we passed an FAA bill that was stalled for many years under the Democrats, we passed a Coast Guard reauthorization, we passed pipeline safety legislation, so most of the major bills have been passed," he says. "So [Shuster] has time to reassess and then move forward with a highway bill and find a responsible way to go beyond the next two years. "

But Mica says it will be a challenge to try to fix congested and crumbling highways. "Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to increase gas taxes, and that doesn’t really even solve your problem because people are using even less of the traditional gasoline."

"You have alternative fuels, you have plug in cars, and you have cars going much further on one gallon of gas."

 One source of revenue included in the current transportation bill allows for extra toll lanes to be built on existing interstates like I-4.

Mica says Amtrak -- which he labels a "Soviet style passenger rail system" -- also needs reform, and he favors allowing private operators to run the passenger rail system.

Meanwhile, Mica says he’s excited about the prospect of private passenger rail starting in the state - with All Aboard Florida proposing a Miami to Orlando service beginning in 2015. "It'll be a project that actually will make money and pay taxes with the private sector," he says. "That's the way we need to be going with passenger rail service across the country."

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Transportation Nation

How Sandy Might Tweak Today's High-Speed Rail Privatization Hearing

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rendering of an Amtrak NextGen high-speed rail train

On Capitol Hill today, high-speed rail in the Northeast will get dissected and debated.  This time though, Amtrak head Joe Boardman will sit at the witness table with some support from record ridership numbers. And also Sandy.

You can watch the House Transportation sub-committee hearings here at 10 a.m. ET and see the full list of-top level witnesses here

The hearing continues a series of grillings GOP lawmakers have been giving to Amtrak in a push to reduce the subsidies the national rail network relies on each year. Other witnesses on the docket include a DOT rep, an American Enterprise Institute Scholar and a Morgan Stanley managing director.

The 15 word hearing title obscures the topic, so it's pasted way down below in this post, but rest assured the conversation will cover privatization of high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor.

Outgoing House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica who will chair today's hearing has long supported the idea of building high-speed rail in the Northeast because that route is the only one profitable for Amtrak, but he has argued that funding, and even operations, could be provided by the private sector. Big spending on big projects need not come entirely from the government, Mica has argued.

Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution says, "Superstorm Sandy did change the conversation around infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast."

The storm, which caused $60 million in losses to Amtrak and billions in damages to other transit agencies, showed the need for expensive upgrades, and a scale of risk involved that demands more active government investment. "The enormous bills we have from Sandy are not going to be born by the private sector. It's ridiculous to think so."

He says, "there is a role for the private sector to play" and he hopes the hearings hone in on it because finding the right role is crucial.

Puentes also says, states are likely to play an increasingly large role in Amtrak funding in the future. As the national government becomes more reticent to pay for unprofitable rail routes, states that want to keep their service will have to start chipping in.

One test case to watch for this model could be the Sunset Limited line along the Gulf Coast that was washed away in 2005 by Katrina. Local officials are lobbying to get it back. The cash-strapped states of Alabama and Mississippi would need to pony up though, and so far it's stalled.

Today's hearing though, is on the Northeast Corridor, where megaprojects are on the table and profits are a reasonable lure for business involvement. The "vision" for high-speed rail still carries a price tag of $151 billion and a minimum construction time of several decades. There is no plan for how to find that huge sum.

Amtrak is likely to try to draw the focus to a more immediate project that is incremental to the "vision," the Gateway program, which would add two new tunnels under the Hudson River into New York's Penn Station from New Jersey. There are two existing Hudson tunnels at capacity now. They both flooded during Sandy along with two of  the four tunnels under the East River.

Petra Messick, a planner with Amtrak  says the tunnels are needed for projected ridership growth but, Sandy also showed the value that new infrastructure could bring.

"When the Gateway Tunnels are built, they will be built in the 21st century and include a host of features that will make them more resilient ... like floodgates," Messick says.

The existing tunnels are more than a century old.

And in case you were still curious, that full 15 word title is: “Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation.”

 

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak Breaks Holiday Travel Record, Readies for Contentious Congressional Hearing

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the busiest day in the history of Amtrak with a total of 140,691 passengers riding in the 46-state network. Over the full Thanksgiving holiday weekend Amtrak carried 737,537 passengers, up 1.9 percent over last year, the previous record for passenger rail travel volume.

This happened despite a switching problem that shut down train traffic in Penn Station on the day before Thanksgiving for over an hour on some routes. At one point so many waiting passengers were trying to crowd into one of America's busiest (but by no means not roomiest) rail stations that they were forced to wait outside the building. See pics of the gathering crowds of stressed and stranded passengers here.

Nonetheless the ridership record is an impressive feat considering the water deluge that flooded four of Amtrak's six New York area tunnels, stopping service for days, costing the rail network $60 million in lost revenue and badly damaging electrical components, like switches. Amtrak has already asked Congress for $276 million to upgrade facilities to enhance resilience in the face of future storms.

As we reported, the tunnels in and around New York City are 102 years old, and though this is the first time they flooded, some of the electrical equipment in the area is antiquated legacy stock inherited from before Amtrak incorporated in the 1970s making it hard to repair and replace. All the more reason it is impressive that service was restored and capacity added for the record ticket sales over Thanksgiving.

It was also the most lucrative weekend ever for Amtrak, generating $56.1 million in revenue, up 17.9 percent over last year, meaning that revenue-per-Thanksgiving traveler was up significantly.

