Archive for April, 2009

Amtrak Lights 38 Candles

April 29, 2009

Amtrak will light 38 candles on Friday and for the first time in years it will celebrate its birthday without the distraction of being under a death watch, real or imagined.

Although Amtrak’s future seems assured for now, nothing is ever certain about Amtrak other than uncertainty. It may be that the current administration isn’t recommending zeroing out Amtrak funding or telling the states to pay for service they now get for “free.” It may be that Congress is inclined to go along with that and maybe even up the ante by giving Amtrak more money.

Yet there are still those in Washington and elsewhere who argue that Amtrak is a waste of money and they are not going to go away quietly. They have not changed their minds.

Skeletal was the operative word to describe Amtrak’s route network on May 1, 1971, and that’s still true today. Amtrak was then and continues to be a combination of urban corridors, short-haul routes linking large cities with smaller cities and towns, and a handful of long-distance routes. On paper this creates the illusion that Amtrak is a national system. It also has assured enough votes for the yearly Amtrak appropriation in Congress, particularly during those years when a president was trying to eliminate it.

In some places, of course, Amtrak has far more service now than it did 38 years ago. This is particularly true in California, in the Pacific Northwest and to a lesser degree in some places in the Midwest, New England and North Carolina. Yet many states today have the same level of service that they had on May 1, 1971. Some routes have not grown in years while others are at the same level as when they began.

It has been an uneasy alliance that has held Amtrak together all these years. Passenger train advocates are not much for airing their internal disagreements in public. The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done a remarkable job of presenting a united front, saying that the California Zephyr is just as important as the Acela Express. Indeed, some passenger rail advocates argue that any conveyance that involves steel wheels on steel rails is not just worthy, but also needed.

Still the interests of those who live in flyover country are not necessarily the same as those who live on the coasts. Look up the writings of guys like Bruce Richardson and Andrew Selden and see what they have to say about the Northeast Corridor or any corridors for that matter.

For much of Amtrak’s life, it has been a struggle to fight off the efforts of various administrations to kill the beast. Even administrations that were not trying to kill Amtrak were content to treat it with benign neglect and let it limp along with just enough money to keep most of the existing system running.

Later this year we may see a renewal of age-old arguments about where passenger rail priorities should be as the federal government doles out the billions in stimulus money for passenger rail. President Barack Obama may speak favorably about passenger trains, but the trains he praises are not long-distance services. He is not calling for a resumption of the North Coast Limited, the Lone Star or the Floridian, to name three long-haul trains that bit the dust nearly 30 years ago.

Nor has the administration said much about how it feels about Amtrak as it is currently constituted. Every administration claims to be in favor of passenger trains, but that is not the same thing as liking or favoring Amtrak.

In a column in the May 2009 issue of Trains magazine, veteran transportation reporter Don Phillips wrote that Amtrak has won the war and it is time for it to get out of the foxhole it has been hunkering down in all these years.

I have a lot of respect for Phillips and I find him to be one of the most even-handed and sane voices out there when it comes to the politics of Amtrak. But I disagree that the Amtrak war is over or that it will ever be over. There may be a cease-fire right now, but we are just one change of administration or a turnover in Congress from the war being re-ignited.

Phillips was right to say that Amtrak needs to transition from a bunker mentality to a mindset of taking advantage of the new era of rail that seems to be blooming in America. But old habits and ways of thinking are hard to break. And old attitudes won’t change easily, including those that consider Amtrak an abject failure because it has never turned a profit in 38 years.

There are plenty of people who would like to throw Amtrak out, take a clean sheet of paper and start over. There are those who are horrified by that idea. Their fear is that they will lose whatever little passenger service they have now.

Where Amtrak goes and how often it goes there is not necessarily its most pressing problem today. As Phillips pointed out in his column, there is much that needs fixing at Amtrak, including its rolling stock. When Amtrak began, it relied on equipment that was a quarter-century old or older. Some of Amtrak’s Amfleet equipment is far older than that today. Amtrak is only beginning to show signs of taking action to replace its equipment and rebuild what it can.

For all of the issues surrounding Amtrak, Friday should be a day to feel the warm springtime air surrounding passenger rail. Of late Amtrak has celebrated its birthday with what it calls National Train Day. It’s a nice way to get people to come down to a station and perhaps interest them in riding a train.

Amtrak is alive today because there have been enough people riding its trains to demonstrate that, yes, people will ride trains. If there really is a new era in rail in America, then Amtrak’s next objective should be to show that there would be far more passengers if it could add more cars to its trains and even run trains to a few more places.

The F40 is Still Serving as the Face of Amtrak

April 27, 2009

I was looking at the cover of an Amtrak timetable for the Lake Shore Limited while waiting for a photograph to upload to one of my blogs when I came to a startling realization. The timetable, dated October 27, 2008, had an image of an F40PH locomotive on the cover.

Yes, that is an F40PH locomotive adoring the logo that appaears on recent Amtrak timetables and in print advertisements.

Yes, that is an F40PH locomotive adorning the logo that appaears on recent Amtrak timetables and in print advertisements.

