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Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’

Assault on Amtrak

assaultUrban Shield, the SWAT team and arms manufacturer trade show, was recently held in Oakland. The event, funded by the DHS and organized by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, featured a number of training scenarios. Here is one event, the Assault on Amtrak (starting 50 seconds into the video clip):

Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer has been covering the event — or at least trying to. The Sheriff’s department kicked him out of the convention center:

bauer

 

The Alameda Sheriff’s department is one of the biggest proponents of militarization, including the use of unmanned drones and a gunboat.

 

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The NEC is a legacy 100 year-old infrastructure, whereas the Calfornia high-speed rail project is clean-sheet design. There was never a rational explanation as to why California should use NEC-compatible equipment when the corridors are so completely different. And now, thankfully, sanity has prevailed:

It became clear in meetings with manufacturers during the last few weeks that the requirements were too different to incorporate into one set of trains, said Lisa-Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for high-speed rail.

“The feedback that we got from the industry was that Amtrak and high-speed rail need such different things, it was almost impossible for them to build a train that meets both our needs,” she said. “We’d hoped that the industry had evolved to where they can accommodate both.”

The agencies concluded that too many compromises would need to be made to meet both their needs, which would “move us away from a service-proven design and create significant risks as to schedule and costs,” Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said in an email.

One of the puzzling things about the CHSRA has been its inability to work with its California partners (Caltrain, Metrolink) on really basic things, like compatible platform heights and signal systems — while at the same time design its high-speed trains to be compatible with a rail line 3000 miles away. The NEC requires high-platform trains, which precludes Caltrain and CHSRA from sharing platforms. Hopefully, with this decision, Caltrain and CHSRA can at least use trains with the same platform height.

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Bike Accommodation On CAHSR Trains

When California voters approved funding in 2008 for their high-speed rail project, one of the promises was that the trains would not be like Amtrak. So here we are 5 years later, and it is Amtrak developing the trains. This will be a joint procurement between California and Amtrak (for its Acela service).

Amtrak just released the Draft Trainset Spec that goes into the things like the interior layout. The (sort of) good news is that the spec does require bike accommodation. California trains will have bike storage for a minimum of 8 bikes per trainset. Those of you on the East Coast will be shit out of luck as the requirement only applies to CHSRA trains:

For the [CA HSR] Authority, a bicycle storage area shall be provided, and designed to accommodate a minimum of 8 bicycles per Trainset. A dedicated bicycle storage area shall be provided, thereby reducing inconvenience to passengers. Bicycle storage areas shall be separate from wheelchair spaces and shall not block or otherwise impede emergency egress and access.

Special attention shall be given to the ease with which bicycles can be placed in the bicycle racks. It is expected that the final design shall include guide rails to help steer the bicycle into the correct position with minimal effort. Bicycles shall be secured as low as possible and designs requiring the lifting of bicycles over fixed objects shall be avoided.

Suitable graphics shall be provided on the exterior of the Vehicle, identifying the doors to be used for bicycle access. Interior graphics shall also provide instructions for using the bicycle racks.

To put in perspective, the existing Amtrak San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor services permit 22 bikes per train. So 8 bikes per train isn’t great, but better than nothing.

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Hispanics make up half the population of California’s Central Valley. Los Angeles has 5 million Hispanics (9% of the nation’s population). And 23% of the Bay Area population is Hispanic. So why does Amtrak California struggle to attract Hispanic riders? Hispanic ridership on the San Joaquin service is only 20%.

Larry Miller, who served on the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee, says there are several reasons. First of all, Amtrak has not done much marketing of its services in Spanish. He notes a recent “Companions Ride Free” promotion that had coupons printed only in English:

When I asked about the Spanish versions with coupons in Spanish, we were told that they had only printed these in English. At this point my elected counterpart, Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case, became upset, reminding them that roughly 70% of her constituents were Hispanic.

But the really big problem is the TSA, and the legally-required ID checks:

Amtrak complies with Homeland Security laws, instituted in the wake of 9-11, requiring riders to show government-issued photo identification — very much as airlines do. Amtrak diligently informs ticker buyers of this requirement, even though it intimidates prospective riders who are not legal residents and offends sympathetic friends and family who are legal residents.

