This Week at Amtrak; October 13, 2008
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Volume 5, Number 28
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) For Amtrak True Believers (to liberally borrow a famous phrase), it’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times. True Believers believe it’s the best of times because of what’s in the official summary, below, from the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Realistic people who believe in the business of passenger rail (as opposed to the welfare state concept of passenger rail as a public right) know it’s business as usual.
H.R. 2095, THE RAIL SAFETY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2008
DIVISION A – THE RAIL SAFETY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2008
H.R. 2095 reauthorizes the Federal Railroad Administration ("FRA") and provides $1.625 billion for our nation’s rail safety program over the period encompassing fiscal years 2009 through 2013. The authorization of the rail safety program expired a decade ago, in 1998.
The bill clarifies that the mission of the FRA is to ensure that safety is the highest priority; creates a new position of Chief Safety Officer; requires the Secretary of Transportation to develop a long-term strategy for improving rail safety, which must include an annual plan and schedule for, among other things, reducing the number and rates of accidents, injuries, and fatalities involving railroads; and requires annual reporting from the Secretary on the Department’s progress in implementing unmet statutory mandates and open safety recommendations by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General and the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB").
WORKER AND PUBLIC SAFETY
Mandates Installation of Positive Train Control. Requires all Class I railroads and intercity passenger and commuter railroads to implement a positive train control system by December 31, 2015, on all main-line track where intercity passenger railroads and commuter railroads operate and where toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are transported. In addition, includes a grant program for the deployment of various positive train control technologies, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, rail integrity inspection and warning systems, switch position indicators, remote control power switch technologies, track integrity circuit technology, and other technologies.
Hours of Service Reform. Provides signal and train crews with additional rest; prohibits them from working in excess of 12 hours; extends hours-of-service standards to railroad contractors; limits limbo time; requires retrofitting or replacement of camp cars; and requires railroads to develop fatigue management plans through a mandatory risk reduction program.
Rail Passenger Disaster Family Assistance. Directs the NTSB to establish a program to assist victims and their families involved in a passenger rail accident, modeled after a similar aviation disaster program.
Locomotive Cab Safety. Requires the FRA to complete a study on the safety impact of the use of personal electronic devices by safety-related railroad employees during the performance of their duties. The study will also look at other elements of the locomotive cab environment that could harm the employee’s health and safety. Based upon the results of the study, the Secretary may establish regulations on the use of personal electronic devices in the locomotive cab.
Training. Establishes minimum training standards for railroad workers; requires certification of conductors; and a study on certification of other classes and crafts of employees, including carmen and signal employees.
Medical Attention. Prohibits railroads from denying, delaying, or interfering with the medical or first aid treatment of injured workers, and from disciplining those workers that request treatment. Also requires railroads to arrange for immediate transport of injured workers to the nearest appropriate hospital.
Emergency Escape Breathing Apparatus. Provides emergency breathing apparatus for all crewmembers on freight trains carrying hazardous materials that would pose an inhalation hazard in the event of unintentional release.
Concrete Crossties. Directs the FRA to develop and implement regulations for all classes of track for concrete rail ties.
Track Inspection Time. Requires the FRA to study track inspection procedures, including time intervals between inspection, repair priorities and methods, the speed of track inspection vehicles, and the territories inspectors must cover.
GRADE CROSSING SAFETY
Toll-Free Number to Report Grade Crossing Problems. Requires the railroads to establish and maintain a toll-free telephone number for reporting malfunctions of grade crossing signals, gates, and other devices and disabled vehicles blocking railroad tracks.
Sight Distance. Requires the FRA to develop model legislation to encourage States to adopt and enforce laws regarding overgrown vegetation, standing railroad equipment, and other obstructions at grade crossings, which can obstruct the view of approaching pedestrians and vehicles.
Accident and Incident Reporting. Requires the FRA to conduct periodic audits of railroads to ensure they are reporting all accidents and incidents to the National Accident Database.
