Passenger's overlooked stories

Looking beyond the pandemic: Texas Central, Brightline, new Acela figure to generate more headlines in 2021
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A Brightline train heads toward West Palm Beach, Fla., under stormy skies in January 2019. Brightline continued to make news in 2020 even after shutting down operations in March.
TRAINS: David Lassen

Some seldom-covered 2020 passenger rail developments are guaranteed to surface as bigger news in 2021. Among them is the Federal Railroad Administration’s approval of Texas Central’s Final Environmental Impact Statemen and the Surface Transportation Board’s decision to assume jurisdiction over the Dallas-Houston high speed rail project’s construction permits. The STB’s analysis will include evaluating whether the company has sufficient financial backing. Rural Texas landowners who oppose Texas Central have focused recent criticism on this issue, and have enlisted state legislators in their fight. Uncertainty in the capital markets may force the company to identify the deep pockets, likely in Japan, where billions of investment dollars will come from.

Elsewhere on that front, Brightline will seek to sell bonds for its Las Vegas-California venture after failing to attract interest in 2020. The company also continues to enhance capacity and top speed on Florida East Coast Railway tracks toward Orlando. It will also be challenged to restart service from scratch after shutting down last March, but promotion has always been Brightline’s strong suit.

Also on tap: rollout of the first “New Acela” Alstom trainsets that have been testing all year at the Association of American Railroads’ Transportation Technology Center outside Pueblo, Colo., and on the Northeast Corridor. Their future New York home, the Moynihan Train Hall in the former Farley Building across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station and using the same platforms, is set to open Jan. 1, 2021.

The steep climb Amtrak and its state partners face in regaining relevance pales in comparison to the task at hand for VIA Rail Canada north of the (still closed) border. The company’s congenital weakness, already-sparse offerings, was magnified by stringent lockdowns between provinces coupled with typically tepid government financial support. At its nadir early in the pandemic, VIA only ran one daily round trip on its Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario, routes and, briefly, nothing elsewhere. 

With the exception of the Winnipeg-Churchill, Manitoba, trains to areas not served by highways, only one round trip per week returned over the spring and summer to three other formerly triweekly remote-service lines. The Montreal-Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ocean remains shut down indefinitely. The Canadian resumed with a single, shortened Winnipeg-Vancouver, British Columbia, round trip in mid-December, instead of its twice-weekly Toronto-Vancouver forays. Without sufficient funding to run more frequent trains and earn importance as an essential transportation provider prior to the pandemic, VIA belatedly received C$188 million — $147 million in U.S. dollars — in supplemental stimulus grants on Nov. 30, while airlines got C$788 million. Heading into 2021, if the company isn’t able to restore frequencies and onboard amenities with the still-limited resources at its disposal, VIA could be headed for even more cutbacks.      

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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