Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Cato Out Loud: The Auto Bailout

Daniel J. Ikenson discusses the proposed bailout of …

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Taking a serious look at the Kerry HSR bill

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this excellent analysis of John Kerry’s HSR bill from Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic. If you remember, we were doing some investigating on this bill in September and it was officially announced in November.

He points out, interestingly, that the bill establishes an Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail within the Federal Railroad Administration. He’s hoping that such a move will give the FRA a new focus in passenger rail, particularly with regard to regulations requiring passenger trains to be a certain weight, limiting speed:

If passed, the bill would create an “Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail” (we’ll call it OHSR here) which would operate within the Federal Railroad Administration. This would dramatically alter the priorities of the FRA, whose principal focus in recent years has been on improving the freight rail system in the United States. One wonders if FRA’s “safety” precautions, which require passenger rail trains in the United States to be far heavier than similar vehicles in the rest of the world, will be slowly phased out as the FRA’s mission is repositioned towards high-speed rail. Such a change, which would mean great monetary savings for rail operators around the nation in equipment purchases, might be necessary if a true HSR program is to be implemented.

Here’s a breakdown of the money over the bill’s five-year lifespan, which comes to about $5 billion every year:

In a five-year period, the bill would authorize the following:

  • $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds to qualified high-speed rail programs
  • $10 billion in tax-credit bonds to “super high-speed” rail programs (we’ll get to this in a minute)
  • $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds to other high-speed rail prgrams

But rather than creating a top-down federal network and policy, like the Interstate Highway System, the money would be distributed to states and organizations applying for project funding. While not necessarily good news, it’s not terrible news either. Devolution has long been the standard with new rail projects, but that’s mostly because the federal government never cared enough to get too involved. But this means that well-organized projects such as the Midwest HSR plan and California High Speed Rail will be able to move in on much needed federal funds. Other states that don’t have their act together will probably be left out.

Also, federal funds allotted to California will probably be insufficient for the project’s need unless the bill is renewed in 2014. The CAHSR blog remains cautiously optimistic about this:

Of course we’ll likely be well into the construction phase by that point, and it’s harder to kill a spending program once it’s in place than to kill it at the proposal stage. States that have used the OHSR funds to start HSR projects will not look kindly on Congress or the White House refusing to renew their funding.

At any rate, Kerry’s bill is looking good. A nationwide standard for high-speed rail might be a better way to go, but that’s politically more difficult. It’s hard to disagree with this massive step in the right direction, but we’ll see how things play out for this plan on Capitol Hill. Also, be sure to check out the whole analysis over at The Transport Politic if you have the time. Well worth the read.


Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , , , ,

Lower gas prices aren’t curtailing rail ridership gains

Although the recent surge in Amtrak ridership may have been sparked by high gas prices, it doesn’t seem to be ending there. Gas where I am is a ridiculously cheap $1.58, but many people seem to be sticking with rail, according to this article from the Philadelphia Business Journal, which understandably mostly focuses on commuter rail and Amtrak in Pennsylvania. These figures are all compared to Q3 of 2007, which was record breaking to begin with:

SEPTA’s commuter rail ridership increased 7.86 percent, heavy rail (subway and elevated trains) increased 1.55 percent, bus ridership increased 0.45 percent, purchased bus services increased 20.17 percent and light rail, considered to be modern streetcars, trolleys and heritage trolleys by APTA, was up 7.86 percent. Overall, ridership is up 3.93 percent for the quarter and 6.56 percent year-to date.

Ridership on Amtrak’s Keystone Line, which provides 90-minute service between Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia and a direct connection to New York City, also rose by 21.65 percent for the quarter and has experienced an increase of 18.88 percent year-to date.

Hopefully, as more figures like this start to come in, lawmakers will begin to see that these increases are no fluke. People are discovering the benefits of traveling by rail, regardless of the cost of oil at the moment. It’s an exciting time to be an advocate for these issues, let’s just hope we can put enough pressure on our politicians to encourage investment in our increasingly popular rail systems.

