RUN Conference Highlights National IssuesWritten by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
At an on-line conference on Friday, April 28, a number of regionally and nationally known presenters focused on expanding passenger rail in the Mid-Atlantic region and connectivity in that part of the nation. The theme of the conference was “Good Connections: Why the Northeastern Rail Network is Important to the Entire U.S.” and it featured presentations on efforts to bring more trains to Pennsylvania and other places in the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as on issues that pertain to passenger trains and transit generally.
Portions of the conference also had a national character, as some attendees came from other parts of the country, and presenters focused on the national scene at the beginning and end of the conference. The event was sponsored by the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), a national organization that advocates for improvements on Amtrak, more rail transit, and better connectivity between services; and is concerned with everything on rails, from long-distance Amtrak trains, to all modes of local rail transit. Railway Age had a strong presence, too, with three of our regular writers making presentations.
RUN Chair Richard Rudolph kicked off the conference by introducing himself and RUN, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. He noted that RUN represents all riders who use trains and rail transit, and called for more investment in all of those modes. He expressed concern about the Amtrak long-distance network, and called for restoring trains on such historic routes as those of the Broadway Limited, North Coast Limited, Floridian, and Pioneer. He also called for extending the Heartland Flyer from its norther terminus of Oklahoma City to Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and adding the Rocky Mountain Flyer, a new train from El Paso to Montana through Albuquerque and Denver, proposed bya RUN Board member from New Mexico. He expressed his hope that Amtrak will be “obligated to expand” in the future. In the Northeast, he called for service to Bangor in his home state of Maine, and trains proposed by other conference presenters. He concluded by noting Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s objection to the current nominees for the Amtrak Board, all of whom are from the Northeast, and said that RUN is also concerned about representation for riders on the long-distance trains.
The Lackawanna Coalition, which represents riders in Northern and Central New Jersey, was the “advocacy host” for the conference, and Chairperson Sally Jane Gellert welcomed participants on behalf of that organization. She mentioned how she came to rail advocacy through longstanding participation in environmental advocacy, which she said “goes with rail.” She also mentioned advocacy for better mobility for seniors and riders with disabilities, which takes place in New Jersey through the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) at NJ Transit and noted that all three governing officers of that organization also belong to RUN and the Lackawanna Coalition. She also mentioned that both the Coalition and NJ Transit itself were founded in 1979, in response to the transit crisis that existed at that time in the Garden State. She mentioned the Coalition’s legislative activity, its website (www.lackawannacoalition.org) and its newsletter (the Railgram), and concluded by expressing concern about the impending loss of funding from the COVID relief statutes.
Railway Age‘s Editor-in-Chief Leads Off
It was then time for keynote presenter and Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono to make his remarks in that capacity. He started by mentioning that Railway Age is more than just a magazine; it’s “a 24-hour news service” with this web site, www.railwayage.com. He said that he is “an experienced observer of the industry,” noting 31 years’ experience and adding that he first rode the rails on the Newark City Subway, which is now part of NJ Transit’s Newark Light Rail.
Vantuono’s remarks concerned the national rail scene more than its regional or local components. He started his substantive remarks by mentioning that Brightline in Florida has just posted an “operating profit” (above the rails). He said: “This is proof that, if you build it, they will come” but cautioned that politicians could expect such “profitability” to be the normal state of passenger operations; a state of affairs that is rare anywhere in the world. Later in the conference, Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze identified the places where that happens as Tokyo, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Vantuono added: “A passenger railroad should be run like a business, even though it’s a public service.” He said that Brightline can serve as a model for development elsewhere; that good service includes frequency, on-time performance and attractive equipment, and Brightline has all three.
He reaffirmed what essentially all managers, planners, and advocates know: that “money is always the problem” but noted some bright spots; specifically electrification on the Caltrain Line that leads to San Francisco and on GO Transit’s lines in the Toronto area, but added that “Canada has the same political roadblocks as here in the U.S.” Regarding Amtrak, he restated two well-known facts: that the Northeast Corridor (NEC) is not profitable, and that it would be expensive to equip the line with constant-tension catenary. He also made a statement that echoes one made by many advocates over the years: “Amtrak is still trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be.” He noted that the long-distance trains are well-patronized and said that Amtrak President Stephen Gardner is “sincere.”