National Crossing Inventory. Requires railroads to report information, including information about warning devices and signage, on grade crossings to enable the FRA to maintain an accurate inventory of such crossings.
State Action Plan. Requires the Secretary to identify on an annual basis the top 10 States that have had the most grade crossing collisions, and to work with them to develop a State grade crossing action plan that identifies specific solutions for improving safety at grade crossings.
Emergency Grade Crossing Improvements. Establishes a grant program to provide emergency grade crossing safety improvements at locations where there has been a grade crossing collision involving a school bus or multiple injuries or fatalities.
Penalties for violations. Increases civil penalties for certain rail safety violations from $10,000 to $25,000. The minimum civil penalty remains $500. For grossly negligent violations or a pattern of repeated violations, the maximum civil penalty is increased from $20,000 under current law to not more than $100,000. Also increases the maximum penalty for failing to file an accident or incident report from $500 to $2,500.
Enforcement Transparency. Requires the FRA to provide an annual summary to the public of all railroad enforcement actions taken by the Secretary.
Railroad Radio Monitoring. Authorizes the FRA to monitor certain railroad radio communications for the purpose of correcting safety problems and mitigating the likelihood of accidents or incidents.
Inspector Staffing. Increases the number of Federal rail safety inspectors and supporting staff by 200.
OTHER SAFETY HIGHLIGHTS
Bridge Safety. Requires the FRA to issue regulations requiring each track owner to develop and maintain an accurate inventory of its railroad bridges; determine, and update as appropriate, the safe capacity of each bridge; maintain the original design documents of each bridge, if available, and a documentation of all repairs, modifications, and inspections of each bridge; enforce a written procedure that will ensure that its bridges are not loaded beyond their capacities; conduct regular comprehensive inspections of each bridge; and designate qualified bridge inspectors or maintenance personnel to authorize the operation of trains on bridges following repairs, damage, or indication of potential structural problems.
Solid Waste Processing Rail Facilities. Ensures that State governments are able to protect their citizens against environmental hazards, such as noxious fumes or leaks into groundwater, which could result from operation of a waste processing facility by a railroad.
Tunnel Information. Requires railroads to maintain certain information related to structural inspections and maintenance activities for tunnels, and requires railroads to provide periodic briefings to the government of the local jurisdictions in which the tunnels are located, including updates whenever a repair or rehabilitation projects alters the methods of ingress and egress into and out of the tunnels.
H.R. 2095, THE RAIL SAFETY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2008
DIVISION B – THE PASSENGER RAIL INVESTMENT AND IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2008
H.R. 2095 reauthorizes Amtrak and provides a total of $13.06 billion over five years to help bring the Northeast Corridor to a state-of-good-repair, and encourage the development of new and improved intercity passenger rail service through an 80-20 Federal/State matching grant program. It also provides $1.5 billion for the planning and development of high-speed rail corridors.
Increases Capital and Operating Grants to Amtrak. H.R. 2095 authorizes $5.315 billion (an average of $1.063 billion per year) to Amtrak for capital grants and $2.949 billion (an average of $589.8 million per year) for operating grants. Past inconsistent Federal support has hampered Amtrak’s ability to replace catenaries, passenger cars, bridges, ties, and other equipment necessary for Amtrak to provide service. These capital grants will help bring the Northeast Corridor to a state-of-good-repair, and allow Amtrak to procure new rolling stock, rehabilitate existing bridges, and make additional capital improvements on its entire network. In addition, the operating grants authorized under the bill will help Amtrak pay salaries, health costs, overtime pay, fuel costs, facilities, and train maintenance and operations. These operating grants will also ensure that Amtrak can meet its obligations under its recently negotiated labor contract.
Develops State Passenger Corridors. In an effort to encourage the development of new and improved intercity passenger rail services, the bill creates a new State Capital Grant program for intercity passenger rail projects. The bill provides $1.9 billion ($380 million per year) for grants to States to pay for the capital costs of facilities and equipment necessary to provide new or improved intercity passenger rail. The Federal share of the grants is up to 80 percent. The Secretary of Transportation would award these grants on a competitive basis for projects based on economic performance, expected ridership, and other factors.
