high_speed_rail_1Eighteen years have passed since the establishment of the California High Speed Rail (CHSR) Authority. Over the course of those eighteen years, high speed rail in the state has been discussed and planned and delayed and delayed more.

There have been proposals, referendums, debates, studies and budgets, but no tracks laid, no passengers queued, no trains roaring between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the promised three hour travel time at speeds exceeding 200 mph.

I began looking into the state of American high speed rail in pursuit of a few simple answers. Why don’t we have the sort of rail infrastructure seen across Europe, in Japan and now in China? What do proponents and opponents say about the various projects underway today? Put simply, what are the pros and cons of funding and maintaining high speed rail lines in this country, and what do our legislators make of them?

Read the complete story at www.attn.com.

high_speed_rail_1“I just returned from a trip to Europe, and really enjoyed riding the high-speed Eurostar and TGV. Why can’t we have something like that here in the U.S.?” So asked a reader, and the fundamental answer is simple: The United States, as a nation, does not and will not enjoy a robust passenger rail system because, as a nation, it doesn’t have the will to develop and operate one.

Other places do have the will. Between 2003 and 2013, China built more than 6,000 miles of new true high-speed rail lines. Japan and Spain now have almost 1,600 high-speed miles, with more being built or planned. In two years, Switzerland will open a 35-mile tunnel through the heart of the Alps, and the British are digging a new line across all of London. Other countries in Africa and Asia are building or adding to their systems.

Read the complete story at the Chicago Tribune.

high_speed_rail_1WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans this week are trying to drive another spike, or two, into the heart of California’s high-speed rail program.

Daring a presidential veto, GOP lawmakers are deploying a Fiscal 2015 transportation funding bill to effectively block the federal Surface Transportation Board from issuing new permits for the California project.

Hammering home the point, House Republicans on Tuesday approved an amendment by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., that blocks any money from the $52 billion bill from going to California high-speed rail.

Read the complete story from Miami Herald

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers announces support for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal to authorize funding for the state’s high-speed rail program, utilizing $300 million of cap and trade revenue.

This investment includes upgrades to commuter and intercity rail systems that improve connectivity and modernize transportation between regions throughout the state. Without high-speed rail, California’s existing transportation network cannot meet the demands of the projected population growth of 20 million new residents in the coming decades. Studies find that adding more highways and airports to what already exists would cost up to three times as much as high-speed rail.

According to SMART General President Joseph Nigro, “California’s leadership in this effort will serve as a trailblazer for other states as the nation moves toward high-speed rail as a solution to solving present and future transportation challenges.”

SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, is one of North America’s most dynamic and diverse unions with 216,000 members. SMART’s members produce and provide the vital services that move products to market, passengers to their destinations and ensure the quality of the air we breathe. We are sheet metal workers, service technicians, bus operators, railroad engineers and conductors, sign workers, welders, production employees and more. With members in scores of different occupations, we advocate for fairness in the workplace, excellence at work and opportunity for all working families.

high_speed_rail_1It may seem improbable, but the odds that faster trains are coming to the Northeast Corridor have jumped recently. That’s because beginning in 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is expected to finally permit modern European designs on tracks throughout the country, running side by side with heavy freight, at all times of day. This decision could cut the weight of U.S. passenger trains in half, meaning trains can go faster, accelerate more quickly, cause less wear on tracks, and get passengers to their destination in less time.

How much time? The decision by the FRA to finally shelve regulatory requirements from the 1920s means that lighter replacement train sets for the Acela could cut the trip from Boston to New York by 30 minutes (the trains can maneuver the curvy tracks of New England at higher speeds) and the faster acceleration and braking could shave 5 to 10 minutes off the trip from New York to Washington.

Read the complete story at The Daily Beast.


The Obama Administration yesterday released its budget request for fiscal year 2014 and the President has once again put forth a plan for transforming and expanding train service in the United States.

