P. O. Box 1183
Mission, KS 66202-1183
Recommendations made for corridor and long-distance service challenges.
Releasing its yearly update to Amtrak's five-year strategic plan, Amtrak President David Gunn and other railroad industry representatives made new recommendations June 29 to address the growing needs and challenges of intercity rail service.
The plan – which has three components dealing with the existing national system, state-initiated intercity corridors and the national freight network - states that Amtrak is making steady progress on the existing system to achieve its state-of-good-repair objectives and is continuing to control operating expenses. The corridor strategy includes state proposals supported by Amtrak for specific passenger rail corridor development. The freight strategy contains recommendations to protect and upgrade key facilities owned by freight railroads. The corridor and freight recommendations require federal matching investment programs to meet these goals.
"The update to the five-year plan continues the effort we began last year to provide specific and precise details on exactly how every dollar is to be spent to bring the existing Amtrak system up to a state-of-good-repair," said Gunn. "However, states and the freight railroads face serious problems of capacity, congestion and reliability, and there is a growing consensus within the rail industry that we must come together to address these challenges."
To support the existing system, the five-year strategic plan calls for federal funding averaging about $1.6 billion. The majority of federal support is for capital improvements to the existing system and will be used to bring facilities and equipment up to a state-of-good-repair. Wreck repairs will be at 20 passenger cars and six locomotives yearly.
The Southwest Chief has one of the highest ratings of all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains in customer satisfaction. The train is rated at 82- higher than Amtrak’s 81overall rate and the 79 rating for long-distance service. The Texas Eagle is at 80, Sunset Limited, 67, California Zephyr, 83, Coast Starlight, 81. The Heartland Flyer, which runs from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth over part of the former Lone Star/ Texas Eagle route, is at 95.
The trains were rated by customers on a number of factors, including smooth/comfortable ride, cleanliness of train windows, information given on problems/ delays, on-time performance, value of service for price paid, and quality and freshness of food.
The Southwest Chief’s lowest customer rating — 68— came in the clarity of announcements category. Its highest ratings – at 84 - were in trip information prior to boarding and friendliness and helpfulness of food personnel. It also scored high in availability of food and quality and freshness of food— 83. The route’s friendliness/ helpfulness of boarding station personnel garnered the train an 80 rating.
Chicago – St. Louis corridor is among the Tier 1 corridors that meet criteria for readiness for immediate development to increase speeds and provide more frequent service. Chicago – Milwaukee –Madison, Wis., is the other Midwestern corridor in the tier. The corridors have the full support of state and local policymakers and have detailed capital and operating plans. The only thing missing is the availability of a federal match, Gunn said.
The problem of increasing railroad congestion, deferred maintenance and lack of capacity is reflected in the growing number of delays to passengers on long-distance and corridor trains, Gunn said.
Passenger ridership through the first eight months of FY '04 is 16.2 million, up 6% over the same period last year. From February to May '04, the railroad has sustained four consecutive months of all-time record ridership. Should the trend continue through the end of the fiscal year, ridership will exceed 25 million passengers for the first time.
Through the first seven months of FY '04, the railroad was $61.4 million favorable to budget on an operating loss of $397 million. Despite Amtrak's accomplishments over the past two years, Gunn warned that substantial risks still exist. The whole network would be jeopardized if it is underfunded or suffers a major system failure, he said.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers endorsed Amtrak’s goals to return its existing system – rolling stock and infrastructure – to a state of good repair. NARP said Amtrak has done an important service by quantifying unsustainable rail freight industry trends--growth in ton-miles while track capacity is reduced- and highlighting specific track segments at risk. Identifying 'readiness criteria' for short-distance corridor development, Amtrak highlights the need for the federal government to step forward as a funding partner for those states.
NARP stated how the plan identifies track segments where Amtrak service is threatened due to possible track abandonment or downgrading by freight railroads. One major segment is the 703-mile BNSF line between Newton and Dodge City, Kansas; La Junta and Trinidad, Colorado; and Albuquerque. “This is a vital part of Amtrak's Southwest Chief route, but also serves as an important safety valve for the freight network when BNSF's main route via Amarillo is blocked,” NARP said. "When you don't make your capital cost, you can't afford redundancy."
A discussion of service issues of Amtrak’s southwestern long-distance trains was featured at the National Association of Rail Passengers March 26 Region IX meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tim Cooper, Amtrak’s assistant superintendent of operations for the southwest, discussed the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. He said it will take time to improve the Sunset’s on-time performance. He blamed the large amount of delays to freight train interference and slow orders. The Texas Eagle, meanwhile, has celebrated some of the highest ridership growth, he said, in all of the nation, and has a positive revenue-to-rider ratio.
Joy Smith, Amtrak’s Southwest division general superintendent, said most of the detraining passengers from the Heartland Flyer at Fort Worth board the Eagle and Sunset. The train, which has a 74% on-time performance, has beat all of the other trains in nearly every category. Several years ago the Eagle was only 4% on-time. If Amtrak can improve the Eagle’s performance and customer satisfaction, it can do it with the Sunset, Smith said.
“The Eagle is doing well because of the Heartland Flyer,” she said. “We have some wonderful stories.” Smith thanked advocates attending the conference for their support. “Our lawmakers will not work to fund Amtrak unless they know the public is behind it,” she said. “You give us the energy and strength to continue.”
Paul Adams, Oklahoma’s secretary of transportation discussed Heartland Flyer developments. He said the train is at phase one with the other two phases involving expanding north to Kansas and connecting to Tulsa. The problem, he said, is how to sustain, expand and pay for the service. The state for five years has been trying to generate funding for the service.
