The Las Vegas Monorail Co., though formed as a not-for-profit company, filed Wednesday with federal bankruptcy court due to falling ridership, attributed to the economic recession. The company oversees the roughly 4-mile elevated service connecting hotels on the Las Vegas Strip withthe Convention Center.
Since the overwhelming majority of North American public transit operations rely on some form of government support, the bankruptcy may be a telling indicator of how "private-sector" options, often advanced by those opposed to government support for rail and public transit, may nonetheless be vulnerable to fluctuations in economic conditions.
"The decline in the monorail's operations is tied directly to the decrease in gaming revenues in Nevada, and particularly along the Las Vegas Strip," Chief Executive Curtis Miles said in the courtfiling.
Operations will continue during the bankruptcy process, with no reduction in frequency of service or service hours anticipated. But the filing exposes bond insurer Ambac Financial Group Inc. to as much as $1.16 billion in liability, the filing said. Ambac Assurance Corp. insured $451 million of tax-exempt bonds used to finance Las Vegas Monorail's purchase of the rail line from MGM Grand-Bally's Monorail LLC in 2000, according to the filing.
Las Vegas Monorail’s largest creditor is Bombardier Transportation Inc., according to the court filing. The monorail owes $293,450 to Bombardier, which operates and maintains the trains. Other creditors listed in court documents include NV Energy, Allegiance Direct Bank, and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Subway cars ordered by the Toronto Transit Commission face unexpected delivery delays due to the bankruptcy late last year of Montreal-based Curtis Doors, a supplier to Bombardier Transportation, which is handling the car order.
TTC notes a prototype set of the new equipment originally was scheduled to be making test runs by this time. Current expectations are for the prototype equipment to begin operation in two-to-three months.
"Certainly the trains are delayed because of the issue with the doors," said TTC spokesman Brad Ross. TTC is urging Bombardier to deliver the trains as soon it can.
For its part, Bombardier acknowledges the delay “due to some issues and some lateness from some of our key suppliers, and I would not point fingers at anyone," said company spokesman Talal Zouaoui. "We're on a good track," he added.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager John Catoe says he plans to retire April 2, following three years heading WMATA, a span that included several high-profile safety-related incidents.
“I have decided that it is time for me to channel my future in new directions and provide this organization an opportunity to move beyond the current distractions,” Catoe said. “Good leaders know how to impact change. Great leaders know when it’s time for leadership change. I hope I fall into the latter category.” Said WMATA Board Chairman Jim Graham, “We appreciate his stewardship during this difficult time and we will miss his leadership. While we regret his decision, he continues to have the full confidence of the Board of Directors.” Graham said a search for a successor would begin promptly.
U.S. freight rail traffic in the early days of 2010 remained mired in the minus column when compared with the same period of 2009 and 2008, the Association of American Railroads reported Thursday.
The 236,796 carloads originated by U.S. railroads for the week ending Jan. 9 represented a decline of 12.4% from 2009, when the recession was already well under way, and a drop of 28% from the non-recession week of 2008.
The intermodal count--196,788 trailers andcontainers--was down 3.6% from a year ago and 17.4% from 2008.
Eleven of the 19 carload freight commodity groups were up from the same week last year, ranging from 5.5% for lumber and wood products to 94% for metallic ores. Declines ranged from 36.6% for crushed sand, stone, and gravel to 0.1 % for the "all other carloads" category.
Total U. S. rail freight volume for the week ending Jan. 9 was estimated at 25.5 billion ton-miles, down 12.4% from the same week last year and also down 25.9% from 2008.
Canadian railroads reported a weekly and cumulative volume of 67,333 cars for the first week of the year, up 20.4% from last year, and 43,033 trailers or containers, up 0.2% from 2009.
Mexican railroads reported a weekly and cumulative volume of 12,123 cars for the first week of the year, up 32.1% from last year, and 5,722 trailers or containers, up 44.4%.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says the DOT will ease the standards for spending economic stimulus funds in order to accelerate the construction of new transit projects. He specifically cited streetcar lines as candidates for such accelerated activity.