Update: On a similar note, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a piece about how increased Amtrak ridership is growing support for a faster rail line between the Twin Cities and Chicago. This is exactly the sort of logic that can get the Midwest HSR plan built, and that we need to be seeing more of across the country.

Filed under: Amtrak, , ,

South America leads USA on HSR development

Here is a link to an outstanding feature concerning high speed rail development.

Now, this may be an appropriate moment to define our terms. “HSR” is the really fast European type train that runs at 180 mph and higher speeds. Everything we have in the USA is “conventional.” I support both, but have a preference towards the conventional style of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

No doubt, America needs true High Speed Rail. Here is the kicker.

Yes, Argentina looks set to beat California in building the first new bullet-train line in the Western Hemisphere. This year, the country let contracts for a 440-mile European-style railroad between Buenos Aires and Cordoba, with trains operating at up to 200 mph.

We’ve had more than 50 years of massive federal subsidies for new interstate highways, and, at least in Virginia, we’ve produced a faltering economy of sprawl. But the age of the highway is ending. High-speed rail in Virginia won’t reverse 50 years of overdependence on the automobile, but it will be a step toward a different, better economy. That’s what the businessmen and -women who formed Virginians for High Speed Rail ( believe.

In high-speed ground transportation, we’re decades behind Japan and Europe. We can let China and Argentina surge past us, too, or we can get on board.

Read it all here.

Filed under: Amtrak, International High Speed Rail, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

A quick Tuesday roundup of Amtrak news

Since we seem to have spent yesterday sipping Lattes, it is definitely time to sample a few Amtrak related stories.

The Vermont newspaper is rethinking proposed Amtrak cuts.

It was very disturbing to see the recent media articles suggesting that the Vermont Agency of Transportation was flirting with massive cuts in Vermont’s Amtrak services. Most particularly it’s alarming in the face of the unprecedented recent ridership gains on our trains, just as the federal government is making new commitments to support Amtrak. Our congressional delegation just got language into the new Amtrak authorization making Vermont/Amtrak projects like the purchase of new diesel multiple unit cars potentially eligible for 80 percent federal funding.

Meanwhile, the Burlington Free Press runs a dismissive sentimental summary leading unwary readers to believe that passenger rail travel is for grandmas and toddlers. For gosh sakes, passengers do not ride end-to-end. It also asks reader comments. Take a look.

An incident reported in Illinois.

Ten people suffered minor injuries Monday morning when a St. Louis-bound Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer truck stalled on a rural crossing just north of Brighton.

Although we do not do local transit news, Durham, North Carolina is opening such an impressive transit center, TFA must take note. It is supposedly an easy walk from a new Amtrak station opening next year. You need to read the whole report, but here is the lead.

Durham is less populous than Raleigh and Greensboro, but its buses are busier. In a couple of months, Durham’s neglected bus riders finally will move into a home they can be proud of.

DATA will open its $18.7 million Durham Station Transportation Center in February, at the old Heart of Durham Hotel site on Chapel Hill Street.

When that happens, DATA riders — a record half million of them in October — will be liberated from a cramped, squalid transfer center on Morgan Street.

And there is the continuing soap opera in Beaumont, Texas. It should be a major stop on the sunset. Here is the newest development from the local paper.

Beaumont officials are still trying to figure out how to upgrade the city’s Amtrak station – and anything would be an upgrade over the current situation. The city has a non-station rather than a station. Passengers simply get on or off the train at an open site on a dead-end street off 11th Street

That’s deplorable. Yet city officials don’t want to spend any money for a station because they say it’s Amtrak’s responsibility. Previously, Amtrak had no money for new stations.

That could change. State and federal officials are studying the expansion of Amtrak service in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Amtrak is considering adding new stations in several locations.

Good news for folks in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Local rail supporters are thrilled that despite the economic odds, a state-proposed $17 million three-year pilot program includes long-awaited U.S. 29 passenger rail improvements.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

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December 2008