This is yet another way that TSA security policies actually make us less safe. By discouraging train travel, it results in more car trips — and more road accidents. Larry Miller hopes that California’s new non-resident driver’s license law will help attract more Hispanic riders. That seems implausible. Travelers afraid of getting deported aren’t going to submit travel plans to a government-run train service. Not when they hear news stories of VIPR and ICE patrols on buses and trains.

tsa_train_station

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Measure Once, Cut Twice

As the old saying goes, “Measure twice, cut once.” For the new Miami train station under construction, they did the opposite: Measure once, cut twice:

FDOT engineers and consultants blame Amtrak, the federal passenger rail agency, for the design mistake, which means that platforms at the new station will be as much as 200 feet too short to accommodate some of the long trains the service sometimes uses on its Miami routes. Amtrak runs those long trains to Miami up to twice a day during the winter tourism season.

FDOT says Amtrak failed to tell the agency of those longer trains and raised no issues with platform length during extensive design-plan reviews that preceded the start of construction in May 2011 — something Amtrak denies.

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Amtrak ADA Fail

The National Disability Rights network has published a report on Amtrak’s accessibility problems. No surprise, the biggest issue is the lack of level-platform boarding:

For decades, Amtrak has stalled and made excuses for its failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Some of the justifications have included: 1) that level boarding is difficult to achieve 2) that it often does not own the stations that it serves and therefore only has a shared obligation to make them accessible; and 3) that it lacks federal funding necessary to make the stations and trains accessible.

Although there may be some challenges to obtaining full accessibility, these are obstacles that Amtrak has had more than two decades to overcome. In fact, Congress recognized these difficulties and that is why Amtrak ended up getting the 20 year compliance extension, the longest of any public service. Amtrak needs to stop making excuses and do the work necessary to come into compliance.

Level-boarding is possible and enhances station usability for everyone.

The problem isn’t a lack of funds. Amtrak received considerable stimulus funding for station renovations, but did little to improve accessibility. The report recommends that Congress include strict accessibility requirements in the next Amtrak re-authorization. I would go further, and recommend that any rail system receiving Federal funds has to comply with accessibility requirements — no exceptions!

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Airline-Style Boarding

Matthew Yglesias has been having a field day criticizing Amtrak’s airline-style boarding procedures:

At Union Station there’s a bizarre process where they list a gate instead of a track. The gate is a door and the door is closed. Outside the closed door there is a long snaking line. You wait in line, and then eventually the door opens. Then everyone shows their ticket to an agent, walks through an ante-chamber of some kind, and only then do you reach the platforms.

The ticket-checking is completely superfluous because you could walk to any platform once you’re out there. But it’s also unnecessary because conductors check the tickets on the trains anyway. But then you walk to the appropriate platform and board the train that’s waiting for you.

This method is both slower than the standard method and also involves overcrowding the interior of the station. Amazingly, Amtrak says it wants $7 billion to ameliorate track capacity constraints and station interior overcrowding when for the low price of $0 they could adopt standard train-boarding procedures.

Indeed, this is totally idiotic and without justification. But it gets worse — because the policy is being replicated all over the country.

Station plans for the California High-Speed Rail show lots of security theater; including mezzanine-level “waiting” rooms (holding pens), pre-boarding ticket check, and perhaps even x-ray machines. There is no thought to passenger circulation, and the underground platforms will be every bit as cramped as the “obsolete” ones at Union Station. All this security theater doesn’t come cheap. The new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco just got hit with $56 million in cost overruns to meet “unanticipated” Federal security requirements.

And then there is the All-Aboard Florida rail project. Here is how they plan to manage train boarding with station ushers:

Because the AAF service will be an ‘all reserved service,’ ticketed customers will pass through a control gate to gain access to the vertical circulation leading to the secure ‘ticketed passengers only’ spaces. In all cases, passengers will not be allowed access to the station platforms until approximately 4 or 5 minutes before departure of an arriving train. Train departure and arrival information will be electronically updated both in the public ticketing/information area, as well as in the secure waiting room and Business Class lounge. Access to the platform will be provided by means of two escalator/stair pairs and ADA compliant elevators, controlled by an AAF usher in the secure waiting room.

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