Infrastructure Bill Would Make Amtrak Policy Changes

August 4, 2021

The text of the proposed nearly $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill was revealed this week in the U.S. Senate.

As reported earlier by various sources, the bill would provide $66 billion to Amtrak with most of that money being used to address maintenance backlogs and upgrade the Northeast Corridor.

However, the text also showed the legislation would make changes to Amtrak’s legal mission.

Those include making the goal of Amtrak to “meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States” rather than achieving “a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.”

There is also language that places Amtrak service to rural areas as well as urban areas.

The funding for Amtrak in the bill would allocate $1.5 billion per year for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants program with a 50 percent match required.

Also included in the bill is $15 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation to analyze the restoration of long-distance trains that have been terminated by Amtrak; money to fund the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program ($1 billion per year), and the Restoration and Enhancement Program ($50 million per year); and $500 million per year for rail grade crossing separation projects.

The Amtrak funding is part of an overall $102 billion package for commuter rail and other high-performance rail services.

Public transit would receive $107 billion for public transit. Some of that funding can be used for multimodal investments that include transit and passenger rail.

The legislation also contains the Senate’s version of a new surface transportation reauthorization  bill that authorizes funding for railroads, water infrastructure, public transit, highway, bridges and roads.

Transformational? Probably Not

August 4, 2021

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill now being debated by the Senate contains an infusion of new funding for rail passenger service, it is not necessarily the “transformational” development that rail passenger advocates have long sought.

Writing last week on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, the president of the group formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the bill provides meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding, yet doesn’t have nearly enough funding to provide for a wide-ranging expansion of Amtrak routes and services.

But 24 hours later, RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s vice president of policy and government affairs, wrote a post saying that the views expressed in Mathews’ earlier post had been a little too pessimistic and that the infrastructure plan could be transformational.

When RPA and other rail passenger advocates use the word “transformational” they are talking about a vision in which the nation’s intercity rail passenger network is much greater than it is now. By that they mean doubled, tripled and maybe quadrupled.

It is difficult to say because advocates tend to speak in general terms about Amtrak expansion.

Amtrak has laid out its own transformational vision in its Amtrak Connect US plan that calls for a network of 39 new corridor services by 2035.

Individual rail passenger advocates, though, tend to have their own visions and dreams, some of which would involve several new long-distance routes plus an expansion of the number of trains on existing long-distance routes. Amtrak is not calling for additional long-distance routes.

Whatever your vision for expanding intercity rail passenger service might be, it won’t happen without a massive infusion of public money.

The infrastructure plan now before the Senate would allocate $66 million for passenger rail.

But most of that money would be used on Amtrak’s existing network, leaving just $32 billion for additional passenger rail funding.

 “While this bill would count as the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House,” Mathews wrote.

He was referring to the $74 billion originally proposed by President Joseph Biden for new passenger rail projects in his American Jobs Act proposal.

What RPA and other passenger advocates really want is the $110 billion in the House-approved INVEST Act that would be spent on passenger rail.

The Senate infrastructure bill combines figures from what had been two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021.

That bill, which contained $34.2 billion for passenger rail, was approved earlier by the Senate Commerce Committee.

If you combine what is available for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill with the Transportation Investment Act figures, Jeans-Gail wrote, you get a passenger rail investment of $102 billion over the next five years, which he called a “transformational” figure.

Maybe, but read the fine print. The only funding that is guaranteed by the infrastructure bill is the $66 billion of the original bi-partisan infrastructure plan.

The rest of the funding is subject to approval through the congressional appropriations process.

“There’s no assurance that the additional $36 billion in investment will ever fully materialize,” Jeans-Gail wrote. “This creates uncertainty in how the guaranteed funds would be used, hindering the ability of states and Amtrak to effectively execute multi-year capitalization plans.”

So what will that $66 billion be used for? Primarily to fund capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and the national network, and buy new equipment for the national network.

Some of the funding is devoted toward establishing new services, although Mathews suggested it might only be enough for one or two routes.

The RPA posts have suggested that money could be used to restore discontinued routes, extend existing service and add additional frequencies on existing routes.

In his post, Mathews said there remains hope that the House will approve a more generous rail funding section of the infrastructure plan. Any differences would need to be worked out between the House and Senate.

He conceded that a higher level of rail funding could draw the opposition of those Republicans who have thus far supported the bi-partisan Senate infrastructure bill.

It seems unlikely the Senate will lie down and give in to everything that the House wants. There will be a give and take in reconciling the differing visions of each chamber.

Then again the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, hasn’t been considered by the House and hasn’t been signed by the president. We are talking about proposals at this point not finished products.

The numbers may change in time, but the overall thrust of what the infrastructure bill will and won’t do is unlikely to change all that much.