Relieves Congestion. H.R. 2095 authorizes $325 million (an average of $65 million per year) out of the State Capital Grant program for "congestion grants" to Amtrak and the States for high-priority rail corridors to increase capacity along certain lines in order to reduce congestion and facilitate ridership growth.
Provides Funding for High-Speed Rail Corridors. The bill authorizes $1.5 billion ($300 million per year) for grants to States and/or Amtrak to finance the construction and equipment for 11 authorized high-speed rail corridors. The Federal share of the grants is up to 80 percent. The Secretary of Transportation would award these grants on a competitive basis for projects based on economic performance, expected ridership, and other factors.
Improves On-Time Performance. By law, Amtrak is given preference over freight traffic on lines outside the Northeast Corridor. However, many of Amtrak’s service routes outside the Northeast Corridor suffer from poor service reliability and on-time performance. This performance prevents Amtrak from retaining and attracting new ridership, and increases Amtrak’s operating costs. The Department of Transportation Inspector General recently reported that if Amtrak achieved an 85 percent on-time performance outside the Northeast Corridor in fiscal year 2006, it would have saved Amtrak $136.6 million, or almost one-third of its operating budget. H.R. 2095 empowers the Surface Transportation Board ("STB") to investigate whether and to what extent delays or failures to achieve minimum on-time performance standards is the result of a host rail carrier. If the host rail carrier is found to be at fault, then the STB may award damages that would be used to improve service on the impacted route.
Reduces Amtrak’s Debt. Federal support of Amtrak was cut drastically in fiscal year 2000 and 2001, forcing Amtrak to assume a large amount of debt just to stay afloat. Amtrak has aggressively targeted this debt, paying down $600 million from 2002 through 2007. H.R. 2095 helps Amtrak to take further steps to reduce its debt, authorizing $1.404 billion (an average of $280.8 million each year) for debt service through FY 2013. This funding will allow Amtrak to focus its resources on improving existing services and making additional capital and operational improvements.
Establishes an RFP for High-Speed Rail Service. H.R. 2095 directs the Secretary of Transportation to issue a request for proposals for projects for the financing, design, construction, and operation of 11 federally-designated high speed rail corridors. Proposals would need to meet certain financial, labor, and planning criteria, as well as a detailed description to account for any impacts on existing passenger, commuter, and freight rail traffic to be considered. If the Secretary receives a qualifying proposal, she would be directed to form a Commission to study any proposals received. The Secretary would issue a report to the Congress on the Commission’s findings and her recommendations for each of the corridors. Any further action on a proposal would need legislative approval by Congress.
Resolves Disputes between Commuter and Freight Railroads. Currently, no Federal guidelines exist to mediate disputes between commuter rail providers and freight railroads over use of freight rail tracks or rights-of-way, nor is there a standard forum for negotiating commuter rail operating agreements. The bill establishes a forum at the STB to help complete stalled commuter rail negotiations, helping our rail network operate as efficiently as possible. This section is identical to a provision of H.R. 2701, the "Transportation Energy Security and Climate Change Mitigation Act of 2007", as ordered reported by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on June 20, 2007.
Provides Funding for Washington Metro System. The bill authorizes $1.5 billion for fiscal years 2009 through 2019 for capital and preventive maintenance grants for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA"). These funds are not available until WMATA notifies the Secretary of Transportation that certain amendments to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Compact have taken effect, including an amendment requiring that all payments by local signatory governments for WMATA for matching Federal funds authorized by this section are derived from dedicated funding sources. In addition, these funds may be used only for the maintenance and upkeep of the Washington Metro system and may not be used to increase the mileage of the rail system. The Federal share of the grants shall be for 50 percent of the net project cost of the project.