Regulators on Capitol Hill may be more interested in that latter data point on Thursday when a Congressional committee will call Amtrak brass to answer questions about the future of rail in America. The GOP-led hearing's title is a hint of the tenor we should expect to see: "Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation." Expect Republicans to again push a case for privatizing passenger rail and reducing federal spending, while pressing Amtrak to cut waste and costs. Outgoing Transportation Committee Chair has made no secret of his distaste for Amtrak's spending habits, even going so far as staging a burger eating photo-op to decry the money-losing food service offered on-board Amtrak trains.

In previous hearings Amtrak has said it is 85 percent self-sufficient with revenues rising, pointing out that states ask for increased service on many lines that are not likely to turn a profit.

 

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Transportation Nation

WATCH: Superstorm Sandy: The Devastating Impact on the Nation's Largest Transportation Systems

Thursday, December 06, 2012

(The hearings have ended.  Here's our story. Follow along with the live webcast of a Senate subcommittee hearing here . It begins at 10:30 eastern time.

We will be tweeting highlights -- so follow along.

Here's who's on tap to testify.

Witness Panel 1

  • Honorable Charles Schumer
    United States Senator, New York
  • Honorable Robert Menendez
    United States Senator, New Jersey
  • Honorable Kirsten Gillibrand
    United States Senator, New York

Witness Panel 2

  • Mr. John Porcari
    Deputy Secretary
    U.S. Department of Transportation

Witness Panel 3

  • Mr. Joseph Boardman
    President
    National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)
  • Mr. Joseph Lhota
    Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
    Metropolitan Transportation Authority
  • Mr. Patrick Foye
    Executive Director
    Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
  • Mr. James Weinstein
    Executive Director
    NJ Transit
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Transportation Nation

Senate Hearing Will Detail Hurricane Sandy's Transit Damage

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The heads of transit agencies affected by Sandy will testify on Capitol Hill Thursday, in what will be the most public assembly of the top brass of the NY MTA, NJ Transit, Amtrak and the Port Authority of NY &NJ in one public place for the first time since the storm.

New Jersey senator Robert Menendez called Hurricane Sandy the "largest mass transit disaster in our nation's history" last week. Thursday's Senate hearing should reveal additional details about the damage and destruction.

The transit agencies of both New York and New Jersey are largely functional -- but none are back at 100 percent. New York's MTA suffered $5 billion worth of damage. One-quarter of New Jersey Transit's passenger rail cars were flooded. And the Port Authority still can't say exactly when its Hoboken PATH train terminal will reopen.

Because so many Northeasterners use transit to commute, Senator Menendez said last week Hurricane Sandy affected 40 percent of the nation's mass transit users.

Thursday's hearing is being chaired by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. A spokesman for the senator said "the hearing will allow Senator Lautenberg and his colleagues to further review the devastation to the region's infrastructure and move forward rebuilding New Jersey's transportation systems so they're stronger and better prepared to handle the next storm."

One question expected to come up: why New Jersey Transit parked so many rail cars in an area that had been predicted to flood.

Lawmakers from both states are eager to receive federal disaster relief. New Jersey estimates that it suffered $37 billion worth of damage; New York is requesting $42 billion in aid.

We'll be live tweeting the hearing, which starts at 10:30am. Follow along on @TransportNation.

 

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Slate Culture Gabfest

The Culture Gabfest: Drooping and Slumping Toward Insanity Edition

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Slate critics Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner discuss Pete Wells' epic New York Times review/takedown of Guy Fieri's restaurant, Philip Roth's retirement and the Rolling Stones' lack thereof, and the culture of Amtrak's quiet car.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak, NJ Transit Tunnels Are Dry, More Penn Station Trains Can Roll on Friday

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Amtrak's has six tunnels under the East and Hudson Rivers. They are 102-years-old. This was the first time any of them flooded, and Sandy left four of them filled with water.

Amtrak pumped one dry two days later. It has taken another week for Amtrak to finish drying out the other three tunnels that were flooded by Sandy, but by Friday, Amtrak expects to add train service to New York's Penn Station nearly doubling capacity since the storm. Strained New Jersey Transit will also be able to add service.

One of the newly dried tunnels crosses the Hudson River and will allow extra Amtrak and NJ Transit service to New Jersey and to the south. With both trans-Hudson tunnels open, Amtrak expects trains to run 24 trains per hour across the river, 63 percent of normal capacity.

That may sound low, but it is double Wednesday's rate, offering desperately craved relief from long lines and strains on a commuter bus system trying to accommodate rail riders stripped of their normal commuting options. Lines for buses Tuesday afternoon snaked throughout the Port Authority bus terminal and added an hour or more of delay to many people's commutes home.

A project to build an additional trans-Hudson tunnel was begun, mostly funded, and then scrapped by NJ Governor Chris Christie who cited fears of cost overruns in the billions of dollars.

The other two tunnels coming back on line cross the East River and support Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Service, Empire Service and trains from the North and West of New York, including to Albany, NY. Those tunnels will open at 80 percent capacity, about 32 trains per hour, as repairs continue, Amtrak said in a statement.

"The return of all tunnel access to New York City will be a major milestone in the continued restoration of Amtrak and commuter rail service and for the larger recovery efforts of the Northeast region," said Amtrak President Joe Boardman in an emailed statement.

Full operational capacity may still be a ways away for Amtrak as it is for other area transit agencies battered by Sandy's storm surge. As a sample of the myriad puzzles involved in recovery, Amtrak offered this example: Some stretches of Northeast Corridor track retain the 1930's era equipment inherited by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Those use 25 hz current to power trains. The new standard is 60 hz. So the rail company can't just swap in replacement parts from other stretches of track, or easily identify alternate power sources.

Temporary bypass signaling must be rigged up in places, slowing capacity as well.

