Amtrak and the Southwest Chief – Possible service disruption

Amtrak is proposing “disrupting service”   on the Southwest Chief line between Albuquerque and Dodge City by annulling the train and busing passengers between these cities.  The Rail Passenger Association has done an excellent analysis of this situation and it is posted below.

All Aboard Minnesota is very much against this move and is working with RPA to help in any way we can in the campaign to save this train.  Additionally, we believe that Amtrak is not being honest in their intent to continue to operate the national network. We believe this could have impacts for the Empire Builder and will conduct an outreach campaign to our Congressional representatives and mayors in Minnesota and North Dakota to alert them of this issue.  We will of course keep this blog updated as more information becomes available.

RPA’s analysis of the Southwest Chief situation:

Fact Checking the Amtrak Proposal to Replace the Southwest Chief with Bus Service in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The Southwest Chief would effectively cease to exist if the proposed bus bridge from Dodge City, KS or La Junta, CO to Albuquerque is implemented. While presented as a decision based in concern for passenger safety and cost reductions, the plan would make passengers less safe, dissipate the service’s economic impact across the corridor, and—given the resulting collapse of ridership and revenue—effectively save no tax dollars on operational expenses.

The plan to truncate the Southwest Chief with a bus bridge would also shift costs to states that have the most to lose from its truncation. In its presentation on the proposed bus bridge, Amtrak points to plans for service expansions in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma as evidence of its commitment to the region.

However, the cost of these services would be borne by the states under PRIIA Sec. 209. While the continued presence of the Chief would in fact facilitate the development of these services with valuable passenger connections, the development of these urban corridor services shouldn’t come at the expense of rural communities that currently depend on Amtrak National Network service.

The bus bridge will worsen the performance metrics Amtrak is using to justify this truncation without lowering taxpayer costs
The Chief’s ridership trends are steady: Amtrak’s earlier statement that the number of passengers using the Chief is “steadily declining” is false. Ridership volume in FY 2017 was down only 1% from its peak in FY 2015; it was up 14% from eight years ago in FY 2009.

Amtrak’s presentation highlights the fact that 96% of Amtrak trips are under 750 miles. But for the Chief’s 2,265 miles, conspicuously absent is the fact that trips on the Chief overlap along the entirety of the corridor. Having analyzed the Chief’s passenger load throughout its route, Rail Passengers estimates significant ridership and 70% of the trains’ current revenue is at risk under this proposal. The proposed bus bridge would be of a significant enough duration – 6-12 hours—to decimate high revenue sleeping car ridership. This is made more disappointing because;
The Chief’s seat occupancy rate compares well even to the NEC: Amtrak’s earlier claim that the Chief operates “40% empty” fails to fully capture how busy the train is.

The reality is that passengers filled 61.5% of the Chief’s available seat miles during FY 2017. This number puts the Chief within the top 20% of all Amtrak’s routes (8th out of 48), higher than even the Acela Express service. (In assessing “occupancy,”

it’s important to recognize that trains do not operate the same as airplanes; trains do not make a single trip between a pair of end points, they make numerous stops along a single corridor. As a result, there is a constant turnover of seats.

That’s the strength of a long-distance corridor train like the Chief; by connecting 36 stations, it provides a convenient, single seat ride for passengers traveling short, medium and long distances, serving 528 unique city pairs. This allows a single corridor to generate the volumes and revenues needed to serve people in urban and rural communities. In matter of fact, on the more heavily traveled segments of the Chief’s route, the number of passengers can be 90% or more of the available seats, causing “sold out” conditions for prospective passengers.)

By using a Fully Allocated Cost methodology, Amtrak fails to fully capture the incremental cost of running the Chief. Had the railroad also employed Avoidable Cost methodology—as stipulated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (Public Law 108-447)—the cost would have been significantly lower. Rail Passengers’ estimate, developed using concepts developed by the Volpe Transportation Center for Amtrak in 2009, suggests that as much as 80% of the costs that Amtrak allocates to the Chief may represent fixed costs for shared facilities and overhead. These costs would not go away with the Chief’s elimination and would instead be allocated to other routes.

