Modest ridership projections in passenger rail study connecting Shreveport and Vicksburg

Photo by Kate Archer Kent

Photo by Kate Archer Kent

Consultants are wrapping up a year-long feasibility study exploring passenger rail service from Shreveport-Bossier to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

They presented their findings Thursday as part of two public meetings held in Bossier City and Ruston. The Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments commissioned the study. It’s one of several underway from Texas to Mississippi.

The study found estimated ridership between Shreveport and Vicksburg would be 81,500 people annually. The yearly operating cost: $9.6 million with almost all of it subsidized.

NLCOG executive director Kent Rogers says when you fold in numbers from Dallas-Fort Worth to Vicksburg, the ridership doubles, and the study takes a very different turn.

“Shreveport to Vicksburg is low, but as soon as you add in Dallas-Fort Worth to Shreveport to Vicksburg those numbers jump astronomically and that’s going to continue to grow as you build on those longer segments,” Rogers said, following a 90-minute midday presentation at Bossier Parish Community College.

Read the full article here.

Senators Wicker, Booker Unveil Railroad Reform, Amtrak Reauthorization

Bipartisan Proposal Could See Committee Vote Next Week

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., today introduced a bipartisan measure to improve passenger rail safety, reauthorize Amtrak services, and improve existing rail infrastructure. The bill, “Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act,” could receive a vote by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee as early as next week.

“To help the United States compete globally, we must invest in a safe and reliable passenger rail system that Americans can depend on,” Booker said. “But too often our rail system falls short due to a lack of adequate infrastructure investment. Our bipartisan bill takes important steps to improve rail safety in the wake of last month’s tragic derailment, modernize our aging passenger rail network, and maximize investments in infrastructure through improved financing and grant programs. The legislation allows Amtrak to reinvest Northeast Corridor profits back into improving Northeast Corridor infrastructure, including throughout New Jersey. This will help advance critical but long overdue initiatives like building the Gateway Project which adds a new tunnel under the Hudson River and replacing the declining Portal Bridge. Senator Wicker has been a tremendous partner in moving this important bill forward.”

The Southern Rail Commission's Chairman Knox Ross voiced support on behalf of the Commission and vowed swift action should the bill pass.

"The Southern Rail Commission expresses gratitude for Senator Wicker’s contribution in crafting a bi-partisan bill supported by a Republican Senator from the deep south along with Democrat Senator Booker from the northeast. Immediately upon passage of this bill, the Southern Rail Commission is poised and ready to work with members of the working group on implementing service along the Gulf Coast corridor. Local support for restoring passenger rail service that was wiped out during Katrina has been demonstrated by 22 mayors, along with business and civic leaders from across the Gulf States."

Read the full release at Senator Wicker's website.

SRC "Katrina Conversation" encourages local support for Gulf Coast passenger rail

Last night, the Southern Rail Commission hosted a "Katrina Conversation" on the restoration of passenger rail along the Gulf Coast. 

As a part of the ongoing Katrina+10 programming, the panel discussion featured diverse perspectives that illustrated the immense challenges we faced in the wake of the storms and how it's never been more important to bring comprehensive rail back to the Gulf Coast region. 

"There’s a widespread amount of support from your [local] governments, from your planning organizations, and from your business community to get the train service back." said Knox Ross, Mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi and chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. "And that’s the most important part of this — we have to have local support. Your elected representatives in Washington have to know that this is important.”

Click here to read the full story. 

Southern Rail Commission efforts featured on AL.com

The Southern Rail Commission's recent efforts were detailed in a feature story on AL.com — Alabama's leading digital news outlets. 

The article references:

  • Recent passenger rail Congressional activity
  • Ongoing efforts to fund studies looking at the restoration and creation of various routes
  • Growing anti-Amtrak rhetoric in Washington
  • Building local support with and for elected officials and community leaders
  • Growing trends pointing to a resurgence in demand for passenger rail
  • Renewed focus on development of and around rail stations

Southern Rail Commission Executive Committee rides two of the Northeast Corridor's most effective rail routes to learn from their successes

John Spain, left, John Robert Smith, Dick Hall, Knox Ross, Joe McHugh, an Amtrak employee, Greg White, a second Amtrak employee and Bill Hollister pose outside an Amtrak train during the trip. John Spain, Knox Ross and Greg White are members of the Southern Rail Commission’s executive committee, Dick Hall is the Mississippi Central District Transportation Commissioner, and Joe McHugh and Bill Hollister are with Amtrak.

