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Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil train running on BNSF tracks through Pilsen in Chicago

Tank cars roll through Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on BNSF tracks.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via ”rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing. Data from EIA, AAR, news reports.

The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.

The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.

Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.

The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”

Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.

Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.

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Mica Extends Olive Branch to Amtrak, Dems Pound Rail Privatization Plan

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Railroads Subcommittee, began her remarks at yesterday’s Transportation Committee hearing like this:

My notes say that I’m supposed to say, ‘Thank you Mr. Mica for holding today’s hearing.’ I don’t think so. Because I think legislation that affects the entire passenger and freight rail system in the United States deserves hearing, examination and debate. There are numerous legal, financial and operational questions that need to be answered before we auction off Amtrak to Wall Street investors.

Rep. Corinne Brown (D-FL) wasn't quite ready to thank Mica, as is customary, for holding the hearing.

The hearing was called at the last minute as a result of Brown’s and others’ demands for a full airing of Democrats’ concerns before taking quick action on the Republican plan to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) started off blustery and aggressive, saying, “We’ll have a hearing every week if we have to until we get this done” and dismissing his critics’ concerns with visible frustration. Once he got that out of his system, though, he adopted a more conciliatory tone as he talked about Amtrak.

He introduced Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman with some self-effacing humility: “[Boardman] takes a beating from time to time, sometimes from me, unwarranted, and I apologize publicly for that, but he does as good a job he can with the cards he’s dealt,” Mica said.

That was just the beginning of Mica’s overtures to the embattled rail chief and his allies. He prodded Democrats and witnesses for suggestions for improving the plan, looking to incorporate their suggestions to build consensus for the bill. Significantly, Mica even allowed that the plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor could end up leaving Amtrak more or less intact, especially since Amtrak is already looking for private-sector partners to team up with.

“I’m not trying to limit any service they provide, or privatize all of Amtrak,” Mica said. “I don’t mind giving authority to Amtrak to do what we’re trying to achieve. I don’t know that we need to create a second entity to do this.”

He said he’d been told by Amtrak leaders in the past that they didn’t have the authority to team up with the private sector to operate and maintain the corridor. “The key is to attract private capital, so we have got to have the ability, for whatever entity, whether it’s Amtrak or another entity, to attract that private capital.”

Boardman indirectly chided Mica for his previous attacks on Amtrak, saying, “The stability of Amtrak and its future are critical to have any confidence in us as a centerpiece. And this legislation, and the way that we’re characterized on a regular basis, doesn’t sustain that in the investment public. And it’s not accurate. Sir.”

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Mica Accedes to Dems’ Request to Delay Action on Rail Privatization

Rural Amtrak service could be a sticking point as Mica tries to win over members of his own party to his privatization plan. Photo: TrainWeb

John Mica has blinked.

Rather than go full steam ahead with his fast-track plan to introduce his bill to privatize the Northeast Corridor today and to have the committee discuss it and vote on it tomorrow, Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has agreed to delay action to allow time for a full legislative hearing. Democrats on the committee had asked Mica for the chance to get a full look at the proposal and voice their concerns.

The hearing is scheduled for tomorrow. The committee has not yet announced who will be appearing as witnesses. We’ll bring you a report after the hearing.

Rahall is pleased with the change in timing. “I would like to thank Chairman Mica for agreeing to Democrats’ request to hold a hearing on this bill before marking it up so that all Members could have an opportunity to better understand its sweeping ramifications,” he said in a statement.

But other Amtrak advocates on the Hill say it’s just delaying the inevitable. And it’s not just Democrats that are critical of the plan to take the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and let private companies run and operate the line. There are rumors that Mica’s gotten some grief from members of his own party over the plan.

After all, no one questions that the underlying motive of the privatization plan is to dismantle Amtrak, a company Mica has long derided as a “Soviet-style” money pit.And many rural areas – often represented by Republican lawmakers – depend on Amtrak service as an essential transportation connection and a focal point of their towns. It’s no wonder the representatives of those towns are nervous about the proposal.

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House and Senate Agree on $2.5B for High-Speed Rail — And More

After lengthy negotiations, the House and Senate agreed last night on a massive "omnibus" spending bill [PDF]
that includes $2.5 billion for high-speed rail — a compromise between
the two chambers — as well as $150 million for the Obama
administration’s sustainable communities effort and $150 million for the Washington D.C. Metro system.

