Tag Archive for amtrak

Turnover at the top hits Amtrak at a critical time says PHL Inquirer news report. / Pros and cons summary

Turnover at the top hits Amtrak at a critical time Paul Nussbaum is reporter Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2015, 3:01 AM For full report, go to   http://media.philly.com/designimages/partnerIcon-Inquirer-2014.jpg

Debate points offered by independent reporter.

As it recovers from its worst accident on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak faces frequent management turnover and structural change, n addition to chronic financial and political challenges. Former Amtrak executives say the turmoil at the top in recent years has disrupted railroad management and distracted employees from their daily duties.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) executive and now an adjunct professor in railway management at Michigan State University, said: “Rapid changes in management are never good, unless they’re aimed at getting rid of nonfunctioning people. Management turmoil is of concern.”

With upper management in flux, former Amtrak executives say, Amtrak may not have worked aggressively enough after deadly train wrecks on other passenger railroads – on Dec. 1, 2013, in New York and on July 24, 2013, in Spain – to identify fixes on its rail network that could have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured 200. ======

Only after the Philadelphia derailment – at the order of the Federal Railroad Administration – did Amtrak quickly install automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford Junction curve, which would have prevented the fatal derailment.   Amtrak had installed that braking system 24 years earlier on the southbound side of the curve and at several other tight curves on the Northeast Corridor, to automatically slow speeding trains if the engineer doesn’t.

“Certainly one of the reactions to the Metro-North derailment [in 2013] could have been, ‘Let me take a look at all my sharp curves and make sure I have protection for all my sharp curves,’ ” said rail expert Allan Zarembski of the University of Delaware. “With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it would have been a good idea.”

COUNTER POINTS

Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman rejected the argument that Amtrak missed a chance to prevent the deadly Philadelphia derailment. He said the lack of automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford curve was based on Amtrak’s assumption that trains wouldn’t enter the curve at more than the 80 m.p.h. maximum speed allowed on the preceding straightaway.

Mr Boardman also defended Amtrak’s management reshuffle, the latest in a series of reorganizations in the railroad’s 45-year history to try to improve finances and operations and placate Congress.

OTHER BACKGROUND

The railroad’s operating subsidy from the federal government declined from $565 million in fiscal 2010 to $250 million this year.    Amtrak has never been able to meet its congressional mandate to turn a profit. It received $1.4 billion from Congress this year to cover the operating deficit, as well as capital costs for construction, new vehicles, and debt payments.   Because Amtrak relies on unpredictable annual federal appropriations, the railroad lurches from year to year in a constant state of near-crisis.

“It looks like a company, but it is really a government agency,” said Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “People complain that a ‘real’ company could be more responsive to markets and its customers. “That’s like getting angry when frogs can’t fly.”

Amtrak inherited decrepit bridges, tunnels, and equipment when it took over passenger service from the private freight railroads in 1971. Since then, its backlog of worn-out infrastructure has been growing.   Now it would require an estimated $21 billion to restore just the 457-mile Northeast Corridor (NEC) to a state of good repair. Amtrak and eight regional commuter railroads carry 750,000 passengers a day on 2,000 trains on the NEC corridor.

Boardman, Amtrak’s chief executive since 2008, has repeatedly pleaded with Congress for more money to prevent what he warned last year could be “a bigger, costlier, and far more damaging failure than anything we have seen.”

“Our senior managers have little or no experience in operating or building a railroad,” said officials of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which is in negotiations for a new labor contract. “The union’s struggle to maintain safe working conditions is hampered by Amtrak senior management’s lust for complete control and railroad inexperience,” they said in a recent union newsletter. The union also cited the problems with Amtrak’s “Safe-2-Safer” program identified in a report this year by Amtrak inspector general Tom Howard. Howard found that reported employee injuries at Amtrak increased from 695 in 2009, when the program began, to 1,301 in 2013, while employee injury claims increased by about 80 percent from 2009 through 2013, with a cost of $80 million.

Boardman dismissed the union leadership’s complaints as self-serving.   He said the union’s “concern has to do with negotiating the next contract and finding an enemy … and there’s no enemy here,” he said.

Boardman’s supporters say he is under constant pressure from Congress and the Amtrak board to cut costs and increase revenue. “He’s got a board of directors of 535 people,” said Mathews, the passenger advocate, referring to Congress. “When you have a congressman deciding the price of a hamburger in a dining car, how can you possibly make the best decisions for the customer?