What you have just waded through is the executive summary of the long-awaited Amtrak reauthorization from the House and Senate, which has received President Bush’s seal of approval. This reauthorization goes back several years to when former Senator Trent Lott first teamed with Senator Frank Lautenberg for an overdue reauthorization. The bill hung around the Senate for a couple of years, and finally passed, and went to the House where it passed after it was combined with a safety-related bill for required implementation of positive train control (anti-collision) systems nationwide.
Amtrak True Believers have been overjoyed by this bill, believing Amtrak "finally" has the money and recognition it deserves.
Oops! This bill has come at a time when it is the worst of times.
What most people fail to realize is this bill is an AUTHORIZATION, for $13 billion for Amtrak, not an APPROPRIATION for $13 billion for Amtrak.
It really doesn’t matter how much money Congress authorizes for anything; all that matters is how much money it appropriates. When Congress appropriates money, it actually writes a check. An authorization is, in congressional parlance, just a "begging license" an agency or arm of government can use in hopes someone in Congress will make an appropriation based on a previous authorization.
In today’s toxic economy, an authorization is worth much less than it was 10 minutes ago.
When you add up the $700 billion Congress appropriated for the credit crisis rescue plan, and the few other hundred billions here and there Congress and other feds have thrown into various pots these past couple of weeks, suddenly, a trillion dollars has gone missing.
Anyone who believes the budget writers in Congress of either party are going to be willing to up the funding on almost any program other than programs to stimulate the economy, cover the military, or fund essentials probably also believes in the Easter Bunny, too.
Senator John McCain during his campaign has already said should he be elected, he will freeze all government programs at the current level of funding, and determine on a case-by-case basis any budget increases his administration will request, based on all of the monies already spent over the past month.
2) So, while this much anticipated reauthorization does a lot of good things, it changes nothing when it comes to providing more money for Amtrak. It does allow Congress to consider giving more money to Amtrak and passenger rail, but it does not appropriate (write a check) for any new money.
Now, more than ever, Amtrak will have to prove to a broke nation how important a part of the domestic transportation network it really is ... keeping in mind, Amtrak’s total transportation output remains roughly that of motorcycle riders in the country today.
This is the time Amtrak’s numerous misdeeds and gross miscalculations are going to come back to haunt it, as savvy budget writers are going to want to know exactly what they’re getting from Amtrak for their money.
Can Amtrak instantly expand its existing service? No, not even by 10% because it has chosen to let its rolling stock fleet deteriorate to such a point hundreds of passenger cars are out of service, or have been sent to the scrap dealers.
Can Amtrak start new state routes, even if the states pony up the money for them? Not easily, for the same reason. Where is the equipment coming from?
Can Amtrak talk about new routes and new services to meet new demands? Not easily, because it has such a poor relationship with most of its host freight railroads; those private carriers are unwilling to put their bread and butter business of freight hauling at risk to accommodate more Amtrak trains, either in terms of increased frequencies or new routes.
3) Here’s a little gem tucked into the many hundreds of pages of the Amtrak reauthorization. For some reason no rational person can figure out, the qualifications for the Amtrak Board of Directors has been modified to essentially include anyone who has recently been breathing.
The gutting of the list of qualifications for board members means Amtrak will go back to being subject to the stewardship of a collection of political hacks whose only qualification for serving on the board was support of the people in power in Washington.
Once again, the fox will be watching the hen house, because Amtrak board members will not have enough business knowledge or corporate leadership experience to adequately question the many questionable proposals which surface from Amtrak’s executive corps for board approval to become company policy.
We’re going back to the days where anything good that happens at Amtrak is most likely the result of some sort of corporate accident.
4) The reauthorization also includes lots of big bucks for Amtrak to "study" all of the reasons why it refuses to reinstate that Sunset Limited east of New Orleans to Jacksonville (and/or Orlando), and look at some other route revivals, such as the Pioneer and the old North Coast Limited transcontinental route via southern Montana. All three of these routes will be welcome additions to anyone who believes in the business of passenger rail, but the downside is these route will – if reinstated – be done by congressional mandate, such as is the Cardinal route, which currently operates via West Virginia at the behest of Senator Robert Byrd.