Amtrak's two other East River tunnels did not flood and have been running at capacity. Nine NY MTA subway tunnels flooded in Hurricane Sandy, all but one had been drained as of Wednesday afternoon.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak to Restore NYC Train Service Friday

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Amtrak said limited Northeast Corridor service to New York City will resume on Friday.

Until then,  train travelers heading south need to get themselves to Newark where Amtrak service cuts off until New Haven, Conn. On Friday, regional service will run, but not the Acela. A schedule will be released Thursday.

Amtrak is still pumping water from tunnels under the Hudson river and running modified service on 10 routes with three lines canceled.

The Northeast corridor is the busiest rail corridor in the nation. More travelers use the train between New York and Boston and Nwe York and Washington than all airlines combined.

For the latest update information always check our Hurricane Transit Tracker. And for context see our last dispatch on Amtrak recovery, our broader past coverage on the rail company.
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Transportation Nation

Amtrak: No Service to NYC, Hudson Tunnels Still Flooded

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

(New York, NY) Amtrak says there will be no service to New York City Wednesday, and they have no idea when regional trains will be able to run along the busiest rail corridor in the nation following flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers are flooded just like NYC subway tunnels.

"The amount of water intrusion into the tunnels is unprecedented – as was the storm itself – so a date for restoration of Amtrak service directly to/from New York Penn Station from either the north or south is not available at this time," Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole told Transportation Nation in an email.

"There will be no Northeast Regional service between Newark and Boston [on Wednesday] and no Acela Express service for the length of the Northeast Corridor," Cole wrote.

Amtrak carries more travelers between Washington, D.C. and Boston than all airlines combined, about 750,000 each weekday.

Check our Transit Tracker for the full route updates on buses, subways, bridges and more. That's where the latest information will be posted.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak: We Broke Another Ridership Record, 49% Growth Since 2000

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

(Chart: Amtrak)

For the ninth time in ten years, Amtrak has broken a ridership record. The national rail network carried 31.2 million passengers in the twelve months before September 30, 2012. This news comes smack in the heat of an election season where nationally subsidized services like passenger rail and public television have become campaign issues.

The news: ridership grew by 3.5 percent  in 2012, giving Amtrak its highest number of passenger trips since the company began operations in 1971. As the chart above shows, Amtrak ridership has grown steadily--a total of 49 percent since 2000.

Ticket revenue increased 6 percent, accounting for $2 billion of a roughly $4 billion budget. That revenue comes in about $100 million above projections in the 2012 budget (PDF). The government chipped in a $466 million operating subsidy, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal government also allocated an additional $952 million for capital expenses.

Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement, "ridership will continue to grow because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners to improve on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds."

In the speed department: Last month, Amtrak began testing Acela trains to run at a new top speed of 160 miles per hour along several stretches of the Northeast Corridor. And 82 percent of trains were on time in 2012, up a bit from last year, which is about on par with airline industry performance compiled by FlightStat. (PDF) Amtrak has been growing in part by stealing business travelers from airlines on shorter flights.

Post-September 11th security procedures have given train travel a considerable time advantage on short haul flights, but the as TN has reported, the decline of short haul flights -- those that compete with Amtrak for business travelers -- has been a decades long trend.

The newly released numbers show the Northeast Corridor is still the anchor route for Amtrak with more than a third of all riders (11.4 million) traveling between Boston and Washington, D.C. Amtrak won't release new state-by-state and line-by-line numbers until next week, but the 361 miles of track along the Northeast Corridor are likely to continue to bring in more than half of all ticket revenue for Amtrak, as it did last year according to the 2011 annual report. According to projections (see PDF, last page of Appendix), only the NEC and Kansas City - St. Louis lines earn a profit on a per passenger basis. When final numbers are in, we'll find out if this new ridership and ticket revenue peak brings any other lines into break even territory.

Amtrak was established to provide passenger service that private train companies would not, or could not offer profitably.

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Transportation Nation

Sen. Schumer: Fast Action Needed for New Amtrak Tunnel

Friday, September 28, 2012

(New York, NY -- Ilya Marritz, WNYC)  Senator Charles Schumer  (D-NY) warned on Friday that it will get more and more difficult to construct two Amtrak rail tunnels linking New Jersey and midtown Manhattan, unless the forces of government and the private sector quickly align.

"There is a major issue that has to be resolved right now or else the project may end up in the graveyard, as it did with ARC,"  Schumer said, referring to a previous rail tunnel plan that was killed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010.

The reason? A new mixed-use neighborhood is being built on Manhattan's west side, on a platform directly above the site where the rail tunnels would emerge from below the Hudson.

"Amtrak's engineers have determined that the only place they can bring these new tunnels into Manhattan is under Hudson Yards, along a Long Island Railroad right of way," Schumer told real estate developers at a breakfast gathering organized by the New York Building Congress.

Schumer said the Related Companies, which are building the Hudson Yards neighborhood, are prepared to cooperate with Amtrak and the federal government. But Related plans to begin construction by the end of this year, making the Amtrak project especially urgent, the senior U.S. Senator from New York said.

"We will need contracts, design plans, and construction dollars to flow over the next six to twelve months to make this a reality. We need action, we need it fast," Schumer said.

The Senator said his next step will be to work to get agreements inked between the parties, so tunnel construction can begin before the end of 2013.

Schumer will also lobby for federal dollars to build the tunnels, known as the Gateway project. He estimates Gateway will require $20 million in 2013, and $100 million in 2014 for preliminary work.

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Transportation Nation

Watch Amtrak's 165 MPH Test Trains Whiz Past

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

As we reported Monday, Amtrak is taking steps to run Acela trains at a new top speed of 160 m.p.h. along four stretches of the Northeast Corridor. The current top is 150 m.p.h. All this week, the company is running empty test trains at night at 165 m.p.h., and rail fans are out there with video cameras.

