STB Express Concerns Over Amtrak Delays on CSX

August 21, 2017

Somewhat overlooked in all of the back and forth about deteriorating CSX freight service is a directive from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board that it will no longer tolerate delays that have slowed some of Amtrak’s trains on CSX routes.

The STB sent a letter to CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison “expressing concerns about deteriorated service,” and criticizing CSX for its “unreliable” and “inefficient” operations, as well as “poor communications and coordination.”

A CSX spokesman acknowledged that the operations of Amtrak trains have been disrupted, particularly on the Chicago-Indianapolis route.

“CSX understands that these changes have resulted in some disruptions to Amtrak on its passenger rail service on the Hoosier State line between Indianapolis and Chicago, and we have been in contact with Amtrak and the Indiana Department of Transportation about those issues,” said CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said. “CSX is committed to continuing a dialogue about these concerns as operational changes occur.”

Amtrak’s Chicago-Indianapolis corridor is primarily comprised of CSX track.

During June, the southbound Hoosier State arrived on-time one in three times.

“It remains a concern — and will be as we continue to report out the performance of that train and their handling of it,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Doolittle insisted that the disruptions to Amtrak will be short-lived as the railroad better implements its new operating plan.

Amtrak Routes Said to be Eyed by Terrorists

August 20, 2017

Amtrak’s Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited might be targeted by terrorist groups the Transportation Security Administration has warned.

The TSA has told mass transit agencies, freight, and passenger rail lines to be vigilant in the wake of a propaganda video released by the terrorist group Al Qaeda.

TSA said there are no known plots against transportation operations in the United States, but that the terrorist group has listed dozens of rail routes that it considered to be vulnerable.

Many of those routes serve Chicago Union Station. Al Qaeda listed the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited and the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

“The Al-Qaeda video is an important reminder that mass transit, passenger-rail, and freight-rail operations are a potential target for terrorist activity,” TSA officials said.

The federal agency said employees should keep a close watch on their environments and to exercise caution with equipment and materials that could be used to obstruct or derail trains.

Transportation officials has indicated that airport-style screening systems are unlikely to become common in rail transportation, including mass transit lines, but testing is being conducted of systems that would enhance existing security measures.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles conducted a test run of new technology designed to scan passengers to detect firearms or explosive vests.

“While we’ll never become a fully secured environment like you’d have in the airport, we do want to find a way to more effectively screen passengers,” Metro security executive Alex Wiggins said. “We are trying to stay ahead of the threat.”

One reason why airport security measure have not been implemented for rail passengers is because they cannot process transit and intercity rail passengers fast enough.

The technology being tested in Los Angeles can scan up to 600 passengers per hour. Riders are not required to remove their shoes or take out laptops, keys and phones from their bags.

The scanners cost about $60,000 each and 20 would be needed for Union Station alone.

Texas HSR Plan Advances

August 20, 2017

Texas Central Partners has chosen Fluor Enterprises and Lane Construction to review, refine and update the high-speed rail route that it is planning to build between Dallas and Houston.

Both companies would also be the preferred design-builder of the line.

“This underscores the attention the Texas Bullet Train has received from world-class firms, wanting to be part of a project that will revolutionize travel here and generate long-lasting local economic benefits,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Texas Central also announced it has reached a memorandum of agreement with Houston officials to share environmental surveys, utility analysis and engineering information related to the project, and they will work together to develop new transit and travel options to and from the likely terminus, possibly at the Northwest Mall in Houston.

The Dallas-Houston service is expected to cost $12 billion and be privately funded. Trains traveling at 200 mph would travel between the two cities in 90 minutes.

Construction is slated to begin in 2019 and take four to five years to complete.

Infrastructure Advisory Council Terminated

August 20, 2017

The Trump Administration has dropped its plans to create an Advisory Council on Infrastructure.

The council was proposed to help provide guidance on how spending for a multi-billion dollar program to improve roads, bridges and other public works.

Membership of the council would have included 15 members from the real estate, finance, labor and other sectors.

Termination of the infrastructure council followed the disbanding of two other advisory groups to guide U.S. manufacturing and policies.

In the meantime,  President Donald Trump has released a plan that is designed to alleviate the length of time it takes to get federal approval for projects.

Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday that will”

  • Establish “one Federal decision” for major infrastructure projects to proceed
  • Set a two-year goal for completing reviews
  • Set up a “quarterly scorecard” to hold agencies accountable for delays
  • Reduce duplicative requests for information and late-stage changes in the approval process.

Statehouse at Joliet

August 11, 2017

The southbound  St. Louis-bound Statehouse rolls into Joliet Union Station on June 19, 1998. Aside from the Phase III livery on the P42DC locomotive, the scene is similar in appearance to today in that some Chicago-St. Louis passenger trains feature a mix of Horizon coaches and Anfleet food service cars.

The Statehouse was funded in part by the State of Illinois and at the time operated on a mid-day schedule.

Bus Service Begins at New Alton Station

August 10, 2017

The new intermodal station has opened in Alton, Illinois, but no date has been set as to when Amtrak will begin using it.

The local transit system in Madison County, Illinois, began using the facility on Aug. 6 and Amtrak expects to begin stopping there within the next few weeks.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier is likely to begin using the new facility in September but first must inspect it and agree to a lease with the City of Alton.

The new station is located at the site of the old city golf course near Homer Adams Parkway and is about two miles northwest of the existing Amtrak station.

Amtrak currently uses the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio depot at 3400 College Avenue. The 89-year-old station is in danger of being razed once Amtrak pulls out of it.

Union Pacific has offered to give the station away to a group that will move it from the site.

