President Obama on Thursday, April 16, released an unprecedented long-term strategic plan to advance U.S. high speed rail development, beginning with the $8 billion “down payment” provided through the Administration’s recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, augmented by $1 billion per year for five years in budget appropriations.
"Make no little plans," the President said at a nationally televised news conference as he presented a plan—centered on rail—for the future of U.S. transportation. It would begin with upgrading existing rail lines—a foundation, so to speak—and then progress to building dedicated high speed corridors, as has been done elsewhere in the world. In great detail and with an almost startling breadth of knowledge about the high speed industry, he talked about the many benefits of high speed rail, among them the convenience of center city to center city travel and relief from highway and air travel congestion.
“If we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do alittle bit more,” Obama said. “We have to build a new foundation for our future growth.” Citing congested highways and air routes, as well as being “at the mercy of fluctuating gas prices,” he noted that high speed rail wasn’t “some fanciful pie-in-the-sky vision of the future; it is now. It is happening right now; it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”
Joined by Vice President Joe Biden (who would not have been able to conceal his enthusiasm, even if he tried) and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the President pointed to the 10 rail routes identified for high speed rail development, defined (in U.S. terms) as capable of 110 mph speeds (see map, below). The 10 include:
1. California Corridor (Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego)
2. Pacific Northwest Corridor (Eugene, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver BC)
3. South Central Corridor (Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock)
4. Gulf Coast Corridor (Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta)
5. Chicago Hub Network (Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville)
6. Florida Corridor (Orlando, Tampa, Miami)
7. Southeast Corridor (Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Macon, Columbia, Savannah, Jacksonville)
8. Keystone Corridor (Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh)
9. Empire Corridor (New York City, Albany, Buffalo)
10. Northern New England Corridor (Boston, Montreal, Portland, Springfield, New Haven, Albany).
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which operates at top speeds of 150 mph, isn’t identified as one of the 10, but the Department of Transportation did note “opportunities for the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to compete for funds to improve the nation’s only existing high speed rail service.”
Administration officials said they will take a collaborative approach to formulate HSR programs, including working with stakeholders to gather feedback to advance given routes.
The program divides projects eligible for funding into “first round” candidates “that can be completed quickly and yield measurable, near-term job creation and other public benefits, and “next round” items “to include proposals for comprehensive high speed programs covering entire corridors or sections of corridors.”
Within the latter group, California’s proposed $44 billion, 700-mile HSR system is deemed likely to receive significant federal support, since the Golden State has committed almost $10 billion of its own funds to advance the project.
Observers pointed out that Obama’s support for U.S. passenger rail development has exceeded that of any other U.S. president in recent times. Some had expected the President to allow Vice President Biden, a frequent Amtrak traveler and longtime passenger rail supporter, to handle any such program by himself, but Obama has continued to give direct input into U.S. HSR efforts.
The freight railroad response to the President's announcement was positive but cautious. "The high speed rail plan . . . iswelcome news for all Americans," AAR said in a statement. "We applaud the President's leadershipin recognizing the importance of rail to the future of our nation'stransportation network. As members of the OneRail Coalition, we support expanded use of bothfreight and passenger rail in this country. Luckily, those goals arenot mutually exclusive as many of the tracks over which our passengertrains operate are owned by the freight railroads. However, it isessential that improvements aimed at developing high speed passengerroutes do not ignore freight rail’s need to move our nation’s goods. . . . America has the best freight railroad system inthe world; there is no reason why we can't have the best passenger railsystem as well. We look forward to working with the Administration,Congress, and the states to see that the promise of expanded freight andhigh speed passenger rail is realized."
Testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation on April 2, BNSF chief executive Matt Rose (lower right), a supporter of the OneRail Coaltion, said that, with significant upgrades, "it is possible toincrease speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph on tracks that both freight andpassenger trains use. At sustained speeds in excess of 90mph, passenger train operations will need to be segregated from freightoperations on a separate track."
To see the President's televised press conference, CLICK HERE. Vice President Biden, a long-time staunch passenger rail supporter and daily rider on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor during his entire Senate career, provided opening remarks. To see Biden's remarks, CLICK HERE.
—Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor, with William C. Vantuono, Editor
Seeking to capture a significant portion of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money targeted for high speed rail, eight governors from Midwest states have written Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for $3.5 billion to be applied to regional rail upgrades.
The state leaders envision establishing a regional network, with Chicago as the hub, operating trains at relatively modest “high” speeds up to 110 mph serving three routes terminating at Detroit, St. Louis, and Madison, Wis. (mostly likely via Milwaukee). Future extensions would include links to Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.
Amtrak at present serves each city (except Madison), with multiple frequencies linking Chicago with St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Train speeds often are limited to 79 mph, though one short stretch on the Chicago-Detroit route has been upgraded to 110 mph standards.
Governors from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin co-signed the letter to LaHood.
Union Pacific and Progress Rail Services are preparing to test a low-emission intermediate-haul locomotive at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Tex. Testing, which the companies claim is a first for intermediate-haul locomotives, is scheduled to begin later this month.
A Union Pacific SD40-2 locomotive, originally built in the 1970s, has been repowered with a 3,005-hp Caterpillar low-emission, clean-diesel engine, model 3516C-HD, designed to surpass EPA Tier 2 locomotive emissions requirements. The engine incorporates advanced emission control technologies that have been tested successfully in a laboratory setting and will be tested for service on intermediate-haul routes.
UP and Progress Rail Services say the engine initially will be field-tested in a controlled local application to closely monitor its performance and durability over the testing period.
CSX Corp. led off first-quarter earnings reports for the Class I railroads Tuesday, April 14, and as expected reported a profit decline, down 30% from the first quarter of 2008. Revenue fell 17% to $2.25 billion. But CSX still beat Wall Street consensus estimates, logging earnings of $246 million, or 62 cents per share, for the quarter; analysts anticipated 51 cents per share on revenue of $2.26 billion.
CSX acknowledged that volume was down across all segments, as construction and consumer-related markets remained weak; auto and auto parts shipments were particularly hard hit, down 53% from the year-ago quarter.
The company said it cut its operating expenses by 17%, and also noted fuel costs fell by $250 million due to both lower fuel prices and shrinking volume.
“Freight revenues at the rail division (CSXT ) were down 16% to just under $2 billion as a 2.5% improvement in average revenue per carload was no match for 19% decline in volumes,” said Jason Seidl, director at Dahlman Rose & Co. (and a Railway Age contributing editor). “Operating profits fell just 12% as CSXT was able to improve its operating ratio by 130 basis points.” By contrast, CSX Intermodal suffered a 22% revenue decline for the first quarter. “This suggests to us that CSXI has had to resort to cutting rates in an attempt to remain competitive with the very aggressive trucking market,” Seidl said.
“With the rail industry trying to cope with the most drastic volume declines in recent history, we believe management will focus on how they are attempting to cut costs in its attempt to right-size the rail network,” Seidl said.
CSX Chairman, President, and CEO Michael Ward, in a statement, said, "In this economic downturn, CSX is focusing sharply on the things that are more within our control—safety, customer service and productivity.” He added, “We are taking tough actions to right-size our operations in this challenging environment."
In Wednesday morning trading, CSX shares rose 10%, to $31.23.
Hatch Mott MacDonald (HMM) said Tuesday it has signed a contract with the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon(TriMet) to provide preliminary engineering services for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project--East Segment, extending Portland’s ever-growing LRT from SE 8th Avenue in Portland to the suburb of Milwaukie, in neighboring Clackamas County. A notice to proceed is expected this week.
As prime consultant, Hatch Mott MacDonald will lead a project team of 16 subconsultants to deliver preliminary engineering, civil engineering, light rail trackway design, traffic engineering, structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, architectural/urban design, public utility relocation design, environmental, and permit coordination services for the 7.3-mile extension. Constructionon the new MAX line could begin in 2011 and be completed by 2015.
Paul Heydenrych, P.E, HMM’s area manager for Oregon and Southwest Washington, will serve as project manager. Heydenrych has more than 30 years experience managing large transportation design and construction programs. His work experience in the Portland area includes providing project controls and construction management support services for the Westside MAX light rail extension as part of the consultant team hired by TriMet.