Here's a sampling what a very high speed (by American standards) train looks like in motion.

The Harlem Line Productions You Tube Channel got an up close view of all the test runs from normal speeds of 135 m.p.h on up. For the fastest runs skip ahead to about 1:20.

 

The All Aboard Productions You Tube channel offers up the most complete document of what high speed testing looks like. And it's in HD, so remember to turn on that feature. AAP captures nine test runs, and documents the exact time of each in the comments.

 

Here are two views from Hamilton, NJ station via You Tube user THEATREofPAIN270.

 

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak to Test New Top Speed of 165 m.p.h

Monday, September 24, 2012

 Rendering of an Amtrak NextGen high-speed rail train (not on the tracks yet).

Amtrak is testing a new top speed this week. The national rail network will be running empty test trains at 165 m.p.h at several locations along the Northeast corridor. The current top speed is 150 m.p.h. on stretches between New York and Boston, and 130 m.p.h south of New York. Those are the fastest rail speeds in the U.S.

These tests are part of a long slow process to transform the Northeast Corridor into true high-speed rail  service. See the vision for that here.

The tests, beginning tonight and stretching through the week, are designed to pave the way for passenger service of 160 m.p.h. on about 100 miles of route between Boston and Washington D.C.. Each stretch being tested is between 20 and 30 miles long. Federal regulations require tests of 5 m.p.h. above maximum operating speeds.

European and Asian high-speed trains routinely top 200 m.p.h.

Existing Acela equipment will be used for the tests. Though Acela service tops out at 150 m.p.h. for about 34 miles in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, average operating speeds are lower: 81.8 m.p.h. between NY and Washington, D.C. and 75.4 m.p.h between NY and Boston.

Acela trains top 125 m.p.h for 45 percent of the Boston to D.C. trip, but reach what Amtrak calls the "very high speed" of 150 m.p.h for just 5 percent of the NY-DC trip. Track congestion, route curvature, station stops, and infrastructure factors inhibit higher speeds on other portions. Federal regulations, like the one requiring this week's test of a new top speed, also limit speed.

Here's the full announcement from Amtrak with test locations:

AMTRAK TO OPERATE TEST TRAINS AT 165 MPH

Four test areas cover more than 100 miles of the Northeast Corridor

WASHINGTON- Beginning tonight and continuing into next week, Amtrak plans to operate high-speed test trains at 165 mph in four areas covering more than 100 miles of the Northeast Corridor.  The tests in Maryland / Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are locations that may at some future time experience regular 160 mph service.

The tests will utilize high-speed Acela Express equipment and will measure the interaction between the train and the track, rider quality and other safety factors. The test runs must be performed at 5 mph above the expected maximum operating speed of 160 mph.

The test areas between approximately Perryville, Md. - Wilmington, Del. (21.3 miles) and Trenton - New Brunswick, N.J. (22.9 miles) currently have a maximum speed limit of 135 mph.  The test areas between approximately Westerly - Cranston, R.I. (29.2 miles) and South Attleboro - Readville, Mass. (27.8 miles) currently have a maximum speed limit of 150 mph.  The same areas were used for similar high-speed tests before the introduction of Acela service.

The initial test run is in New Jersey where Amtrak is presently advancing design, engineering and other pre-construction activities for a $450 million project funded by the federal high-speed rail program.  The project includes upgrading track, electrical power, signal systems and overhead catenary wires to improve reliability for Amtrak and commuter rail service, and is necessary to permit regular train operations at the faster speeds.  Some construction activity is anticipated in 2013, but the project will ramp up dramatically thereafter to be completed in 2017.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak: 'We're 85% Self-Sufficient'; Pols: 'Not Good Enough'

Thursday, September 20, 2012


The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meets this morning to hold Amtrak to the fire over taxpayer subsidies to the national rail network. Amtrak, founded in 1971, has never made a profit. Over its four decades of operating a for-profit passenger service on 44 rail routes, Amtrak has received about $40 billion in subsidies for capital and operating expenses.

Transportation Committee Chair, John Mica (R-Fla.) says a big chunk of those subsidies are wasted. In recent months, Mica has been shining a brighter spotlight on what he sees as unnecessary spending and mismanagement at Amtrak. Today's hearing will be the third of three discussing Amtrak operations. The head of Amtrak, Joe Boardman, (interviewed by TN here) will be on the stand along with representatives from the bus industry, a rail passenger group and the conservative Cato Institute.

Mica's office and Amtrak have each issued statements that hint at how this hearing will play out. We've pasted them below. Consider it a tale of dueling press releases.

The announcement from Mica's office states the purpose of the hearing bluntly: "to review Amtrak operations and the need for reforms to significantly cut the unnecessarily high costs of U.S. passenger rail service."

Late yesterday afternoon, Amtrak issued a retort that touted record ridership and a consistent decline in subsidies that peaked in 2004. The proud subject-heading on Amtrak's email blast is a direct response to Mica's criticism: "Amtrak Covers 85 Percent of Operating Costs with Ticket Sales and Other Revenues." That still leaves $466 million in annual subsidies. And that means each passenger trip on Amtrak costs the government $46, more than ten times what other modes receive according to figures cited in Mica's statement, which quoted from a recent study funded by the bus industry.

Mica also offered a pair of line items he'd like to see slashed. One of the lines costs Amtrak $200 million on overtime pay annually, he says. Then there's the hamburgers. Mica devoted a whole press conference last month to lambasting Amtrak's $16 money-losing burgers and the $83 million the company loses from on-board food and beverage service. Mica says that's a glaring example of mismanagement, particularly considering Amtrak's failure to meet a Congressional mandate to break-even on food.