The president is requesting $40 billion in passenger rail investment over the next five years, allocating $6.6 billion to the Federal Rail Administration for fiscal 2014, with increasing amounts each subsequent year through 2019.

“A well-functioning transportation system is critical to America’s economic future. Whether it is by road, transit, air, rail, pipeline, or waterway, Americans rely on our transportation system to move people and goods safely, facilitate commerce, attract and retain businesses, and support jobs,” the administration said in the budget request.

The request for $40 billion over five will fund the development of high-speed rail and other passenger rail programs as part of an integrated national transportation strategy.

This system will provide 80 percent of Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service, within 25 years.

The proposal also benefits freight rail and significantly restructures Federal support for Amtrak, to increase transparency, accountability, and performance.

The request will be a boost for Amtrak, coming a day before the House Committee on Transportation holds a hearing on the railroad’s FY 2014 budget.

The hearing, Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget: The Starting Point for Reauthorization [which will be streamed live], will address Amtrak’s funding needs, as well as the coming rail reauthorization (the current law will expire at the end of this September).

Amtrak announced April 9 it had set a new ridership record during the first half of this fiscal year, and will be looking to translate its steady increase in popularity into an increase its funding for badly needed equipment purchases and infrastructure upgrades. 

Passage of a reauthorization bill this year is uncertain, but the appropriations committees will determine how much federal funding each program gets.

Secretary LaHood is scheduled to appear before the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee on April 16.

President Obama’s $6.6 billion request breaks down in the following ways:

• $2.7 billion for “Current Passenger Rail Service,” including $800 million for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, $300 million for state corridors, $675 million for the Northeast Corridor and $925 million for “national assets” (defined as positive train control for passenger rail, rail stations, and “backbone rail facilities).”

• $3.7 billion for “Rail Service Improvement Program.” The budget request defines goals for the program as “Creating or improving passenger corridors, mitigating congestion bottlenecks in the rail system, improving intermodal freight rail capacity and comprehensive future planning.”

President Obama has put forth similar proposals in the past, and the biggest obstacle to implementing the program remains identifying new sources of funding.

The Administration identifies the “peace dividend” — money saved from drawing down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — as a major source of funding. However, House Republicans have rejected this proposal in its previous iterations. 

The Administration is proposing that rail funding become part of the Highway Trust Fund (it would be repurposed into a “Transportation Trust Fund”). This would eliminate Amtrak’s dependence on the annual appropriations cycle, moving it a grant structure similar to highways and transit.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, Californians for High Speed Rail, and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association are urging Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to support XpressWest’s creation of a Los Angeles to Las Vegas high-speed rail line.

XpressWest currently has loan application pending with the Federal Railroad Administration through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program.

Congress established the RRIF loan program in 1998 to help support development of the U.S. rail system. Under the RRIF program, the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is authorized to provide direct loans and loan guarantees out of a $35 billion pool of revolving credit to help rail projects.

In a letter to LaHood, the four organizations cited the following factors in seeking his support:

•Los Angeles to Las Vegas is the second busiest end-point pair in the United States, trailing only Los Angeles to San Diego. The completion of XpressWest will be a critical step toward meeting the president’s goal of connecting 80 percent of the American public to modern intercity passenger trains within 25 years.

•XpressWest will provide a convenient, energy-efficient alternative to the heavily traveled Interstate-15, a congested and dangerous highway. Mid-desert traffic back-ups are fairly common. The initial 185-mile segment would have the capacity to divert more than 2 million annual automobile trips, saving an estimated 440,000 barrels of oil each year. The train would also provide a safer travel alternative: the Las Vegas to Los Angeles segment of Interstate 15 has been found to be one of the most dangerous highways in America, and a 2010 study found that 1,069 people died in 834 automobile accidents on the road over a 15 year period.

