FROM THE CAB - April 2022

By Martin Wheeler, President

FLORENCE TO MYRTLE BEACH LINE ADVOCATED -- "The Carolina Association for Passenger Trains (CAPT) is expanding it's advocacy efforts in South Carolina, turning to a couple of new initiatives. The focus will be on a Florence to Myrtle Beach proposal which has actually been on our radar screen for at least ten years. But, the time seems right now to push forward. This would be a portion of our Greenville to Myrtle Beach service proposed during the last decade.

“The idea is now that with I-73 closer to reality, use adjacent right of way along the highway's path between Mullins and Conway, restored right of way between Pee Dee and Mullins, existing tracks west of Pee Dee and east of Conway for the new passenger line.

“Marion County owns the right of way west of Mullins to just east of Marion. The city of Marion owns a few miles within it's city limits. The remainder of the old right of way is owned by several LLCs, and a few private owners. Fewer entities to deal with in working to secure needed right of way.

“CAPT will also focus on a proposal for Columbia to Raleigh service via Charlotte with departures from each terminal daily, with return trips for each train. Part of this route is included in our proposal for Charlotte to Charleston service, which over the past 12 years has shown endorsements from 40 government and business entities. Perhaps a separate Columbia-Charleston train, along with Columbia to Raleigh would be more efficient from a cost and operations point of view,” says President Martin Wheeler.

COLUMBIA, SC, GRADE SEPARATION PROJECT PROGRESSING -- "The Assembly Street grade separation project in Columbia is expected to move further along this year. CAPT will be following this progress, hoping to assure that whatever option is chosen allows for the possible use of Union Station as the new Amtrak station for the Capital City.

“The city is in need of train station improvement, still using the ‘temporary’ facility located in the Congaree Vista across the tracks from the University of South Carolina. CAPT will be approaching the new Mayor about this, and other rail passenger needs in Columbia.

“Union Station is considered by many to be the best location to handle the various passenger movements that might come from a number of directions,” adds President Wheeler.

SC VICE PRESIDENT GOES TO WASHINGTON -- Jim Frierson, CAPT vice president for South Carolina, represented the association at the Rail Passengers Association (RPA’S) spring meeting, March 27-30. Held in Alexandria, Virginia, RAILNATION DC 2022 was the first of two annual RPA meetings this year for state council representatives, RPA members, and other passenger rail advocates.

A first-time attendee, Frierson made new rail advocacy contacts, learned more about RPA, and voted on RPA business issues as a proxy for Don Yehle, who is South Carolina’s state council representative. Twice previously, Frierson was a “ZOOM” attendee at RPA meetings.

The meeting allowed registrants to learn about legislation affecting Amtrak; to learn of fiscal appropriations to expand and sustain passenger rail service in America; to meet with (virtually or in person) elected Congressional officials and staff as advocates for passenger rail, and to attend to association business.

RPA President Jim Mathews set the tone for the two- and- a- half- day event with a Sunday evening address at an open board of directors meeting.

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT TOUTED -– On Monday, March 28, Frierson and other RPA members heard from Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, who underscored the significance of the Biden Administration’s Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), more popularly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL. Mr. Bose stressed how advocacy work by the RPA was crucial in getting this law passed. The importance of staying on top of unfolding developments in the law was emphasized. RPA members were challenged to continue to be forceful and intelligent BIL advocates.

AMTRAK HIRING -– Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s Vice President of Long-Distance Service Line, then used zoom to ask RPA for “any and all inputs to improve service.” Explaining how Amtrak has met the challenge of pandemic-reduced services and how the company is working diligently to restore curtailed or eliminated services, he pledged to quickly bring national passenger rail service back to Congressionally- mandated levels. “The railroad is endeavoring to hire more staff to not only replace employees lost during the pandemic but to enable Amtrak to expand services with new workers,” Chestler said. The long-distance service VP also said Amtrak is pleased to be replace aging equipment with new trainsets on the Northeast Corridor and new cars (i.e., sleepers) on other routes.

SURFACE TRANSPORTATION BOARD CHAIR MARTY OBERMAN lauded RPA’s work in encouraging lawmakers to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Keep pressing Congress to ensure Amtrak receives its authorized share of BIL funding to allow for continued expansion and restoration of sorely needed passenger rail routes, Oberman added during his Monday morning zoom address.

IMPROVED FOOD SERVICE COMING -– Upcoming food service improvements on Amtrak trains were touted by Madison Butler, RPA Communications Manager. In the first of two Monday afternoon workshops, participants were told how they can encourage further changes and improvements. Make your opinions known and your views will be conveyed to Amtrak working groups, she said.

INVOLVE LOCAL LEADERS AND LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS was the heart of Sean Jeans-Gail’s message later that afternoon. Entitled “Drawing the Political Map,” Jeans-Gail said such involvement will garner support for Amtrak expansion and improvements. Begin by assessing and documenting what rail services already exists, said the RPA vice president of government affairs. Assessments can include and be accomplished by corridor capacity studies, environmental impact studies, state and regional rail plans, and recently awarded grants. Working groups can look at strengths and weaknesses of existing planning studies. Identifying “key players,” aforementioned local officials and elected leaders, regional transportation authorities, host railroads, state rail advocacy groups; and Amtrak leaders is important, Jeans-Gail stressed.

Working groups are urged to rank current support level from these players or stakeholders on a scale from 1 through 10, with 10 being the most supportive. Structure of working groups is important, he added.

Group discussions followed Jeans-Gail’s address. Concrete, tangible products that a corridor working group could deliver over the next six months were explained. Products could include an elected officials’ sign-on letter; an op-ed campaign; an in-person event; a speaker’s bureau; a study grant request, and an IMPLAN assessment of the economic benefits as CAPT would like for the Charlotte-Columbia-Charleston corridor.

RPA BUSINESS included reports from the RPA chairman and president. Financials were explained, proxies determined, and a quorum established. Individuals were elected to key leadership positions (chairman, vice chair, secretary, treasurer, and director). Bylaw amendments were addressed.

“DAY ON THE HILL” MEETINGS with congressional staff and RPA representatives continued to be affected by the lingering pandemic. Some meetings were virtual, some in-person, and some postponed. Committee and regional meetings occupied time for some attendees, Frierson said.