John Spain, left, John Robert Smith, Dick Hall, Knox Ross, Joe McHugh, an Amtrak employee, Greg White, a second Amtrak employee and Bill Hollister pose outside an Amtrak train during the trip. John Spain, Knox Ross and Greg White are members of the Southern Rail Commission’s executive committee, Dick Hall is the Mississippi Central District Transportation Commissioner, and Joe McHugh and Bill Hollister are with Amtrak.

By: Knox Ross, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission

The Executive Committee of the Southern Rail Commission, along with John Robert Smith of Transportation for America and Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, met in Boston on May 24 with Bill Hollister and Joe McHugh of Amtrak to ride and inspect the route of the Downeaster service from North Station, Boston, to Portland, Maine.  This trip was coordinated by Amtrak and Transportation for America to assist the Southern Rail Commission in better understanding the implementation and operation of multi state supported passenger rail services.

This service is provided as a partnership between Amtrak and the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine and is operated by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), headed by Patricia Quinn.

The Downeaster is a service with 5 round trips daily between Boston and Portland, with 2 round trips daily between Portland and Brunswick, Maine, with plans in place to expand this service to 5 days per week, as well.  It serves 143 miles with 11 full time stations, one seasonal station, and 3 sets of equipment.

The stations for the most part are manned with local volunteers, with the exception of the Portland terminal and North Station, Boston.  Each city is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of its station.  Portland has a cooperative agreement with a bus provider.  Most of the stations are well kept, and have a city or chamber representative on site to welcome passengers to the city and assist them with any issues they may have.  This appeared to be an important part of the success of the service, with the local communities, and the University of New Hampshire, with a stop on its campus, recognizing the benefit and opportunity of rail service in their communities.

The service itself began in 2001, and has seen steady increases in traffic.  From 262,000 in FY 2004 to 537,000 in FY 14.  Amtrak serves as the operations manager of the service, and negotiates the operating agreements with the host railroads, while NNEPRA serves as the business manager.  This allows NNEPRA to focus on passenger services instead of railroad operations, which appears to greatly enhance the effectiveness of the service.

The State of Maine is the principal funding source of the service, with New Hampshire providing some capital investment at the outset and Massachusetts providing station facilities at no cost via the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA).  The beginning of the Downeaster is unique in that Congress directed Amtrak to provide surplus equipment to start the service at no cost, and authorized the State of Maine to utilize Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds to offset operating deficits, something that few other states have the authorization to do.  Maine further allocated a Multimodal Account to the operation of the Downeaster funded by taxes on aviation fuel, railroad fuel, and car rentals to make up any further match requirements and provide for some capital funding.  Thus, no general fund amounts are used in the operation, which protects it from the vagaries of the legislative process.  The train is also the beneficiary of a recently established Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in Portland, which is allowing fewer CMAQ funds to be required.

The NNEPRA has taken a unique approach in the operation of the train, in that they are the only Amtrak train to provide independently contracted food service.  This allows them to charge less for on board food and drink, while maintaining a similar net cost structure to traditional Amtrak services.  It also allows them to have a more regional flavor in their offerings, with many cross marketing opportunities for locally sourced items.

The NNEPRA board is appointed by the State of Maine, since they are the primary funder of the service.  The management of the train reports to this board.  The online communities meet bi-monthly to discuss opportunities and operation of their stations.  They also contribute ideas for marketing efforts, such as discounted tickets for college students, multi-ride passes, senior citizen passes, cancer patient passes, and children’s groups.  Amtrak has indicated that they would be open to similar proposals on our routes.  Marketing and promotion is driven by NNEPRA staff with heavy input from the online communities.

The capital investment has been heavily federal in nature, $146 million to date.  They have utilized ARRA, FRA, and CMAQ funds as well as a state bond fund. 