“When you’re in a reactive mode, you’ve lost control of your destiny…”

The Amtrak inspector general, reported last year that Amtrak had made “significant progress implementing its 2011 strategic plan and accomplishing positive results,” while noting that “a number of challenges remain to be addressed.”

In another report, Louis Thompson, a former Federal Railroad Administration official and a railways adviser to the World Bank, said last year:   “Over its lifetime, Amtrak has had just enough political support to survive but never enough to invest properly or to prosper in any single market, and there is no convincing reason to think this will change significantly with the existing organizational structure.”

pnussbaum@phillynews.com 215-854-4587 @nussbaumpaul Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20150712_Turnover_at_the_top_hits_Amtrak_at_a_critical_time.html#J65lulgyoj8DgDkz.99

Rail transit agencies and states will have to pay more to maintain the NEC rail infrastructure

Will the federal government pay up also? No one is sure.

But from the small states like DELAWARE and RI to the larger ones like PENN and Mass, the local will have to pay a lot more then they had been used to.

http://www.philly.com/philly/business/transportation/20150618_Feds_want_rail_transit_agencies_and_states_to_pay_more_to_maintain_Northeast_rail_corridor.html

Major points by Paul NUSSBAUM in The Inquirer June 18, 2015 report include these:

Northeast states and transit agencies – including SEPTA and NJ Transit and DELAWARE – are being asked to pay more to maintain the rail corridor between Washington and Boston that they share with Amtrak.

The new cost-sharing plan for the Northeast Corridor is due to take effect Oct. 1

The states had 6 years to get ready for this change.

The state’s actually move more people on commuter trains each day then Amtrak does.

The 457-mile NEC corridor sees 710,000 commuter-rail passengers and only 40,000 Amtrak passengers each day.

The majority of the 2,000 daily trains are local state run commuters.

In 2008, congress ordered the multiple rail corridor users to devise a formula for sharing costs that historically have been divvied up in more than 50 separate contracts. “There hasn’t been any uniformity to how those costs are shared. Some are overpaying and some are underpaying,” says Toby Fauver, a Pennsylvania deputy secretary of transportation who co-chaired the committee that created the new cost-sharing plan.

That committee is part of the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission. The commission is composed of one member from each of the NEC states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland) and the District of Columbia, four members from Amtrak, and five members from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Hard to believe that 18 can agree unanimously on anything!

In December 2014″, the commission voted, 17-1, to approve a new cost-sharing policy, designed to spread the burden for spending $425 million a year over the next three years for maintenance and some limited upgrades on the corridor.

These costs would rise to $530 million a year.

NOTE: The NEC Commission has no way to compel the states to pay more.

Payment disputes might be taken to the federal Surface Transportation Board.

Under the formula, SEPTA payments to Amtrak will increase from $38.4 million this year to $52 million next year.

For NJ Transit, the cost would be more than $100 million a year.

Massachusetts is upset at its bill of $32.6 million for a 38-mile section of the NEC that it, not Amtrak, owns.

Massachusetts is also skeptical that the federal government will uphold its obligation to add $125 million in new funding for the corridor annually for the next three years, then boost its contribution to at least $400 million a year above current levels.

Massachusetts’ fears might be well-founded as the U.S. House approved a proposed budget for Amtrak this month that will cut Amtrak’s funding by 17% (or $242 million).

WHO MAKES UP THE $10.5 BILLION CAPITAL GAP???

The corridor’s infrastructure improvement needs are expected to cost about $18 billion over the next five years  Only about $7.5 billion is funded under current plans.

Collectively, the NEC states contend that “it has been the longstanding position that the federal government has primary responsibility for eliminating the backlog of deferred maintenance to restore the infrastructure to a state of good repair”.

Will Senators from Wyoming and Idaho and others states with no direct NEC benefits agree?

=======================

Selective comments:

One associate Ted observes that the NEC States tried to roll back this PRIIA provision, assumed they would succeed and then did nothing of consequence reference a strategic plan as to the possible increase in their rates.

Another friend observed that “The crunch time is approaching. Politicians have to face up to the true costs of commuter service, just like they have to face up to true costs of Interstates, bad bridges, and regular highways. Everyone wants something for nothing.

