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In a report characterized by Washington Area Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board Chairman Peter Benjamin as “withering,” former WMATA General Manager David Gunn  (pictured at left) says it will take three years for a new management team to turn around the agency’s accident-plagued Metrorail rail transit system—the nation’s second busiest—that serves the capital city.

 

david-gunn.jpgThe board hired Gunn, 72, an industry veteran who served as Metro general manager from 1991 to 1994, “to diagnose Metro’s ills and outline solutions” and “to provide an analysis on the current status of Metro, identify issues of concern, and recommend corrective actions to alleviate the identified concerns.”

 

Gunn’s report “was more than frank, it was withering," Benjamin said after hearing Gunn’s oral assessment at a board meeting. “He gave us a very clear, very honest, unvarnished-truth type of assessment, and told us we have a lot of issues we have to deal with, and we have to deal with them immediately.”

 

Gunn’s report comes as Metro faces an unprecedented number of safety investigations into deadly accidents (such as last year’s Red Line wreck, pictured, that killed nine, attributed to a failure of the automatic train control system); instability and vacancies in its senior management; and growing deficits in its operating and capital budgets, including a projected $190 million gap in its $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.

 

A summary of the report released March 11 by WMATA said Gunn urges speedy recruitment of a new general manager with a strong operating and technical background, along with the “hiring and retaining” of senior managers with solid engineering experience. He also urges the troubled agency to “level with the public regarding the seriousness of the problems facing Metro,” and he called for an end to a “shoot the messenger” culture that discourages employees from reporting safety problems.

 

The report followed by exactly one week Federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff’s call for a “top to bottom” change in the way Metro handles safety issues. Reporting the findings of a safety audit prepared for Congress, Rogoff called Metro’s Safety Department “dysfunctional and ineffective.”

 

wmata-wreck.jpg“Mr. Gunn’s recommendations will help the board move forward in working with Interim General Manager Richard Sarles and it will help us select the next permanent general manager to head the transit agency,” said Board Chairman Benjamin. Sarles will arrive on March 29.

 

According to the summary, Gunn’s recommendations include these:

 

“Create a workplace where safety is openly discussed, problems are reported and solved, and all employees, supervisors, and managers know they can ask for help without fear. Provide all employees with the training and knowledge required to be safe and ensure the system is safe;

 

“Avoid service cuts to Metrorail; recognize cost recovery of 80% on rail and 35% on bus. Manage rail fare increases realistically to minimize ridership losses. Allocate financial resources based on the system’s operating and capital needs. Educate the public about financial realities: this trend cannot continue.

 

“Increase direct reports to the general manager for better control and strengthen senior management. Merge engineering and maintenance functions around systems (examples: signals, power, track).

 

“Create an organization with clear responsibility centers. Develop with key managers realistic, quantifiable goals tied to capital and operating budgets and hold managers accountable. Link personnel allocations more closely to the budget, goals, and objectives.

 

“Monitor monthly reports to assure goals are being met (examples: miles of track, ties, fasteners, joints, and turnouts replaced).

 

“Recruit a permanent general manager with a strong operating and technical background; the quality of the next general manager will significantly affect the ability to hire competent senior managers. Recruit experienced senior managers with engineering experience to fill many currently open positions. Hire and train qualified staff to address the maintenance backlog.

 

“Overcome the negative impact of reductions in force and early retirements.  Stop using hiring freezes to control the budget. Introduce a new reporting regimen so that quantifiable goals are tied to the capital and operating budgets. Prioritize capital and operating budgets by asset class (ex: bus procurement, rail replacement, ties, etc.)

 

“Accelerate track and car maintenance, cleaning, and replacement. Clean tunnels and stations, necessary for equipment reliability and safety. Generally increase maintenance programs.”

