Senate may take up Amtrak bill today
By Leo King
The Senate is expected to take up a bill to reauthorize Amtrak today, but it will depend on how the political wind blow through the chamber.
Four floor amendments are also expected to be offered from the floor and from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on rail security, two from Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., dealing with long-distance trains and competition, and the other from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Amtrak debt.
There will be there be one hour for debate for each amendment, and another hour of general debate on the bill.
Today’s Senate session begins at 2:00 p.m.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., introduced the original measure in July 2005, and it gained 22 cosponsors. The first 111 pages of existing law were scrapped and new language replaced it, including authorizing five years of authorization grants, five years of capital grants, and five years for state grants.
As the bill is currently written, it also includes a sixth year, the current fiscal year 2006, which ends on September 30. Amtrak’s fiscal years begin October 1.
For fiscal year 2007, the passenger carrier would receive $590 million, $910 million in capital grants, or $1.5 billion.
Amounts for state grants may be troubling. The original amount to be available each fiscal year for capital grants would have been “3 percent for fiscal year 2006,” and “11 percent for fiscal year 2007,” so the outcome of that notion will most likely be settled on Monday – if the Senate takes up the bill.
As the language currently stands, Amtrak would receive $600 million for fiscal 2008, $575 million for fiscal 2009, $535 million for fiscal 2010, and $455 million for fiscal 2011.
In capital grants, Amtrak would get – through the Transportation Secretary – “to bring the Northeast Corridor… to a state-of-good-repair, for capital expenses of the national railroad passenger transportation system, and for purposes of making capital grants to states… the following amounts:
$1,071 for fiscal 2008, $1,096 for fiscal 2009, $1,191 for fiscal year 2010, and $1,231 for fiscal 2011.
In the capital grants percentages for states, 11 percent would be authorized for fiscal 2007, 23 percent for fiscal 2008, 25 percent for fiscal 2009, 31 percent for fiscal 2010, and 33 percent for fiscal year 2011.
Kummant to testify in 11 days
Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant, whose first day on the job was September 12, will testify September 28 before the Railroads Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the National Assn. of Railroad Passengers reported Friday.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday Amtrak said that David Hughes, 63, who served as acting president and CEO from November 2005 until a permanent chief executive was named two weeks ago, is leaving the company.
In a message to employees Friday, Amtrak’s newly hired president, Alexander Kummant, acknowledged Hughes’s departure.
Kummant noted that in his role as Amtrak interim president and as chief engineer before that, Hughes helped advance reform efforts at the company, improve safety and revitalize Amtrak’s infrastructure program.
Hughes’ departure comes as Amtrak completes an internal investigation of the company’s engineering department when Hughes headed it during 2005.
Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold, Jr. confirmed preparation of a report on the investigation, including recommendations to management, but declined to discuss the findings or to make the report public. WSJ stated Hughes could not be reached for comment.
UP replaces ties on Sunset route
After Amtrak train No. 1, the Sunset Limited, ran on September 14 and No. 2 on the next day, UP started working three tie gangs replacing 153,500 ties. UP said the gangs are working from east to west from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. CDT on the 1st thru the 8th and 16th thru the 23rd of each month from September through November. Work limits will move between milepost 610.74, Paisano-West Alpine and MP 692.02, Lobo, on the Valentine Subdivision.
The Sunset Limited, is being held up to an hour at the east end of the limits, and No. 2 will be held up to two hours at the west end of the limits, “depending on the on-time performance to that point” UP stated.
The dates of the train originations are as follows: Trains 1 in September beginning with the 14th, 17th, 19th and 21st; No 2 in September beginning with the 15th, 17th, 20th, and 22nd.
No. 1 in October 1, 3, 5, 15, 17, 19 and 31; No. 2 in October 1, 4, 6, 15, 18, 20 and 22.
Train 1 in November 2, 5, 14, 16, 19 and 21, and No. 2 in November 1, 3, 5, 15, 17, 19, 22.
Amtrak, CSX seek solutions
CSX Corp., often blamed for favoring its freight trains over passenger service, is working with Amtrak to improve on-time performance, a state rail group learned Thursday.
