Baltimore Sun editorial: Our view: Century-old infrastructure can’t continue to support passenger rail

Amtrak’s vulnerability [Editorial]
Our view: Century-old infrastructure can’t continue to support passenger rail service in Baltimore and the rest of the populous Northeast corridor

No doubt there were some lumps in throats at Amtrak headquarters last month when they heard the words “collapse” and “rail line” in Baltimore. As it happens, it was a CSX freight line that was affected by the loss of a 120-year-old retaining wall in Charles Village that sent tons of dirt, pavement and cars spilling onto the tracks below.

But it might have been the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, Amtrak’s only passage through West Baltimore. It’s 140 years old and can’t accommodate more than two tracks, double-stacked trains or speeds above 30 miles per hour. The renovation of B&P, as it’s commonly known, is overdue, a $1.5 billion project that’s on the drawing board but not yet funded.

And that’s not even the biggest headache along Amtrak’s vital Northeast Corridor. Last week, Amtrak’s CEO reminded an audience in New York that the century-old rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River have less than 20 years of service left. That’s particularly worrisome, considering it would take “seven to nine years” to build new ones, Amtrak’s Joseph Boardman said, “if we all decided today that we could do it.”…

Amtrak has a new proposal with a 2030 completion date but currently doesn’t have the financing to move forward with it.

Congress and the Northeastern states can’t continue to ignore the region’s aging rail infrastructure, particularly tunnels and bridges that date back a century or more. …

Yet last week, House Republicans unveiled a budget for next year that would cut Amtrak’s capital construction allowance below this year’s amount. As current spending levels have already contributed to long-term neglect, it’s easy to see the proverbial track ahead — more landslide-like events and other catastrophes involving rail lines followed by finger-pointing and “you should have warned us” pronouncements.

Of course, Congress can always allow Amtrak to gradually shrivel up and die (indeed, conservatives have already called for it to be zero funded), but as the Northeast from Richmond, Va. to Boston, Mass. remains the nation’s economic powerhouse, that strategy could prove costly. Home to 50 million people and a $2.6 trillion economy, the Northeast is this country’s most densely populated region and the most dependent on rail service to keep going….

The bottom line is that there’s really not much choice. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor must be sustained if only because the region lacks alternatives. And the sooner Washington replaces rail infrastructure that dates back a century or more, the sooner commuters can rest easy that a landslide isn’t waiting around the next bend….

We certainly don’t expect the B&P Tunnel to come crashing down any time soon, and perhaps the Hudson River tunnels have many years left — as might the aging bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpower rivers in Maryland that are also slated for repairs. But it just seems foolish to risk so much by continuing a strategy of neglect along the Northeast Corridor, financing small projects like new signals here or catenary there, when so many major challenges are ignored at the public’s eventual peril.

Amtrak arrives at Union Depot in St. Paul for first time

Amtrak earlier this week marked the debut of service to Union Depot in St. Paul, Minn., with the arrival of the Empire Builder.

Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman was among transportation leaders who helped cut the ribbon for the first-ever Amtrak service to the downtown station.

“We know from experience that travel brings business — and that stations bring business to the surrounding community,” said Boardman in a prepared statement.

The historic station recently underwent a $243 million restoration to turn it into a multi-modal facility with funding from federal, state and local agencies.

Via Progressive Railroading

Cascades Without Amtrak?

Analysis from the Seattle Transit Blog:

Last month WSDOT quietly released a Request for Information,

“to gather information from providers of rail services about service delivery options to provide more convenient, rapid, and reliable intercity passenger rail service between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon.”

Noting that these submittals “are not responds to deliver the service”, WSDOT is nonetheless seeking input from the private sector (and presumably other governmental rail operators) about how to make Cascades more efficient and reduce its operating costs. If the responses sufficiently pique their interest, WSDOT may issue a full competitive Request for Proposal (RFP).