Vantuono concluded his remarks by contrasting this country with Europe, where high-speed rail is considered a point of national pride in France, but is called “a boondoggle” here and expressed his hope that it will catch on in this country, as well. He also expressed the hope that Keith Creel, head of CPKC, and Joe Hinrichs, the new head of CSX, will work with Amtrak for improvements and new services.
During Q&A, comments from two California attendees focused on high-speed rail in that state. David Schonbrun, an advocate from the Bay Area, called the current CAHSR project “a disaster” and said that his group had called for it to be shut down. Brian Yannity, a RUN Board member from Orange County, disagreed with Schonbrun and said that HSR could be funded by eliminating some freeway projects.
APTA’s “Policy Man”
The other keynoter was Arthur S. Guzzetti, Vice-President for Policy and Mobility at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). He said that he had spent half of his long career “in the field” and the other half in Washington. He was one of the original employees at NJ Transit when the agency started in 1979, and later spent time at Port Authority Transit (PAT) in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Both agencies are known for appearing on the credential sheets of many industry leaders. Regarding APTA, he said: “We are the voice of public transportation and intercity rail.” He then said that APTA’s roots go back to 1882, before electric streetcars were invented, and cars were pulled by horses or mules. He added that the problems facing transit providers today also faced them then: “pollution, congestion, and the cost of fuel.”
Guzzetti noted three transit milestones from December, 2022: San Francisco’s Central Subway, the Long Island Rail Road’s new terminal near Grand Central, and Metro Rail’s Silver Line, which now connects Washington, D.C. to Dulles Airport and suburbs in northern Virginia. He suggested celebrating transit’s successes, but added: “We’re in a battle to defend our gains.” He gave the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) high marks for “historic levels of funding” for infrastructure, but cautioned that the Act also presents a challenge from Congress to deliver new projects on time and within their budgets. He followed that advice with some cautionary words about Congress, saying that some House members are calling for spending cuts in light of the current debt-ceiling crisis, and that it will be difficult for transportation to escape the damage, if those cuts happen. Transportation is coupled with Housing & Urban Development (HUD, making the combination “THUD”), and there is a threat of cuts to housing programs. He called for reaffirmation of passenger rail through the appropriations process, and complimented the FRA’s Corridor ID Program. He hopes that a “new industry” can be built around expanding service, including firms like Siemens and Hitachi.
In his other remarks, Guzzetti noted the growth of true high-speed rail in Europe and elsewhere, including Morocco. He mentioned the Rail Safety Act of 2023 (S-576), which was introduced by Ohio’s senators in the wake of the recent wreck of a CSX freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. The bill would require defect detectors every ten miles on lines carrying hazardous materials, and two-person crews on freight trains. He noted that federal COVID-relief money is keeping transit going, and also mentioned that one of its effects is buying time for transit providers to come up with more state and local sources for funding. He said that 64% of transit funding comes from such sources.
Regarding Amtrak, Guzzetti said that there is demand for Amtrak services, that one third of Amtrak’s current riders are new to the railroad, but that Amtrak is having difficulty getting enough workers. He urged Congress to create a Passenger Rail Trust Fund, and described how Jim Howard, who was a House member from New Jersey, got Congress to give transit 20% of “Highway Trust Fund” dollars by threatening that highway funding would not be increased unless transit also got a share. In response to Guzzetti’s remarks about rail funding, New Orleans advocate Alan Drake suggested a property tax moratorium on infrastructure improvements that railroads make. In his comment, RUN Vice-Chair Andrew Albert asked how advocates can convince elected officials that transit is the “economic engine” that keeps local economies strong. Other presenters made suggestions later in the conference.
Expanding Pennsylvania Passenger Rail
The next three presenters focused on different initiatives to bring more trains to the Keystone State. All of them have been brewing for some time, but the potential of new funding from the IIJA (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL) has given advocates there and elsewhere renewed hope that their lines of concern might actually host passenger trains again, after decades without them.