•It will help speed up and enhance the California high speed rail project with extensions to Palmdale (70 miles from Los Angeles; currently served by Metrolink commuter trains) where the two systems will seamlessly integrate, significantly increasing ridership on both systems, and increasing private sector interest in the California system to help fund further extensions.

•It will expand the market for American high-speed rail manufacturing.

•It is consistent with the desire of Americans for good train travel. This is reflected in the fact that Amtrak has set ridership records in nine of the last 10 years. Moreover, as a recent Brookings Institution report noted, Amtrak ridership from 1997 to 2012 at 55 percent grew faster than domestic aviation ridership (20 percent), highway vehicle-miles traveled (16.5 percent), U.S. population (17 percent) and real gross domestic product (37 percent).

“XpressWest is well suited for this program. This project is ready to go today, having already gained environmental clearance and secured the needed rights-of-way. Private investors have already assembled $1.5 billion in funds to support the project.

“With leadership from the private sector, we can be confident the project will be delivered quickly and efficiently, and managed with strong business practices. Because the nation’s high-speed rail network will be created through public-private partnership, this project offers the ideal model starter project to help move the nation’s new rail program forward,” the organizations’ leadership said.

The following message was sent to the UTU National Legislative Office from Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo:

In his State of the Union Address last week, President Obama spoke about the importance of investing in our infrastructure as a path to create new jobs and lay a foundation for America’s economic success.

Joe Szabo

In the last three years, American businesses have added 6 million new jobs, including a half-million in manufacturing. But there’s more to be done. And while construction jobs are often the most visible, our investments can continue remaking America as a magnet for manufacturing.

In a new report, the Environmental Law and Policy Center highlights the scope of the railway supply industry in the Midwest.

The report found 122 suppliers in Ohio, 99 in Indiana, 49 in Michigan, 84 in Illinois, 73 in Wisconsin, 26 in Minnesota and seven in Iowa. The Midwest is not alone. Railway suppliers are located in 49 out of 50 states and employ 94,000 people.

Manufacturers like Cleveland Track Material in Ohio are benefiting from the $12 billion the U.S. DOT has invested in passenger rail over the last four years. Started by Vietnam Veteran Bill Willoughby in 1984 in an impoverished section of Cleveland, the company was one of 53 across 20 states that received an order from Maine’s Downeaster service expansion project. Last year, Cleveland Track invested over $5 million in new production equipment at their plant. The company employs 300 people in Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. 

Manufacturers are opening new plants in the United States. Recently, the state of California awarded the newly-opened Nippon Sharyo plant in Illinois with a contract to build 130 rail cars that will run on the state’s existing corridors.

Amtrak and California High Speed Rail Authority have answered our call to work together to explore a bundled procurement for the next generation of high-speed rail equipment – equipment designed to reach up to 220 mph. Combining orders will provide incentives to high-speed rail manufacturers to build factories domestically, creating new high-quality jobs and tremendous opportunities for suppliers.

Investments in freight rail will also mean new jobs at suppliers. Last week, the Association of American Railroads announced the industry would invest more than $24 billion this year in its network.

President Obama also recently signed into law the Shortline and Regional Railroad 45G Tax Credit. The Railway Tie Association estimates that when the 45G credit is in effect, between 500,000 and 1,500,000 additional railroad ties will be installed each year.

For the first time in more than a decade, America is adding new manufacturing jobs. Continued investment in our rail network will put Americans to work in factories today, and lead to economic expansion over the next generation.

High-speed rail has been given an energy-boosting vitamin B-12 shot by the California legislature and Amtrak for separate projects on the West and East Coasts.

In California, the legislature agreed to spend $6 billion to build the first 130-mile leg of a 520-mile high-speed line – with an estimated cost of some $68 billion — that eventually will connect Sacramento with San Francisco and Los Angeles. Gov. Jerry Brown, who has staked his political reputation on high-speed rail for California, is expected to sign the spending bill into law.

In Washingotn, D.C., Amtrak announced a formal vision for 220-mph travel along the entire Northeast Corridor.