The service also benefits from an active advocacy group, Trainriders Northeast, headed by Wayne Davis.  Mr. Davis, together with his volunteer board provides political advocacy and volunteers to staff stations and provide guides on trains to help market local attractions.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Local Buy-in. The Local communities understand the benefit of train service and provide resources to support it.  Local chambers and development organizations are staffing the stations and making sure they are a good representation of their community.  They work closely with each other and NNERPA to make sure the service is successful.  We saw the direct result of this at Dover, NH on the campus of the University of New Hampshire and at Saco, Maine with a great deal of transit oriented development.
  2. Dedicated Management. There is no substitute for having someone “minding the store”.  Patricia Quinn is a tireless advocate and has a hospitality management background, which is crucial to communicate the understanding that they are not running a railroad, they are providing a passenger service. 
  3. Non-Budget Funding. Having dedicated sources of funding both federal and state give the service more permanency and insulate it from the political process, allowing the management to concentrate their efforts on growing the service.
  4. Maine wanted it and is willing to pay for it. Maine is providing the bulk of the funding and did not wait on other states to join in.  They felt it was important enough to their economy to support and not be as concerned about who is paying for what.
  5. Organized local support. Having an organization like Trainriders Northeast has been critical in both the establishment and maintenance of the service.  Providing both political and volunteer support.

Vermonter Service and the Vermont Department of Transportation

Amtrak in cooperation with Transportation for America arranged for our group to meet with Chris Cole, Deputy Secretary of the Vermont Department of Transportation (VDOT), and his staff to discuss their experience in funding the two Amtrak trains which serve Vermont, the Ethan Allen Express, and the Vermonter. 

Mr. Cole noted that Vermont has a long history of state involvement with railroads, beginning with the state purchase of the Rutland Railroad in 1964.  Railroads are seen as an integral part of the Vermont economy and enjoy wide public support.  Vermont sees these services as environmentally friendly and as a way to assist with keeping its highway infrastructure in better repair by reducing highway miles traveled.

The Vermonter runs from St. Albans near the Canadian border through Burlington and Montpelier to Brattleboro in the south continuing through Massachusetts and Connecticut before terminating in New York City.  The Ethan Allen serves Rutland in the middle of the state, with the majority of this service in New York State and terminating in Washington, DC.  Each train runs seven days a week with one stop in each direction. 

Annual ridership has grown from 87,000 passengers on both services in 2005 to 142,000 passengers in 2014, with the Vermonter growing from 50,000 to 90,000 passengers in this time period.

The state of Vermont pays for its share of the operating deficit out of general fund revenues.  In the most recent budget year, $7.8 million was budgeted for the service.  However, recent experience has shown that actual outlays are less given the increased ridership.  The cost is divided between the states on a train mile basis with an additional agreement with Amtrak for the use of the Northeast Corridor.   Amtrak negotiates the agreements with the host railroads, which allows for a comprehensive agreement for the route, however, this prevents the individual states from negotiating any concessions from the host railroads. Amtrak also provides all operational personnel and support for the operation. 

For marketing the services, the states participating provide $130,000 in marketing funding for the services, with $65,000 paid directly to Amtrak to support national marketing efforts and $75,000 to support direct marketing efforts.  Vermont also provides $50,000 in marketing for Vermont focused efforts.  Vermont also makes sure Vermont sourced products are served on the train.  All states involved have negotiated special fares with Amtrak, focusing on colleges and universities on the route, as well as intrastate travel. 

VDOT has utilized various federal programs to assist in capital improvements along the line, including ARRA, Tiger, and FHWA.  However, unlike the Maine service, Vermont is unable to utilize CMAQ funds for operations.  However, as most of the Vermont trackage is state owned, VDOT can utilize FEMA and other federal agencies for capital assistance, and have more control over the improvements made that benefit passenger rail service.