Olver_signs.jpgRep. John Olver (D-MA), chairman of the House appropriations panel for transportation (Photo: MA Power Shift)

The final legislation omits the $5 billion the White House had sought for its proposed
National Infrastructure Bank, with Appropriations Committee members
noting in a statement that "due to the complexity of this proposal, it
should be considered through the regular authorization process."

In addition, the new bill resolves a politically charged clash
over allowing guns on Amtrak trains by removing language that would
have threatened the rail network’s federal funding if it did not allow
firearms in checked baggage.

Instead, the House-Senate
agreement requires Amtrak to report to Congress within 180 days on a
weapons screening plan and to implement the policy within one year,
while consulting with the Department of Homeland Security. The bill
makes no mention of possible loss of federal aid.

The House
and Senate bills varied widely in their treatment of high-speed rail,
with the latter reserving $1.2 billion for bullet trains in 2010 while
the former upped the ante to $4 billion.

Transportation reform groups and local planners had lobbied hard for the higher number but appeared to consider $2.5 billion an acceptable midpoint.

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Who Wants to Buy a New Locomotive? General Electric Hopes Amtrak Does

General Electric’s Transportation division inked a high-speed rail technology-sharing deal with China last month, but the prospects on the home front for its fuel-efficient locomotives are downright "bleak" heading into 2010, as its chief executive recently told Dow Jones.

6899.jpgSen. John McCain (R-AZ), at right, addressed GE Transportation workers in Erie, PA, last year. (Photo: NY Sun)

So even as workers at its plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, cope with large-scale layoffs, the company has adopted a new strategy: urging the federal government to approve money for new Amtrak locomotives. GE Transportation’s hope, as the local Times-News reports, is that it can win an Amtrak bid that doesn’t yet exist:

In what might have once seemed like an unusual
collaboration, company officials and its main union are making a joint
plea for Congress to include an appropriation for new locomotives.

"We have the best technology and we know the
customer requirements and believe we are best positioned," Lorenzo
Simonelli, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview Monday.

"This comes down to funding. Funding for Amtrak
for the purchase of diesel electric locomotives isn’t currently planned
for in the 2010 appropriation."

Convincing lawmakers to add funding for new Amtrak locomotives may
sound like a tall order at a time when the Obama administration is
seeking to embrace fiscal austerity, but GE has some influential allies.

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Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express, and the Future of Privately Run Transit

Virginia Railway Express (VRE), the commuter network that links northwest Virginia to Washington D.C., today refused
a challenge by Amtrak to its decision to switch operating providers to
the U.S. arm of Keolis, a private French transit company.

mannheim_22nd02.jpgChicago’s earliest rail transit line, pictured here, was run by a private company. (Photo: Franzosenbusch Project)

Although
Amtrak based its challenge on Keolis’ inexperience operating American
rail lines, the latter company maintains a sizable transit presence as a subsidiary of SNCF, the French national high-speed railway.

Moreover, Keolis submitted a
markedly lower bid to take over VRE operations, undercutting Amtrak by
$500,000 on first-year transition costs and $300,000 in annual
operating costs. The French-owned company’s winning bid totaled $85
million for five years, offering VRE workers the option of shifting to
another Amtrak line or staying on under the new management.

Looking
beyond the local implications of VRE’s switch to Keolis, the new
contract is part of a larger trend toward transit privatization that has seen recent deals struck in New Orleans, Savannah, and Phoenix. The Obama administration is encouraging
greater use of public-private partnerships to help fund and operate
transport networks, making these agreements something of a portent.

But
substantial hurdles remain to the effective participation of private
companies in the business of transit. Independent auditors at the
Government Accountability Office submitted a report [PDF]
to Congress last week after taking a yearlong look at how the federal
transit funding process affects the ability of local officials to join
forces with the private sector.

And what the GAO found was a whole lot of hurdles, many of them unique to the cumbersome rules of Washington’s New Starts transit program. From the report (emphasis mine):

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Bike Capacity to Increase on Capitol Corridor Trains

Cap_Corridor_Bike_Rack.jpgFlickr photo: Cheryl and Rich
Caltrans and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) have announced an increase in bicycle capacity on the nation's third-busiest Amtrak line, which serves 16 stations spanning eight Northern California counties, after a survey of riders found that nearly nine percent, or 150,000, of its estimated 1.7 million annual rail passengers rides bicycles.

