Efforts to extend Amtrak service beyond Oklahoma City towards Kansas City

Efforts to bring Heartland Flyer rail service through Wichita gain speed

Amtrak's Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma.

Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma.

By Bill Wilson, The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s pursuit of the Heartland Flyer passenger rail system has gained momentum, with state support, City Council support and a possible train station in downtown Wichita.

With an initial planning study for expanded rail service in hand, the Kansas Department of Transportation has joined the city’s ongoing pursuit of the Amtrak passenger route that runs from Dallas to Oklahoma City, with expansion possibilities from Fort Worth to Kansas City.

Officials from KDOT, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have told the architect of the city’s passenger rail effort, council member Pete Meitzner, that his first goal has been met.

“We’re at a point where they have confirmed independently that the (initial planning) study done a year ago is a good first step that gets us in the game,” Meitzner said.

“We were afraid we weren’t in the classroom as a state, but we’ve got a chair now.”

The Wichita City Council has signed on to efforts launched nine months ago by Meitzner to pursue the rail service, making funding more passenger rail studies a lobbying priority for the upcoming legislative session.

The effort is supported by Wichita commercial developer Gary Oborny, who has a letter of intent to buy the city’s downtown rail hub, Union Station, and convert it into key hospitality, office and retail space.

Oborny said a rail terminal is in his plans for the building. If he lands Union Station from its owner, Cox Communications, Oborny said, he’ll save space for the Flyer.

The reason? Bringing people to Wichita, he said.

Amtrak's Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma

Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma

“The key isn’t just passenger rail,” Oborny said. “That’s a nice component, but the whole rail story is really about access to Wichita. If we want to drive commerce in our city, our gates and doors have to be open 24/7 every way we can think of.”

That commerce effort, launched by the Wichita Metro Chamber, where Oborny sits on the board, can be enhanced by rail passengers stopping in downtown Wichita.

“That’s why this effort is crucial,” he said. “The one thing we have to do right now is make sure we’re on the field and ready to play.”

Meitzner’s effort has landed critical allies in KDOT Secretary Mike King, a Hesston native, and his governmental affairs chief, Lindsay Douglas. King is continuing talks with Oklahoma officials who are more interested — today — in a more northeast route for the Heartland Flyer toward Tulsa that could be a roadblock to the Wichita effort, Douglas said.

“They have indicated to us at this point in time they’re interested in funding additional work,” she said. “They are interested in offering new service, but the towns north of Oklahoma City along the Heartland line are interested in service there, too. So there might be a sort of competing interest there.”

Douglas said the next step to move the Kansas Heartland line along is an environmental study, costing $3 million from Kansas and $2.3 million from Oklahoma, less with federal assistance.

And there are plans for a regional passenger rail workshop with the Federal Railroad Administration, a significant outreach to the feds showing that Kansas and Oklahoma are serious enough about passenger rail to need federal funds, Douglas said.

But, the immediate key toward the Heartland Flyer’s future in Wichita may lie in Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget proposal, which will be released on Jan. 16, and in the willingness of the federal government to provide grant funding, Douglas said, for future studies and for a project with an uncertain price tag. The latest project estimates, from 2011, are a little more than $87 million to run from Newton into Texas, although that number is fluid as the project develops and as time passes, officials said.

“Right now, there are a lot of demands on funds at the state level,” Douglas said. “Depending on the governor’s budget that comes out on the 16th, we’re all trying to figure out where our resources are and prioritize our investments. There are opportunities for federal funds, and we’re making sure that if federal funds become available, we can apply and be competitive.

“If funding becomes available, we’re in a good position to apply with the service development plan done.”

It’s all because Meitzner keeps pushing the passenger rail issue, Douglas said.

“It’s really opened from my standpoint our eyes to Wichita as a willing partner in this initiative,” she said. “They’ve really opened our eyes to different economic development opportunities there and what having that line through Wichita would do for the area. It’s been a good thing, working through these discussions.”

