Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Amtrak, HSR win big in final stimulus bill; Obama to thank?

The stimulus, which we were mourning only last week, has come out of conference committee mysteriously flush with passenger rail money. The big surprise is that funding for HSR has jumped from John Kerry’s $2 billion in the Senate bill to a whopping $8 billion in the final version. And check out who’s behind it according to the Associated Press:

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

There are certainly more important routes to focus on right now than the LA-Las Vegas route, but we won’t get into that right now. Chalk it up to typical politician behavior. The big news is that perhaps President Obama will be doing more than just paying lip service to passenger rail.

Amtrak also gets a significant bump from the Senate’s $850 million to $1.3 billion. This, however, comes at the cost of $300 million of passenger rail grants to states. This is bad news for states like Vermont, which is struggling to maintain the subsidies for its popular Amtrak lines amid the economic crunch.

Unfortunately, although rail and transit are both parts to a more sustainable whole, local non-auto transportation got stuck with the lower levels of funding set aside in the Senate bill. Streetsblog describes it as a slap in the face. It’s a shame, but, as the Transport Politic points out, this is the single biggest federal investment in American passenger rail ever. This hopefully signals a more positive attitude about sustainable transportation in general under this administration. This year’s transportation bill will be the critical test of that.

But for now, all of you who contacted your legislators should give yourself a pat on the back. This looks like a rather surprising victory for passenger rail.

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

Feds to get tough on host railroads that delay Amtrak trains

Here’s part of last year’s Amtrak reauthorization that seemed to go largely unnoticed: the Surface Transportation Board now has the power to fine host railroads that delay Amtrak trains. Considering that Amtrak mostly operates on routes owned by other companies outside of the Northeast corridor, this is a big deal. From Bloomberg News:

Freight railroads that cause delays for Amtrak passenger trains using their tracks could be fined under new authority for a U.S. rail oversight board, an official said yesterday at a hearing in Washington.

The Surface Transportation Board, the regulator of some rail rates, is gaining power to ensure Amtrak trains are punctual under a law passed in October. Chairman Charles Nottingham said the law allows it to levy fines to help meet that goal.

Officials want the service, which runs on freight-rail tracks in most parts of the United States, to be on time in 80 percent of trips. Freight-train hindrances and so-called slow orders, where carriers reduce speeds on sections of track, were the main causes of Amtrak delays last year, Amtrak chief operating officer William Crosbie said.

I was hoping to get some more information about how these fines are going to work from the STB’s website, but they don’t have information from yesterday’s conference up yet. If they enforce these regulations, we could see some real improvements in Amtrak’s on-time performance. This would go a long way towards improving its public image. On the other hand, it’s entirely conceivable that they won’t wield this powers at all.

Filed under: Amtrak

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February 2009