From the press release:

"Due to a dramatic increase in the use of bicycles on the Capitol Corridor trains, all 14 of the original 1995-era cab cars have been retrofitted to accommodate an additional four bicycles on the lower level," CCJPA Chair Jim Holmes said. "These new bike racks are in addition to the three bicycle racks that already exist on the cab cars. When we combine the retrofit cabs with the five newer, 2002-era cab cars, which utilize wall-mounted storage racks to accommodate 13 bicycles, it provides about 130 more racks each weekday to help accommodate the hundreds of cyclists who bring their bikes on board."

Once funding is secured and a retrofit is complete, Holmes said at least one cab car on each train should be able to accommodate up to 13 bicycles "plus an additional three on all coach cars." All in all, bicycle capacity will increase by 34 percent.

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Lawmakers Investigating the Resignation of Amtrak’s In-House Watchdog

The House oversight committee has launched an official inquiry
into the resignation of Amtrak’s veteran inspector general (IG) earlier
this month — on the same day that an outside law firm reported on
alleged interference with his work by management at the rail
corporation.

NA_AY671_AMTRAK_G_20090629180041.jpgAmtrak IG Fred Weiderhold left earlier this month after 35 years at the rail corporation. (Photo: WSJ)

The
bipartisan congressional investigation focuses on a report commissioned
by Amtrak IG Fred Weiderhold several months before his June 18
departure. The report, prepared by the firm of Willkie Farr &
Gallagher, confirmed Weiderhold’s past contention that the IG’s
"independence and effectiveness are being substantially impaired" by
in-house policies at Amtrak.

But one particular charge in the
report caught Congress’ attention: that Amtrak managers prevented
Weiderhold from monitoring their use of economic stimulus money without
their approval.

As the oversight committee’s chairman, Rep.
Edolphus Towns (D-NY), and senior Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (CA)
explained in a letter sent yesterday to Amtrak chairman Thomas Carper:

[T]he
legal analysis found that Amtrak management claims that all
expenditures of funds designated for the Inspector General must be
approved by Amtrak management. In other words, the Inspector General
may not use funds provided by Congress to investigate potential waste
and fraud in stimulus programs without the consent of the organization
being investigated. This is contrary to the clear intent of Congress
and is unacceptable.

In a statement released
yesterday, Amtrak noted that it had no opportunity to weigh in on the
Willkie Farr report and stated that "there was no relationship between
the timing of Mr. Weiderhold’s retirement and this report." Carper
added that the rail corporation "would like to maintain an open line of
communication
and are looking forward to cooperating fully" with the congressional inquiry.

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California Cities Need A Predictable Fund For Transit Operations

train.jpgPhoto by George Donnelly, via Flickr
When the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund was zeroed out to pass the budget a couple of months ago, the already dire situation for transit operators in California became much worse.  In the Bay Area, AC Transit raised fares, the MTA has been considering budget cuts and fare hikes, and BART will likely do the same if its board can get to the discussion at the next meeting. 

While these temporary solutions will balance the spreadsheets for this year, the state's commitment to transit operations for the next five years will be a pittance and operators will continue to suffer.  Unless advocates can get on the same page and build a comprehensive coalition to call for more funding, elected officials like Governor Schwarzenegger will get away with pitching themselves as green politicians and then sabotaging one of the best ways to make our mobility more sustainable.

Unfortunately, advocates are not unified in their call for a commitment to transit.  Several hundred people have turned out at meetings about funding cuts, but those same numbers have not made it to Sacramento to lobby legislators for an affirmative change. Some of the groups will be spending their resources lobbying Washington for changes to the transportation act rather than dealing with the troubled situation at the state level.

"For me, part of it will be where the biggest opportunities are for organizing. There is some possibility for major transitions at the federal level," said CALPIRG's Emily Rusch, cautioning that transit constituency wasn't strong enough at the state level. "It will take some time before we can find more money from legislators or at the ballot."

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The Art of Air Traffic Over America

Air_Traffic_4.jpg
Although this is only tangentially related to our coverage of transit and livable streets in the Bay Area (Oakland Airport Connector is as good as I can get), artist Aaron Koblin has created a remarkable series of visuals and animation that show the flight patterns of U.S. airplanes over a twenty-four hour period.

As beautiful as the stills above and below are, you must watch the animation here to get the full picture of air travel in the U.S.  Note the Eastern Seaboard with all the early morning commuter flights.

In a collaboration with Wired Magazine, Koblin created maps that break down the 205,000 daily flights monitored by the FAA, with different colors for different airplane models and cruising altitudes.  The following map is one of my favorite planes, the Airbus A-320.

Air_Traffic_6.jpgA-320 regional jets flown in the U.S. over 24 hours

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