PTC required investment may end some passenger train services — including the Amtrak Southwest Chief

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief service between Chicago and Los Angeles runs over tracks owned by the private freight railroad the Kansas City Terminal (KCT).  Technically classified by STB terminology as a Class III railroad, this freight line section of tracks is exempt from the federal PTC requirement as a freight mover. Unless, the track is used by passenger trains.

This small company but heavily used railroad argues in negotiations with Amtrak that since they are considered Class III, the federal PTC requirement is triggered by the operation of passenger trains.  Therefore the PTC requirement is a solely allocated cost to be borne by Amtrak.  Amtrak should be responsible for the capital cost of the PTC installation.

The cost estimate for the relatively short urban distance is $30 million on the KCT tracks. Both Amtrak and the state of Missouri say they have no budget for those costs.  Therefore, Amtrak has notified KCT officials that Amtrak service over the KCT track will end by the end of 2015 unless the parties come up with an alternative or the FRA grants an exemption.

Amtrak Anti-Crash System “May” Malfunction Near Freight Railroad Lines

From a Bloomberg report on Jun 10, 2015

Radio interference from freight railroads may disable the automated solution Amtrak is finalizing to prevent high-speed derailments like last month’s fatal accident in Philadelphia.

To read the entire article, go to http://bloom.bg/1FSqTr4

A few Highlights:

Freight railroads operating from New Haven, CT. to Boston plan to use the same radio frequencies as Amtrak for their separate train-safety system.

Charles Mathias associate chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau gave a report to Congress on Wednesday.

“This could degrade or disable communications on both systems, causing either or both to function improperly or stop functioning altogether,” Mathias said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in Washington. “We understand the criticality of this,” and the FCC is working with railroads to resolve the issue, he said.

The radio-interference issue creates a new hurdle for the system that the National Transportation Safety Board said would have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured hundreds of others. Known as positive train control, it has been delayed for years while railroads attempted to buy airwaves and wrestled with cost and technical issues.

Amtrak has options to resolve the interference and expects to complete installation by the end of the year on rails it owns along its popular Northeast Corridor route that snakes from Washington to Boston, Christina Leeds, a spokeswoman, said.

So far, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million on the PTC control program since 2008, Leeds told Congress.

Tuesday’s tragic PHL area Amtrak Derailment highlights Amtrak funding issue

NTSB Chairman Sumwalt surveys scene of Amtrak derailment, Philadelphia

A word of silence for the souls of those killed and injured in the derailment of northbound Amtrak train #188, a train I have ridden about a half dozen times.

The issue of “why” is in part related to the question of our collective owners as taxpayers of the Northeast Corridor infrastructure and “nominal shareholders” of the Amtrak operating company.

This “who is responsible issue” is addressed in this news report.

Read more

Jim Blaze interviewed on NPR regarding Amtrak accident

Jim was interviewed on National Public Radio’s Here and Now program this afternoon about the possible causes of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. You can listen to the interview with Jim in the player below.

FINALLY “shovel ready” at less than 2% of the total long term CA high speed rail project?

Paddington by Jeremy Segrott, on Flickr">Paddington by Jeremy Segrott, on Flickr

The California high speed rail project was supposed to be one of the so called shovel ready projects for rail funding way back in the year 2009. Turned out to be a “bit premature”. In short, false.

But at long last actual railway line construction is about to start five years later. — but only on less than 2% of the total system budget scope and way out almost in the middle of the proposed LA – SF network market. 29 miles of the required 800 route miles for the total 2-city connection.

Could be a decade or more before the line might eventually connect the two urban areas as a continuous no change of train service. Or longer!

The complete story is by Bloomberg, http://bloom.bg/1csMyiZ

KEY OBSERVATIONS

Actually, this contractor has a lead role of only about $1 billion and not the full budget total of an expected $65+ billion. This company has the initial right to build the first 29 miles (47 kilometers) of the 800-mile rail line… Not much profit so far.

Work so far hasn’t generated much money for the Sylmar, California-based contractor…

Once work starts in June, the company expects “substantial cash flow,” the company says. Not much in private and non federal funding either so far California voters approved $10 billion in bonds to finance part of the project way back in the year 2008.

Governor Brown claims that the remainder of the more than $55 billion would come from private investors.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Returns on invested capital from passenger trains are, for the record, pretty meager.

Won’t put my retirement funds into this project. How about you? Ready to invest?

Might be a good time for some due diligence studies before making the jump into those bonds. As for the first ride on a through high speed train set between LA and Chicago?

At age 71, probably not in my life time.