VDOT maintains an advisory council to advise the Secretary of Transportation and they meet quarterly to review the current status of the service and what can be done to improve it.  VDOT has recently budgeted for a full time manager of Amtrak services in the state, which it has not had previously.  This person will be responsible solely for these services and managing the state's investment.  Vermont also has an active rail advocacy group, the Vermont Rail Action Network, which serves as an effective political and grass roots support organization.  We had the opportunity to meet with Chris Parker, the Executive Director of the organization, on board the Vermonter.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Vermont has a long history of support for both freight and passenger rail, along with support for environmental protection. This allows the state to support the provision of passenger rail service without great annual public debate, and plan for future expansion of services, such as the Ethan Allen from Rutland to Burlington, without concern for fluctuations in financial support.
  2. Vermont recognizes the need for direct management of passenger services in the state. We noted that the "front door" appearance of stations and community involvement did not match what we observed in Maine.  VDOT recognizes this and has budgeted for this position which will be responsible for managing Vermont's passenger operations, marketing efforts, and community relations.  This position will also establish performance metrics and operations standards which will be monitored daily.
  3. Vermont does not have the power to negotiate with the host railroads under the current contract with Amtrak. VDOT noted that this prevented them from obtaining additional concessions or better arrangements from the host railroads.
  4. Section 209 of PRIIA, while requiring additional state support, has made it more difficult for states to enter into cooperative agreements with each other.  Each state is doing what is best for it, not necessarily what is best for the service as a whole.
  5. Limited ability to use CMAQ  and other funding sources for operations. Allowing this would free up resources for expanded service and needed station improvements.
  6. Similarity of needs and interest of Vermont and SRC states. Both states are primarily rural and face many of the same transportation issues. Great potential exists for us to form partnerships to improve transportation funding and operation in all of our states.
  7. Existence of an effective grass roots advocacy group. Vermont Rail Action Network actively supports both freight and passenger rail in Vermont and serves to bolster public support and usage. This was a common theme in Maine and Vermont.

Click here to read more about the trip on the Transportation for America blog. 

McFarland represents Southern Rail Commission during Alabama League of Municipalities annual meeting

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley addresses the attendees during the opening session of the 80th Annual Convention of the Alabama League of Municipalities. Photo courtesy of Alabama League of Municipalities.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley addresses the attendees during the opening session of the 80th Annual Convention of the Alabama League of Municipalities. Photo courtesy of Alabama League of Municipalities.

As a part of the Southern Rail Commission's ongoing effort to support and empower elected officials and community leaders, William McFarland, Jr. of the Southern Rail Commission joined more than 1,000 municipal officials, clerks, administrators and guests in Tuscaloosa May 16-19 for the 80th Annual Convention of the Alabama League of Municipalities. 

“It was an honor to represent the Southern Rail Commission at the annual Alabama League of Municipalities Annual Convention in Tuscaloosa.  This event brought well over 1,000 municipal elected officials, city managers, and other stakeholders together, and this venue afforded the convention Delegates with the opportunity to connect with the Southern Rail Commission and learn about our important work.”

Officials convened for a special Resolutions Committee meeting where delegates were presented with reports and policy recommendations for the League's five policy committees:

• Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations
• Energy, Environment and Natural Resources
• Transportation, Public Safety and Communication
• Human Development
• Community and Economic Development

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley addressed the group as well as Southside Mayor Wall Burns — the current President of the League.

The Alabama League of Municipalities was organized in 1935 and has served since that time as the recognized voice of the cities and towns in Alabama. Representing 452 member municipalities, the League works to secure enactment of legislation enabling all cities and towns to perform their functions more efficiently and effectively; offers specialized training for both municipal officials and employees; holds conferences and meetings at which views and experiences of officials may be exchanged; and conducts continuing studies of the legislative, administrative and operational needs, problems and functions of Alabama's municipal governments. 

Click here for more information about the Alabama League of Municipalities.

McFarland, SRC featured in 78 magazine

Alabama Commissioner and Governor's designee, J. William "Billy" McFarland, Jr. and the Southern Rail Commission was featured in an article in 78 magazine — a local Tuscaloosa-based lifestyle publication. 

The article details his involvement from the early days when his father help found the Commission to when he was elected its chairman. It also includes recent promotional efforts begin made by the Commission to broaden its audience and increase awareness around the "vital work that the Commission does within the states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and beyond."

Read the full article here. 

Bentley appoints Angelia L. Mance to Southern Rail Commission

Effective immediately, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has appointed Angelia L. Mance to the Southern Rail Commission.

Mance is a higher education specialist with more than 17 years of experience in teaching and administration for education programs and institutions. Her experience includes in-depth involvement in fundraising, development, and grant/proposal writing as well as creating and implementing online and traditional instructional and assessment programs for a wide variety of educational entities. Additionally, she excels in outreach and developing excellent internal and external relationships, policy development, and project management. 