This first 130-mile leg of California high-speed rail, in California’s Central Valley, will connect Madera with Bakersfield. Previously, California voters authorized a $9.95 billion bond measure as a down-payment on the projected $68 billion route, with the U.S. Department of Transportation providing $3.2 billion in federal grants. The funds voted by the state legislature will come from bond sales and be mated with already approved $3.2 billion in federal grants to total $5.8 billion for the Central Valley leg of the project.

The New York Times reported in November 2011:

“[While] for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation.

“[Gov. Brown] has enthusiastically embraced the plan, no matter that at 73, he seems unlikely to be around for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that is projected to be more than 20 years away. ‘California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion,’ Mr. Brown said.”

President Obama has been the strongest proponent of high-speed rail advances in America, advocating a nationwide 17,000-mile network of high-speed and higher-speed trains that could provide 80 percent of the American population access to train travel by 2036.

Amtrak, meanwhile, unveiled its formal vision for 220-mile train travel – by 2040 – along the 438-mile Northeast Corridor linking Washington, D.C. with Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The $151 billion improvement plan over the decades-long period of construction would require substantial federal and state financial support to assure – on “NextGen” named trains — 94 minute travel times between Washington, D.C., and New York and between New York and Boston. The Washington-New York trip current requires almost three-hours travel time and almost four hours between New York and Boston.

Some 40,000 new construction jobs annually, for 25 years, would result, says Amtrak.

Amtrak’s vision includes direct rail links to airports at Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and White Plains, N.Y.

“The vision we will shape with the Northeastern states, Amtrak and all of our stakeholders will outlast the vagaries of politics, budgets and critics,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo.

By Joe Szabo – 
Federal Railroad Administrator

It seems like just yesterday, as UTU Illinois state legislative director and mayor of Riverdale, Ill., that I joined other mayors to successfully advocate for more frequent rail service from Chicago to downstate Illinois communities. 

At the time, even that modest goal seemed daunting, as conventional wisdom said Americans would no longer ride trains.

Fast forward to 2012, where 30 million people are riding Amtrak each year — more than ever before. 

The future looks even brighter. 

How did it happen? My brothers and sisters at the UTU worked with mayors, business owners, university presidents and environmental groups across the nation to show elected officials at all levels of government how better train service would transform local economies, provide Americans with more transportation options and create new jobs.

Decades of advocacy are finally paying dividends, as we finally have a president in Barack Obama who understands that our economy is dependent on the quality of our transportation system. President Obama invested more than $10 billion in regional rail networks that will provide a much needed alternative to congested highways and airports as our nation grows by 100 million people over the next 40 years.

As FRA administrator, I have visited communities across the country as they begin construction projects. Some include:

* New England, where service will reach new communities in Maine this year. 

* The Pacific Northwest, where new construction will lead to more frequent service between Seattle and Portland.

* The Midwest, where trips from Chicago to Detroit and St. Louis will be more than an hour shorter by 2014, and feature next-generation American-made trains.

* The Southeast, where new construction will lead to more frequent and reliable service between Charlotte and Raleigh.

* California, where construction is underway to add capacity to existing corridors, while the state breaks ground on its high-speed train system later this year.

The Obama administration also invested more than $3 billion to improve reliability and order new locomotives for the Northeast Corridor, while Northeast states begin planning for the next generation of the service.

In communities I visit, I meet leaders of both political parties who are excited to explain how their town will benefit from a project. As a former mayor, I relate. At the local level, transportation investments are not about politics – they are about creating new jobs, attracting new investment, and making the lives of our friends and neighbors better.

Now is the time for Congress to make the investments we need in passenger rail to create jobs today and provide America with the world-class transportation network we need in the 21st century.

(Prior to his April 2009 Senate confirmation as FRA administrator, Joe Szabo was UTU Illinois state legislative director. He is a fifth generation railroader.)