New routes are good; congressional mandates, while convenient for route restoration, are not as good. One look at the Cardinal, which is operated in such a half-hearted way by Amtrak, proves the point.
The Cardinal (nee, the C&O’s George Washington), has some of the most spectacular scenery on any route west of the Rocky Mountains. Under Amtrak’s tender mercies, this train is operated only three days a week, mostly with leftover equipment, and no full dining car. A dianoetic person would take one look at this train’s metrics, and declare it has been intentionally set up to fail.
Looking at the Cardinal from a business standpoint, along with the Sunset Limited, and it has some of the greatest potential of any train in the Amtrak system for expansion, growth, and greater revenues.
What will follow for the Sunset east of New Orleans, the Pioneer, or the North Coast Limited if they are imposed on Amtrak under the same conditions? Can we expect a begrudging operation of the trains, but no real effort to make them in any sense successful?
5) From the safety standpoint of the reauthorization, if you’re a railroad manager having to foot the bill for the mandates, you’re not a happy camper. For the rest of us, most of the components of the bill are welcome and will hopefully lead to a safer working environment for all railroaders, railroad passengers, and those doing business with railroads.
6) Various queries have come to This Week at Amtrak about this year’s presidential election, and what we have to look forward to if either candidate wins (For some, "none of the above" is not a bad choice, but that’s another discussion for another place.).
Based on history and what we know today, here is what to expect. Neither candidate of the two major parties has taken a firm stance specifically on Amtrak.
If Senator Barack Obama is the next president, he likely will follow the traditional Democratic Party treatment of Amtrak and consider it a labor issue. What is good for his organized labor constituents will be good for Amtrak. Senator Obama did vote "yes" on the Amtrak reauthorization bill, without comment.
It is important to note there have only been two times in Amtrak’s history where a large part of its route system has been slashed, and both of those times have been under Democrat presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).
Amtrak was formed under a Republican president, Richard Nixon.
If Senator John McCain is the next president, he likely will continue to take a stance against Amtrak, but it’s important to understand why he takes the stance he consistently does, and is often misrepresented for his stance.
If you study Senator McCain’s opposition to Amtrak, it’s not against passenger rail, nor against our country having a viable passenger rail system. Senator McCain has consistently been against the corporate shenanigans played by Amtrak management, and the copious amounts of free federal monies which have been given to Amtrak with no performance measurements attached to the monies. Senator McCain considers the way Amtrak operates (and, based on the bad information which has been supplied to Senator McCain by Amtrak itself) to be wasteful and the product of bad business decisions. As so often happens with anyone who has pushed back against Amtrak True Believers, Senator McCain has been instantly and constantly labeled anti-Amtrak, without explanation.
If Senator McCain is elected president, he is likely to do little to improve Amtrak because of his past experience with it, but, because it has become a popular bipartisan program in Congress, can do little to kill it, either. He most likely will demand more accountability out of Amtrak, which is a good thing. Senator McCain voted "no" on the Amtrak reauthorization, and issued a statement saying it was based on cost, not ideology against passenger rail travel.
In short, whichever major party candidate wins, Amtrak is likely to stay pretty much the same way it is now. Only through public pressure will Amtrak reform itself, and that’s not likely to happen with the present management and board of directors in place.
Most people don’t understand how small Amtrak is in Washington, as compared to other parts of the federal government. Amtrak often receives a fleeting glance in the overall scheme of things, not the type of scrutiny is deserves so it can be improved one way or the other.
The present diminishing oil crisis (at this writing, oil is around $80 a barrel, a bargain in today’s world) once again shoves Amtrak away from the public consciousness. We can only hope the public will continue to demand more passenger rail options and governments on every level will embrace the progress which comes with new passenger trains arriving and departing on a daily basis.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA