Amtrak Service's Future: Is There a Canary in the Coal Mine?

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Amtrak Service's Future: Is There a Canary in the Coal Mine?

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 5:11am -- tim

The Amtrak "Vermonter" train leaves the Waterbury station on its way south. VBM file photo.

by CB Hall, Vermont Business Magazine It is uncertain whether Amtrak will follow through on its threat to suspend passenger train service to Vermont on January 1, but it is certain that continuing that service would have a huge financial impact on the Green Mountain State.

In the worst possible case, Amtrak will substitute bus service to cover its Vermont routes because they lack a safety technology known as positive train control, or PTC - which no law requires on the routes in question. Since numerous Amtrak routes are in the same situation, many feel that the national passenger rail provider's policy will  lead to a downgrading and balkanization of its entire national network.

In Vermont alone, fixing the perceived safety risks to meet Amtrak's standards for the state's two trains, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter, could cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.

Similar prospects are facing a 500-mile stretch of track in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas served by the Southwest Chief train. That situation, which spawned a difficult meeting between Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and all six U.S. senators from those states in June, ended with "no suggestion" from Anderson that Amtrak's insistence on the technology had budged, according to one of the senators, Kansas's Jerry Moran. The situation facing those states could serve as the canary in the coal mine, from Vermont's standpoint.

In a discussion with officials in New Mexico August 21, Amtrak chief commercial officer Stephen Gardner reiterated that the company would ultimately require PTC on all its routes. But he appeared to leave the door open to interim measures that would allow for the Southwest Chief's continued operation after Amtrak's December 31 deadline and stressed that "no decisions have been made."

Federal law allows for exemptions to the PTC requirement on segments of at least seven Amtrak routes. On tracks where PTC is mandated, the owner railroads have until December 31 to get it up and running, or request an extension of the deadline. As with the other exemptions, Vermont gets a free pass under the law because the rail segments in question see very little traffic. But Amtrak's safety policy is quite another matter, and Amtrak's deadline, December 31, is the same.

Amtrak first announced in February that it would require PTC throughout its 22,000-mile system in the wake of several fatal crashes involving the company's trains last winter.  Anderson told a congressional subcommittee at that time that "we have a question about whether we're going to operate at all, and I doubt we will" even on PTC-exempt tracks like Vermont's.

Since then the statements from Amtrak have generally been more equivocal. In an email statement for this article, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds, like Gardner, left the door to interim solutions ajar: "Amtrak’s aim is to continue service across all of its network, including the routes in Vermont, and to ensure that we can do so with a common level of safety. We are conducting risk analyses and developing mitigation strategies for enhancing safety on a route-by-route basis for those parts of our network where there is an exemption to PTC ." 

In a follow-up email, she clarified that "service" meant train service, as opposed to a substitute bus, and that "mitigation strategies," as an alternative to the so-called "bustitution," could mean modifications in train operations - such as speed restrictions or a cell-based technology that tells an engineer the position of upcoming switches at spurs and sidings.

As it happens, the Vermont Rail System is currently developing such a technology. Referring to Amtrak, Vermont Rail System vice president Selden Houghton told VBM, "it's something they've seen and it's all being evaluated."

VRS owns the Ethan Allen route from Whitehall, N.Y., to Rutland.

"Our intention is to use these strategies to strengthen the safety of our operations until we can achieve operable PTC or PTC-equivalency through other means," Leeds said. "We will operate at the highest level of safety – by exceeding regulatory standards," she wrote, adding the boldface herself.  "It is not good enough for us to simply meet minimum standards."

In New Mexico, Gardner likewise reported that Amtrak was weighing continued operation of the Southwest Chief after December 31 - "with appropriate mitigations in place," he said. "And we're doing that everywhere across our network." At the same time, he described two scenarios in which an Amtrak bus would cover that route's PTC-less stretch as "the feasible alternatives to the current service."

His lengthy presentation reassured none of those who spoke at the meeting, a recording of which was obtained by VBM. The grumblings they articulated have their analog in Vermont, where Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is among those scratching their heads.

In an August 27 statement to VBM Leahy spokesman David Carle said that his boss "believes that Amtrak’s leaders have sent too many mixed signals in recent months about what their intentions are for routes like the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen...  He has asked them directly whether they intend to suspend service on these lines, to put an end to any confusion that exists on this issue. They have not yet responded to his queries. He wants Amtrak to clearly state its intentions going forward so that Congress can evaluate any appropriate steps to prevent disruptions in service."

The uncertainty voiced by Leahy got an echo from Dan Delabruere, director of VTrans's Rail and Aviation Bureau.

When asked about the Vermont trains' prospects, he said, "It's up to [Amtrak]. You have to ask them. We're waiting for the report to come out. "

That's the report that will emerge from risk analyses that Amtrak is performing on the Vermonter and Ethan Allen routes. The report may outline interim measures that would keep the lines operating with interruption until PTC can be installed. The report is is due this fall.

