Amtrak services' future still an open question

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Amtrak services' future still an open question

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 12:44pm -- Anonymous

Amtrak's Vermonter heads south from the Waterbury station in 2016. VBM file photo.

by C.B. Hall Vermont Business Magazine With cautious and sometimes unwelcome statements coming from Amtrak, the possible suspension of the passenger rail provider's two Vermont trains at year's end continues to worry advocates intent on preserving the trains: The New York-to-Rutland "Ethan Allen Express" and the Washington, DC-to-St Albans "Vermonter." Parties to the discussions are, however, expressing optimism that service will remain intact.

The latest developments come in the wake of a February announcement by Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson that the company would "most likely" suspend the services, and a subsequent attempt by Bill Hollister, Amtrak's senior manager of government affairs for state-supported services in the Northeast, to walk back Anderson's ominous language.

Amtrak is now talking about the future of its Vermont trains in noncommittal terms and is meanwhile conducting safety analyses of its routes both here and across the country.

By no means, however, has the company excluded the possibility that service to the Green Mountain State will evaporate on January 1.

The outlook is complicated by news that a segment of the Vermonter's route in Massachusetts may not meet administrative requirements that would reassure Amtrak of its safety.

Absent that route segment, the train would likely only reach as far north as Springfield, Mass. At issue are 49 miles of track. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation purchased the line, between Springfield and East Northfield, from Pan Am Railways in 2014 to reroute the Vermonter through more populous towns (eg, service switched from Amherst to Northampton).

The realignment proved successful in boosting ridership, but evidently neither Pan Am nor MassDOT considered the need to provide the Federal Railroad Administration with a required plan for installing a safety system known as positive train control, or PTC, on the segment. That process would likely have generated an exemption from the need to install PTC, since the line sees little traffic.

Amtrak's routes in Vermont have been through that process, and enjoy the PTC exemption, as do some Amtrak routes elsewhere. Anderson issued his February threat, affecting all those lines, despite that waiver.

In an April 16 PowerPoint presentation in Washington, DC, to the Rail Passenger Association, a national advocacy group, Chris Jagodzinski, Amtrak's vice president for operations, displayed a map indicating, in practice, the relative likelihood that Amtrak would cease serving certain route segments – and, according to two sources present at the meeting, the 49 miles in Massachusetts were rated among the highest-risk routes, since they lack the PTC plan. Amtrak denied VBM's request for a copy of the map.

If Amtrak stopped running on the Massachusetts segment, it could mean substitution of a bus for Vermonter passengers traveling north of Springfield, Mass, or it could mean no service at all north of that city. 

Advocates fear, moreover, that Anderson would be less than willing to reinstate a train such as the Vermonter or Ethan Allen if its service was suspended "temporarily" because of the PTC or related safety issues. Amtrak service between New Orleans and Florida was suspended in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc with the line. While the freight operator repaired the route in a few months, Amtrak service on it has been suspended ever since.

In the Vermonter's case, the fingers being pointed at Amtrak are also being pointed at other players, including MassDOT, for failing to stay on top of the looming threat to the 49-mile Massachusetts segment.

Primary responsibility for the snafu appears to lie, however, with Pan Am Railways, which has failed thus far to file the relevant plan, whatever the likelihood that the process would result in an exemption from the PTC requirement.

Pan Am did not respond to questions from VBM. MassDOT stated in an email that "MassDOT appreciates the passenger rail service provided by Amtrak to those who live, work and visit Massachusetts," and referred all specific questions to Amtrak.

On April 20, however, a source close to the discussions, who declined to be identified, expressed cautious optimism about how the developments would play out. The source told VBM that MassDOT is working with the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak and Pan Am to resolve the Massachusetts issue, and that the issue appears to be "solvable" by the end of the year – the PTC deadline.

And in Vermont, "Amtrak is just now beginning to undertake its safety review of routes such as the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen," Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) noted in an email statement. "It is premature to suggest that these reviews will lead to suspension of passenger service."

