Monday, August 6, 2012

Legal spat could derail Tarrant County Amtrak plan - Fort Worth Star Telegram

About $7.2 million in federal funding awarded to North Texas to double-track the Trinity Railway Express line and improve Amtrak rail service could be sent back to Washington because of a legal dispute that has now dragged on for nearly two years.

If the federal stimulus funding awarded in 2010 is returned to the federal government, it effectively would put the brakes on plans to move Amtrak's daily Texas Eagle service onto the TRE line. It currently uses the Union Pacific Railroad line between Dallas and Fort Worth via Arlington.Regional planners have hailed that move as a way to improve Amtrak's on time performance -- by allowing the trains to avoid rail congestion in the Tower 55 area near downtown Fort Worth -- and to clear the way for the possible opening of a new Amtrak station serving Northeast Tarrant County and other areas in the middle of the Metroplex from TRE's CenterPort station."It's been going on now for two years, and doggone it, we're getting down to a deadline and there's no end in sight," said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a group that pushes for increased passenger rail funding.Legal spatThe spat is between Amtrak and TRE, a commuter rail service co-owned by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, also known as the T, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit. At the heart of the dispute is the issue of liability -- in other words, who would be responsible for any damage or injury incurred during passenger train service.Amtrak has asked for TRE to assume liability on its line, even in the event of a crash involving an Amtrak train. TRE has balked at that proposal.On Monday, T officials were tight-lipped but expressed a bit of optimism that the dispute can be resolved before the end of August -- which according to the Texas Department of Transportation is the federal deadline for the parties to obligate the money."We are making every effort to meet the requirements of this grant," T spokeswoman Joan Hunter said.Amtrak wouldn't comment on the negotiations. The nation's only coast-to-coast passenger rail service operates mostly on tracks owned by freight companies such as Union Pacific and Fort Worth-based BNSF.Amtrak does indemnify -- or secure against liability -- "host" railroads such as Union Pacific and BNSF in accordance with laws that were passed in the early 1970s, when Amtrak was created, spokesman Marc Magliari said. Those laws helped Amtrak bring service to areas such as Fort Worth, which is served daily by Texas Eagle trains to Chicago and San Antonio, and a daily Heartland Flyer to Oklahoma City.But those laws didn't cover future agreements between Amtrak and other railroads, he said.Another delayIn exchange for covering Amtrak's liability, TRE would get the benefit of double-tracking in areas such as the Richland Hills-Hurst corridor, where parts of the line are single-track. Moving Amtrak onto the TRE line is also part of the North Central Texas Council of Governments' long-term plan to prepare the region for high-speed rail.The dispute also could create yet another delay in the TEX Rail project, a proposed commuter rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Dallas Fort Worth Airport via Grapevine that officials would like to have up and running by 2016.Moving Amtrak over to the TRE line has become a bargaining chip in negotiations for the TEX Rail project. The TEX Rail project includes a portion of Union Pacific lines in north Fort Worth, near the Stockyards, and Union Pacific officials have said that in order to allow commuter rail service in that area they must first be assured that Amtrak is moving off the busy UP line in Arlington.Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796Twitter: @gdickson

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