The governor’s Rail Advisory Board was looking at how long-term growth could affect Virginia’s public investment into private railroads. Some members of the board questioned whether CSX is making good-faith efforts to help Amtrak run smoothly and whether passenger rail service will ever improve, According to Friday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“What I’d like to see is for CSX, from the top level on down to the dispatcher, to give it the very best they can, with a legal obligation to give priority to Amtrak trains,” said Richard Beadles, a Richmond representative on the board.
Beadles’ criticism followed a report by a CSX executive claiming that the railroad is facing operating problems created by a glut of freight on its lines.
Federal regulations require freight railroads to move Amtrak passenger trains before they move their own trains, except in special cases.
Amtrak trains have run late this summer, passenger trains have been running later than usual and Amtrak officials and others have turned up the heat on some freight lines.
“We’re talking to Amtrak about realistic schedules on the I-95 corridor,” said Jay Westbrook, the CSX assistant vice president assigned to Virginia.
No one from Amtrak spoke at the meeting, held at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Westbrook said he hopes Amtrak will create a more practical schedule for its Auto Train between Lorton in Northern Virginia and Sanford, Fla., near Orlando.
The Auto Train, which hauls vehicles and passengers, are usually an hour or more late.
Fewer than 10 percent of the trains arrive on time after the more than 16-hour ride of 855 miles.
“We’re requesting Amtrak to add another hour into that transit time,” Westbrook said.
Overall, Amtrak meets its schedule 75 percent of the time, Westbrook said. That drops to 19.5 percent in the Washington-Florida route known as the I-95 corridor.
CSX hopes Amtrak will add locomotives to some of its trains to accelerate departures and improve on-time performance, Westbrook said, but he conceded that CSX has caused many delays because of ongoing upgrades, including in the Washington-Richmond corridor.
“We’d like to partner with Amtrak and jointly provide a much higher level of reliability for their passengers,” he said.
Despite Westbook’s upbeat tone, comments from another CSX official caught some rail advisers by surprise and raised questions about future state funding.
John Gibson, vice president of operations and planning at CSX, said the railroad plans to invest in new routes primarily where it’s seeing increases in population and industry in the Southeast, particularly Georgia and Florida.
“Manufacturing is not moving into the Northeast,” he said. “It’s moving out.”
For Virginia, this means that the mid-Atlantic is not as vital to CSX.
Sharon Bulova, a Fairfax County supervisor who chairs the Rail Advisory Board, said she hopes Virginia’s rail enhancement fund will spur CSX to increase its financial commitments here.
Amtrak starts taking UP to task
Amtrak’s director of government affairs in the Western U.S. stated last week Alexander Kummant arrived on the 12th and would have “proposals on a number of topics, including working effectively with our host railroads to improve the on-time performance of our trains.”
Union Pacific has not been a good timekeeper for Amtrak.
Jonathan Hutchison explained, “Amtrak-initiated requests to contact legislators, mayors, corridor agencies, state DOTs, passenger advocacy groups and others, regarding the historically poor OTP of the Coast Starlight have been placed on hold awaiting guidance” from Kummant – a former UP vice-president.
He added, “Clearly, the performance of practically all long-hauls and selected corridor routes on the UP is highly problematic and contributes to the vulnerability of the long-hauls in a number of ways. In short, this is a serious problem that we cannot ignore – and we aren’t, nor will we in the future.”
He added, “It’s simply a matter of understanding how our new CEO would like us to proceed.”
He added, “Please do not misinterpret this message. I know many of you were pleased that Amtrak was embarking upon on a more overtly assertive strategy, and you can be confident that Amtrak as a whole, understands the need to continue focusing its management attention on host railroad performance.”
Hutchison noted Kummant’s arrival “is an opportunity for refinement, not retrenchment. Of course, independent groups are welcomed to continue their efforts related to on-time performance, but please know that at this point, Amtrak cannot ‘get in front’ with you, but we are still available to provide information, debate options, and provide moral support.”