That may result in something transformational or it might simply lead to incremental additions to the nation’s intercity rail passenger network with new equipment and improved infrastructure being used by the existing services.

If that turns out to be the case it would be a positive for America’s intercity rail passenger network. It just won’t lead to the fulfillment of most of the desires and dreams of many rail passenger advocates.

Track Work to Send Texas Eagle Detouring

August 3, 2021

Track work being performed by host railroad Union Pacific will disrupt operations of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle on Aug. 8.

Trains 22/422 will detour in Texas between Big Sandy and Texarkana. Passengers who would have boarded Train 22 at Longview and Marshall will ride Amtrak Thruway Bus 6122 to Mineola, where they will board Train 22/422.

Passengers scheduled to connect with the train in Longview from Bus 6022, will make their connection in Mineola.

Those scheduled to make the normal connection to Thruway Service at Longview will also connect at Mineola. Thruway Buses 6022 and 6422 will board at Mineola instead of Longview.

Passengers scheduled to disembark at Marshall will instead do so at Mineola and connect with Bus 6422 to Marshall.

Mudslides Block California Zephyr Route

August 3, 2021

Amtrak’s California Zephyr was suspended last weekend on part of its route due to mudslides in Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood, Colorado.

The mudslides also blocked adjacent Interstate 70, which precluded Amtrak from providing alternative transportation between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado.

Trains already en route on Friday, Saturday and Sunday turned back at Denver and Grand Junction.

Passengers were given the option of returning to point of origin or waiting for the line to reopen.

Those who had not yet departed on their trip were offered assistance with rebooking their trip or receiving a refund of their fare.

A spokeswoman for host railroad Union Pacific said mudslides blocked tracks at 10 locations.

She said workers hoped to get the line open by early Monday but said that was contingent on weather conditions.

An Amtrak spokeswoman said Amtrak considered rerouting Nos. 5 and 6 through Wyoming but was unable to arrange that.

Passengers aboard trains departing on Sunday from Chicago and Emeryville, California, were told their train might not be able to pass through Glenwood Canyon on Monday.

Amtrak Tweeted early Tuesday morning that Train No. 5 was back on the move but running five hours, 35 minutes late due to earlier track closures between Denver and Grand Junction.

New Coalition Pushes Old Idea

August 3, 2021

Although the coalition is new, the idea is not.

Seven rail passenger advocacy groups announced last week the formation of the Lakeshore Rail Alliance which has proposed expanding Amtrak’s Chicago-New York service via Cleveland, Buffalo and Toledo from one daily roundtrip to four.

Amtrak currently links Chicago and New York with two trains, the daily Lake Shore Limited via Cleveland and the Cardinal, which operates tri-weekly via Indianapolis, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

In past years Amtrak operated a third Chicago-New York train, the Broadway Limited. The Broadway was discontinued in September 1995 and for a few years another Chicago-New York train, the Three Rivers, ran between the two cities between November 1996 and March 2005.

Neither the Three Rivers nor the Broadway Limited operated over the Lakeshore Corridor.

The proposed four Chicago-New York trains concept was initially proposed in 2011 by Richard Harnish, the executive director of the High-Speed Rail Alliance, a Chicago-based group that is one of the seven members of the Lakeshore Alliance.

His original idea was to upgrade the route to enable trains to cover the distance on schedules several hours shorter than today’s Lake Shore Limited.

No. 48 is scheduled at 19 hours eastbound while No. 49 is scheduled at more than 20 hours.

The Harnish proposal has failed to gain any traction since it was proposed.

A draft plan released by the alliance shows that there would remain other trains in the Lakeshore Corridor, including existing Amtrak Empire Corridor service between New York and Buffalo, and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, which operates in the corridor between Chicago and Cleveland.

In a statement, the alliance described the Lakeshore Corridor as a series of overlapping short corridors.

“As a result, maximizing volume would require treating this as a single route—even if no one rode the train more than 400 miles,” the alliance said.

Michael Fuhrman, the executive director of the Lakeshore Alliance, said the Lakeshore Corridor is the second-most-important transportation corridor east of the Mississippi.

“It connects the Great Lakes megaregion of 55 million people with the Northeast Megaregion of 52 million people—the two largest of the 11 megaregions of the U.S. No other corridor between those two areas is better suited for development of passenger rail.”

By combining forces the alliance members hope to generate a wider swath of local political support for the public funding that would be needed to upgrade the Lakeshore Corridor, which largely involves host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Bill Hutchison, a former officer of alliance member All Aboard Ohio, believes that pushing for four trains might improve the likelihood of getting a second train on the route someday, or even a third.

“Local governments are on board, but we need an organizing force,” All Aboard Ohio member Ed D’Amato said. “We need to bring in new voices—we’re trying to build a choir here.”

Other groups in the coalition include the Empire State Passengers Association, Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance, Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, All Aboard Erie, and the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association. 