Talgo: Getting the Public On Board

By Leah Harnack, Mass Transit 

Talgo’s recently completed trainsets in Milwaukee could mean updates for Amtrak Hiawatha riders or they may be mothballed, depending on Wisconsin state government decisions.

Talgo Inc. has manufactured two intercity trainsets for Wisconsin at its plant in Milwaukee and caught in the middle of political crossfire, those trains may end up providing service elsewhere in the country.

On May 20, Talgo held an open house from noon to 3:00 for the public to, “be among the first to see the improvements awaiting riders on Amtrak’s Hiawatha line.”

Among a variety of technological advances, the trains feature lightweight construction, natural tilting and low center of gravity for a smooth ride, outlets between seats, Wi-Fi, closed-circuit TV and a variety of seating configurations for riders.

Political Firestorm

In 2009 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation purchased two trainsets with an option for two additional trains.

Lawmakers in Madison recently voted to mothball the trains, close the Talgo plant and continue to use the old Amtrak trains. They cite the much more expensive maintenance costs of the new trains as too big a burden on the state.

The vote means losing the $72 million already spent on buying the trains and a potential violation of the state’s contract with Talgo.

Talgo President and CEO Antonio Perez had been recently quoted saying, “I’m very disappointed with the way the facts were accounted for, how they were related and how the decision was made on very wrong assumptions of comparing very modern trains with other trains that need to be replaced.”

A Chance to See the New Trains

The Open House was a chance for the public to see what today’s trains look like. And before the event even opened there was a line of people waiting to get a sneak peak.

There was a diverse crowd of people, including hardcore rail fans, families with kids, friends and families of employees, business members of the community, people from the local area and those that just wanted to see what the high-tech trains look like.

Milwaukee Alderman for the district, Willie C. Wade, was present and said there has been a great partnership between the city and Talgo until the state government changed. “It’s a great facility and workforce and we will get this back on track,” he stressed. “It’s a high-class, quality product.

“The state’s goal is for the people not to see this product … this kind of advanced technolgy.”

And that’s just what this open house was doing. Perez said, “We want the people to see the train sets and we want them to compare these trains to the old Hiawatha trains.” He said when people see these advanced, modern trains, “The people see the trainsets and want to see them in operating service.”

Bob Schayer from the Chicago area came up for the open house because he occasionally rides the Hiawatha line. “I’m interested in the Chicago-to-Milwaukee line and have ridden that.
“I try to avoid O’Hare like the plague,” he said, noting that he rides the line to the airport in Milwaukee.

On one of the train cars, Talgo Commissioning Technician Bill Schmuhl was providing technical information for visitors. When asked by a visitor as to why the trains might not be used he responded, “The ridership is increasing each year [between Milwaukee and Chicago], so we don’t understand. We just build them.”

There were recent concerns in the news lately about the cars not meeting changes to federal ADA requirements and he explained that the new lifts from Ricon Corp., will be delivered within a year and the cars will be retrofitted to meet all standards.

Kim Poklar from Milwaukee had seen the open house invite on Talgo’s Facebook page and she and her husband John came to the event. “We wanted to see what they’re about to mothball,” he said. Kim said, “I love trains and this needs to be running in Milwaukee.”

And some were more straight forward about their feelings. “It’s dumb,” said Nancy Correll of Milwaukee. “We bring them here to build rail and then change our mind? It makes us look like idiots.”

People could tour through two of the train cars, take a peek in the factory, enjoy refreshments and learn more about Talgo and rail history of the area, and could learn how to contact the state government to voice their opinions on the operation of these cars in Wisconsin.

Talgo Vice President Public Affairs & Business Development Nora Friend said, “We want the government of Wisconsin to honor their contractual agreement and put these trains in revenue service.”

