Legislative Update May 2009

High Speed Rail – BLET issues its “Position Paper” on the Subject

At a press conference held on April 16 by President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Secretary of Transportation Lahood, the administration announced its plan for high speed rail development in the United States. They touted the benefits of high speed rail to the nation’s economic future and stated that the $8 billion allocated for high speed rail in the stimulus package is just a “down payment” on the overall package. The President mentioned several pieces of legislation passed in the last year and a half that are good first steps in the development of a high speed rail system. He also identified an investment strategy and three funding tracks: projects, corridor programs, and planning.

Vice President Biden spoke about the importance of passenger rail and stated that Amtrak will receive $1.3 billion in grant funding from the stimulus package, which will be used to upgrade railroad assets and infrastructure and for capital projects that expand passenger rail capacity. The funds will help create jobs, while at the same time repair and modernize the nation’s infrastructure.

The BLET Legislative Department recently released its “High Speed Rail Position Paper,” which states that BLET believes that the implementation of high speed rail could greatly benefit the membership and the country as a whole, with a few adjustments to the current strategy. The BLET wants to redefine the definition of high speed rail, which was established approximately 40 years ago. The current definition relates to passenger trains traveling 110 mph or faster. The BLET would like high speed rail to include intermodal freight operations at between 70 and 125 mph, which would greatly increase volume and revenue for the railroads. The BLET does not feel that passenger trains traveling in excess of 150 miles per hour should be allowed to commingle with freight operations and may not be supported by the freight railroads. The BLET believes that the use of temporal separation would allow freight and passenger trains to operate on the same track as an intermodal system and it would remove the question about which takes precedence on a particular line. The report states that “Temporal separation would provide a buffer so that freight cannot operate on the line at the same time as passenger rail, without decreasing the safety of either or the ability to thrive in a competitive market.”

The report goes on to state that the BLET believes there is a need to standardize any new system to create a seamless network coast-to-coast that can be integrated with the current freight and passenger rail service infrastructure. In addition, the BLET believes that, in order to ensure the safety of our nation’s citizens, there must  remain a federally certified locomotive engineer in the cab of any high speed locomotive. The BLET also wants to ensure that all jobs created by the implementation of a high speed rail system are safeguarded and that all workers in the project are covered by federal laws relating to railroad workers. The BLET report closes with the following statement: “The bottom line is that high speed rail is the solution to resolving most of our passenger/freight railroad challenges in this nation.” (To read the entire report, click here).

High Speed Rail Survey

According to a recent survey conducted by HNTB America, “the romance of riding the rails may be returning to America thanks to new federal funding and a public hungry for ways to save time, money, the environment, and a measure of convenience in their hectic lives.”  Peter Gertler, Chairman of the firm’s high speed rail practice said, “Our country needs high speed rail as part of a balanced transportation system.  It has been the missing lynchpin in our national network. Without it, the whole system has been less effective.”  He goes on to say, “High speed rail will benefit the country in a variety of ways, including improved mobility, job creation, reduced usage of fossil fuel, and fewer annual greenhouse gas emissions.  High speed trains use one-third as much energy as comparable air travel and consume less than one-fifth as much energy as driving.”

Some of the findings of the new study are:

  • 54% of Americans would choose modern high-speed trains over the 33% of Americans that would choose automobile travel or the 13% that would chose air travel if fares and time were about the same.
  • Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71%), less expensive fares (69%), and faster trains (55%) with the introduction of high speed rail in their region.
  • Among the 18% of Americans who have experienced high speed train travel here or abroad, an overwhelming majority of those travelers (82%) found it more enjoyable than plane travel and slightly more than half (51%) said they would be most productive on high speed trains when traveling for business.
  • Nearly half of the nation (49%) said the best benefit of high speed rail in their region would be the ability to travel more easily to cities up to 400 miles away.  Experts agree that high speed rail is best suited for journeys of 100 to 500 miles or 1 to 3 hours.

New FRA Administrator Confirmed

 

President Obama’s nomination of Joe Szabo was confirmed as Federal Railroad Administrator by the Senate on May 1. Mr. Szabo is a fifth generation railroader who values safety in the railroad industry, is passionate about Amtrak, and supports the high speed rail initiative. Mr. Szabo’s appointment is yet further proof that Obama supports leadership from organized labor.

Railroad Retirement/Medicare

The following is from the May 2009 NARVRE Switch List:  “The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that Social Security recipients (Railroad Retirement Tier I) could possibly see no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for the first time in over 30 years.  The COLA is meant to ensure benefits rise with consumer prices, but the economic downturn and lower energy prices have led to low inflation over the last year.  CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf has predicted low inflation for several more years, meaning the possibility of no Social Security (Railroad Retirement Tier I) COLA increase until January 2013.  While approximately three-fourths of Medicare beneficiaries would see no change in their Part B premiums without the adjustment, since Medicare and Social Security increases are linked, not all beneficiaries are covered by such protections.  Higher income beneficiaries pay more for their Medicare Plan B as enacted in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 which commenced in 2009.”

Railroad Retirement Solvency

On another note, job cut backs occurring in the rail industry have been a concern for some beneficiaries, however, the Railroad Retirement Trust Fund is still extremely solvent.  The fund currently has approximately $21.3 billion, and pays out $7.1 billion in annuities.  According to BLET Vice President John Tolman, unless there is a momentous down turn in the entire rail industry and the account loses significant money, Railroad Retirement is set for the next 25 years and beyond.