Lucky Me That I Picked the Wrong Day to Travel

July 17, 2019

Passengers get into position to board Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited in Cleveland as it arrives more than three hours late on the morning of June 26, 2019. (Photograph by Edward Ribinskas)

On the evening of June 25, 2019, Amtrak Train No. 48 departed Chicago Union Station on time at 9:30.

It would be the only time that No. 48 would arrive or depart from a station on schedule during its 959 mile journey to New York City.

What Amtrak said would be a seven hour trip to Cleveland ballooned to 10-and-a-half hours.

That wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I got to see Sandusky Bay in daylight and got some “bonus” time at no extra fare aboard a train I had not ridden since May 2014.

Yet when the Lake Shore Limited finally halted at the Cleveland station I was more than ready to get off. I had things to do and places to go and had expected to be well underway in doing them already.

Officially, No. 48 arrived in Cleveland at 9:07 a.m., 3 hours, 29 minutes late.

How does a train lose 3.5 hours? Darn if I know because the crew never told us how or why, not that I expected them to do that.

A detailed accounting of that lost time exists somewhere. Amtrak conductors keep logs of time lost en route and report that information to a superior who forwards it to Amtrak headquarters.

Amtrak aggregates that information into report cards that the carrier periodically issues to show how its host railroads are doing in keeping Amtrak trains on time.

Those reports, though, are not necessarily a complete accounting. I’ve heard Amtrak crew members agree in radio conversations with each other to not report a particular cause of delay.

I also once heard an Amtrak engineer refuse to cooperate with the conductor in explaining why No. 30 had lost time in Indiana.

Amtrak operating personnel do not have access to the communication that goes on in the dispatching offices of the host railroads.

If a dispatcher for Norfolk Southern decides to hold Amtrak at a control point to wait for two westbound freight trains to clear before switching Amtrak from Track 2 to Track 1 in order to go around a slow freight train ahead on Track 2, the Amtrak crew doesn’t know why the decision was made to hold them rather than holding one or both of the westbound freights further east until Amtrak could go around the slow eastbound freight.

Further, they don’t know whether that decision was made by the dispatcher, by the dispatcher’s supervisor or by a computer program that NS uses to dispatch its railroad. Nor do they know with certainty the logic behind the decision even if they have some idea.

In fact, the scenario outlined above happened in the darkness of northern Indiana west of South Bend during my trip.

My train was moving slowly and I got my scanner out and listened to the NS road channel for a while.

As best I could tell, most of the time that No. 48 lost on the night and morning of June 25-26 could be attributed to the host railroad.

Amtrak might see it as freight train interference while NS might call it traffic congestion.

In the days preceding my trip, Amtrak had posted a passenger advisory warning that NS track work in the Chicago area would cause delays of up to an hour because two main tracks would be out of service.

Perhaps NS freight traffic was heavier than usual on the night I was aboard No. 48 as the freight carrier was getting caught up from delays to its own trains stemming from the track work.

We can’t blame NS for two other delays due to bridges being open in Toledo and Cleveland for marine traffic.

I’ve made dozens of trips on Amtrak through Toledo over the past 25 years and it was the first time I’d ever been aboard a train delayed by the Maumee River Bridge being open.

Otherwise, nothing happened during that trip of June 25-26 that I had not experienced before between Cleveland and Chicago. Many times.

Much of the lost time was racked up between Elkhart, Indiana, and Toledo where Amtrak trains have been losing time for decades, going back into the Conrail era.

What had been 1 hour, 11 minutes late at Elkhart skyrocketed to 2 hours, 51 minutes by the time we stopped at the Bryan station.

By then it was daylight and I got my radio out again and listened to the engineer on No. 48 call a steady drum beat procession of approach signal indications from Bryan to the west side of Toledo.

We finally got around a long manifest freight in Toledo and I’m not sure if it was a case of that train having mechanical problems, being underpowered or some other reason.

Of course there was a steady stream of westbounds on Track 1, including Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.

Shortly after we moved around that manifest freight the dispatcher said we would have to wait for Amtrak 49 to depart the Toledo station, where there is just one track that Amtrak can use.

Once we got across the Maumee River we moved at a steady pace but we were even later at Sandusky than we had been at Toledo.

NS has been particularly outspoken about its disdain for Amtrak’s report cards and at one point threatened legal action if Amtrak didn’t stop issuing them.

Of course NS is upset because those report cards suggest it does a poor job of dispatching Amtrak trains.

NS management would argue that dispatching decision making takes into account a myriad of factors and seeks to strike a balance in serving the interest of freight trains and passenger trains.

NS managers would say dispatchers seek to give Amtrak preference when they can but that is not always possible because things happen.

It isn’t the railroad’s fault that someone parked a car on the tracks that was struck by a container train that subsequently derailed and blocked both main tracks as happened in early June in Swanton, Ohio.

Nor can railroads predict when equipment failures will occur or acts of nature will strike.

These things also delay the transport of the freight of NS customers.

All of this is true as far as it goes, but overlooks that managers are people who make decisions based on their beliefs, biases and prejudices as to what is most important when conflicts occur in moving trains.