The first Pennsylvania presenter was Thomas E. Frawley, a lawyer and Professional Engineer who is also Executive Director of the Schuylkill River Passenger Rail Authority. His agency is advocating for passenger trains between Philadelphia and Reading, which have not run since 1981. He began with a look at the history of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which started in 1833 and went from Philadelphia to Pottsville through Reading in its early days. He then described his agency, which has representatives from Berks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties; the counties outside Philadelphia where the Reading trains would run. The prospective route is mentioned in Amtrak’s ConnectsUS program, which aims to add new corridor-length routes between now and 2035. The SRPA has applied for funds through the FRA’s Corridor Identification and Development Program (CIDP) and has a three-step plan for restoring service between Norristown (where local SEPTA trains terminate) and Reading, including through-running to and from Philadelphia and eventually New York. The steps are developing the scope of the project, preparing the Service Development Plan (SDP;10% local match required), and engineering and design at the 30% level (20% local match required). The SDP will include finalizing the preferred alignment between Philadelphia and Reading, which will require some infrastructure upgrades, even though most of the line is rated for 79 mph (FRA Class 4).
Current plans call for intermediate stops at Norristown, Phoenixville, and Pottstown, and Frawley expressed interest in restoring service on other lines historically operated by the Reading Railroad, between Reading and Allentown (northeast) and Harrisburg (southwest). The agency is recommending push-pull operation for the Reading trains, but there was no mention of a start date. Other local advocates have suggested an extension to Pottsville after trains start running to Reading. This writer rode on all of the lines that Frawley mentioned on excursions shortly before the COVID-19 virus struck, and all were in condition that would support passenger trains without major track upgrades.
Larry Malski, also a lawyer, described his efforts to bring trains back to Scranton by rebuilding the historic Lackawanna Cutoff in western New Jersey (where the track was removed in 1984) and the Pocono Region of Pennsylvania (where the track must be upgraded to support scheduled passenger trains). Malski is President of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority, having held positions on the railroad in freight and passenger capacities from Yard Clerk to General Counsel (head of the Legal Department) over 53 years; 46 as an attorney. Much of his agency’s mission is to restore the rail infrastructure and it is applying for FRA corridor funding. The Cutoff route to Scranton is also mentioned in Amtak’s 2035 plan. Once trains run to Scranton again, Malski expects to see 473,000 riders and $84 million in economic benefits per year coming to the communities along the route.
He noted that all of the right-of-way for the line is now controlled by public entities, including existing track that now has service on NJ Transit. The other owners as his agency and PennDOT. He said that the project has political support in Congress and a the state level, and that the primary task at this time is pursuing NEPA and environmental clearances. Current plans call for three round-trips per day, with a running time of 2:50 between Scranton and New York, which would include some110-mph segments. He added that there might be additional local trains, particularly on the part of the route in New Jersey, where NJ Transit could run those trains. He also analogized his project to the Downeaster corridor between Boston and Maine, where ridership grew when trains returned after a decades-long absence.
The last scheduled train over the route was discontinued at the beginning of 1970, although there were a few specials during the 1970s, concluding with an Amtrak-operated test train in 1979. Chuck Walsh, who has advocated for the service since that time, said that the project “has stamina” and will be built. He added that, with the existing grassroots, local and state support, it will be “very hard to stop that train.” NJ Transit is currently restoring seven miles of the railroad to a future park-and-ride station, but that agency’s former plan to rebuild the line and run service on it never got any further than a study.
The last presenter from Pennsylvania was Mark Spada, President of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. His organization is advocating for more trains west of Harrisburg (where the Keystone Corridor ends) to Pittsburgh, on the route of Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian, and has done so since 1989. He started by noting that there were eight trains each day on the route (four in each direction) before Amtrak cut service in half when it started in 1971. There were two round trips per day from then until 2004, but there has been only the Pennsylvanian since then.
Spada said that there have been four studies suggesting adding service on the route since 2005, but no trains. He said that the remaining train does well at attracting riders, but that there are not enough trains on the route. He also said that frequency is more important than speed, and that more choices of departure time will bring more riders; a result that has been seen on other corridors. He added that both PennDOT and Norfolk Southern, which owns the track, have become more-supportive of allowing more passenger service lately. NS wants additional track in the Harrisburg and Altoona areas, as well as a bypass track at the Pittsburgh station, along with other station improvements. Spada mentioned that the train is actually the fastest way to get from Johnstown to Philadelphia; even faster than air travel. He concluded by saying: “These are some exciting times for passenger rail in Western Pennsylvania.”
