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2013 Annual Meeting Highlights

VARP held its annual meeting on March 16 in the Rayburn House of Representatives Office Building in Washington, DC—a joint meeting with the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

NARP president Ross Capon welcomed everyone and, in his opening remarks, posed a question: People want trains, and the President’s Budget looks good, but will it have a credible funding source?

Panel 1 discussion: the National Rail Plan

The panel comprised Dick Beadles, founder of Virginians for High Speed Rail; Chuck Riecks, West Virginia delegate to NARP and chairman of Friends of the Cardinal; Mike Testerman, president of VARP; and Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Testerman noted growth in freight and passenger requests under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. To get federal dollars under the act, states must have 5- and 20-year rail plans. Transferring traffic from highways to rail, he said, offers huge energy savings.

Drake explained that her department and the Virginia Department of Transportation are under the Commonwealth Transportation Board, not the Secretary of Transportation. Her department has fewer than 50 staff members. Freight rail improvements under the Virginia Rail Enhancement Fund must benefit passenger, and vice versa. The fund has a minimum 30% private-sector match but averages 44%.

No state subsidy has been required so far for Amtrak Virginia operations, she said. The commonwealth has $44 million dedicated annual funding for intercity rail operations and capital, funded by a 0.3% sales tax increase. A federal grant pays for the eight-year Tier II Environmental Impact Statement study; the 20% state match was paid by CSX. Short lines are now part of a 6-year improvement program.

Norfolk Amtrak service, she said, has boosted ridership on the Newport News trains, she said, because combined they offer more travel options to and from Norfolk. Funding for Roanoke service is included in a new transportation funding bill.

Riecks said that the West Virginia rail plan has been floundering for 30 years. He noted that as a military chaplain for 30 years, he discovered that a person wearing two hats saves money, and that’s about all. He and Bonnie McKeown told state legislators of the need for the state to have a rail plan in order to get federal dollars, even for grade-crossing safety. West Virginia is going to have two plans: one for high-speed rail and one for other passenger rail. The state is now working on two other plans: one for Marc and other commuter rail and one for freight and other passenger rail. Marc is a bipartisan issue in West Virginia, he said: both Democrats and Republicans ignore it. A West Virginia rail plan is on Rep. Rahall’s site, he said.

Riecks noted the shrinking transportation sector in West Virginia. Coal is a declining commodity, he said. The easy-to-reach coal is gone. West Virginia is losing air service. Beckley and some other cities have one flight per day. The sequester of federal funds is shutting down all air traffic control in West Virginia except Charleston. West Virginia bus service is skeletal. Most West Virginia travel markets are interstate.

Panel 2 discussion: Washington Union Station and Northeast Corridor expansion plans.

The panel comprised Ruby Siegel, vice president of Aecom, consultants to Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor; Doug Allen, chief executive officer of Virginia Railway Express; and Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Siegel said that Aecom is working with the Federal Railroad Administration as a consultant on the Northeast Corridor Future project. She is a deputy project manager for environmental planning. The Northeast Corridor Future project, she said, will guide long-term investment through 2040 and identify new markets, develop and model new types of regular and intercity service, and evaluate the need for high-speed rail. The service development plan and Tier I Environmental Impact Statement will examine the broad implications of the project. The study is scheduled for completion in 2015 and will produce a preferred investment program. Northeast Corridor Future looks at markets first, then the rail network, service levels, and possible improvements. It considers connecting services and corridors that feed the Northeast Corridor. There is a consensus to keep the current corridor even if another mainline is built.

The Northeast Corridor Future project, Siegel said, began with 98 initial alternatives, which were consolidated and organized into primary alternatives, organized by program levels according to degree of investment, looking at markets, routes, and service strategies. Reasonable alternatives will be selected by July 2013. The levels of increasing investment are (A) improve the Northeast Corridor, (B or A+) expand service and types of service, (C) also expand services off the corridor spine, and (D) add a second spine. She noted that the project is documenting the need without discussing funding.

Capon noted that funding is not in place even to finish the Northeast Corridor Future study.

Allen said that VRE wants to “grow the system” with more platforms, cars, and parking, plus Positive Train Control. Morning trains 304 and 300 from Fredericksburg to Washington are carrying so many passengers that people are standing, he said, and he expects the Spotsylvania station, scheduled to open next winter, to add 400 to 800 morning riders to the seven morning trains on the Fredericksburg line. VRE 5-year plans address expansion through the next 20 years (from the beginning of each plan); besides adding cars and parking to accommodate more riders, VRE wants to build longer platforms, add yard capacity for midday and overnight storage, increase midday service, and operate run-through trains with Marc. A third track “being built now” is a state project, he said. Core capacity improvements may allow more trains. Other likely expansions are an extension to Gainesville and a station at Potomac Shores. He does not expect to see weekend VRE service or weekend use of VRE tickets on Amtrak trains.

Drake said that Virginia was invited to and participates in the Northeast Corridor commission. Virginia also is a member of the Southeast High Speed Rail multistate project, which depends on Northeast Corridor operations. Dual-powered electric-diesel locomotives like those purchased by New Jersey could save time on Amtrak service in Virginia by eliminating changes at Washington from electric to diesel engines. One reason for Virginia’s participation in the interstate projects is to protect Virginia’s investment in intercity rail.

She added that the National Rail Plan needs to define the future of rail. New right of way and electrification are not being considered.

VARP business and board meetings

The members unanimously reelected the directors of the corporation: Michael Testerman, Jim Churchill, Dick Peacock, Herbert Richwine, Jim Bayley, Bill Forster, Allan Carpenter, and Steve Dunham. The board unanimously reelected Steve Dunham to be chairman and the officers to continue in their positions: President Testerman, Executive Vice President Churchill, Secretary Peacock, Treasurer Richwine, and Assistant Treasurer Carpenter.