Waiting for the Texas Chief

March 28, 2020

A crowd waits on the platform in Joliet, Illinois, as Amtrak’s Texas Chief arrives at its first stop en route to Houston after leaving Chicago Union Station on Aug. 17, 1973.

The SDP40F locomotives pulling the train have been in service for just about two months.

The train is on the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and is about to cross the tracks of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

Next spring the Santa Fe’s dissatisfaction with the quality of Amtrak service will result in the Texas Chief being renamed the Lone Star.

Photograph by Robert Farkas

 

Some Amtrak Stations Being Affected by Pandemic

March 28, 2020

Several Amtrak stations across the system are also seeing reduced hours or being closed for some or all train arrivals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Service advisories posted on the Amtrak website said the changes are until further notice.

The Ann Arbor, Michigan, station will see its hours reduced to 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

The waiting rooms of the stations in Washington State at Bingen-White Salmon and Wishram station waiting rooms are closed but trains will continue to stop at both stations and passengers will have access to platforms.

The Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station is no longer being staffed.

Passengers may still use the lounge but will not receive coffee, hot water or fountain beverages. Amtrak said regular and diet soda will be available by request at the front desk.

However, given that the station is not being staff it is unclear who will be providing those beverages to passengers.

Other stations at which the waiting room is now closed but access to the boarding platforms is being maintained include Detroit Lakes, Minnesota; Kirkwood, Missouri; Lawrence, Kansas; Dodge City, Kansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Burlington, Iowa; Kalamazoo, Michigan; East Lansing, Michigan; Princeton, Illinois; and Plano, Illinois;

The station hours at Grand Junction, Colorado, have been reduced to two hours before the arrival of the California Zephyr.

Ticketed passengers and those wishing to purchase cashless tickets will have access to the inside of the station but friends and family picking up arriving passengers are not permitted in the station and are being asked to wait in their vehicles.

A similar practice has been instituted for Southwest Chief passengers using the station in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Cascades Service Further Trimmed

March 28, 2020

Amtrak Cascades Service has been further trimmed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nos. 517 and 518 have been canceled until further notice.

A notice on the Cascades Service website said all food and beverage service aboard trains that continue to operate has been suspended.

Passengers are allowed to bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages onboard.

All stations between Seattle and Eugene remain open except the volunteer-staffed Olympia/Lacey and Kelso stations.

Cascades trains will continue to stop at those stations but no services are available.

No Injuries in Auto Train Derailment; Silver Service Not Operating South of Jacksonville

March 28, 2020

No passengers were hurt but an Amtrak crew member suffered a foot injury in the Thursday derailment of the northbound Auto Train.

The derailment occurred less than 20 miles north of the DeLand, Florida, station at about 4:15 p.m.

Nine auto rack cars derailed but all of the passenger cars remained on the tracks.

News reports indicated that an unspecified track problem caused the derailment.

The passenger cars were able to continue their journey after an inspection.

The train was carrying 294 passengers and 23 crew members.

Amtrak canceled the Auto Train in both directions on Friday and the Silver Meteor and Silver Star originated in Jacksonville, Florida, rather than Miami.

Amtrak said this morning in a Twitter service alert that both Silver Service trains of March 28 would continue to originate in Jacksonville and that no alternative transportation is being provided for the missed stations.

The carrier will provide alternative transportation on Saturday south of Jacksonville only to discharge passengers.

House OKs Emergency Aid for Amtrak, Transit

March 28, 2020

The House of Representatives approved on Friday the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that contains emergency aid for Amtrak and public transit agencies hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, which was supported by President Donald Trump and received broad bi-partisan support, contains $25 billion for public transportation agencies, including commuter-rail operators.

That funding will be allocated through formula operating and capital grants.

The stimulus package also contains $1 billion for Amtrak, which has seen steep ridership declines and canceled scores of trains in an effort to stem financial losses.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Amtrak ridership is down 92 percent.

In a unrelated development the Federal Transit Administration said it will extend by 30 days the deadlines for applying for competitive grant program funding.

The extension applies to grant programs now administered by the FTA with active notices of funding opportunities.

FTA also said it is offering flexibility to agencies using existing federal formula funds for emergency-related capital and operating expenses at an increased 80-percent federal share.

Agencies can request relief from federal requirements as needed by making a request through FTA’s emergency relief docket.

The agency cited the pandemic in extending the grant application deadlines.

Kansas Legislature Support Amtrak Route Extension

March 28, 2020

The Kansas legislature has approved a resolution expressing support for extending Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer into Kansas.