A little background: the Bush-era Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA) forced Amtrak to cease funding operations of its most successful routes (state-supported corridors of less than 750 miles). It was a masterfully cynical bill, for though Republicans generally love to hate Amtrak, they also love once-daily legacy service in their districts, which just so happens to be colossally expensive to operate. So they wrote a bill that trimmed the muscle and left the fat, as it were.

Amtrak had been funding 20% of Cascades service, but from October 2013 onward Washington and Oregon have had to bear 100% of operating costs. Though Cascades farebox recovery is relatively good at roughly 66%, farebox recovery is a rate, not an outlay. As Cascades is mandated to add at least 2 more trips between Seattle and Portland by 2017 as a condition of receiving $800m in stimulus (ARRA) funds, it is important to remember that farebox recovery could continue to improve while total costs rise. With a stalemated legislature that loves to play politics with rail, it’s the total costs that matter. Ergo, Cascades has no choice but to seek ways to cut costs.

Amtrak to detour Empire Builder westbound trains in North Dakota

Amtrak has agreed to a request by BNSF Railway Co. to temporarily detour the westbound Empire Builder in North Dakota to speed the improvement of BNSF infrastructure between Fargo and Minot, N.D., Amtrak officials announced this week.

Chartered buses will cover the missed Amtrak stations in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby through Sept. 30. The use of an alternate route will enable BNSF to complete work in less time. The eastbound Empire Builder will operate normally and serve all scheduled stops, Amtrak officials said in a press release.

Via Progressive Railroading

BNSF budgets $1 billion for key Northern Corridor capital projects

Progressive Railroading

BNSF Railway Co. today highlighted $1 billion in capital projects planned in five states along its Northern Corridor. The projects are part of the Class I’s record-setting $5 billion capital spending budget for 2014.

Situated between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago, the Northern Corridor runs through parts of Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Illinois. Some of this year’s corridor projects are designed to help expand capacity and improve traffic flow for all freight and passenger trains [including Amtrak’s Empire Builder] that use certain routes.

May Day means Amtrak Day #1: May 1st, 2014

Commentary from Railpac.org

Once again, for the 43rd time, here we are on May Day, the anniversary of the official day of Amtrak operations beginning on May 1, 1971. It was the day most of the still-operating passenger trains in the country disappeared, and the freight railroads breathed a sigh of relief because the heavy hand of the ICC was no longer upon them forcing them to run trains they didn’t want to run “in the public interest.”

The almost exclusively all-male railroad management cadre of the day, many of them struggling to save their own freight operations from bankruptcy in a heavy regulatory environment, were happy to be rid of the cost of passenger stations, a fleet of cars and locomotives which were reaching what everybody thought was the end of their useful life (sadly, this was especially true of equipment built by Pullman Standard, which used a different assembly process and materials than its wiser competitor, Budd), and all of the expensive employees it took to run passenger trains. They could cascade many of their unwanted employees onto Amtrak’s employee roster (of particular note, the former Pennsylvania Railroad employees in Philadelphia who were sure they could run passenger trains better than anyone else), and, allegedly, finally do what they thought railroads should only do, turn themselves into corporate conglomerates (remember the various “Industries” titles tacked onto the end of railroad names?) focusing on moving products, not people, and buying and managing other businesses they didn’t know how to run.

Pets Will Board Some Amtrak Trains Beginning May 5

Boston Globe

Cat and dog owners who travel by train may soon be able to bring their furry friends along.

Amtrak has announced a six-month “Carry-On Pet Pilot Program” launching in Chicago May 5 in which pets will board with people on designated train cars. If successful, it will be rolled out nationwide.

Service animals currently ride in the passenger cabin free of charge. But other than that, Amtrak has had a strict “Animals Not Allowed” policy.

The fee will be $25 for dogs and cats (no other animal is allowed). They must be less than 20 pounds and stay in carriers under your seat—similar to how pets travel on planes. They must be at least eight weeks old, odorless, harmless, and not disruptive. They must remain in the carrier at all times. See more rules on amtrak.com.