Congressional mandates, Amtrak has said in the past, are exactly the reason the company runs in the red, at least on certain routes. Amtrak was founded to operate a rail network as a for-profit company but also a national public good. Commercial passenger rail had all but failed by 1971. Freight companies were required to operate passenger service. Amtrak was the replacement for that unpopular system.  (See these historical press releases from Amtrak's early days for a sense of the thinking in the early 1970s).

Many routes travel through sparsely populated towns with stops chosen as much by political negotiations -- or even mandate -- as passenger demand. Amtrak's long distance routes lose the most money. The worst performer of all is the Sunset Limited line from Los Angeles to New Orleans. As we reported last month, local officials are now agitating to restore that service along the Gulf Coast despite the fact that some stations had passenger numbers in the single digits.

If you want more data from the Transportation Committee, the briefing memo from Mica is here.

Amtrak funding has come to be a political football as a symbol of big government. Today's hearing is sure to be gripping political theater ... for us rail geeks, anyway.

Watch it here starting at 9:30 a.m.

 

Full Press Releases, first Mica, then Amtrak: 

 

Billions in Taxpayer Subsidies for Amtrak to be Focus of Hearing

Washington, DC – The $40 billion cost to taxpayers in subsidizing Amtrak over the years will be the subject of a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Thursday.

The Full Committee hearing, chaired by U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), will investigate the monetary losses associated with Amtrak’s operations, explore and compare Amtrak’s level of federal subsidy with the subsidies provided to other modes of passenger transportation, and examine management deficiencies identified by the Amtrak Office of Inspector General.

Funding for Amtrak’s capital and operating expenses comes from operational revenues and appropriated funds.  Amtrak’s operations have never resulted in a net profit with most of its routes losing money.  The system as a whole only accounts for 0.1 percent of America’s passenger travel, but its per-ticket subsidy level is dramatically higher than other modes of transportation.  Over the past 41 years, Amtrak has received nearly $40 billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies.  According to a recent study comparing FY 2008 levels of federal subsidy by mode, aviation received $4.28 per passenger trip, mass transit received $0.95 per passenger, intercity commercial bus received $0.10 per passenger, and Amtrak received $46.33 per passenger.

Various factors result in Amtrak’s more than $460 million in annual operating losses, including $83 million per year in food and beverage operating losses (despite a long-standing Congressional break-even requirement), and more than $200 million annually in overtime pay (despite a Congressional cap on the amount of allowable overtime).

This will be the third in a series of Committee oversight hearings to review Amtrak operations and the need for reforms to significantly cut the unnecessarily high costs of U.S. passenger rail service.  Click here for more information about Thursday’s hearing.

And from Amtrak: 

AMTRAK COVERS 85% OF OPERATING COSTS WITH TICKET SALES AND OTHER REVENUES

Federal operating grant reduced nearly 50% since FY 2004

WASHINGTON - Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman will appear before a Congressional committee tomorrow and testify that with record ridership of 30.2 million passengers, Amtrak now covers 85 percent of its operating budget with ticket sales and other revenues, reducing the federal operating need to just 15 percent.

In addition, he will inform the committee that the FY 2012 federal operating grant of $466 million is significantly down from a peak of $755 million in FY 2004, or a reduction of nearly 50 percent in inflation adjusted dollars.

"Amtrak uses federal operating support to achieve the mission given to us by Congress to deliver the mobility, connectivity and economic benefits of a national passenger rail network, particularly long-distance train routes," Boardman stated.

Through dispatching services, operating contracts and access to Amtrak-owned and maintained infrastructure, Amtrak also supports the safe movement of more than 230 million commuter rail passengers and more than 300,000 carloads of freight rail service each year.

He also will reiterate that for FY 2013, Amtrak is requesting $450 million in federal operating support, an amount lower than what Congress appropriated for the current year.  This is possible as a result of improved management and financial performance.

"The federal government has long been in the business of subsidizing all modes of transportation, yet no one can agree on what numbers to use to quantify the benefits of these investments," Boardman said.  "Record ridership and revenue, best farebox recovery in the U.S. passenger rail industry, debt cut in half, increased efficiency, better cost controls, improved on-time performance and being the nation's only high-speed rail operator are strong indicators that Amtrak is putting our portion of the federal investment to good and effective use."

Also, Boardman will explain that according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the numbers of Americans in smaller cities and rural communities who no longer have access to intercity bus or air service, and are served only by Amtrak, tripled in just five years.  Ridership on Amtrak long-distance trains is up 18.4 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2011.

Finally, Boardman will remind the committee that throughout Amtrak's 41-year existence, passenger rail has been only a small portion of the annual federal transportation budget.  In contrast, in just the past four years, the Congress appropriated $53.3 billion from general revenues to bail out the Highway Trust Fund as federal gas tax receipts prove insufficient - that's almost 30 percent more than the $39.3 billion in total federal expenditure Amtrak has received since it was created in 1971.

About Amtrak(r):
Amtrak is America's Railroad(r), the nation's intercity passenger rail service and its high-speed rail operator.  A record 30.2 million passengers traveled on Amtrak in FY 2011 on more than 300 daily trains - at speeds up to 150 mph (241 kph) - that connect 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian Provinces. Amtrak operates intercity trains in partnership with 15 states and contracts with 13 commuter rail agencies to provide a variety of services.  Enjoy the journey(r) at Amtrak.com or call 800-USA-RAIL for schedules, fares and more information.  Join us on facebook.com/Amtrak and follow us at twitter.com/Amtrak.

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Transportation Nation

Amtrak On Track for All-Time Ridership Record

Monday, September 10, 2012

(photo by Aaron Hockley via flickr)

Amtrak had its single best month ever this July, and the railroad says when it closes the books on September, it will have set ridership records for each of the last 12 months.