Amtrak is asking its stakeholders for more, after reneging on a partnership it has repeatedly and publicly committed to over the course of multiple grant applications
States have already invested local funds in partnership with Amtrak: Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico have all invested over $9 million in state funds ($6 million in previous TIGER grant applications with another $3 million in the current round of TIGER grants), based upon an explicit agreement between Amtrak, Amtrak-served communities, and BNSF Railroad. For Amtrak to suddenly withdraw its support for the Chief in the middle of the preservation effort, without any opportunity for stakeholder input, constitutes a serious breach of trust.

This sudden decision by Amtrak has stalled applications for additional infrastructure grants, including plans to apply for a share of the $1.5 billion in grant funding offered through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program. Given the BUILD program’s emphasis on supporting rural transportation systems, it’s safe to assume the Southwest Chief would have scored well.

The bus bridge will be less safe for passengers, less accessible to the public. Amtrak’s justification of forcing passengers onto busses for lack of Positive Train Control will make them less safe; Busses have 3.04 accidents per million passenger miles, while intercity passenger trains only have 1.7, over 40% fewer accidents mile for mile.

Amtrak has enjoyed considerable gains in ridership from the Accessibility Community, because Busses and trains are not equal options for these passengers. Bus Bathrooms are in no way ADA compliant, while accomodations can be made on Amtrak, a real factor for a 6-12 hour journey. Ingress and Egress issues are a significant area of risk addressed in the ADA, and multiple transfers increase the probability of injuries.

Amtrak states that the $50 million, ten year-investment in infrastructure investment “does not include positive train control (PTC) installation and implementation costs.”
The focus on safety is admirable and correct. However, the Federal Railroad Administration does not require PTC over lines with fewer than four passenger trains per day, and less than 15 Million tons of freight per year. (49 CFR 236.1019 – Main line track exceptions).

Risks are limited because competing traffic is light in some places, non-existent in others. The absence of heavy axle load freight traffic should also make derailment prevention easier, given the reduced risk of rail breaks and freight braking-induced kinks. This segment should have lower overall risk, even without PTC, than most of the network.
The Raton Route in question is considered safely exempt by the FRA, save for the Rail Runner district in Albuquerque; the Rio Metro Regional Transit District is currently working with the FRA to ensure that it meets all PTC requirements in a timely fashion.

The Rail Passengers Association represents the passengers and communities that depend on this corridor, and so we feel compelled to provide a broader and more complete context to help members of Congress evaluate the proper next steps to preserve this important transportation service for residents in the 36 communities across 8 states that depend on the Southwest Chief. We are available for any further elaboration.

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Rail Passenger Association intern Jacob Wallace post about MN passenger rail

In late June, All Aboard Minnesota hosted Rail Passenger Association summer by rail intern Jacob Wallace as he passed through St. Paul.  We were able to arrange promotions and interviews at the Saints Game, an interview with Ramsey County Commissioner Ortega, some time with the MnDot State Rail Passenger office, and a tour of our light rail system and Northstar.  Here is  link to Jacob’s blog post about his visit here:

How Minnesota is Transforming Itself into a Rail Star

Welcome “Summer by Rail” Intern Jacob Wallace!

All Aboard Minnesota is hosting RPA Summer by Rail Intern Jacob Wallace in St. Paul June 24-26, 2018.  Join us for two events:
  1. Brief welcome reception when he arrives on the Empire Builder #7 on June 24.  We plan to gather at Gate C around 9:30pm to give him a warm welcome!
  2. St. Paul Saints game on Monday, June 25 with Jacob – we plan to gather at the ticket window at around 6:00pm, get a hot dog, beverage of choice and have fun!  

See the flyer for more details about this interesting program and Jacob!

Upper Midwest Rail Summit 6/1/18

Click here for more details

Friday June 1, Upper Midwest Rail Summit! 

In conjunction with the Rail Users Network ( RUN )  All Aboard Minnesota is hosting a day-long rail summit for broad public outreach about what is happening for expanded rail passenger service in the upper Midwest.  In addition to speakers from Amtrak, MNDOT, WisDOT and others, there will be several rail advocacy groups represented for a very dynamic afternoon round-table forum!   All Aboard Minnesota invites all members to attend this unique and groundbreaking event!