The next presenter raised a cautionary issue about expanding transit; relating experiences from his home town of Baltimore. Samual Jordan, President of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, said that his organization was formed when plans to build the Red Line, a proposed light-rail line in the city, were canceled. He said that planning for the project began in 2002, and that he was an organizer in support of it from 2006 until its cancellation in 2015. He kept advocating for it and still does, even though construction is continuing on the Purple Line in the Maryland’s suburbs of Washington, D.C. He has always maintained that the Red Line would have performed better than the Purple Line.
Jordan specifically blamed former Gov. Larry Hogan for killing the Red Line project, and accused him of “racially discriminatory” policies. He said that Hogan had called the project “a boondoggle” but had not produced any studies to support that allegation. Jordan complained that much of the state’s funding goes to highways, and only about 2% goes to the Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA), which operates local transit in Baltimore, MARC trains to and from Washington, D.C., and commuter buses. Now that Hogan has left office and Gov. Wes Moore has succeeded him, Jordan hopes for better results, including “the first installment of a state buildout of an equitable and reliable transit system.”
”Making the Case”
RUN had planned a similar conference three years ago. It was to take place in Newark, but the COVID-19 virus struck, forcing it and all other RUN conferences since then onto solely a “virtual” format. This conference was supposed to be held in Newark, also, as the return of “in-person” conferences at RUN. It ended up being presented only on-line, too, as most registrants opted only for that format. The presenters changed over the years, but the two keynoters were the same, and we also held a panel that I moderated, about “Making the Case” for trains and, especially, for rail transit. I briefly mentioned the role of lawyers as advocates and journalists as part of the process of “making the case” to transit managers, business leaders, and elected officials. Then it was time to introduce the panelists.
The first was RUN Vice-Chair Andrew Albert, who is also Chair of the NYC Transit Riders’ Council and a Riders’ Representative to the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) Board. The MTA is a State agency and runs the subways and buses in New York City, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, as well as some bridges and tunnels between the boroughs and a capital construction arm. Albert began by praising the PCAC (Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee), where he had been Chair on a rotating basis, as one of the best legislatively-mandated advisory committees in the country. He added that he was frequently in a position to make corrections to information that was submitted to the MTA.
Albert specifically complained that, while the MTA’s component systems carry 40% of the nation’s transit riders, they only receive 16% of the federal aid for transit. He said that he is hoping for that situation to improve, but “making the case” to appropriate officials is part of the process before those improvements can happen. He advised his fellow advocates: “It’s really important that they know who you are, but but you really have to know your stuff.” He concluded by saying that engaging with elected officials and writing Op-Ed pieces for the local newspapers are two of the necessary activities.
The second presenter on the panel was a well-known transportation economist and fellow Railway Age Contributing Editor, Jim Blaze. He is also a consultant, who worked for many years at Conrail and at other agencies and private-sector corporations. He now advocates for seniors and transit riders with disabilities as a Vice-Chair of SCDRTAC at NJ Transit, and he believes in “the future of railroading as a competitive industry. He is primarily interested in the freight side, and says: “Only by occasionally challenging our institutions can we probe for better quality and performance.”
In his presentation, Blaze stressed making a good business case as a key component of advocating for better trains and transit to business leaders in the community. He began his presentation by saying: “As an economist, I have to look for balance” and added that he was a “supporter” of transit, rather than an “advocate” for it. He also noted the disparity in federal aid that Albert had mentioned concerning New York City and its suburbs, and cited “competition” and “a critical shortage or resources” as causes. He cautioned that, with domestic and foreign commitments, including to Ukraine, calls by Republicans to “balance the budget” could spell trouble for transit providers that need to invest in capital projects.