Joe Boardman, Amtrak's CEO, said in a statement Monday that "the demand to travel by Amtrak is strong, growing and undeniable" and that the railroad is experiencing "improved management and financial health.”

The railroad says it's on track to break last year's record of 30.2 million passengers.

Read Amtrak's press release here.

Northeast Corridor passenger? New York commuter?  Read TN's tips on how to get the most out of Penn Station here.

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Transportation Nation

PICS: Largest Truss Bridge Ever Moved into Place Fully Assembled

Monday, August 27, 2012

A nearly 400-foot-long, 4.3-million-pound railroad truss bridge was rolled into place over Torrence Avenue near 130th Street in Chicago over the weekend. It is believed to be the largest truss bridge ever to be moved into the place after being assembled off site. (CDOT)

We like to keep our eye on bridges here at TN. Especially new bridges and new techniques for building them. That could be anything from new ways to finance megaprojects, the politics behind tolling, or engineering feats like floating a bridge down a river and hoisting it in place.

Building a bridge offsite and transporting it to it's final location saves money when it is possible. Similar construction techniques are credited with completing the Lake Champlain, NY bridge ahead of schedule (see video.) This weekend we got word of a mini-milestone in that trend.

On Saturday, Chicago says the city in partnership with the state and several railways, installed the largest truss bridge ever built off site and moved into place fully assembled. A truss bridge is what most people think of as the classic railroad bridge, it looks like a steel cage over the roadway forming box or triangle shapes on the sides for support.

Here are a few shots courtesy of the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the press release with background on the project below.

Four Self-Propelled Mobile Transporters (SPMTs) relocated the fully assembled 4.3 million pound, 394-foot-long, 67- foot-high truss bridge from its assembly site to its final position on the new bridge piers a few hundred feet away. (CDOT)

 

400-FOOT RAILROAD BRIDGE ROLLED INTO PLACE ACROSS TORRENCE AVENUE

Believed to be Largest Truss Bridge Ever Moved into Place after Assembly

A nearly 400-foot-long, 4.3-million-pound railroad truss bridge was rolled into place

A nearly 400-foot-long, 4.3-million-pound railroad truss bridge was rolled into place over Torrence Avenue near 130th Street today, and is believed to be the largest truss bridge ever to be moved into the place after being assembled off site.

The new bridge for the Chicago South Shore and South Bend commuter rail line is a key project in the $101 million reconfiguration and grade separation of the intersection of 130th Street and Torrence Avenue, which part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Building a New Chicago infrastructure program.

It is also a part of the CREATE project – a partnership between U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the nation's freight railroads – to invest billions in critically needed improvements to increase the efficiency of the region's passenger and freight rail infrastructure.

“The moving of this new truss bridge is an incredible feat of construction and engineering,” said Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein. “It also demonstrates the strength of the CREATE partnership between government, the railroads and other stakeholders to bring complicated projects like these to fruition to improve the quality of life for Chicago-area communities.”

The goal of the 130th and Torrence grade separation project is to eliminate the two at-grade crossings of the Norfolk Southern tracks with the two roadways to improve the traffic flow of all modes of transport at this complicated intersection.

The project will include the lowering of both roads to fit under the new bridges to be built for the Norfolk Southern freight tracks. The new truss bridge, put in place today, goes overthe freight tracks. The entire intersection reconstruction project includes: six new bridges (railroad, roadway, and pedestrian/bicyclists bridges); a mixed-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists; retaining walls; drainage system; street lighting; traffic signals; roadway pavement and extensive landscaping.

Today, the project General Contractor, Walsh Construction, used four Self-Propelled Mobile Transporters (SPMTs) to relocate the fully assembled 4.3 million pound, 394-foot-long, 67- foot-high truss bridge from its assembly site to its final position on the new bridge piers a few hundred feet away. It is believed to be the largest truss bridge ever assembled then moved.

A truss bridge is one whose load-bearing superstructure is composed of a truss, which is a structure of connected elements forming triangular units.

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Transportation Nation

7 Years After Katrina Washed it Away, Mayors, Amtrak Considering Gulf Coast Rail Bigger than Before

Friday, August 24, 2012

A 2009 Amtrak plan suggests three option s for restoring gulf coast service from New Orleans to Florida.

In 2005, there weren't many passenger trains rolling from Florida to New Orleans -- just three a week in each direction.

Now there are none.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swathes of rail along the Gulf Coast owned by CSX. Amtrak used those tracks for the last stretch of the Sunset Limited service mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles. After the storm, Amtrak suspended -- though it did not officially cancel -- the Gulf Coast portion of the route. Seven years later,  from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle Mayors are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.

More than 40 mayors gathered last week in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling. If they get their way, the new Sunset Limited Gulf Coast service will be more frequent than before in hopes of boosting tourism and commerce.

According to a review of a 2009 report by Transportation Nation, restoring train service would not be cheap, and the old Sunset route did not turn a profit. Bringing it back requires federal or state support to build it, and then almost certainly, a subsidy to run it. So, the coalition of mayors and local leaders are strategizing how to lobby their representatives in Congress to get the federal funding process going.

Chart from Amtrak Presentation on PRIIA Plan presented to Gulf Coast Mayors. Figures are 2009 dollars.

The Panama City News Herald reports: "Officials believe reviving the train service would be a boost to tourism and would help the economies of communities across the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina." According to the paper, "Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to cars and planes, both of which he calls "too costly."

A 2008 act of Congress, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIAA), required Amtrak to come up with a plan for restoring service. The national rail company offered a 52 page report with three options: restoring the old, sleepy tri-weekly nighttime service, extend the famous City of New Orleans route from Chicago to New Orleans so it turns east to Orlando, Fla. A third option is to  launch a new daily service.