Judith Fischer works in the front office at Talgo and her boyfriend also works at Talgo as a fluids manager. “These guys have worked really hard and we want these trains to go into service. It would be a shame to park them and we don’t want to lose jobs.” She added, “That’s what it’s all about: jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Talgo is located in a neighborhood that is looking to be redeveloped, called the Century City Project. It includes 86 acres, 58 for a business park, 17 for retail or commercial uses and the remainder for single and multi-family residences. The long-term estimates for job creation are between 700 and 1,000 jobs.

Perez said Talgo employs about 140 people currently in the United States. In Spain they employ about 1,300 and have 50 percent of the market share of very high-speed trains there.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Richard Harnish was also at the event with his two young kids. “I want my boys to see high-speed trains here in the United States,” he stressed.

While there’s talk Talgo could be leaving Milwaukee as soon as June, there is no final word yet and Friend stressed, “We’re not giving up.”

Talgo Trains in Midwestern America? Maybe?

Wisconsin taxpayers could pay $22.2 million more than previously disclosed to build and maintain two trains for Milwaukee-to-Chicago service, state documents show.

Depending on whom you talk to, that’s either another repercussion of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to cancel a high-speed train project, or a bill that former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration left for his successor to pay.

The state has borrowed $47.5 million for its no-bid contract with Spanish train manufacturer Talgo Inc. to build two 14-car train sets to replace aging Amtrak-owned passenger cars on the Hiawatha line.

Cab Car of the Wisconsin Talgo
But now the state Department of Transportation is asking the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to authorize borrowing $21.4 million more to cover related costs, including $11.7 million to build and equip a temporary maintenance base at Talgo’s factory on Milwaukee’s north side; $6.9 million for a British consulting company to oversee the manufacturing process; and up to $2.5 million for spare parts.

Together with $800,000 in separately appropriated funds, that brings the total cost of the train car acquisition to $69.7 million, almost 47% more than the original $47.5 million price tag, according to the department’s funding request.

Reggie Newson, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, said the state is required to pay many of those costs to fulfill contracts signed by Doyle’s administration. Newson and Gottlieb were named to their positions under Walker.

But former Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who served under Doyle, said nearly all of the costs would have been covered by an $810 million federal stimulus grant awarded to Wisconsin last year to extend the Hiawatha to Madison, as part of a larger plan for high-speed trains connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations. Walker, however, campaigned against the 110-mph route, and the federal governmentyanked the funds after his election in November.

“We made a commitment based on having the grant,” Busalacchi said. “When they gave back that money, they threw all that away.”

Gottlieb and Newson agree that at least half the additional costs – $3.2 million for a temporary maintenance base and $8.5 million for equipment – would have been covered by the stimulus grant. But they and other transportation officials say much of the remainder would have been the state’s responsibility.

For example, Gottlieb said in his funding request that the grant would have paid part of the consultant’s fee. But Donna Brown, state passenger rail planning chief, said it wouldn’t have covered anything related to the two state-financed Talgo train sets.

Project manager John Oimoen said the consultant would have been involved in the additional trains and locomotives purchased under the federal grant.

Busalacchi, however, contended the state already had received federal approval to use the grant for those costs. He noted the $810 million total included about $150 million in contingencies.

But no one at this point appears to be claiming these charges are unexpected cost overruns. Nora Friend, a Talgo vice president, said the maintenance base, maintenance equipment and spare parts are required by Talgo’s contract to service the trains that it builds, and state officials knew of those costs all along.

Details of the additional train car costs:

Maintenance base: Talgo’s plant in the Century City complex, formerly the site of Tower Automotive, is to serve as a temporary maintenance base for up to three years after the trains start service, until a permanent base can be built.

The costs of building and equipping both the temporary and permanent maintenance bases would have been covered by the $810 million federal grant. That grant also would have paid for more train cars and locomotives, which would have been serviced at a $52 million permanent base in Madison.

After the original grant was withdrawn, the state unsuccessfully sought $213.3 million in federal money earlier this year for Hiawatha upgrades, including additional trains, retrofitting the Talgo plant as a permanent maintenance base and improving the tracks between the plant and the downtown Amtrak station.