Regarding local projects, like the Gateway Program’s Portal North Bridge and Hudson Tunnel Projects, Blaze mentioned that it is necessary to look at the benefit stream from such projects on long-term GDP. He added that a long planning frontier diminishes the present value of any project from a planning standpoint, because delaying the projects increases their cost. He specifically questioned the lack of a reserve in NJ Transit’s budgeting process through 2026, especially since the federal aid for COVID-19 relief for transit that the agency received is due to run our in the middle of 2025. He rhetorically asked: “Would I invest in this company’s stocks and bonds?” and answered his own question in the negative, even though NJ Transit is in the public sector. He said the agency should have kept a 15 to 20% reserve beyond the COVID funds, and questioned NJ Transit’s assertion that ridership (and farebox revenue) will return to 80% of pre-COVID level by fiscal 2027. He does not expect such a strong recovery.
Blaze mentioned some projects elsewhere. He said that the rail tunnel under the English Channel (the “Chunnel”) was subjected to bankruptcy three times before it was built. He also mentioned that the cost of the California High-Speed Rail Project had increased to $130 billion, from the $40 billion estimated when the original Proposition 1A initiative was passed by the voters to fund the line. He said that most project proponents underestimate the time needed to complete the projects and the inflation that occurs during that time, and that the $100 billion needed for a mega-project is 20 times the amount needed to modernize and deepen the Panama Canal. He said that current plans to upgrade the NEC are similarly expensive, but filling a pressing need requires credible, stable funding sufficient to develop the business. Bay Area advocate David Schonbrun mentioned that commuting has changed in his area due to structural changes; an argument which this writer has also been making since July, 2020. Blaze said that the planning function must consider such changes, and that “You need a viable business plan to make the business case” for a project.
The third and last presenter on the panel was Mark Magyar, currently Director of the Sweeney Center for Policy at Rowan University. He had previously served as a policy advisory to both Democrats and Republicans in New Jersey, and spent many years as a journalist (winning the Garden State News Association’s “Hildy Johnson” award, named after the intrepid and fictitious reporter in Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play The Front Page) and some as a legislative staff member in Trenton.
Magyar started by advising advocates to follow a three-step process: find the few legislators who are involved with transportation issues, educate them on what the real issues are, and then reach out to other people and places for support. He said: “The line between advocates and transit writers is not well-defined” and specifically mentioned Larry Higgs, transit reporter on Newark’s Star-Ledger, and Colleen Wilson, who covers transit for the Gannett papers in New Jersey and Westchester.
He spent the rest of his presentation on funding for NJ Transit as a case study. Funding for the agency has been problematic for many years, especially since it does not have a “dedicated source” of money and has been relying on highway funding through the NJ Turnpike Authority (which also manages the Garden State Parkway) to keep its operations going.Magyar mentioned a tentative agreement in February, 2020 to dedicate a one-cent increase in the corporate income tax for the agency to raise $550 million, but the deal fell apart when the virus struck the following month. More recently, the agency has been relying on COVID relief, while the highway subsidy is slated to drop from $450 million to $100 million. Magyar added that the allocation of money for the Gateway tunnel between New Jersey and New York has not been decided yet. He also said that riders pay about 70% of the cost for running the trains, 40% for intercity buses, and only about 10% for local buses and light rail. He concluded by saying that the lame-duck period between legislative sessions is a good time to advocate; apparently leaving it to advocates elsewhere to evaluate his New Jersey case study and determine how to use it.
The first Gateway supporter was Craig Schulz, Director of External Affairs for the Gateway Program at Amtrak and a former journalist. He started with a general update about the NEC, saying that it is bringing “a new era for passenger rail.” He pointed to “a strong return of demand” and said that Amtrak had an environmental goal of “net zero” on the line by 2048. He added that, of the $66 billion for rail that was in the IIJA/BIL for the 2022-26 period, $36 billion has been fully authorized. He described the NEC as “an economic engine with 800,000 daily riders” but did not mention that most them use local railroads like NJ Transit and SEPTA, rather than Amtrak itself. He added that the region would lose $100 million in daily productivity if it lost the NEC as a transportation resource.
Schulz fetured a slideshow promoting Gateway, along with other Amtrak projects along the NEC, like the B&P Tunnel in Baltimore. He also mentioned leveraging private investment and transit-oriented development (TOD) near stations. In addition, he mentioned that new equipment is coming to the NEC and that Amtrak is hiring. He also said that NEC and National Network accounts are kept separate.