"We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities, and how it makes our communities better places to live in," said LaHood (pictured at left) in announcing the change Wednesday in a speech to the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.
He noted that the Bush administration devised a formula in 2005 to approve projects based mainly on transit times and costs. To this he would add "livability," measuring the effect of transportation choices on urban development and promoting a friendly environment.
Citing streetcar projects as one such option, LaHood said the federal government will soon award $1.5 billion in economic stimulus funds to "innovative" projects nationwide. This is in addition to $8 billion soon to be awarded to high speed passenger rail projects.
"More than 30 rail industry manufacturers and suppliers have promised to establish or expand their base of operations in the United States if they're chosen by the states to build America's new high speed rail lines," LaHood said.
LaHood also urged Congress to move head with a new jobs bill that includes major investments in transportation (including $800 million for Amtrak). Called the "second stimulus" bill, it passed the House of Representatives in December and is awaiting action in the Senate
The Association of American Railroads Wednesday said 2009 total carload traffic on U.S. railroads notched the lowest levels since at least 1988, when the AAR’s data series began. AAR’s January Rail Time Indicators report notes 2009 carload traffic was down 16.1% compared with 2008, and down 18.2% when compared with 2007.
AAR noted December carloads offered more mixed news. Though rail carloads were down 4.1% compared with December of 2008 and down 17.6% compared with December 2007, those declines were attributed mainly to declines in coal carloadings. Had coal been excluded, rail carloads would have been 6.9% higher in December 2009 than in December 2008. Moreover, 12 of the 19 major commodity categories tracked by the AAR saw higher carloads in December 2009 than in December 2008. U.S. rail intermodal traffic was down 14.1% compared with 2008, and down 17.7% compared to 2007. Last year saw the lowest intermodal traffic levels since 2002.
“Railroads are happy to have 2009 behind them,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John Gray. “Last year saw declines, most of them quite steep, in every major category of rail carload traffic as well as intermodal. However, we’re seeing signs that the economy is improving. We’re hopeful that 2010 will be a much better year for the economy and for railroads.”
The Rail Time Indicators report, available at www.aar.org, comprises monthly rail traffic data framed with other key economic indicators to show how freight rail ties into the broader U.S. economy. Both the monthly Rail Time Indicators report and a video summary are available on the AAR web site.
The California Northern Railroad (CFNR), a short line owned by Jacksonville, Fla.-based RailAmerica Inc., has converted its entire fleet to environmentally friendly locomotives with the addition of four new N-ViroMotive™ Gen-Set locomotives from National Railway Equipment Co. Funding for the purchase was available through California’s Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program, which covered 85% of the cost.
The new locomotives, which will be in service by mid-month, are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and meet its three-tier emission standard. NREC says they are designed to reducenitrous-oxide and particulate-matter emissions by 85%-to-90%. The new locomotives also are significantly quieter compared to traditional locomotives and achievethe most stringent regulatory low-decibel noise level requirements. CFNR will be retiring its remaining older model locomotives.
“Now that all five of California Northern Railroad’s locomotives are ultra-low emitting and more fuel efficient, having an average fuel savings of 20-to-30%, we are able to further reduce our carbon footprint while continuing to provide customers with efficient means of freight transportation,” said CFNR General Manager Don Seil.
“The public funding provided through the grant program made it financially feasible for CFNR to completely convert to energy-efficient locomotives in less than eight months. This successful private-public partnership allows us to ‘go green’ in the communities in which we operate while continuing to provide cost-effective and efficient service to customers,” said Seil.
The Federal Railroad Administration late Tuesday published its ruling for implementation of positive train control (PTC) on much of the nation’s major rail route map, including those routes where passenger and freight traffic comingle. The rule takes effect in March.
In its summary of a 475-page document, 49 CFR Parts 229, 234, 235, and 236 [Docket No. FRA-2008-0132, Notice No. 3], FRA said it was “issuing regulations implementing a requirement of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that defines criteria for certain passenger and freight rail lines requiring the implementation of positive train control (PTC) systems. This final rule includes required functionalities of PTC system technology and the means by which PTC systems will be.