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At a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., Amtrak officials said ridership for the first fiscal quarter of 2010 (Oct.-Dec. 2009) was up over the comparable period in FY09, when ridership declined due to recession. But the first quarter also trumped its first-quarter FY08 counterpart; Amtrak notched record ridership in the 12 months of FY08.

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“Ridership and revenue are ahead of plan,” said Amtrak Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Joe McHugh, addressing members of the Railway Supply Institute assembled to exchange ideas on Amtrak’s supply needs.

McHugh noted FY10 ridership so far also was strong throughout the Amtrak system. Responding to a question on Northeast Corridor performance, McHugh said Amtrak now commanded 65%-to-66% of the combined air/rail market between New York and Washington, D.C.  More surprising to some attending was the gains made by the NEC between New York and Boston; McHugh said Amtrak now held “50%-to-51% of the air/rail market” there.

The information exchange came as Amtrak and the supplier industry discussed the promises and problems involved in acquiring rolling stock and other supplies for future service improvements and expansion, and the best approach for both the passenger carrier and the supplier community to secure such improvement.

The need for rolling stock, in particular is becoming critical: Consultant Rob Edgcumbe, assisting Amtrak’s Operations Department, noted that the carrier’s current operating fleet has “an average age of over 25 years—the highest in Amtrak history, even older than the 1971 average,” when Amtrak inherited used passenger equipment from numerous railroads. 

--> At a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., Amtrak officials said ridership for the first fiscal quarter of 2010 (Oct.-Dec. 2009) was up over the comparable period in FY09, when ridership declined due to recession. But the first quarter also trumped its first- ...

The Association of American Railroads has announced that Thomas L. Farmer will join its Safety & Operations department staff as assistant vice president, security, effective April 5, 2010. Farmer will be responsible for heading the industry’s efforts to continue to provide safe, efficient transportation of goods through the freight rail system in coordination with the various federal agencies overseeing freight rail security.

Farmer most recently served as acting general manager, mass transit, for the Transportation Security Administration, where he spent six years in a variety of TSA-rail related positions beginning as senior counsel-intermodal programs.

“We are delighted that Tom will be joining the AAR team. The railroads have an absolute commitment to maintain the highest standards with our security program.  Tom’s unique background and experience will provide real value as we continue to expand the industry’s work in the field of security,” said Edward Hamberger, AAR president and CEO, in a statement.  

--> The Association of American Railroads has announced that Thomas L. Farmer will join its Safety & Operations department staff as assistant vice president, security, effective April 5, 2010. Farmer will be responsible for heading the industry’s effort ...

Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation have released a feasibility study for a possible intercity rail passenger service to link Kansas City and Fort Worth, Tex., thorough an extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which currently links Fort Worth with Oklahoma City.

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Four alternatives were studied. One option, a daytime train linking Fort Worth and Kansas City’s Union Station in 12 hours, showed the bes tridership potential.

Amtrak currently operates in Union Station; other Kansas cities to be served by the extension include Topeka and Lawrence (both currently servedby Amtrak’s Southwest Chief), Emporia, and Wichita.

The state legislature must evaluate the options before Kansas officials seek state and federal funding. Any decision would also needbacking from Oklahoma and Texas. The state legislature has advanced legislative approval for the effort, which would authorize KDOT to enter into a passenger rail agreement. The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. Mark Parkinson.

--> Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation have released a feasibility study for a possible intercity rail passenger service to link Kansas City and Fort Worth, Tex., thorough an extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which currently link ...

British-based Nomad Digital has signed a £1.5 million ($2.3 billion) contract with Swiss train manufacturer Stadler Bussnang AG to equip 50 new FLIRT trains with its high speed broadband communications system for Norwegian State Railways (NSB).

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Nomad said it already provides NSB (Norges Statsbaner) with services on its existing trains, including passenger Internet access and onboard entertainment.  Numerous innovative applications will beincluded on the new fleet of Stadler FLIRT electric trains, Nomad said. NSB will use Nomad’s system to monitor energy usage, while Stadler will use the system to monitor on-train systems to support on-going maintenance.