Passengers board the Ethan Allen Express in Castleton. VTrans file photo.

In an email responding to VBM, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds reported that "a safety assessment was under way for the Ethan Allen's route, but had not commenced for the Vermonter's.

"We are continuing to evaluate and look at solutions to ensure the service continues, but safely. We will provide as much notice as possible," she wrote.

Amtrak officials have spoken of reaching a decision on the future of services on routes such as Vermonter's this summer. Termination of a service normally requires 180 days' notice, meaning that a termination notice effective January 1, 2019, would be issued by July 5.

While advocates for the trains are quick to cite the Vermont routes' PTC exemption, no one is asserting that the routes are immune to safety concerns.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and Genesee & Wyoming, the company that owns the Vermont segment of the Vermonter's route, recently applied for a $1.6 million grant under the federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program. That money could be devoted, for example, to the installation of equipment that would detect rock slides, such as the one that derailed the Vermonter in Northfield in 2015, injuring seven.

Of course, Amtrak has made it clear that neither the lack of any federal requirement for PTC, nor any other specific safety measure, will assure the company of a route's suitability for current service, whether in Vermont or Massachusetts, or anywhere else.

"At this point the ball is in Amtrak's court," Michele Boomhower, director of policy planning and intermodal development at VTrans, expressed her perspective. "We have no time frame for anything changing, so we're operating on a business-as-usual framework, awaiting Amtrak's safety analysis."

In online discussions, passenger rail advocates are pointing fingers at Anderson – new at Amtrak after many years as an airline executive – as unqualified or even ill-intentioned, and many are calling for Amtrak to show him the door.

It's not simply a matter of his reticence about running trains on routes that lack PTC: Anger is simmering about a variety of plans being implemented by Amtrak, or ascribed to it in unconfirmed reports, to reduce services across the company's 21,000 miles of routes.

Those measures include a severe constriction of Amtrak's haulage of privately owned charter trains and individual cars – such as the 18 lovingly maintained cars that an Amtrak locomotive brought to Burlington last September for a convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners.

The cars had already followed a long "rare mileage" itinerary – that is, along freight routes that don't have any regular passenger service. And when the rail fans convened in the Queen City, keynote speaker Wick Moorman – then co-CEO of Amtrak, and himself a private car owner – said, "This year private car owners are on track to contribute about $4 million to Amtrak. Now, that's good business because ... most of it is high-margin business."

But, he added, "Moving your equipment is not our core mission in any way, shape or form... It's revenue that, if we can get it, we want it."

But in a notice sent to Amtrak employees on March 28, the company, as quoted in Trains magazine, announced that "generally, Amtrak will no longer operate charter services or special trains. These operations caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains.”

“There may be a few narrow exceptions to this policy to support specific strategic initiatives, for example trial service in support of growing new scheduled service. Otherwise, one-time trips and charters are immediately discontinued,” the notice read.

AAPRCO private rail car in Burlington in September 2017. VBM photo.

The claim of financial losses from private-car haulage invites questions. Simply moving one private car between the Chicago and Seattle train stations, for example, generates more than $7,000 in revenue for the company. That suggests that Moorman's comments were right on the mark, according to Sarah Ovenden, general manager of Roots on the Rails, a Bellows Falls company that, among other things, runs rail excursions that feature live music, many of them on private cars coupled to the end of Amtrak trains.

In mid-April, Amtrak indicated that it would allow private-car service under limited conditions, mildly alleviating any outright ban – and announced a 12-15 percent hike in its various tariffs for handling private cars.

Ovenden said that the policy will still put a major crimp into business at her company, which runs two or three excursions yearly "that have some level of Amtrak involvement."

"There's a million different ways that all of this is impacting us," she told VBM. "Both the new tariffs and the limitations on stations where Amtrak will allow us to attach and detach our cars dramatically limit the number of places we can go."

"We're going to challenge [the new policy] the best we can," she said.