Winona: Learn About Second Amtrak Train Benefits 3/27/18

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Tuesday March 27, Winona public outreach forum

All Aboard Minnesota in conjunction with Amtrak will be conducting a public forum to advocate and educate about the need for a second train frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago through Winona.  Our goal is to get citizens excited about this new service and put pressure on the legislature to fund it!  All members of All Aboard Minnesota are invited to attend.

MnDot State Rail Passenger Office Funding Request

MnDot State Rail Passenger Office funding request      

www.allaboardmn.org

Hello All Aboard Minnesota Members –

The MnDot State Rail Passenger office recently submitted a 2018 capital funding request to Governor Mark Dayton for $1 million to complete environmental work and service planning for the second train frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago.  An additional $3million was requested for the state’s share of the final design.  This funding is essential for continued passenger rail corridor development for this expanded service.

You may have seen an article published in the StarTribune recently about legislators efforts to stop high speed rail passenger planning between the Twin Cities and Chicago.  We are advocating for the additional conventional passenger rail passenger service, not high speed rail.

If the $4 million is included in the Governor’s proposed budget,  it will give the state rail passenger office hope that funding could be available to continue the vital planning work for the second conventional passenger train frequency.

  • PLEASE CALL GOVERNOR DAYTON, AND TELL HIM TO INCLUDE THE MnDOT STATE RAIL PLANNING OFFICE REQUEST OF $1 MILLION AND $3 MILLION TO CONTINUE THEIR WORK FOR EXPANDED PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE.  
  • The Governor’s phone is:  651-201-3400 


The Governor’s budget is scheduled to be released on January 16, 2018, so it is imperative you contact him this week.

We were instrumental in our calling campaign to restore funding just to keep the State Rail Passenger office open during last years session, so we do make a vital difference!  Your voices are heard!

Thank you for taking action and making this important call.
All Aboard Minnesota Board of Directors

P.S.  We have posted this alert on our Facebook page as well.

2017 Annual Member Meeting

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Fall 2017 Annual Membership Meeting – You are Invited!  

www.allaboardmn.org

The fall “all-member” meeting of All Aboard Minnesota will be held
on Saturday, November 18, 2017.  YOU are invited!

Find out about all the exciting initiatives happening around passenger rail in Minnesota! We need you to make it all happen!   See below for details.

The meeting will be held at Christ the King Lutheran Church, located on 8600 Freemont Ave, South in Bloomington,  MN. Go in the main entrance on the south side of the church, walk straight back and down the hall on the left to the lounge.  There will be signs to direct you.

For directions to the church, please click on this link:  http://www.ctkb.org/contact-us/

Timing:

  • Doors will open at 9:00am Refreshments will be provided.
  • The meeting will begin at 9:30am
  • Will conclude at 12:00noon.  A light lunch will be provided.

We have an exciting agenda planned including: 

  • Outreach plans for 2018 – we are going to get legislators phones to ring, learn how!
  • Speakers:

    • ​Dan Krom – Director MnDot State Rail passenger office – Update 
    • Alice Hausman – MN House Rep and DFL lead for the Transportation Finance Committee – update on funding for passenger rail and the 2018 legislative outlook
    • Anne Buckvold – community organizer in the St. Cloud area – what works for our cause
  • Working committees – we need your help – learn how you can get involved according to your interest!  

We will break into the following committees to organize and move our cause forward
(
there will be opportunities to participate in numerous areas for those who might be interested).  A board member will describe what we need for each committee and ask for your input as we move these committees into 2018:    

  • Membership  
  • Legislative
  • Communications
  • Outreach 

Members are asked to RSVP in advance Reservations will be accepted up until
Thursday November 16.  Please rsvp your reservation to AAMN at:

Email;  allaboardminnesota@gmail.com;

Or, please call 612-781-2894 and leave a message 

We are excited to see you.  Together, we can expand passenger rail for Minnesota and the upper mid-west!