Whatever that document says, however, meeting Amtrak's demands, particularly its insistence on eventual deployment of the safety technology, will require a lot of dollars. William Vantuono, editor of Railway Age magazine, termed PTC "a technology that’s beyond most people’s grasp" - and, by one estimate, its nationwide implementation will require hardware and software installation in 22,000 locomotives, in "back-office" communications centers, and at 38,000 locations along the rights-of-way of 40 different railroads. Those figures do not include statutorily exempted tracks such as Vermont's. Cost estimates range from $100,000 to $1.1 million per mile.

Then, of course, there are the costs of any mitigations that Amtrak might require for interim operation. Any estimate of them is highly speculative. Finally, maintaining a PTC system entails considerable expense, pegged by Amtrak at about $17,000 per mile for a very rural route.

Amtrak currently plies 200 miles of track in Vermont. Planned extensions of Amtrak's services from St. Albans to Montreal, and from Rutland to Burlington, would add on another 90 miles. At $17,000 a mile, simply maintaining PTC on those 200 miles could increase the state's current $8 million annual budget for Amtrak service by more than 40%.

Asked where all the money might come from, Delabruere said, "We don't know. We would certainly look for federal grants, things like that, but we certainly don't have that in our current budget."

Across the continent, private railroads have already spent billions of dollars to install PTC on their tracks, including those that host Amtrak trains. But in Vermont, the Amtrak routes' owners, VRS and the New England Central Railroad, have no incentive to foot any of the bill, since no law requires them to install the technology. Implementation costs in Vermont would thus likely fall entirely on the taxpayer.

Vermont must meanwhile consider those costs in the context of the $100 million or so that it has already invested in capital improvements to its passenger lines. Is it worth it to continue the investment? Must Vermont choose between huge expenditures and no passenger rail service?

As for the interim, between December 31 and PTC's arrival in Vermont, some observers are optimistic.

While the results of Amtrak's analysis of the Ethan Allen track that his company owns have yet to be reported, VRS's Houghton said, "We've had no indication that would give any cause of concern."

The optimism is shared in Maine, where Patricia Quinn, executive director of the public authority responsible for that state's Amtrak trains, recently told the Bangor Daily News that that service was "not in jeopardy at all” in the near term. The article did not consider the costs of the PTC installation Amtrak will require over the long term.

In Massachusetts, an apparent administrative snafu is meanwhile complicating the outlook for the Vermonter on the 49 miles of track it uses north of Springfield. The commonwealth of Massachusetts, which owns the segment, has yet even to apply either for a federal PTC waiver, which it would likely receive, or for approval of a mitigation plan that would allow for continued Amtrak service.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is preparing that application in cooperation with a freight railroad that uses the route. That bureaucratic process may remain incomplete on December 31, putting the line into an administrative limbo and creating uncertainty as to whether the Vermonter will be able to operate north of Springfield on January 1.

The interim measure dreaded most by passenger rail advocates is "bustitution" - a bus service that bridges a section of track not suited, for whatever reason, to passenger train operation. Under that scenario, travelers on the Vermonter would,for example, ride the train as far north as Springfield, Mass., where they would have to transfer to a bus (such was the case in the 1990s) to complete the suspended route, which ends in St. Albans.

For passengers on the Ethan Allen, the bus-train transfer would likely take place in Saratoga Springs or Whitehall, N.Y.

Aside from the inconvenience of bus-train transfers - which understandably drive some potential train travelers away completely - critics assert that putting people on a bus that is less safe than riding the train. However, measured in terms of fatalities per billion passenger-miles, buses are about 27% safer than passenger trains, according to the only credible research readily available to VBM.

Then again, trains are arguably safer if the bus in question is traveling at night, on windy roads, or under winter conditions such as Vermont experiences.

A report circulating among rail activists says that Amtrak, whatever the drawbacks of bus travel, is actively preparing to truncate the Southwest Chief in favor of a bustitution over the 500 miles of non-PTC route - in contradiction of the more flexible position presented in the company's public statements. Asked in an email to confirm or refute the report, Amtrak's Leeds did not address the question.

Williston's Carl Fowler, a vice president of the national Rail Passengers Association, told VBM that Vermont should not figure on getting better treatment than the Southwest Chief does.

"We share a PTC-exempted line, but have higher traffic volumes" than the New Mexico route, he pointed out. "How can we expect to be exempted from the standard Amtrak has applied?"

In an interview published by Trains magazine August 28, former Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said the bustitution idea and recent related actions by Amtrak constituted "unacceptable nonsense" and were creating a "reprehensible and unsustainable" situation.

VTrans's Delabruere urged caution in reading the tea leaves. "Everyone is speculating, and it's really dangerous to do that."