Nomad’ssystem provides a seamless broadband connection of up to 5MB per second, allowing a moving train to switch between a number of different Norwegian mobile operators. NSB passengers are able to access a portal page for real time journey and key destination information. The portal also offers a sophisticated passenger information system, access to the Internet, and entertainment such as films, games, and music.

Nomad Executive Chairman Nigel Wallbridge said: “This deal with Stadler and NSB represents another breakthrough for Nomad Digital. We are delighted to be an integral part of anew build train. NSB is a train operator that has a clear policy of using IP data connections to the train for many purposes.  Not only do we offer a range of sophisticated passenger service options but NSB also makes savings on energy usage, maintenance turnaround times, and downtime.”

Kjell-Arthur Abrahamsen, NSB project manager, said “NSB haveevaluated a wide range of suppliers in the market before we concluded that the Nomad was the best overall. In particular, we emphasize Nomad’s expertise to deliver forward-looking solutions based on standardized components.”

--> British-based Nomad Digital has signed a £1.5 million ($2.3 billion) contract with Swiss train manufacturer Stadler Bussnang AG to equip 50 new FLIRT trains with its high speed broadband communications system for Norwegian State Railways (NSB). ...
The Association of American Railroads reported Thursday that freight volume on U.S. railroads continues to show signs of recovery, with both carload and intermodal traffic registering gains from last year during the week ended March 6. ...
RailAmerica, Inc., reported that its total freight carloads for the month ended February 28, 2010 were 66,409, up 1.4% from 65,488 in February 2009. These results exclude the discontinued Ottawa Valley Railway operation. ...

Oscar Munoz, CSX Corp. chief financial officer, told a J.P. Morgan conference in New York Tuesday that the railroad is moving toward “double-digit” earnings growth this year, a forecast based on a combination of traffic growth and price increases of at least 4% to 5%.

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Munoz said traffic was up 3% in this year's first nine weeks. Intermodal, which accounts for 34% of CSX business, was up 12%, and general merchandise, which accounts for 37% of the total, was up 7%. While coal, which brings in 24%, was down 17% year-to-date, Munoz said he expected coal to end up well in the plus column by year’s end, driven partly by China’s rising metallurgical coal needs.

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Deborah H. Butler. Norfolk Southern’s executive vice president of planning and chief information officer, told the conference that freight volume on NS was up 6% year-to-date. General merchandise is up 14% and intermodal volume is up 8%, though coal volume remains down 8%. Her presentation dealt mainly with capacity growth plans involving several high-volume corridors NS is developing in partnerships with federal and state governments; altogether, she said, NS will devote more than one-fourth of a $1.4 billion capital spending program to growth projects.

Munoz examined the trends behind the growth now forecast and described how the railroad will respond.

Gross Domestic Product is expected to grow 3.0% this year, with industrial production rising 4.3%. Last year, GDP fell 3.4% and industrial production was down 9.7%.

A more efficient railroad is in place to move the returning traffic, said Munoz, which means that “as volume builds, resources will return less than 1-for-1.”

These are the idle resources now available to CSX:

* Train & Engine employees furloughed now add up to1,529, 14% of the total.

* Locomotives in storage total 407, 10% of the fleet.

* Freight cars stored—15,864—represent 20% of the total.

 

 

--> Oscar Munoz, CSX Corp. chief financial officer, told a J.P. Morgan conference in New York Tuesday that the railroad is moving toward “double-digit” earnings growth this year, a forecast based on a combination of traffic growth and price ...

The Association of American Railroads said Wednesday that carload traffic for 14 of the 19 major commodity groups was higher last month than in February 2009. Excluding coal carloads, which were down 9.9%, U.S. carloads in February 2010 were up 7.2% over February 2009.

Intermodal traffic was up 10.1% in February compared with the same month last year, though down 10.6% from the same month in 2008.

