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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Amtrak’s Anderson, witnesses spar over PTC, ‘Chief’ in Senate hearing (updated) NEWSWIRE

Amtrak’s Anderson, witnesses spar over PTC, ‘Chief’ in Senate hearing (updated) NEWSWIRE

By Bob Johnston | June 26, 2019

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Passengers wait to board the Southwest Chief at Las Vegas, N.M., on Oct. 4, 2018. The Chief‘s future was a bone of contention during a Wednesday Senate hearing on Amtrak.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amtrak president and CEO Richard Anderson told senators at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday that Congress should require positive train control or equivalent technology “for all common carrier, regularly scheduled passenger rail operations nationwide.”

He found a willing ally in another panelist, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy. She specifically referenced the Southwest Chief when advocating for a national policy to prohibit Federal Railroad Administration exemptions to PTC on less traveled routes.

“They should all be eliminated; they weren’t authorized in the law,” she stated flatly, adding, “an iPad in the cab won’t stop a train if the engineer runs through a red signal.”  This is an alternative to PTC that Amtrak’s president and other NTSB members have advocated, based on their mutual familiarity and comfort zone describing what pilots use in an airline cockpit, as opposed to route-specific familiarization protocols that take place in a locomotive cab.

Homendy was unaware that the ex-Santa Fe Automatic Train Stop signal system installed on the one-train-daily Southwest Chief route is designed to halt a train under that exact circumstance. Asked whether PTC can prevent collisions with autos at grade crossings, she acknowledged that it didn’t, but failed to mention that Amtrak has been utilizing an add-on feature to do that in its Michigan line’s Incremental Traffic Control System that has been in revenue service since 2012.

Anderson also claimed Amtrak is “in the best shape in our history,” “customer satisfaction surveys are at record levels,” and that “we feel good about where we are.” But Sen. Tom Udall (D.-N.M.) was less complimentary, accusing Amtrak of “wasting resources in proposing to disband the Southwest Chief … When Congress rejects Amtrak’s corridor plan, it appears that Amtrak will once again be left without a real vision for a national network.”

Udall told Anderson, “I was very discouraged to hear you say you are looking at breaking up long distance routes — that wasn’t in your written testimony quite that strongly.” The senator added, “While progress has been made, I am confident the threat is not over. I see that Amtrak continues to blame Congress and others for budgetary woes when it’s convenient, yet when tasked with engaging with stakeholders you are slow to do so.”

In response to a question about Amtrak’s engagement with stakeholders, Colorado Rail Passenger Association President Jim Souby noted, “The way Amtrak evaluates any of its services is purely related to metrics based on passenger trips.” He added, “Of course, rural communities aren’t going to have as many passengers boarding as in a heavy metropolitan area, but in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, the economic and social benefits total $180 million a year … so there’s something wrong with the equation when they are not taking that into account — it’s a public transportation system.”

Souby was citing a study by the Rail Passengers Association in collaboration with Mississippi’s Trent Lott Institute documenting the Chief‘s benefits. Another study by the association pegs the Empire Builder’s public contribution to the communities it serves at $327 million annually. “We’re talking about a huge public return on that federal investment,” he said.

In a follow-up exchange with Anderson, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) asked for a commitment from Anderson that Amtrak would work with Souby and other Chief stakeholders.

Anderson replied, “I’m glad to hear that it’s worth $180 million to the states, so then they can get their matches up for us to be able to do the work that needs to be done to keep this operation underway.”

Souby’s response pointed out that in his opinion, “Not every single mile of the 1,400 miles of non-Amtrak track that Amtrak runs on should (be required to have) PTC. Specifically,” he added, “the New Mexico line used by the Southwest Chief only has one train each way every 24 hours. If in fact it is $500,000 a mile to install PTC, we’re talking about $100 million for that 230-mile line. That’s an extremely costly investment for two trains.”

Updated at 3:30 p.m. CDT on June 27 with clarification from Rail Passengers Association on sources of studies cited in Jim Souby testimony, and with the association’s correction of its figure for the financial value of the Empire Builder.

9 thoughts on “Amtrak’s Anderson, witnesses spar over PTC, ‘Chief’ in Senate hearing (updated) NEWSWIRE

  1. “…PTC can prevent collisions at grade crossings……Amtrak has been utilizing an add-on feature to do that in its Michigan line’s Incremental Traffic Control System that has been in revenue service since 2012.”
    Whoever said that; it’s NOT true. X-ITCS provides an extra time-advance on grossing gates to be be certain they are down well in advance of a high-speed train, and gives the engineer a positive indication of this. If the gates do not close in time, the engineer must make an appropriate brake application or the system will take over and stop the train. The system will NOT prevent an idiot driver from driving through or around the gates, therefore cannot “prevent” a collision.

  2. Sadly, Anderson’s focus is strictly on utilizing PRIIA to strangulate states for payoffs on their once per day train in order to subsidize the deficit-ridden NEC. Without attending this session, we could close our eyes and just hear Anderson’s excuses.

    When does Congress get tired of seeing manure piled up in its hearing and insist that their is only one metric worth its salt–average miles traveled; not numbers of passengers boarded?