Some rail passenger advocates see the goal of the Lakeshore Alliance as noble but not necessarily realistic.

“Four trains would be great, but is it realistic?” said Richard Rudolph, chair of the Rail Users’ Network.

Rudolph agrees the lakeshore corridor should have at least two trains, but one of them could be a Chicago-Boston train that would not need to do any switching at the Albany-Rensselaer, New York, station as the current Lake Shore Limited does in combining and separating its New York and Boston sections.

He noted that Amtrak could add service to its national network without violating the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which limits the national network to routes operating when the law was adopted.

A Michigan rail passenger advocacy group reportedly wants to become involved in the lakeshore alliance, which currently lacks involvement with a group representing Massachusetts.

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 3, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Coalition Seeks 4 Chicago-NY Roundtrips

July 29, 2021

A newly formed intercity rail passenger advocacy coalition is pushing for increased service in the Chicago-New York corridor.

The Lakeshore Rail Alliance is calling for at least four daily Amtrak roundtrips between the two cities. The coalition said this would be an interim service level until a high-speed service can be created.

The new coalition is based in Erie, Pennsylvania, and is made up of existing rail advocacy groups

All Aboard Erie, All Aboard Ohio, the Empire State Passenger Association, the Chicago-based High-Speed Rail Alliance, the Indiana Passenger Rail Association, the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, and the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association make up the coalition .

Michael Fuhrman of All Aboard Erie will serve as executive director. He previously was director of economic and regional issue agency Destination Erie. The coalition has a website that shows sample timetables of the expanded service.

Buses to Replace Boston LSL Section

July 21, 2021

Track work being performed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will result in service disruptions to the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited between July 23 and 26.

During that period, Train 448 will terminate at Albany-Rensselaer, New York, with alternate bus transportation provided to the missed stops of Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester and Boston South Station.

No alternate transportation will be provided to the missed stop of Framingham or Boston Back Bay. Those traveling to Back Bay will ride the bus to South Station and take an Amtrak or MBTA commuter train to Back Bay.

Train 449 will originate at Albany with alternate bus transportation provided from Boston South Station, Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield.

 No alternate transportation will be provided from Boston Back Bay or Framingham.

Back Bay passengers will be given the option of boarding at Boston South Station or traveling on alternate dates.

Passengers at Boston South Station should go to the Amtrak information desk for instructions on boarding the buses.

Passengers at Worcester will board the bus at the main entrance in front of the station. Boarding will not occur at the bus terminal.

Track Works Leads to Wolverine Sked Changes

July 21, 2021

Schedules of Amtrak’s Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) will be temporarily change between July 20 and Oct. 31 due to track work being performed by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.

Train 350 will depart Chicago 15 minutes earlier at 7:05 a.m. and will be scheduled to arrive in Pontiac at 2:46 p.m.

Train 351 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:43 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:47 a.m.

Train 354 will depart Chicago at its scheduled time of 5:50 p.m, but be rescheduled to arrive in Pontiac 15 minutes later at 1:17 a.m.

Train 355 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:28 a.m and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:55 p.m.

An Amtrak service advisory said Trains 352 and 353 remain suspended but are expected to resume operation on Sept. 7.

Wolverine Service during the COVID-19 pandemic fell to one pair of trains between Chicago and Pontiac. Service increased to two pairs of trains on July 19.

CN Pledges Better Handling of Amtrak Trains

July 21, 2021

Canadian National pledged on Monday to do a better job hosting Amtrak trains on its network.

During an investor’s call to discuss second quarter earnings, CN CEO J.J. Ruest said his company knows hosting Amtrak service is part of CN’s social license to operate in the United States.

Ruest acknowledged there’s always room for improvement in how CN handles Amtrak trains.

Amtrak and CN have been at odds for years over dispatching and other matters, particularly how Amtrak trains are dispatched between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

CN has imposed a minimum axle count on Amtrak trains, forcing them to run with deadhead cars to meet that standard. The two railroads have also clashed over track safety performance issues.

CN managers said during the earnings call that the Montreal-based carrier has an open mind about how to be a better partner with passenger service as well as Amtrak.

That comment might have been aimed in part at criticism of CN’s handling of VIA Rail Canada trains.

CN is seeking regulatory approval in the United States to acquire Kansas City Southern.

The comments made by CN executives were aimed, at least in part, at Amtrak’s opposition to CN plans to place KCS stock into a voting trust while the merger is reviewed.

Opponents of the CN-KCS combination have pointed out that KCS owns a route between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that might be used for future Amtrak service.

During the earnings call, CN executives said it will work with Amtrak to launch that service if funding can obtained for the service.

CN executives said that in the latest Amtrak report car of its host railroads CN was rated as one of the top railroads in terms of service and this is evidence it will continue to work with the U.S. intercity passenger carrier.