Amtrak tells Transportation Nation the plan is there and done. "It is now the decision of federal and state policymakers to determine if passenger rail service should be restored, identify the preferred option and provide the additional funding for capital and ongoing operating costs."

Some of the stations along the route were so infrequently used that it will be hard to argue for restoring them in tight fiscal times. A local website, NorthEscambria.com reports that fewer than three people per week boarded Sunset Limited trains at the Atmore, Alabama station.

Still, Mayors want the service back, and the primary goal of their big meeting on August 16th, was to gather facts they can use to convince Congress to pony up funding. The Pensacola News Journal reported support from the mayors of New Orleans, Pensacola, Fla. and Mobile, Alabama and others want to take economic arguments to their Congressional representatives. Daily daytime service would make it possible for someone to live in Biloxi, Miss, or nearby and work in New Orleans, or for New Orleanians to take short vacations along the Gulf Coast. That's the kind of story a Congressman would need to hear to devote taxpayer money to an unprofitable line.

Another meeting of mayors and local supporters will take place in the next three months months to focus in on Congressional proposals to pitch to federal lawmakers. Mayor Jones of Mobile, told the Alabama Local "we've probably got another six months worth of preparation before we step out with our plan and proposal."

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Transportation Nation

Readers & Listeners Share Tips On Surviving The Present Penn Station, Identify Remnants Of The Old

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The muses in this public artwork seem to be beckoning passengers into the void. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Relish the wisdom of the crowd. Many of you have weighed in with your knowledge of New York Penn Station at the bottom of our previous post with additional strategies for navigating the nation's busiest train terminal.

We invited you to contribute to the list of minor amenities that New Jersey Public Radio managing editor Nancy Solomon and I came up with as we walked the overburdened transit hub and searched for coping strategies for the 600,000 travelers who squeeze through it every weekday.

A few readers said there are more water fountains than the one we found behind a pillar in the Amtrak Acela waiting room. George Gauthier wrote, "There are three other water fountains in the station, two in the waiting room for New Jersey Transit, next to the rest rooms. Another at the east end of the Long Island Rail Road station behind the police booth."

And after I described a filigreed entryway near the Long Island Rail Road waiting area as "the one thing commuters can see from the lost age of Penn Station," several of you brought up a wide staircase with thick brass handrails that riders still use to reach tracks 1-6. Eric Marcus said the staircase is another survivor from the original Beaux Arts beauty that opened in 1910. He added: "In some places you’ll see the old glass block floors in their cast iron frames above you. They’ve been covered over by terrazzo, so light no longer penetrates."

Marcus goes on to claim, intriguingly, that Amtrak has been collecting fragments of the original Penn Station from people who've saved them, with the aim of bringing these vestigial elements to a new station Amtrak is building across Eighth Avenue in the Farley Post Office. (See renderings of Moynihan Station here.) We've asked Amtrak whether that's true, and await their reply.

Which raises the question: how did regular people save bits of old Penn Station?

Technology consultant and native New Yorker David Hochman has an answer. He was seven years old in 1964, the year after the original station was dismantled and resettled as rubble to a wetland in New Jersey. Hochman's parents spotted an ad in The New York Times taken out by The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which then owned the station, offering to send a memento of the monumental building to those who asked for one. The enterprising David sent in his request, and the railroad replied:

Some time later, a chunk of stone weighing "a few pounds" arrived in the mail. Surely young Hochman cherished it as a talisman from a more graceful age, and he will now be donating it to Amtrak. "Sadly," he writes, "I've lost track of the piece itself." He then rhetorically smacks his forehead while quoting Bugs Bunny, "What a maroon I am!"

(This excellent article describes even more slivers of the old Penn Station embedded in the new.)

Of course there were plenty of laments. To delve into the history of Penn Station is to realize its demolition remains an open wound in the psyche of New York. Commenter "Jorge" quoted Yale professor of architecture Vincent Scully's great line about the effect of removing passengers from the station's once-palatial precincts to an underground warren devoid of natural light:

“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Reader Paul de Silva, an architect, added this critique: "The worst part of Penn is the track platforms. Much of the power of a well designed train station anywhere in the world is an open view of the platforms, as per original Penn."

Others added detail to a shortcut described by Nancy Solomon in the radio version of the story, which you can hear by clicking the audio player at the top of the post.

And several people wondered why the railroads that use Penn Station wait so long before posting the track number of a departing train. That's because the station handles close to the same number of trains as Grand Central Terminal on half as many tracks. Result: dispatchers don't know a train's track number until 10 to 12 minutes before it leaves, as opposed to the 25 minutes' notice that passengers enjoy at Grand Central Terminal. The shorter notice at Penn Station means people pile up under the information boards, blocking the flow of the hordes through the too-small halls.

Despite all, reader "Andrea" complimented Amtrak for playing classical music in its waiting area. She says her dream job is "to be the DJ for Penn Station!"

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Transportation Nation

MAP/VIDEO: How To Survive, And Occasionally Thrive, In New York Penn Station, The Continent's Busiest Train Hub

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Passengers moving through the Connecting Concourse on Penn Station's lower level.

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York's Penn Station is rail hub as ant colony: tight-cornered, winding and grimly subterranean. Like ants, 600,000 passengers per weekday course through it, pausing only to stare at an overhead information board until their departure track is revealed and then, toward that specified bowel, they descend.

Even the transit executives who run the place understand that it needs a makeover: they've hired Los Angeles construction firm Aecom to draft a renovation plan, expected by the end of the year, called "Penn Station Vision." There's talk of moving back walls, upgrading signs and improving the lighting. But that won't happen until Amtrak decamps across Eighth Avenue into a new space at the Farley Post Office, which is at least four years away.