    Those concerned senators should make Amtrak a national campaign issue for 2020; to realize nothing will change until the Board is eliminated as a dumping ground for ex-politicos; an executive management acting as “sock puppets” for a conflicted Board are relieved.

    Remember, “national or nothing!”

  3. While I support the idea of the transcon trains and Amtrak in general I think as a political campaign issue most people don’t think it is that important.

  4. Whether or not one likes Richard Anderson, the fact is that Amtrak has had 48 years to show the viability of LD service. For whatever combination of reasons and no matter where the finger is pointed, the cause seems lost.

    Over 48 years, the rail system has changed in ways that don’t benefit LD passenger trains. Over 48 years, air travel has greatly increased. However which way Carl parses the Congressional testimony, I don’t see a way forward.

    Yes, I’d love to see the Chief (my own personal favorite train —- from trips 46 and 47 years ago) continue on forever. It won’t. As Ann Landers used to say, “Wake up and smell the coffee”.

  5. Live in Southern Cal. and ride the train from Ventura county to Orange county about every 2 months and enjoy it very much. I think one of the major stumbling blocks is the lack of dedicated tracks for both passenger and freight trains. Each time I travel our passenger train has to back up to a siding to allow either the northbound/southbound train priority on the one track. The other situation we have here, I don’t know about other areas, we have about one suicide by train each month. Not sure how that can be eliminated. I would like to know what other countries have in place to prevent suicides and the amount of track for both passenger and freight trains.

  6. I agree with M Singer as to Mr. Anderson & the Amtrak board strategy to stick it to the states for their minimal service to subsidize the money pit NEC as for the political issue it would probably be more effective in congressional races in those areas which would be impacted by service loss more. And yes, “national or nothing”.

  7. Anderson’s testimony was at best pleasant, but lacked anything approaching a real commitment to the National Network. Anderson’s direct attack on long haul patronage, claiming a 30% drop for trips over 600 miles since 2013 is ludicrous. They themselves have constrained capacity in a way that would virtually guarantee this. The RPA needs to go after this new talking point. SWC ridership is barly down 3% in the past year, despite a full year without the usual 8-10,000 Boy Scout riders to Raton, the entire summer of shut-down threats and Amtrak’s consist reduction from 4 to 3 coaches west of KC and on some ff-season trips to only 2 coaches.

    Breaking up long hauls remains an Anderson obsession. If trains don’t connect (and running only by day assures this) and if the states get stuck to pay for services they now get without direct local subsidy, the collapse is the National Network is certain. If Anderson wants to experiment with enhanced service on existing routes Amtrak at its own initiative should run the Duluth-St. Paul-Chicago added frequency.

    The continued insistence on universal PTC was commendable, but only if it had been accompanied by a commitment to seek Federal funding for routes like the VERMONTER, ETHAN ALLEN, DOWNEASTER, CZ, SWC, CARDINAL, EMPIRE BUILDER (in the MSP yards) etc. The NTSB rep even threatened to advocate to preclude any new starts in the absence of PTC, but said nothing about funding this. It was also telling that neither Anderson nor the NTSB seemed to have any understanding at all of the existence of the Santa Fe ATS system on this line. Although it is inactive Trinidad to Lamy, its components remain and it could easily to restored to service. The rest of the route is covered by both PTC and in most areas ATS.

    I just read the heartbreaking full NTSB report on the DuPont, WA Talgo crash that killed my friends Jim Hamre and Zach Willhoite. I am NOT opposed to universal PTC, but on low volume routes the freight carriers (and the states) simply will not do it. The money for rural/secondary lines must come from the Federal government and the RPA (and the FRA/NTSB) need to advocate for no change in current rules until this is done. Also the NTSB must become reasonable in considering sensible GPS based PTC equivalency systems where traffic volumes do not justify installing CTC, as well as PTC.

    Jim Souby did a truly brilliant job for the RPA/NARP and Colo Rail and Intermountain–west advocates. This was I believe our first formal testimony to the Congress in person since Ross departed. We could not have asked for a better presentation. He deserves a Golden Spike or Ross Capon Award for this outstanding job!

    One of the most revealing “tells” yesterday was when Anderson referred to Jim as “him” in response to a question on universal (unfunded) PTC being required. Somehow by now it seems amazing to me that Jim Souby is just “him” to Richard Anderson.

    Carl Fowler
    Vice Chair Rail Passengers Association/NARP
    (Views expressed are my own)

  8. Charley
    BS. The LD trains are populated. Try to get a sleeping accomodation other than several months in advance. And, if they are discontinued,I will destroy my AMTRAK credit card, and never ride his shortfall trains again.

  9. Anderson lied to Congress and Udall and Gardner burned him so did Roberts and Moran. I am through with your lies Anderson this is not Delta, United, or Southwest where you rip people off and make them sick this is Amtrak the nations railroad. You don’t know what PTC is and still you are getting subsidiaries from the airlines. All I ask is one thing RESIGN! or I will remove you myself via a petition. That is not a threat Anderson it is a promise and I have 4 thousand signatures once we reach 5 thousand you will be removed and you will go where the rest of the tycoons go straight to prison for ponzi.

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