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“Rail traffic trends over the past few months, especially when you take out coal, are consistent with a slowly recovering economy,” said John Gray, AAR’s senior vice president of Policy and Economics. “Other economic indicators taken as a whole seem to be saying the same thing. Is a sustained recovery a sure thing? No, not yet, but prospects are certainly much brighter now than they were four or five months ago.”

Gray said the last week of February was the highest-volume week for U.S. rail carloads since December 2008, at least partly due to “catchup” traffic following record snowstorms earlier in the month.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, rail carloads in February fell 0.1% compared with January 2010, while seasonally adjusted U.S. intermodal traffic was down 3.6% in February compared to the prior month.

“Adjusting for seasonal issues that cause peaks or valleys in traffic—such as end-of-year holidays and the fall grain harvest—allows us to see more clearly the strength or weakness of the underlying demand for rail traffic,” Gray noted. “Over the past six months, the upward trend in seasonally adjusted rail traffic indicates an increase in underlying demand.”

--> The Association of American Railroads said Wednesday that carload traffic for 14 of the 19 major commodity groups was higher last month than in February 2009. Excluding coal carloads, which were down 9.9%, U.S. carloads in February 2010 were up ...

Railway Age magazine Wednesday named Greenville & Western Railway Co. LLC the 2010 Short Line Railroad of the Year, and the Northern Plains Railroad its 2010 Regional Railroad of the Year. The awards will be presented at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday evening, May 4.

“This year’s two winners not only excelled despite economic turmoil; they found ways to take advantage of it and to prosper,” says Railway Age Publisher Robert P. DeMarco. “The award winners both had a vision and a plan, and not only reassured existing customers on their lines but actively courted new ones with strong marketing efforts. Combined with the cooperation and coordination with their respective Class I partners, the winners cultivated customer relationships, invested in infrastructure and property assets, and kept tabs on the growing market for ‘green’ growth, which the U.S. railroad industry is ideally positioned to leverage.”

Greenville, S.C.-based Greenville & Western Railway runs 12.74 miles through Anderson County; the company acquired the route from CSX in 2006, inheriting online traffic of fewer than 100 carloads annually. Intensive work on right-of-way, and a strategic purchase of 38.3 acres to encourage storage facilities for oil and ethanol products, helped propel the short line’s volume to 1,872 revenue carloads in 2009—an increase of 130% over a two-year period.

Besides being recognized by Railway Age, GRLW this year also is being honored by CSX Transportation at the Class I railroad’s 2010 Short Line Workshop for notching the largest percentage of growth, on a line-haul basis, between 2008 and 2009.

Fordville, N.D.-based Northern Plains Railroad, the 2010 Regional Railroad of the Year, began operations in 1997, currently leasing 388 miles of track in North Dakota and Minnesota from Canadian Pacific Railway. NPR is a key player in moving the region’s agricultural products, particularly grain, to market, positioning the railroad for potential ethanol market opportunities. But NPR’s “green” growth already includes wind energy component traffic, a joint business arrangement with Union Pacific Railroad. NPR interfaces with Canadian Pacific and with BNSF.

Mother Nature in 2009 didn’t reward NPR for its environmental efforts, however; extensive flooding during the spring of 2009 caused by the Red River forced the railroad to suspend service for 26 days and took a toll on revenue and customer service. Despite that, the regional railroad ended the year nearly equaling its carload traffic record, and the railroad anticipates resetting its record books this year.

Both Greenville & Western Railway, the Short Line Railroad of the Year, and the Northern Plains Railroad, the Regional Railroad of the Year, will be featured in Railway Age’s April 2010 issue.

--> Railway Age magazine Wednesday named Greenville & Western Railway Co. LLC the 2010 Short Line Railroad of the Year, and the Northern Plains Railroad its 2010 Regional Railroad of the Year. The awards will be presented at the American Short L ...
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