“This final rule also describes the contents of the PTC implementation plans required by the statute and contains the process for submission of those plans for review and approval by FRA. These regulations could also be voluntarily complied with by entities not mandated to install PTC systems,” FRA said.
FRA asserted, “This is a final rule; however, FRA has identified specific provisions for which we are considering making changes to the final rule, if warranted by the public comments received. We expect to publish our response to those comments, including any possible changes to the rule made as a result of them, as soon as possible following the end of the comment period. However, the limited areas of this rule open for additional comment do not affect the requirement for railroads to prepare and submit plans in accordance with the deadlines established in this final rule.”
The new rule was spurred in large measure by the high-profile collision in September 2008 of a Metrolink passenger train with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., which killed 25 people. Also cited were the 1996 crash of two New Jersey Transit trains in Secaucus, N.J., and a 1996 Maryland Transit Administration train collision with an Amtrak train northwest of Washington, D.C. In late 2008, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandated PTC for large portions of the nation's rail network by 2015.
Amtrak is offered some leeway under the new rule, after it had noted that implementing PTC on some low-traffic rail routes could jeopardize state fiscal support for new services. The new rule also allows FRA to set a minimal exception to when freight lines have to install PTC for hauling hazmat loads.
But FRA appears to have rejected arguments against requiring a separate PTC screen display for each crew member in the cab.
Union Pacific Tuesday said it had achieved a record year of 1.25 million domestic intermodal shipments during in 2009 and, in addition, achieved a "Perfect Peak Season” for a second straight year by delivering 100% of United Parcel Service’s peak season freight without a sort failure.
Prior to 2009, UP’s highest domestic intermodal volume was 1.19 million shipments in 2007. The introduction of 43 new truck-competitive service products allowed UP to capture freight that previously moved over the highway, as well as earn additional business from The Hub Group, Pacer International, and other large intermodal customers.
During UPS’s 2009 peak season, originating the Tuesday following Thanksgiving and concluding on Christmas Eve, Union Pacific and UPS together overcame significant challenges during thisyear’s peak season, including record sub-zero temperatures and snow accumulations.
“More and more customers are recognizing the value Union Pacific brings to their businesses,” said John Kaiser, Union Pacific vice president and general manager-Intermodal. “We have the equipment, core lane offerings, and service products to provide a wide range of transportation solutions. Most importantly, we have the right people with the expertise and experience to address our customers’ specific needs.”
New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie has nominated James Weinstein to become New Jersey Transit's executive director, and named former Federal Transit Administrator James Simpson to become the state’s transportation commissioner. Christie announced his choices and introduced the duo Monday at a conference in Trenton, the state capital.
Christie also made it clear he intends not to raise New Jersey’s gasoline tax, among the lowest in the nation, to fund the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. But Christie also alluded to possible fare hikes for New Jersey Transit bus and rail riders.
"Our state is facing great fiscal difficulties, which is why I am pleased to have two individuals with extensive backgrounds in management, budgeting, and infrastructure," Christie said. "Both Jim Simpson and James Weinstein know the tough road ahead of us and have the strong credentials to handle the task at hand."
Weinstein, if approved by NJ Transit’s Board of Directors, would succeed NJT Executive Director Richard Sarles, who announced his intention to step down Monday. Weinstein was a senior vice president with AECOM, and served as a member of Christie's transition team. He also served as DOT commissioner from 1999 to 2001 under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Gov. Donald T. DiFrencesco. In 2002 Weinstein was Amtrak’s senior vice president-Northeast Corridor.
Simpson was with the Federal Transit Administration between 2005 and 2008 underthe Bush Administration. He also was a senior adviser to the U.S.transportation secretary and a commissioner with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Simpson said the department would explore "a whole host of options" for replenishing the state's depleted transportation trust fund but would not increase the gas tax. "We need to look beyond the gas tax at possible public-private partnerships and ways to cut costs," said Simpson, who must be confirmed by the full state Senate.