New Jersey advocate Ben Schumer (no relation to the senator) raised the issue of high fares on the NEC. Schulz replied that Amtrak has to keep the trains running, but mentioned the low “Night Owl” fares on the train that once had that name officially. Sally Jane Gellert suggested that Amtrak look toward integrating fares with those on local railroads that go over the same lines. It was not mentioned at the conference, but fares on Hartford Line trains and Amtrak shuttle trains (except for the Vermonter) are the same on trains between New Haven, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts.
Stephen Sigmund, Chief of Public Outreach for the Gateway Development Commission, and a longtime communications and marketing professional, started with an overview of the Gateway organization and said that the Phase I projects are the Portal North Bridge (in cooperation with NJ Transit) and Hudson Tunnel Projects. Those projects are slated to be built along 4.5 miles of a shared alignment east the Secaucus Junction station, including 1200 feel of Hudson River ground stabilization. Sigmund claimed that the projects would bring significant benefits to riders by reducing delays and warned that “a vital link is at risk” if the existing tunnel is closed (this writer reported extensively on the Gateway situation in a multi-part series before the COVID-19 virus struck, but the political situation under the Biden Administration has been more-favorable to the Gateway Program than those under the Trump Administration).
RUN Vice-Chair Andrew Albert asked about service improvements coming from the Gateway projects, but Sigmund answered that the project is about resiliency and redundancy, so the answer was no. Albert also asked if Sigmund was confident that the existing tunnels would last long enough to complete construction on the new ones (an issue reported in depth in Parts 8 and 9 of our 2019 Gateway series). Sigmund said that Amtrak is keeping the tunnels maintained, but did not address Albert’s question directly. He did say that the proposed tunnel would bring “robust, fast, reliable transit into and out of New York.”
Concerning changes in commuting since the virus struck, he said that workers were going back to the office, and that there has been “no rational conversation that says New York won’t come back.” He added: “You have to be able to get to it. That’s not a question now.” Since the virus struck, this writer and others have questioned assumptions about commuting and have claimed that there will be fewer five-day commuters at traditional peak-commuting hours in the future than there were before the COVID era began, and the grandiose development plan championed by Gov. Kathy Hochul and her predecessor Andrew Cuomo are now facing opposition that it never had before. As to Sigmund’s other statement, that you have to be able to get to the City, nobody seems to dispute it in general. Still, some dispute that Gateway as planned and currently implemented is less than optimal, given the changes that the virus ushered in, which could be permanent.
Attendees Have Their Say
After the conclusion of the presentations, there was a “customer forum”; a feature at RUN conferences. RUN Chair Richard Rudoph opened the session with an update on the situation in Maine, where he and other advocates are pushing for rail service beyond Brunswick (the end of the Downeaster line) to Augusta and Bangor, among other places. He complained that a legislative “work session” had been postponed, while the Bangor Daily News had run a story about the Legislature not supporting the rail project. He also complained that Maine’s transportation commissioner had come from the highway industry; a similar complaint to one made by rail advocates in many other states.
Scott R. Spencer, Operations Director of AmeriStarRail, which wants to run an expanded operation on Amtrak’s NEC and its branches, described his company’s proposal and showed a map of it (Railway Age reported on that plan on September 10, 2020). Spencer said that his plan would “help partner with Amtrak and improve their service.” He said AmeriStarRail would operate the NEC with “triple-class service” (which would include coaches on all trains), and replace the Amfleet equipment soon (which Amtrak plans to do over time, beginning in 2025). He complained that Amtrak only has a single-digit market share on city-pairs on the NEC, when automobile use is taken into account, and said that his company would run the network with increased frequencies, as well as new routes and stations. He also claimed that his plan “would expand Amtrak’s footprint in New York” by adding service to Hoboken.”
New York advocate Joseph M. Clift replied to Spencer by agreeing that “separate service for the elite” makes no sense, and to Sigmund that Gateway would not deliver any capacity gain until $25 billion had been spent. Californian David Schonbrun complained that bicycle interests are taking over rail lines (I reported on such a battle in Augusta, Maine on October 10, 2019) and praised rail advocates: “they have an application of the common good, and concluded with possibly one of the most-prescient statements of the day: “The ability to hand out transportation funding is the biggest perk that politicians have.”