It also overlooks that these beliefs, biases and prejudices are built into the overall operating plan and tend to be viewed as sacrosanct.

It starts with the reality that we the host railroad own this railroad and not Amtrak. In our view the needs of the owner are just as important if not more so than those of the tenant.

I’ve ridden enough Amtrak trains to know that there is an element of luck involved in whether you will get to your destination on time or close to on time.

Had I departed Chicago on No. 48 on June 23 I would have arrived in Cleveland the next morning 27 minutes early. Had I left Chicago the day before I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I traveled the day after I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I left Chicago on June 27 I would have arrived in Cleveland one hour and 13 minutes late. That’s not good, but far better than 3.5 hours late.

So of five trains that operated the week I traveled I had the good fortune – yes, I’m being sarcastic – of choosing the travel day with the really late train.

But that was the date that worked best for me that week. It just didn’t work well for keeping the train even reasonably within range of being on time.

As for my fellow passengers who remained aboard No. 48 on June 26 after I disembarked, No. 48 would lose additional time on CSX, reaching its nadir of 4 hours, 19 minutes late at Schenectady, New York.

By the time it reached the end of the line at New York’s Penn Station, the lateness had been trimmed to 3 hours, 42 minutes, about what it had been in Toledo.

Whether it’s a plane, a train, or a bus, when you take public transportation you are rolling the dice that the carrier will get you to your destination when it says it will.

You know no carrier has a 100 percent on-time record, but always hope the aberration will occur on another day and affect someone else. Some people are naive enough to think it will not happen to them.

As you are loping along at restricted speed, waiting at a control point for opposing traffic or stopped because a heavy Great Lakes freighter has priority at a water crossing, there is a feeling of injustice that someone else’s priorities are more important than yours and there is nothing you can do about it.

If you are a writer you might dash off an indignant piece saying this ought to be done or that ought to have been done.

But if you know anything at all about transportation you should know better. Lengthy delays while traveling do occur and sooner or later they will occur to you.

It’s just that they can mess up your plans and, at times, spoil or dampen an experience you had long looked forward to having.

NOLA-Mobile Service Outlined at Presentation

July 17, 2019

Members of the Southern Rail Commission last week told public officials in Mobile, Alabama, that the proposed new Amtrak Gulf Coast service they want to see happen will not be the same as the service they once had.

Gulf Coast cities east of New Orleans have been without intercity rail passenger service since Hurricane Katrina damaged the route in August 2005 and Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited there.

The proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile will not disrupt operations of the ports in Mobile, they said during an information session.

The SRC officials said the route could become a passenger rail success story similar to that of how Maine’s Downeaster, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawathas, or Northeast Regional service sponsored by Virginia.

In all three of those corridors, SRC officials said, fares are reasonably priced.

The proposed 160-mile New Orleans-Mobile corridor would have morning and evening service.

It won’t be the Sunset Limited, a long-distance train that ran between Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, just three days a week and often operated behind schedule.

Also appearing at the information session were representatives of Transportation for America, Amtrak, and the Rail Passengers Association.

The sticking point in launching the service is money. The proposal won a $33 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to fund their shares of the cost of the service.

But earlier this year Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey rejected committing funding. She cited concerns about passenger trains interfering with port operations.

The latter concerns have also been expressed by some Mobile officials.

Alabama would need to pay $2.2 million for infrastructure improvements and $3.04 million for operating support.

Proponents of the proposed service contend that the service would generate more than $40 million in economic benefits.

Another hurdle facing the service is the need for Amtrak and CSX to negotiate an operating contract.

Infrastructure needs include construction of a 600-foot platform at the Mobile station, and a 1,325-foot storage track for trains to sit between runs.

Senate Likely to be Late on Approving Budget

July 17, 2019

The Senate is not expected to approve federal transportation funding by the start of fiscal year 2020 meaning that funding will likely continue through a continuing resolution.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has acknowledged it likely will miss the Sept. 30 deadline to pass a FY2020 budget.

The House has already approved its own transportation spending plan for FY2020, which means that if the Senate adopts its own budget bill the differences will need to be reconciled in a conference committee.

Funding for Amtrak and public transit will go through a Senate subcommittee on appropriations headed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine who the Rail Passengers Association has described as a traditional strong supporter of Amtrak.

The Senate committee has yet to hold hearings on transportation funding.

RPA noted that the first of a series of surface transportation authorizations hearings centered on partisan differences over such things as climate change and how to shore up the sagging highway trust fund, but senators did seem to agree that there is a need to move reauthorization along to avoid short-term extensions.

Other authorizations that are facing Congress include those for intercity rail, public transit and revenue.

However, there are wide partisan divides on a number of issues and it remains to be seen if those can be bridged by Sept. 30, 2020, when current authorizations will expire.

Connecticut Bridge Project to Move Ahead

July 17, 2019

A federal judge last week rejected a challenge to a plan to replace a railroad bridge in Connecticut that is used by Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains.

The bridge carries four Metro North tracks over the Norwalk River at Norwalk and hosts 200 trains a day.

The 122-year-old Walk Bridge swings open to allow marine traffic to enter the river from Long Island Sound.