In the meantime, what can a traveler do to make her time in Penn Station more bearable? [VIDEO BELOW]

Typical fare on the lower level.

That's the question I set out to answer with Nancy Solomon, an editor at WNYC who's been commuting from New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan through Penn Station for more than ten years. Our tour of the station on a sweltering summer afternoon revealed a bi-level, nine-acre public space that, in some places, barely functions. "The station is doing what it was never, ever designed to do, which is accommodate more than a half-million commuters," says Ben Cornelius, a former Amtrak worker and TN reader who toiled in Penn Station for six years. "It was designed to be a long-haul, long-distance train station, not a commuter barn."

Yet, Nancy and I turned up a handful of grace notes: a hidden water fountain, a sanitary restroom, decent sushi. And to our surprise, we stumbled upon a large, and largely overlooked, piece of the original Penn Station.


More than most municipal facilities, Penn Station is haunted by the ghost of its earlier incarnation--a Beaux Arts masterpiece by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White.

Postcard of the original Penn Station.

That station rose in 1910 and fell, against a howl of protest, in 1963. Its dismantled columns, windows and marble walls suffered the same fate as a talkative two-bit mobster: they were dumped in a swamp in New Jersey. On the levelled site rose Madison Square Garden and a nondescript office tower; station operations were shunted to the basement, where they remain. Here's one way to navigate it:

Penn Station users: What do you do to make it more bearable? Where do you eat, rest, go looking for shortcuts? We want to know!

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Transportation Nation

Q&A: Amtrak President Joe Boardman on the Rational Inevitability of High-Speed Rail

Monday, August 06, 2012

Rendering of an Amtrak NextGen high-speed rail train. 

Amtrak plans to build a next generation high-speed rail network along the east coast zipping business travelers from New York to Philadelphia (or D.C.) fast enough to get them to their cheesesteak power lunch in a little more than half an hour. But the $151 billion plan lacks a dedicated funding source--a source that railroad executives are asking Congress to provide at a time of hostility to big projects. So Transportation Nation's Alex Goldmark chatted with Amtrak President and CEO, Joe Boardman about the future of our nation's rail network, and the prospects for Northeast corridor bullet trains in particular.

"The same kinds of arguments were delivered during the days of the building of the Erie Canal."

Amtrak's president predicted the business community will demand high-speed rail in the Northeast and pressure Congress to overcome its spending worries. He compared today's opponents of high speed rail to early 19th century naysayers of the Erie Canal, which enriched the city by bringing the bounty of the American midwest through the port of New York. Boardman believes we face a crisis of mobility similar to the one two centuries ago and that, this time, instead of canals, rail is the solution.

Joe Boardman: I think one of the things that’s most important is it’s really critical to the business community of the Northeast to have mobility and an ability to have the clustering of new technology companies. That will not happen if you do not have the mobility of something like high-speed rail for the Northeast and the increase in capacity [that would bring].

"It’s really critical to the business community..."

TN: What kind of upgrades are we talking about?

JB: A critical need here is to actually increase the capacity by actually increasing the number of tracks: having two new tunnels [under the Hudson River], improving the space within Penn Station itself, putting in a new Portal Bridge [in Northeast New Jersey], to make sure that gets done properly for the speeds we want to operate. And for the lack of being held up by movable bridges.

New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak are all working together we can begin to make a change for the future, and I think it will be a change that is very positive for the business community and all in the Northeast.

"I think the opportunities for having this funded over the next several decades are excellent."

TN: Is it realistic to expect Congress to find $151 billion for high-speed rail in the Northeast?

JB: I think the opportunities for having this funded over the next several decades are excellent. I think clearly it is absolutely required. I think it will include all levels of government and include the revenues that will come back from the improvements that we will provide for the customers in the Northeast.

JB: You’ve got right now about 20 percent of the GDP coming out of the Northeast United States. If we don’t fix this [mobility] problem, that won’t last. So the business community in the Northeast, as it begins to wake up to what’s necessary to have the free flowing mobility … is going to need to look at reasonable solutions to that mobility. That’s train travel.

"Look at China right now. A lot of the increase in their ridership came from induced demand."

TN: Aren't there other ways to get around besides the train?

JB: You can look at China right now. A lot of the increase in their ridership came from induced demand, not from taking from any other mode. You’re still going to need the highways, you’re going to need aviation, but you’re not going to be able to grow with the projection of the population of the Northeast unless what you do is improve capacity. The place to make that happen is the railroad.

And the railroad then will receive the kind of state, local, federal funds necessary -- and in some cases the indebtedness necessary -- for the railroad itself to pay off those debts in the future.

"What mode of transportation can really get built and then begin to generate revenues? "

 TN: Isn't there a reluctance to spend on large infrastructure projects?

JB: If that’s an obstacle, what mode of transportation can really get built and then begin to generate revenues? Not the highways. Not the airports largely. But on rail, what we’ve shown is an improvement in such a way that when you make these investments there is a surplus of revenues that are going to come forward. Where would you most likely want to make that investments then? It’s to the rail.

TN: Maybe the critics are right to say, "Let's delay high-speed rail and make do with what we have until we get our financial house in order."

JB: The same kinds of arguments were delivered during the days of the building of the Erie Canal. But once people saw the ability to really move products and move people in a much cheaper way and get greater mobility ... then the investments became available.

So I’m much more positive about the ability -- in the future -- for this country, and the younger people coming forward who are going to use this, to make those investments, to make us a continuing global competitor in the world.

*Transcript abridged for clarity.

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