Veteran Railroader Delivers Closing Remarks
Philip L. Streby, an Amtrak retiree with more than 40 years’ experience on the railroad, including at Amtrak and in the Army Transportation Corps, concluded the program. Streby is on the RUN Board, as well as that of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA). He prefaced his remarks by saying that he would “provide a different view from off the Corridor.”
He started by saying that we assume freight rail to be profitable, so decision-makers expect passenger rail to be profitable, too, or they won’t support it. He decried the loss of so much of the previously-existing track in this country, and called for it to be put back at public expense. He agreed with Mark Spada that speed is less-important than frequency of service, but stressed connectivity, which he said “provides for uninterrupted journeys.” He also said that, when describing projects or their progress, proponents should always tell the truth about them; including when they go awry.
In describing his own advocacy experience, Streby recommended courting the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) as an ally, if possible. He also advised against making assumptions about which legislators or other officials will oppose rail projects, merely on a partisan basis. He mentioned that he talked with Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican, and found him willing to be convinced about rail.
Streby agreed with many other advocates that credible, stable, and adequate funding was necessary for any new start, including enough to keep the line inn question going. He recommended using the term “investment” to distinguish it from the commonly-alleged “subsidy” and to back that claim with facts about what such an “investment” can do. As an example, he mentioned that running the Cardinal daily instead of only three times per week would generate an additional $19 to $29 million per year to local economies. He also said: “More choices [of departure times] makes ridership go up exponentially.”
As he began to conclude his presentation, Streby said to his fellow advocates: “We, ourselves, need to be better-educated advocates.” He said that advocates must speak, go to the media, and “make ourselves more visible.” He also advised: “Know what must be done to get a train on the tracks” and the cost of doing that. He called on advocates to “Show Amtrak that they need to expand and they can’t cut their way to prosperity.” He added that long-distance trains are rated on comfort, not speed, but he also related a recent incident when he was preparing to go to Washington, D.C. to participate in a “Day on the Hill” or two, to meet with members of Congress and their staffers to promote trains. He had to cancel the trip, because the PTC system on Amtrak went down, and his train was canceled. Lastly, he called on Amtrak to bring printed schedules back, so riders (or potential rides) would know where the trains go, so they can plan a trip. All in all, Streby brought a longtime railroader’s perspective to the conclusion of the conference, as well as bringing it back from regional to national orientation.
It was part of RUN’s original plan to hold the conference on Friday in Newark, followed by a Portugese dinner in that city’s famous ethnic neighborhood, the Ironbound. The Lackawanna Coalition also planned a pre-conference reception on Thursday, and there were elaborate plans for a transit tour on Saturday, featuring places where trains connect in New Jersey and New York City, along with a visit to the unique and famous New York Transit Museum and dinner at Junior’s; both in downtown Brooklyn.
Most of those events did not take place; canceled when the Conference Committee decided to present the event only on-line. Still, the transit tour actually occurred on Saturday. Due at least in large measure to the pouring rain, it was limited to places where NJ Transit trains and other services (bus, light rail, and other rail carriers like Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) and Amtrak) connect. Those places included Newark Penn Station, Newark Broad Street station, Hoboken Terminal, and Secaucus Junction station. The tour also included rides on several of NJ Transit’s rail and light-rail lines. The final ride ended at Penn Station, New York, where local advocate and former LIRR Planning Director Joseph M. Clift led a walking tour that covered Penn Station, including the new Moynihan Train Hall.
Because of the lack of an in-person session, there were no out-of-town advocates to attend the tour, and the rain apparently scared others off, but a number of Lackawanna Coalition and SCDRTAC members braved the weather and stuck it out. What they got in return was a detailed look at how everything connected between modes operated by NJ Transit, and between those modes and services provided by other carriers. Knowledge like that is always useful, especially when it comes to local rail advocacy.
It appears that, in all likelihood, RUN’s next conference will be a mini-conference, on line, in the fall.