Marine traffic requiring the bridge to open has been declining with just 78 movements recorded since 2016.

The cost of the replacement project has been pegged by the U.S. Department of Transportation at $1.1 billion, which includes engineering, rights of way and construction costs.

The work would also involve creating a new interlocking plant, improvements to another nearby rail line and rail storage area, and other related railroad and bridge projects.

Connecticut has received $161 million in funding for the project that was awarded from a program intended to help repair infrastructure damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Vermont City Favor Seeking Rail Study Federal Grant

July 17, 2019

The city council in Barre, Vermont, narrowly voted last week to support a bid to win federal funds to study the possible restoration of intercity rail passenger service.

The service would operate between Barre and Montpelier, Vermont.

The vote was 4-2 with Mayor Lucas Herring casting the deciding vote.

The grant application will be submitted by the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, which hopes to land Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Vermont’s Agency of Transportation must submit a report by December detailing the estimated costs of upgrading the state-owned rail line and a timeline for potential construction.

Voting against the resolution was council member John Steinman, who said the the two cities are already connected by the “under capacity” Green Mountain Transit system.

Steinman said self-propelled buses would be a better transportation choice than rail.

Virgin Eyes Adding 3 More Stations in Florida

July 17, 2019

Virgin Trains USA is considering adding as many as three new stations to its route between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida.

The carrier formally known as Brightline said that additional stops will slow its trains but boost ridership.

The carrier has not named the cities it is considering, but among those thought to be in contention are Hollywood, Boca Raton, Pompano Beach and a site in Martin County.

Officials in Hollywood said they recently met with Virgin officials about creating a station downtown.

Hollywood is already served by Tri-Rail commuter trains to Miami, but Virgin trains are likely to be faster and cost more to ride.

Boca Raton officials said they hope to meet with Virgin officials soon about establishing a station there.

For the first quarter of 2019, Virgin said it carried of 244,178 passengers and netted revenue of $5.8 million.

It has set a goal of 2.1 million passengers and between $50 million and $100 million in revenues in 2019.

Charging Through Michigan

July 16, 2019

A visit last weekend to Durand, Michigan, netted the information that SC-44 Chargers are now operating on the Chicago-Port Huron, Michigan, Blue Water.

The Chargers, which the Michigan Department of Transportation helped to buy for Amtrak Midwest corridor services, were slow to be assigned to Michigan trains used Amtrak-owned track west of Kalamazoo, due to the need to upgrade the software on the locomotives to be compatible with the line’s positive train control system.

Apparently those upgrades have been made.

Nos. 364 and 365 operate with locomotives in each end to avoid having to turn the train in Port Huron during its nightly layover.

No. 365 is shown leaving Durand for its next stop of East Lansing before continuing on to Chicago.

CSX Track Work to Disrupt Amtrak Southeast Trains

July 16, 2019

CSX track work will cause widespread service disruptions, particularly in North Carolina, starting on July 22 and extending to Sept. 19.

The New York-Charlotte Carolinian will operate only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday over the length of its route.

On Monday through Thursday Nos. 79 and 80 will operate only between Raleigh and Charlotte.

No alternative transportation is being provided to missed stations.

Starting July 21, the northbound Silver Star will depart Miami at 3:40 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and operate as No. 1092.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said No. 1092 will operate two hours later than its published schedule from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida; three hours later from Jacksonville to Savannah, Georgia; and four hours later north of Savannah.

The northbound Star will operate on its regular schedule from Miami to New York on Thursday through Saturday. No. 1092 will stop at Wilson, North

The southbound Palmetto will operate on its normal schedule from New York to Richmond, Virginia , but starting July 22 will depart Richmond an hour later than the current schedule Monday through Thursday and continue that schedule to Savannah.

The Palmetto will operate normally Friday through Sunday.

The southbound Silver Star and northbound Palmetto will operate normally throughout the period that track work is being conducted.

Adirondack Sked Temporarily Changes

July 16, 2019

The schedule of the New York-Montreal Adirondack has changed through Aug. 30 due to expected heat restrictions being imposed by host railroad Canadian National.

No. 68 will depart Montreal 10 minutes earlier, arrive 10 minutes earlier at St. Lambert, Quebec, and arrive at current time in Rouses Point, New York.

No. 69 will depart St. Lambert 10 minutes later and arrive 10 minutes later in Montreal.

 

NOLA Service Restorations Underway

July 16, 2019

Amtrak said service to New Orleans will be restored this week now that Hurricane Barry has passed.

The Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles will resume with the eastbound departure of Train 2 from Los Angeles on July 17, and the westbound departure of Train 1 from New Orleans on July 20.

The New York-New Orleans Crescent resumed with the westbound departure of Train 19 from New York on July 15 and the eastbound departure of Train 20 from New Orleans on July 16.

The Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans resumed normal service southbound on July 15 and northbound on July 16.

However, Nos. 58 and 59 are only operating between Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi, because host railroad Canadian National is still not allowing Amtrak to operate south of Jackson due to flooding.

Passengers between Jackson and New Orleans are riding chartered buses.