The state now is turning away from building a permanent base at the Talgo plant and is seeking to cut costs by finding a site closer to the downtown station, Newson said. Track and signal upgrades would have added $27.6 million to the $60.1 million cost of retrofitting the Century City site, plus engineering costs, according to this year’s grant application.

Talgo has said it’s likely to move its manufacturing operations out of the state after it fills its Wisconsin and Oregon orders. Friend said the company had hoped the plant could become a permanent maintenance base, but she understood the track issues.

Consulting firm: The Doyle administration hired British-owned Interfleet Technology Inc. to advise state officials and watch over Talgo, which is manufacturing key components in Spain, testing them in Germany and then shipping them to Milwaukee for final assembly.

“Given the department staff’s lack of expertise in train car design, manufacturing and safety compliance and the logistical issues related to design and manufacturing in Spain, structural testing in Germany and final assembly in Wisconsin, it was necessary to retain the services of industry experts,” Gottlieb wrote.

Busalacchi conceded the consulting contract was costly, but said the outside experts were needed to ensure that components being manufactured and tested overseas would meet federal safety standards.

“We had to have people who knew what they were talking about,” Busalacchi said. “We had to make sure that the taxpayers were being represented properly.”

Spare parts: Transportation officials say they expect to pay $500,000 for spare wheels for the trains. Other spare parts could run up to $2 million, although the exact cost remains under discussion with Talgo.

Change orders: State officials and Talgo are discussing a redesign of the cab cars to meet Amtrak specifications, at a possible cost of $500,000. The cab car is at the back of each train and is equipped to allow an engineer to operate the train from that end, rather than from the locomotive, when needed.

Amtrak is concerned about sight lines, and state officials believe Talgo is responsible for building the cars to state and Amtrak requirements, Oimoen says. Friend says the original design meets Federal Railroad Administration standards, and the state has to pay more if it or Amtrak want something else.

Other design changes have had little impact on the bottom line. The largest was $3.4 million for adding a bistro car to each train. That was covered by the savings from buying the trains under a joint purchasing deal with Oregon, which was reached after the state had borrowed the $47.5 million. Similarly, the $621,648 cost of outfitting the trains for wireless Internet service was more than canceled out by an $800,000 saving on 2009-’10 Hiawatha fuel costs.

In a related matter, Newson said state officials are considering a less-expensive redesign for a planned renovation of the downtown station’s train shed, the area where passengers board and disembark from trains.

Much of the renovation is needed to bring the aging structure into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Doyle administration, that was envisioned as a $20.4 million project that would have been covered by the $810 million federal grant.

Now Gottlieb is asking the Joint Finance Committee to authorize $8 million in borrowing and release $2.2 million in money previously set aside for possible Hiawatha needs, matched by $10.2 million in federal aid. But it’s possible a redesign could cut the total cost, Newson said.

In previous budgets, the Legislature provided $122 million in borrowing power for rail projects, subject to Joint Finance Committee approval. The state has used $2 million to buy the downtown station and $47.5 million for the Talgo cars. If the committee approves the $29.4 million that Gottlieb requested, $43.1 million would remain.

Norfolk, VA to see Amtrak trains again

Amtrak train travels through Virginia on it's way towards Washington, DC.

Governor Bob McDonnell  announced on January 18, 2012 that the expected start date of the Amtrak Virginia extension to/from Norfolk will begin by December 31, 2012.  This moves the service to start 10 months earlier than originally projected.

“This service will provide immediate relief to road weary travelers between two of the state’s most congested regions” said Governor McDonnell.  “This service is long overdue and I congratulate our partners and commend their cooperation in moving up the scheduled start date.”

The Commonwealth’s Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), CSX, Norfolk Southern and the City of Norfolk have been working speedily to make the necessary upgrades for the service. The round-trip train will bring intercity passenger rail service to Norfolk for the first time since 1977, and will link Norfolk with a single-seat ride to Richmond, Washington, D.C. and cities as far north as Boston.