The resolution urges the Kansas congressional delegation to support federal funding that would make the extension possible.

That is a reference to an Amtrak proposal for a dedicated federal appropriation to help states pay for new Amtrak corridor service.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed setting aside state funding for preliminary work to develop passenger rail services.

The Kansas Department of Transportation’s FORWARD Kansas transportation plan recommends developing the Heartland Flyer extension from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas, where it could connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

The resolution adopted by Kansas lawmakers said “numerous studies conducted by universities in Texas and Kansas have determined the economic benefit of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer passenger rail service and its extension to be at least three to one for every dollar spent.”

The Heartland Flyer, which is funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas, currently operates once a day between Oklahoma City an Fort Worth, Texas.

Amtrak Stops Accepting Cash

March 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many effects, some of which have received little attention.

Among those has been Amtrak’s acceptance of a suggestion by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to business to limit the handling of cash, which it said can carry the virus.

The CDC has recommended that business promote tap and pay to limit the handling of cash.

The Rail Passengers Association said it has learned this week that Amtrak has begun refusing to take cash which the advocacy group said could leave those without credit cards with no options for paying for Amtrak services.

The RPA said it won’t fault Amtrak for adopting the policy, but said a workaround needs to be found.

“We at Rail Passengers right now don’t have an answer,” RPA CEO Jim Mathews  wrote on its website on Friday. “I’m raising the question as a challenge, however, that maybe all of us can come up with a solution.”

Dining on the City of New Orleans

March 26, 2020

There have been times when Amtrak sought to give the dining cars on its long-distance trains a touch of the cuisine associated with a region served by the route.

In the case of the City of New Orleans that meant food associated with the Crescent City.

But more often than not, the dining car fare on the CONO was the same as it was elsewhere.

Shown is the menu that was in use in 2012. Although not obvious from the dinner entrees shown inside, the diner on a March night that I was traveling from New Orleans to Chicago did feature a catfish dinner that would be similar to one you might find on a menu in a New Orleans restaurant.

And I can say it was tasty and enjoyable.

Amtrak, Transit to Get Aid in Stimulus Package

March 26, 2020

Aid to Amtrak and public transit agencies was part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.

The intercity rail passenger carrier is to get $1.018 billion of which $526 million is for the national network, $492 million is for the Northeast Corridor, and $239 million is for state-supported routes.

The amount matches what Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said the carrier expects to lose in the current federal fiscal year due to a dramatic drop in ridership and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public transit agencies are slated to receive $25 billion operating expenses. The bill waives a requirement that transit agencies use their own funds to receive federal assistance.

Another $25 billion was awarded for transit infrastructure grants to be doled out based on fiscal 2020 allocations in four areas: Urbanized Area Formula Grants; Nonurbanized Area Formula Grants; State of Good Repair; and High Density and Growing States.

The stimulus bill now moves to the House, which is expected to vote on it on Friday morning.

USA Today reported that House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland expected his chamber to approve the bill on a voice vote before sending it to President Donald Trump.

Amtrak Trims More Service, Brightline Suspended

March 26, 2020

Additional Amtrak service reductions have been announced and Florida intercity rail passenger operator Brightline has suspended all service.

The latest Amtrak cancellations include reducing the level of service of Missouri River Runner service effective March 30

The two daily roundtrips between St. Louis and Kansas City will be cut to one with trains leaving Kansas City at 8:15 a.m. and St. Louis at 4 p.m.

The St. Louis-Kansas City corridor was the last in the Midwest to be unaffected by the COVID pandemic-induced service reductions.

Effective today Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has ordered all Amtrak in that state to be suspended.

The Vermonter, which normally operates between Washington and St. Albans, Vermont, will not operate north of New Haven, Connecticut.

On its reduced schedule, the Vermonter will not operate on Sundays.

The Ethan Allen Express, which normally operates between New York and Rutland, Vermont, will not operate north of Albany-Rensselaer, New York.

Scott said he took the action after consulting with Amtrak. He also issued a stay-at-home order for residents of his state and directed the closure of in-person, nonessential businesses in order to minimize unnecessary activities outside of homes.

In Florida, Brightline, which is owned by Virgin Trains USA, laid off 250 of its more than 300 South Florida workers this week.

Brightline said on Wednesday that it was suspending all service in the wake of the pandemic.

The layoffs included Bob O’Malley, vice president of corporate development.

In a statement, Brightline said it hoped to rehire most of its workers once service resumes, but said it could not say when that might be.

A report in the Miami Herald said more than 700 construction workers on a project to extend Brightline track to Orlando remain employed.