American Railroads

News each weekday of American railroads. Our focus is on freight rail, but Amtrak and commuter rail are also essential ingredients. Nothing published on holidays.

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Thursday, September 14, 2006

NJT may take over piece of Corridor

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said Wednesday the state may consider taking over a 55-mile section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to reduce delays. It runs between New York and Trenton, N.J.

New Jersey Transit passengers have faced numerous stoppages this year from power failures and disabled trains along the 456-mile Northeast Corridor that runs between Boston and Washington, including a May 25 incident that stranded almost 400,000 commuters from Maryland to New York.

“It is an idea that is worthy of deep exploration,’’ Corzine, a Democrat, told Bloomberg News.

The governor’s comments came after NJT’s directors approved a new agreement with Amtrak that allows the commuter railroad to keep operating trains on the corridor for the next six years.

“With New Jersey, we are completing the details on a six-year, $260 million capital improvement program and other initiatives to ensure that we meet this growing demand for service,’’ Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell wrote in an e-mailed statement. The national passenger rail operator is seeking “to best serve both intercity and commuter rail passengers.’’

NJT has contracted with Amtrak since 1983 to operate transit on the Northeast Corridor, which is used daily in some way by about 100,000 commuters, or about 80 percent of the state railroad’s train passengers.

NJT Executive Director George Warrington said taking over the state’s portion of the Northeast Corridor is one of the options that Corzine and transportation officials are considering to help alleviate service interruptions.

The national passenger railroad has lost money since it was founded in 1971 after Union Pacific and other freight railroads dropped their unprofitable passenger operations.

“The governor has a deep appreciation for some of the frustrations we all have about the condition of the Northeast Corridor, but more importantly, of the historic paralysis in Washington around effectively funding and creating the right kind of model that puts the right level of attention financially and managerially on the Northeast Corridor,’’ Warrington said.

Amtrak has been “feebled’’ by a lack of funding, Corzine said.

Whither the Sunset - update

Amtrak passenger train riders are becoming agitated about the Sunset Limited’s failure to return to service east of New Orleans. The train, Nos. 1 and 2, have not passed between New Orleans and Orlando since Hurricane Katrina tore up CSX tracks in Mississippi last year. CSX repaired the line earlier this year.

Jerry Sullivan, a professional engineer and retired railroader from Jacksonville, Fla., wrote a letter to Nazih Haddad, Florida’s High-speed rail director in Tallahassee. Texans are not happy with Amtrak’s failure to bring back the train, either. No required six-month train-off notices have ever been filed with federal agencies.

Haddad’s response was simple: “Thank you for your e mail. We will continue to work with Amtrak on this issue.”

Sullivan wrote to Haddad, stating “Lack of ridership was never a problem for the Sunset on the many times that I rode it to Houston and back. It was (and would be) my preferred way to get there to see the grandkids.”

He noted, “Amtrak, in one epistle that I got 2nd or 3rd hand, indicated that it’s losses were unacceptable, and specifically cited a figure in the range of $347,000 for taking care of inconvenienced travelers. Taken out of context, this and Congressman [Rep. John] Mica’s [R-Fla.] statements about the subsidy per passenger, coast-to-coast of $600 plus, so give them a plane ticket, makes it appear that this is a doozy of a money loser.

“Not so however.

“By far the majority of riders are going 400-900 miles on it.

He explained ridership as he saw it.

“Rarely were there less than a dozen – for example, going from Jacksonville to Houston and many (including myself) chose the sleepers. Given that on most trips there were no more than a dozen going all the way to Los Angeles, the figure of $600 for each of those might be reasonable. On Sunday night, this train is convenient, with a 5:30 p.m. departure from Jacksonville and 9:00 p.m. arrival in Tallahassee insured that many Florida State Univ. students home for the weekend took it back. As it did not operate eastbound on Friday, nor until afternoon on Saturday, it insured that not many rode it from Tallahassee to Jacksonville.”

Sullivan suggested that Union Pacific and CSX were solely to blame for late trains.

“The reason for the ‘inconvenienced passengers’ was invariable poor handling of the train, eastbound mostly by UP, westbound by CSX. Even when it left New Orleans eastbound on time, it was often two or more hours late at Jacksonville. Thus, in my opinion, Florida DOT should, within the limits of its authority, work hard to get the train back for the good of many Floridians, and twist collective arms at CSX very tightly to get better handling of it.”

Sullivan added, “As a CSX retiree, familiar with dispatching, I know that good handling depends on competent dispatching. Problem is, many old heads have retired – need I say more? A month before Katrina, I was eastbound out of Houston, five hours late, about par for the course. Given the six-hour dwell in New Orleans, we left there on time at 10:30 p.m. On awakening the next morning, we were just pulling into Pensacola, on time – to the minute. This continued, but having a scanner, I knew who the dispatcher was, one of the few remaining ‘old heads.’”

We arrived in Jacksonville at 4:15 p.m., a full 35 minutes early – but it still arrived in Orlando a full one-half hour late. Sadly, this was my last trip on a really great train.

This should be the norm, but as it was, and probably would be again, it was the exception.

In Texas, members of the Texas Assn. of Railroad Passengers adopted a resolution at their September 9 membership meeting “in regard to Amtrak’s failure to return service east of New Orleans.”

Howard Bingham, the association’s Southeast Texas Director, wrote that the resolution stated, “Whereas the Amtrak Board has failed to restore service on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans eastward, and CSX has notified Amtrak that its tracks have been repaired and are available to receive Amtrak’s passenger trains on the Sunset Limited’s route, and 40 percent of the revenue generated by the Sunset was derived from the abandoned portion of the route” was among their concerns.

The document added, “Whereas the required 180 day notification of abandonment has not been issued, the cities along this portion of the route have suffered extreme financial hardship due to loss of this service, and the loss of service on the eastern portion of the Sunset Limited has made passenger rail travel across America’s southern states virtually impossible, eliminating much of the southeastern U.S. from any practical use of Amtrak’s formerly national network” was also in the resolution, as was the notion, “The loss of service have impacted ridership and revenues on the remaining portion of the Sunset Limited route including those stops located in Texas.”

Following those articles, the document resolved that “The Texas Assn. of Railroad Passengers calls for the immediate resumption of service on the entire Sunset Limited route from Los Angeles to Orlando; and that TXARP will assist in organizing the Sunset Limited’s ‘Route Team’ in Texas;” and that the organization “will cooperate with ‘Route Teams’ from other states to provide a unified nation-wide effort to save the Sunset Limited and restore its full route of service;” and that “Nothing in this resolution should preclude the addition of new regional service in addition to the restoration of Sunset Limited service along its entire route of Los Angeles, Cal. to Orlando, Fla.”

Senate committee okays
$3.5 billion security amendment

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs amended the Port Security Improvement Act of 2006 (H.R. 4954) to appropriate $3.5 billion for transit security over three years.

The legislation would require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to award grants directly to public transportation agencies for capital security improvements, such as adding tunnel and perimeter protection, and redundant critical operations control systems; chemical, biological, radiological or explosive detection systems; and surveillance, communications, emergency response, and fire suppression and decontamination equipment.

The legislation also would enable agencies to use grants to fund security training for employees, public awareness campaigns and canine patrols, Progressive Railroading noted yesterday.

The House version of the port security bill does not include provisions for transit security investments, so if the full Senate passes the bill this week, a conference committee would need to resolve the differences between the two bills.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has allocated less than $400 million for transit security, even though transit agencies need at least $6 billion to improve security, according to the American Public Transportation Assn.

Five years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Congress is poised to enact broad legislation to safeguard sea and river ports against terrorism, but New Jersey senators said Tuesday the measure doesn’t go far enough because it did not require all cargo containers to be checked before arriving in the country.

Democrats Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez teamed up with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to add language requiring 100 percent screening while the Senate debates the measure this week, the Asbury Park Press reported on Wednesday. They don’t appear to have broad support. Schumer said he hopes to get more support as the week progresses.

The three lawmakers echoed worries expressed by former N.J. Gov. Tom Kean, chairman of the September 11, 2001 commission, that al-Qaida could slip a nuclear bomb into a shipping container. Only 5 percent of cargo containers that enter the country’s 361 sea and river ports are screened.

“The threat is real. We ought to stop fooling around with this,” Lautenberg said Tuesday before the Senate began the second consecutive day of debate over port security.

Republicans and business groups say screening all 11 million-cargo containers that reach U.S. ports every year is a waste of time and money. Targeting high-risk shipments for closer inspection is more effective, according to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and that’s the approach endorsed by the bill on the Senate floor. It calls for a study at three overseas ports to figure out if screening all cargo containers is feasible.

Menendez said screening every container is vital for the Port of New York and New Jersey because it’s a busy seaport in the most densely populated part of the United States that has already come under terrorist attack.

Schumer said the cost of high-tech screening is negligible enough that shipping companies can bear the cost and not suffer financially. It costs $2,000 to ship one container from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, of which the screening cost is $8, he said.

In addition to strengthening ports, the legislation includes $1.2 billion to make Amtrak safer from terrorist attack. The Senate also voted 84-12 to approve Lautenberg’s proposal to allow the Transportation Security Administration to hire more federal airport screeners. He said capping the number at 45,000 doesn’t make sense because more screeners are needed to handle increased passenger loads at airports.

The AP noted on Wednesday rail security was briefly discussed during a hearing conducted by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me. Member Tom Carper

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said, “There are a bunch of tunnels that go into New York City every day that carry, I’m told, hundreds of thousands of people in and out of New York City. They are submerged. I don’t know what body of water they go under – the Hudson River, the East River?”

Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff answered, “Hudson.”

Carper continued, “There are a lot of people. I’m told that if there was an explosion on any one of those commuter trains, or, for that matter, Amtrak trains, that it could not only hurt a lot of people on the train but it could actually puncture a tunnel, cause flooding into the tunnel, flood that tunnel, [and] the water could back into the Penn Station and flood the other tunnels as well, create great havoc and loss of life.”

Carper observed, “When I look at threats on the rail transit side, that to me is a preeminent threat. You have other threats that include tunnels under Washington, D.C., Baltimore, a lot of bridges between here and New York City and Boston that are important as well.

He asked, “When you consider transit and rail security in terms of actually prioritizing what needs to be done, how do you set those priorities? What are the priorities?”

There were no responses.


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