The updated timeline comes from today’s Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting where they passed a resolution outlining the new goals and start date.  

“There is high demand for passenger rail service in Virginia as demonstrated by considerable ridership growth throughout the Commonwealth,” said Amtrak Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Joe McHugh. “We have a strong partnership with the Commonwealth and look forward to operating this expanded service to Norfolk in 2012, providing passengers the option of convenient one-seat service to Washington and Northeast Corridor destinations.”

The Norfolk train marks the third service expansion launched under the Amtrak Virginia partnership, which has introduced service to Richmond and Lynchburg since October 2009. Virginia is the 15th state to partner with Amtrak for intercity passenger rail service, and the successful launch of these new services is made possible through the partnership between DRPT, Amtrak and the host railroads along the routes. Amtrak Virginia routes had sizable gains in fiscal year 2011 over fiscal year 2010 with increases of 28.5 percent on the Washington-Lynchburg route and 19.1 percent on the Washington-Newport News route.

“This service is a win-win for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.  The economies of these two regions are intertwined and getting this service operating will strengthen them both”, said Thelma Drake, Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

For project highlights, visit www.drpt.virginia.gov/activities/norfolk.aspx

Let High Speed Rail Roll!

DOT awards $2.4 billion to continue developing 21st century high-speed passenger rail corridors

Today, the Obama Administration and the Department of Transportation are awarding $2.4 billion for planning and construction of intercity passenger rail service. With these 54 projects in 23 states, we’re moving full-speed ahead toward a nationwide high-speed rail system.

President Obama signed the Recovery Act to build bridges between the Americans who needed jobs and the infrastructure jobs that needed doing. One of those jobs was creating a 21st century rail system in the United States.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

The $8 billion in the Recovery Act for high-speed rail was step one, a down payment on a national network that, within 25 years, will give 80% of Americans the choice of traveling from downtown to downtown by high speed passenger train.

With today’s awards, we take a second step toward that future. A future that envisions riding from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes. Or Chicago to St. Louis in two hours. Or Tampa to Orlando in 55 minutes.

HSR-MAP

 

The intense demand for high-speed rail dollars demonstrates just how important this historic initiative is. We received 132 applications for $8.8 billion, more than three times the funding Congress made available. Across the country, states are seeing the future and clamoring for passenger rail routes. That’s why we’ve already expanded to include a route from Iowa City to Chicago–running through the Quad Cities–and a route in Michigan connecting Detroit to Chicago via Kalamazoo.

States understand that high-speed rail represents a unique opportunity to revitalize our manufacturing base, spur economic development, and create jobs.

Workers will be needed to lay track and manufacture rail cars. And more than 30 rail manufacturers and suppliers, both domestic and foreign, have agreed to establish or expand bases of operations in the US if they are hired to build America’s next generation high-speed lines. The Obama Administration secured this commitment to ensure that new jobs are created here at home.And, because proximity to rail stations will be increasingly valuable, growing rail lines will also stimulate economic development.

HSR

There are other benefits beyond jobs, economic growth, and greater mobility. Rail routes will alleviate congestion on crowded highways and allow freight to flow more freely by truck. Train passengers will forego crowded airports often located more than an hour outside of a city’s central business district.

And all of these intercity routes will be cleaner and greener than our current options, easing our reliance on imported oil and mitigating carbon emissions on our environment.

HSR3

Every vision this nation ever realized began with a few courageous steps. If we put off high-speed rail by saying it will take too long to build, then it will never happen. President Eisenhower took a step forward at the birth of the US Interstate Highway network in the 1950s, and today that system is the life-blood of American commerce and mobility.

Now it’s time for another bold step. The America I grew up in didn’t just happen. Our nation’s progress was only made possible through the imagination, investment, and hard work of those who came before. And I’m proud that, today, we’re adding to that legacy with President Obama’s commitment to high speed rail.