A wine tasting program, held the first Saturday of the month and co-sponsored by state grape growers, has proven popular, Adams said. The train, which was projected to carry 25,000 riders a year, carried 65,000 during its first year and averages 50,000. A second frequency, a morning departure from Fort Worth, is being considered. Transportation department officials are also working on extending the train northward to Guthrie, Okla., if not permanently, then for special runs to the tourist city’s festivals. Please see following page.
NARP meeting, continued.
Various speakers spoke of how Fort Worth – with its regional and commuter rail developments - is at the center of the rail renaissance hitting this part of the U.S. Rail advocacy has become more mainstream in Texas. A recently passed state law allows the Texas Department of Transportation to fund rail.
A study on relocating rail freight lines to eastern Colorado to free the busy joint line for Denver- Pueblo passenger service will soon be released on the Port to Plains transcorridor plan from Colorado to Texas, it was announced.
Dave Randall, NARP Region VII director from Alton, Illinois, told advocates that NARP wants to do a lot more listening to its members. The organization’s member-directors are looking into realigning membership regions.
Its directors also want to reorganize the group’s newsletter that he said is written for congressional staffers.
Randall said more efforts need to be made to increase the organization’s membership. If 100,000 Rails to Trails supporters can join that cause’s organization, NARP should have a lot more than 13,000 members.
Leaders want more young people involved with rail advocacy. Randall said he doesn’t want the same people involved in passenger rail causes. “Our issue is transportation choice. It’s not just that we love trains,” he said.
Amtrak’s historical focus on the Northeast Corridor has turned-off lawmakers from the rest of the country. Randall said Amtrak must get the existing system running and then expand. A new generation of politicians has to be convinced and taught about the benefits of passenger rail, he said. MOKSRail vice president Doug Ohlemeier from Independence, Mo., and advocates from St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Mo., Newton and Wichita, Kan., also attended.
The Topeka Capital-Journal in a June 17 editorial advocated increased passenger rail funding in an editorial entitled, “Supporting Amtrak makes sense because it saves fuel and it's a fun way to travel.” The editorial followed a letter to the editor from MOKSRail president John Mills, from Topeka, the publication published two days earlier.
Mills, responding to an article about Topeka’s railroads that only mentioned Amtrak in one sentence, stated how in FY 2003 Amtrak served more than 5,000 passengers in Topeka and more than 30,000 in Kansas. Several thousand more Kansans boarded the Kansas City to St. Louis trains at Kansas City Union Station.
Amtrak spent $15.6 million for goods and services in Kansas in FY 2003 and Amtrak employees earned more than $1 million in wages and paid Kansas income taxes.
Mills stated the times the Southwest Chief serves Topeka. Since 1971, nearly 10 million passengers, 250,000 in FY 2003, have traveled on the Southwest Chief in safety and comfort.
Though some have termed arrival and departure times as inconvenient, “the city of Topeka is fortunate to have this travel option in these days of high gasoline prices, crowded and dangerous highways and the inconvenience air travel now affords,” he wrote.
The editorial said “Mills always makes a lot of sense when he speaks up for his beloved Amtrak.” The newspaper said “we all ought to be doing more to support the service -- by using it and by urging our members of Congress to fund it adequately. The facts behind Amtrak are so compelling it's always baffling when some members of Congress try to cut off its federal subsidy, arguing that it should be self-supporting.”
The newspaper argued that trains are more fuel efficient, requiring less than two-thirds the amount of fuel to carry a passenger as an airline. Besides providing more subsidy for train operation, some money to refurbish passenger stations, like Topeka’s deteriorating station, would help boost ridership too, the editorial argued.
“If Congress continues refusing to put enough money into Amtrak to maintain its equipment and service, ridership will decline. Which, of course, will give Amtrak's opponents in Congress the excuse to say Amtrak should be killed because no one rides it any more. That sounds like the kind of management the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert cartoon strip would endorse.”
Union Station is returning to trains by buying a collection of rail cars and memorabilia. Board members June 21 voted to invest $650,000 for 11 historic rail cars and 200,000 other train travel-related items.
Interim Director Sean O'Byrne said a rail exhibit is the station’s most-requested attraction since it reopened in 1999. Other than the location of restaurants, O'Byrne said the most-asked question at Union Station is "Where are the trains?" Surveys show people would be willing to pay $6 for the tours and exhibits, he said. O'Byrne told the Kansas City Star that the exhibit is expected to attract an estimated 250,000 paying visitors yearly. The station is experiencing a $2 million yearly operating deficit.
Albert Bowmaster, 93, of Kansas City, Mo., died April 5. Bowmaster was a salesman who worked for railroads most of his life, including the Missouri Pacific. “He never lost his love for trains and belonged to several railroad clubs,” the obituary stated. He was a MOKSRail member for 20 years.
Frank Mehl, 98, of Sedalia, Mo., died in February. Mehl was a strong MOKSRail and NARP supporter. “Even in his 90s, he would be boarding the train in Sedalia to attend MOKSRail and NARP meetings,” said Pete McMasters, MOKSRail’s longtime treasurer. “He was an avid rail traveler and a generous contributor to MOKSRail.”
While attending a NARP or MOKSRail meeting, Mehl would look for a piano at the facility and when he found one, would entertain MOKSRail members and other NARP Region IX attendees with some Scott Joplin-style piano rhythms, McMasters said. Mehl, a 20-year MOKSRail member, had a dry sense of humor and will be missed by many MOKSRail members.
New Members: Bob Martin, Solomon, Kan., Charles Frodsham, Beloit, Kan., Charlie Hitchcock, Lee’s Summit, Mo.
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