But that will cost at least $150,000 and thus far no one has offered a plan to save the station, said Terry Sharp, president of the Alton Area Landmarks Association.

“Maybe it’ll take bringing the wrecking ball right up against the building to get people interested,” Sharp said.

Alton is served by Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Among the features of the new Alton station  are lockers for bicyclists, a pay parking lot and surveillance cameras. Nearby is green space and biking and hiking trails.

City officials hope the 55-acre former golf course site will draw development of new stores, offices and housing.

The project, including associated road improvements, cost about $24 million, which includes the $3.4 million value of the land.

The American Association of Railroaders is planning an outing to mark the end of Amtrak service at the ex-GM&O station and the startup of service at the new Alton station.

“We like to do firsts and lasts related to transportation,” President Rich Eichhorst said, adding that his group’s members rode the last train from St. Louis Union Station in 1978.

Eichhorst believes the last Amtrak train from the Alton GM&O station will be a late-night run from Alton to St. Louis.

The AAR plans to ride from St. Louis to Alton or vice versa or from Alton to Carlinville or the reverse.

The AAR will will sell tickets covering a short train-trip leg and a ride back on its bus with Eichhorst providing commentary.

Tickets are expected to be $25 and limited to 40 people.

Anyone interested  should send a self-addressed stamped envelope to AAR, 9600 Tesson Ferry Road, St. Louis, Mo., 63123, and indicate preference for the last train from the old station or the first train using the new one or both.

Prospective riders should also include their telephone number in case only short notice is given regarding Amtrak’s station change.

Capitol Limited at Harpers Ferry

August 8, 2017

Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited is shown crossing the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on July 25, 2017.

Nearly a week later, the Nos. 29 and 30 began operating only between Chicago and Pittsburgh after a CSX freight train derailment on Aug. 2  closed the Keystone Subdivision at Hyndman, Pennsylvania, for several days.

Rail traffic began moving through the area on Sunday, Aug. 6. The Capitol resumed serving Harpers Ferry and other points east of Pittsburgh that day.

In the interim, passengers had been accommodated by a bus.

Amtrak to Operate Special Train for Solar Eclipse

August 7, 2017

Amtrak will operate a special sold-out train offering passengers the opportunity to make a day trip to Southern Illinois to view the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

The Eclipse Express sold out within 24 hours, Amtrak said. The train will depart Chicago Union Station at 3 a.m. and arrive in Carbondale, Illinois, at 8:30 a.m. after making an intermediate stop in Champaign-Urbana at 5:05 a.m.

The return trip is scheduled to depart Carbondale at 5:15 p.m., stop in Champaign at 7:55 p.m. and arrive back in Chicago at 10:45 p.m.

The Eclipse Express will not carry pets or bicycles. There will be a café car although it won’t have business class seating.

Due to the middle of the night departure, Amtrak said the overhead lighting in the coaches will be turned off.

Amtrak said it conducted protracted negotiations with host railroad Canadian National to schedule the special, which will operate as Nos. 399 and 398.

Although the eclipse will affect much of the United States, its longest duration of totality will be over Makanda, Illinois, which is located south of Carbondale on the former Illinois Central mainline between Chicago and New Orleans.

The first phase of the eclipse begins at 12:52 p.m., reaching totality between 1:20:07 p.m. and 1:22:44 p.m., with the partial phase ending at 2:47 p.m.

Tickets for the Eclipse Express went on sale in the Amtrak reservation system on Sunday.

Amtrak operates three daily trains between Chicago and New Orleans, but the first of those, the southbound Saluki is not scheduled to arrive in Carbondale until 1:45 p.m.

No. 390 has arrived in Carbondale more than 30 minutes late half the time during the past two weeks.

The travel time of the Eclipse Express is the same as the Saluki even though the special train will make eight fewer station stops.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the special was scheduled so as to not affect the operation of other Amtrak trains serving Carbondale.

Among the events being held in Carbondale is an “Eclipse Day” festival at Saluki Stadium on the campus of Southern Illinois University.

There will also be a Family Fun Zone area and Shadowfest held in Carbondale within walking distance of the Amtrak station.

Many eclipse watchers are also expected to ride the northbound Illini from Carbondale to Chicago. No. 392 has been sold out for several weeks and will have an extra coach.

Passengers riding the southbound Eclipse Express will be given special glasses that are needed to prevent permanent eye damage from viewing the sun in its partial eclipse phase.

FRA Publishes Rules for Passenger Trial Program

August 5, 2017

The Federal Railroad Administration has established its rules for seeking competitor bids to replace Amtrak on up to three long-distance routes.

The agency published the rules in the Federal Register and they take effect on Sept. 5.

The pilot program is mandated by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

The rules establish a petition, notification and bid process as well as establish deadlines for filing petitions and bids and the execution of contracts with winning bidders.

The FAST Act described an “eligible petitioner” for the pilot program as one that owns the relevant rail infrastructure on the route or has a “written agreement” with the rail infrastructure owner.

A winning bidder who doesn’t own the infrastructure must obtain from the owner a written agreement that governs access issues.

Amtrak Offering $5 Tickets to Detroit

August 3, 2017

Amtrak is offering $5 tickets for travel to Detroit through Sept. 4. The fares are good for travel originating on the Wolverine Service route at Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Royal Oak and Troy.

Once in Detroit, passengers can ride the new QLine, a streetcar route that is offering free rides through Labor Day.

The 3.3-mile route on Woodward Avenue features 12 stops, including Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre and Midtown.

QLine streetcars operate Monday through Saturday between 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In another travel promotion, the Detroit People Mover is offering free rides on Monday between 6:30 a.m. and midnight, in celebration of its 30th anniversary. The fare is normally 75 cents.