Currently, she is the Senior Projects Development Manger for McFarland Consultants where she works in the research, writing, advocacy, and grant project development for clients throughout the state of Alabama.

For more than 8 years, she served as Campus Director of the Demopolis Higher Education Center for Alabama Southern Community College (also serving as Director of Institutional Effectiveness) and later for the University of West Alabama when they became managing partner of the center, where she also held the positions of Associate Director for the Center for Business and Economic Services and Special Projects Coordinator for the Suttles Entrepreneurial Center. She has served in national positions with Data Recognition Corporation and the National Council for Geographic Education after beginning her career as an educator at the University of North Alabama.

Additionally, Mance has worked as an independent consultant and author — writing on a variety of topics including education policy and curriculum development as well as numerous other topics, and serving as author of both a geography textbook and a book on Iraq. Her consulting experience includes National Geographic, Intergraph Corporation, the Census Bureau, Chelsea Publishing, EBSCO Publishers, and the United States Department of Education.

Ms. Mance currently serves as a member of the Tuscaloosa Area Consumer Advocacy group on behalf on the Governor’s Office on Disability, and as the West Alabama liaison for the Mississippi Grassroots Delta Caucus. 

Click here to read the full appointment.

Southern Rail Commission, Gulf Coast Passenger Rail featured in Progressive Railroading

The Southern Rail Commission was featured by Progressive Railroading in response to the Executive Committee's recent trip to meet with Sarah Feinberg — the interim administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. 

The meeting was to discuss the House's version of the Amtrak funding bill that calls for a study of the feasibility of restoring an Amtrak rail route between Orlando, Fla., and New Orleans.

To read the full article, click here. 

SRC Executive Committee meets with interim FRA Administrator

(left to right) John Robert Smith, President/CEO of Transportation for America; Greg White, Commissioner from Alabama; Sarah Feinberg, interim FRA Administrator; John Spain, Commissioner from Louisiana; Knox Ross, Commissioner from Mississippi

(left to right) John Robert Smith, President/CEO of Transportation for America; Greg White, Commissioner from Alabama; Sarah Feinberg, interim FRA Administrator; John Spain, Commissioner from Louisiana; Knox Ross, Commissioner from Mississippi

The Executive Committee of the Southern Rail Commission met with Sarah Feinberg — the acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration — to discuss opportunities for passenger rail throughout the Southeast United States. During the meeting, they discussed the restoration of the Gulf Coast passenger rail route connecting New Orleans to Orlando as is an important project for improved connectivity and economic coordination. 

SRC hosting Alabama mayors during quarterly meeting

To invite dialogue between the Commission and elected officials regarding passenger rail’s impact on connectivity, economic development and quality of life

The Southern Rail Commission (SRC) will host a roundtable discussion with three Alabama mayors during its first quarterly meeting of the year.

The meeting of the SRC is scheduled for March 9 at 9:00am at the West Alabama Regional Commission in Northport, Alabama. As the Governor’s designee, Alabama Commissioner J.W. McFarland, Jr. stated, “The Southern Rail Commission is extremely grateful to Governor Bentley along with Speaker Seth Hammett, Mr. Jon Barganier and Ms. Lyndsey Stewart of the Governor’s staff for their leadership in renewing the membership dues for the state of Alabama.”

The meeting will feature Mayor Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa, Mayor Vaughn Stewart of Anniston, and Mayor William Bell of Birmingham. 

“The Southern Rail Commission wants to work with local elected officials to create a strong multi-modal network across the Gulf South states,” said Knox Ross, Chairman of the Commission. “These mayors can help us understand the trends that they see in their communities and that gives us an opportunity to provide tools, resources and influence that can address the critical issues these mayors are facing.”

The roundtable discussion will include a range of topics, related to existing passenger rail service, marketing, facilities and will include service planning for the upcoming 2021 World games in Birmingham and it’s regional impact.

“The region can benefit greatly from this world-class event,” said Toby Bennington, an SRC Commissioner from Alabama. “The SRC is interested in showcasing how passenger rail can be a safe and convenient way to move people and encourage tourism to other nearby cities and towns.”

Established by an act of Congress in 1982, the SRC engages and informs public and private rail interests to support and influence rail initiatives across its member states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Click here to download the complete press release.