"We are delighted to be selected for this important expansion of Portland's light rail system,” said John Townsend, executive vice president and head of operations in the western U.S. for Hatch Mott MacDonald.
Facing a $160 million deficit, the Massachusetts BayTransportation Authority (MBTA) is waiting for a rescue plan from the state legislature before it goes forward with its annual approval of money of replace and maintain subway cars and buses as well as rail infrastructure. The board delayed a scheduled vote on April 13.
MBTA's ongoing capital investment plan, mostly to maintain "state of good repair" with only 2% designated for expansion, would require the borrowing of $1 billion to support this year's planned $3.9 billion program.
One board member, asserting that "this is the most highly leveraged transit system in the United States," was quoted as saying: "We just cannot afford to borrow an additional million."
While it waits for the legislature to make a final decision on a proposed increase in the gasoline tax to help pay for transit improvements, the agency is considering rail, rapid transit, and bus service cuts that have been called "potentially drastic."
Amtrak reports that it carried 1,849,000 passengers in February, down nearly 8.87% from the 2,029,000 carried in February 2008. On-time performance improved to 82.3% this year from 72.1% in February 2008.
Ticket revenue was down 10.7% to $106,387,000 compared to February of last year.
In the first five months of the current fiscal year, which began last Oct. 1, Amtrak carried 10,878,000 riders, down nearly 2% from the corresponding period in the prior fiscal year. On-time performance improved to 77.4% from 72.6%.
Ticket revenue for the fiscal year so far was $657,281,000, 2.36% below revenue for the prior-year period.
Dwayne Meadows, a bridge supervisor for Norfolk Southern, has won the 2009 Dr. Gary Burch Memorial Safety Award. The award honors individuals who have “significantly enhanced rail passenger safety,” according to the family of Dr. Burch and the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), which announced the honor Tuesday.
“Our family is pleased to present this award to Mr. Meadows,” said Bette Burch, widow of Dr. Burch, who died in a passenger rail derailment in 1991; the Burch family established the $1,000 award in 1994. “We are gratified that Norfolk Southern has joined the ranks of those submitting nominations, and that its first nomination was this year’s winner. We give particular consideration to the workers in the field who make safety happen on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Meadows perfectly fits this description.”
Meadows, a 31-year veteran at NS, has supervised numerous groups and “garnered a sterling safety record. The bridge gangs he supervises have gone 19 years--working on high-traffic freight and Amtrak routes--without a Federal Railroad Administration reportable injury,” NARP said.
Meadows, of Altoona, Pa., actively has pursued improvements to Amtrak's station platforms on NS rights-of-way in Pennsylvania, according to NS Vice President C.J. Wehrmeister, who submitted Meadows’ nomination. “He replaced plywood with sturdier materials that reduce ice-buildup in all the platforms between Harrisburg and Latrobe; at Greensburg he removed the platform that allowed passengers to cross the tracks rather than using a pedestrian tunnel; and he has consistently displayed a willingness to respond to problems at stations outside of his district; all to ensure the safety of passengers,” Wehrmeister said.
House Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), an ardent supporter of streetcars and light rail transit, has drafted the “Fast Starts Program Act of 2009,” designed to recapture “Small Starts” funding that Blumenauer and others say has been largely diverted to Bus Rapid Transit projects instead.
Language in the draft bill bluntly declares, “A delay in authorizing grants under the Small Starts program has created a backlog of streetcar projects requiring attention outside of that program.”
The bill also takes pains to specifically identify the given mode, stating “the term ‘streetcar project’ means a new fixed guideway capital project that is electricity and rail based.”
As reported in the February issue of Railway Age, in recent years the Federal Transit Administration, encouraged by the Bush Administration, touted Bus Rapid Transit as an alternate, less costly “fixed guideway” mode that small urban areas could more readily afford.
Bluemenauer’s office also is drafting a revised “Small Starts” bill for the current congressional session, the “Federal Streetcar Revitalization Act of 2009,” which would increase the amount of federal funding support available to potential streetcar projects. The draft legislation emphasizes economic redevelopment potential, land use, and other environmental impacts, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—language that may be targeted specifically toward thwarting use of funds by diesel bus options.