He said he appreciated “everyone’s willingness to get behind the Coast Starlight. It’s a special train that performs a valuable role.”
ATV damages Acela Express
Amtrak officials estimate it will cost $200,000 to repair Amtrak Acela train 2253, that was damaged when it hit an ATV stalled on the tracks of the Pawtuxet River bridge on September 4 in Richmond, R.I.
The list of needed repairs include side struts, upper skirt, rear cowling, ground brush housing, ground brush cables, and speed sensor cables.
A note from the Amtrak police regarding the repair listing states, “This is not including loss of revenue and costs associated with train delays.”
In other words, from Amtrak Police’s point of view, the total accrued cost of the accident is more than $200,000.
The accident occurred around noon on September 4 when, probably for a little while at least, the life of Michael Malito, 25, of South Kingston, flashed before his eyes.
Malito jumped off his four-wheeler and hugged onto the bridge railing as his ATV was crushed and set ablaze by the oncoming Amtrak train, which Amtrak conductor Edward Brian Radovich told police was traveling 115 mph at the time of collision.
After the collision, the train stopped a half-mile from where the accident happened. Fortunately, for Malito, he suffered only minor cuts and bruises, but his ATV was destroyed.
After surviving the near miss, Malito called authorities. Richmond Police responded, as well as the Hope Valley Fire and Ambulance Departments.
Malito was arrested for trespassing on the railroad right of way, operating an unregistered ATV, and reckless endangerment with a motor vehicle.
He also received a summons to appear in District Court on September 21.
“Actually, he was one of about six or seven morons on ATVs and dirt bikes who all used that bridge as a means of crossing Wood River,” Conductor Radovich said later.
“I thought for sure, once we went into emergency, that I was headed back to find a body or bodies, but thankfully, the idiot jumped in time,” he added.
Radovich added the crew “transferred a loaded Acela train full of passengers onto a near capacity Regional train No. 163 which had about 50 seats left.”
Radovich remarked, “My other major concern with this is security, as in ‘homeland.’”
Tunnel repairs set to begin
After a summer of delays, work is set to begin on the Bellows Falls railroad tunnel.
Doug Zorzi, project manager with the Vermont DOT, said the Federal Highway Administration received the final contract this week. After a federal office signs off on the project, crews will begin working on the site.
He said work could begin this week, according to Saturday’s Bellows Falls Reformer.
“Hopefully this will be under way before the first day of fall rolls around,” Zorzi said. “It was scheduled for this summer but there have been delays due to the bidding process.”
Crews will work through the mornings and afternoons. Zorzi said Amtrak service will probably be rerouted for a few weeks or customers will ride a bus around Bellows Falls.
The historic tunnel goes directly under the middle of the village.
Modern, double-stack cars cannot clear the top of the tunnel and the site has been clogging up expanded rail travel across the state for years.
Since the top of the stone tunnel supports the land above it, engineers have devised a way to lower the tracks 18 inches, on average.
The almost $2 million project hit a few snags earlier this year due to the complexity of working with the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing 80 percent of the funding, along with New England Central Railroad and the state.
Station to get federal repair dollars
USDOT will release $1.1 million in funding for upgrades to the Hattiesburg depot, say Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. Funds for the project were originally appropriated in the fiscal year 2004 Transportation, Treasury Appropriations bill. The Hattiesburg Intermodal Transportation Center project includes constructing an intermodal transfer facility where pedestrians and vehicles can safely interact, as well as restoring the century-old building for continued use as a depot and transportation hub.
When completed, the Hattiesburg Intermodal Transportation Center will include five off-street bays for commercial buses and two for local trolleys.
States report fewer rail accidents, says FRA
Grade crossing fatalities rose by 5.8 percent, the Federal Railroad Administration reported last week, and the number of highway-rail grade crossing collisions was unchanged.
Thirty-seven states experienced fewer train derailments and collisions during the first half of 2006 as compared to the same period last year Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph H. Boardman said on Thursday. He said railroads were doing a better job focusing on safety performance.
A review of the preliminary statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for January through June 2006 showed that railroads had 262 fewer train accidents, or a 16.1 percent reduction, when compared to the first half of 2005, Boardman said. Specifically, the number of derailments decreased by 13.6 percent and train-to-train collisions fell 34.1 percent. Some 16 states saw a decrease of 10 or more train accidents, including Texas (28), Ohio (14), New Jersey (11), and California (10), Boardman said.
“It is encouraging that railroads are making improvements in many areas of rail safety,” Boardman said, “but more needs to be done to make our trains and grade crossings truly safe.”
The data showed that train accidents caused by human error – the leading cause of all train accidents – declined 22.9 percent, Boardman said. Train accidents caused by track issues decreased 13.4 percent, and those caused by equipment failure and signal problems fell by 13 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively.
Train helps bring colleges to towns
A gleaming four-car train, silver and blue, rolled into the elegant historic depot here on Wednesday, recalling an era of rail travel long faded.
Nostalgia, however, was not the point.
This private train was on a whistle-stop tour that is part of an effort by the Univ. of Montana to change a statistic dismaying to educators: fewer than half the state’s high school graduates go on to college, The New York Times reported Saturday.
“These kids are growing up with parents who never went to college and don’t realize the value,” said Mick Hanson, director of the university’s financial aid office.
“You build dreams at an early age, and they’re hearing you don’t need to go to college to make a living.”
The university, in Missoula, has undertaken recruiting tours in the past, but never in such high style. The train included the Silver Cloud, a deluxe 1950s coach that was refurbished some 15 years ago by being gutted and then redecorated with plush carpeting, comfortable couches and a dining room table.
The historic depots in the state’s largest cities have not been used for passenger rail traffic since the 1970s, when Amtrak abandoned the main line through Montana.
The train was provided by Dennis Washington, an industrialist who owns not only Montana Rail Link, a railroad that runs across the state, but also a large construction business and numerous other companies. His wife, Phyllis, is a Univ. of Montana alumna.
At its stops in Livingston, and in Helena and Billings, high school teachers brought their students to tour the train and talk with representatives of the university.
“It’s gotten a lot of attention,” said the university’s executive vice president, James P. Foley.
“The stuff we usually do is boring. Instead of a meeting room, we meet on the train. Because of that, more faculty want to be involved, more deans and more students. That’s kind of neat.”
About 43 percent of Montana’s high school graduates went on to college this academic year. Though that was near the national median, officials here fear that the figure will soon decline, based on the number of students now taking college preparatory courses.
One factor, the officials say, is the growing cost of a college education. Another is that this is a state that has always had decent-paying jobs in mining, logging and ranching, and where a high school diploma has simply been considered enough – but the economy is changing, and many of the high-paying jobs are disappearing. Montana ranks 47th in median income nationally, at just over $35,000.
Washington’s donation of a train trip, which cost some $50,000, stood out.
On a sunny morning, university officials on board sipped coffee and ate bagels while the train, complete with a two-man engine crew, a conductor and a trainmaster, snaked along the Missouri River.
Among the representatives was Garon C. Smith, a chemistry professor who calls himself Garon the Wizard and who, at the stop in Livingston, crouched on the grass at trackside and carefully held a match over a six-inch-tall model volcano filled with solid rocket propellant. The volcano ignited and exploded, sending an eight-foot ball of flame into the air and delighting the visiting students.
“They loved it,” Professor Smith said. “They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Freight trains to be on TV
History Channel video crews recently visited Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb. to film daily operations for the program, Modern Marvels: Freight Trains.
Modern Marvels, a show celebrating man-made wonders on a grand scale, features Union Pacific in the 30-minute episode on freight trains, including Bailey Yard. The program will air on Wednesday, September 20, at 10:00 p.m. EDT.
During the 13-hour video shoot July 13, crews filmed trains arriving in the yard, locomotives, car repair, cars being classified and assembled for outbound trains, and trains departing North Platte. The video crew also visited the BNSF dispatching center in Fort Worth as well as the GE locomotive manufacturing facility in Erie, Penn.