Why is that startling? Because it has been more than a decade since the F40 was Amtrak’s primary diesel locomotive. Today members of the Genesis family of locomotives pull most Amtrak trains.

Yet there was no mistaking that the image of the locomotive within the circular logo promoting how Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations is an F40. The square nose and positioning of the headlights are a dead give away. Even the nose markings are suggestive of the three-color band that adorned Amtrak locomotives and rolling stock through the early 1990s.

The locomotive image in the logo probably is an artist rendering, but surely Amtrak could have provided the artist with a photo a P42DC to work from. The P42 plays the role today that the F40 performed during the 1980s and early 1990s. The P42 is ubiquitous on the point of long-distance, medium-distance and Midwest corridor trains.

Perhaps using the F40 as the model for the logo was purely happenstance. I don’t assume that those who work in Amtrak’s marketing department are train enthusiasts who make it their business to know all of the locomotive models that Amtrak operates or once operated, let alone what they look like and how they differ.

They probably do not remember, know or care that when the first batch of F40 locomotives arrived at Amtrak in early 1976 they were intended to work only in corridor service. But problems with the SDP40F locomotive resulted in the F40 becoming the backbone of the diesel motive power fleet for more than a decade.

By 2000, P40s and P42s had relegated most Amtrak’s F40s to the sidelines. Many of them were sold and since have gone on to have productive second lives. Others were rebuilt into cab units with a baggage compartment where the prime mover used to be. You can still see some of these “cabbages” working in push-pull service. Some even have the current blue and silver livery. But no Amtrak trains today are pulled by honest to goodness F40s.

To the public, a locomotive is a locomotive. Maybe that is the way a lot of the folks at Amtrak think, too, outside of the operating department. So long as the engine gets the train to where it is going what difference does it make what make or model it is or what it looks like? Well, it must make some difference because the Genesis locomotives have worn three different liveries since entering service beginning in 1993.

What’s in an image? Plenty. It is the face of your product, both to your customers and to those who just happen to see one of your trains go by. It defines who you are and says something about how you got there and where you want to go next.

Amtrak approved a design for the Genesis locomotives that was decidedly different from the boxy, compact F40. The wedge-shaped Genesis locomotive was designed to suggest something sleek, fast and contemporary. In that regard, the Genesis locomotive somewhat resemble high-speed equipment found in Japan, Western Europe and even on Amtrak’s Acela Express.

A lot of railroad enthusiasts who do make it their business to keep track of the intricacies of the Amtrak motive fleet disliked the design of the Genesis units. I was one of them. It looked like someone had chopped off part of the nose on an angle.

I’ve since gotten over my initial dislike of the Genesis, not because I think it looks great, but because I’ve seen it so many times that it now looks familiar. Interestingly, many railroad enthusiasts went through a similar progression with the F40. The knock on the F40s was that it didn’t have the style and grace of an E or F unit. It looked like a junior version of a freight locomotive, which is probably why Amtrak wanted its Genesis locomotives to look like something other than the engines that freight railroads have.

It’s funny how certain locomotives have come to represent the image of railroads. Most E and F units have long since been scrapped, sent out to pasture in railroad museums or been limited to tourist train duty, yet you still see the familiar shape of their streamlined noses in many places where someone needed a “railroad” image. To some extent this occurs because these images are available in clip art, which are generic images used by graphic artists and others to design all kinds of products.

But it also occurs because the design worked its way into the public consciousness to the point that people associated the image with railroads. In the case of the E and F units, it was the first thing that many passengers saw when a passenger train pulled into a station or if you saw a passenger train pass by while going about your business. Railroads placed images of E and F units in countless advertisements, and marketing and public relations products.

The F40 has managed to attain a level of “clip art” fame, which assures that its profile will continue for many years to come. It also has worked its way into the public consciousness, although probably to a lesser degree than was the case with E and F units. Still, there will come a day where the number of people alive who remember seeing or knowing what an E or F unit was will lose critical mass status. At that point, perhaps the F40 will become the dominant image of railroads.

The F40 is, of course, far from dead. It continues to play a major role in pulling commuter trains, VIA Rail Canada passenger trains, a few freight trains, some excursion trains and the CSX executive train fleet.

Aside from timetables, the “over 500 destinations” logo also appears in Amtrak advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Some day that logo will give way to another image. Some day Amtrak will permanently retire its F40 cab cars. By then the F40 will have served Amtrak for more than three decades.

Will the contemporary design of the Genesis locomotive serve Amtrak that long? Will it come to define the image of railroads? It’s hard to say. It all depends on how well the Genesis units age both physically and perceptually.

The F40 managed to age gracefully and with style and class. It may not have won any design awards, as the Genesis design did, but it set a high standard for its successor to meet both on and off the rails.

Encounter with an old ‘Friend’

April 19, 2009
Amtrak No. 470 reposed on the dead line at Beech Grove Shops on August 11, 1991. It was rare to see a locomotive at this late date still wearing the Phase 1 livery that Amtrak created in 1972.

Amtrak No. 470 reposes on the dead line at Beech Grove Shops on August 11, 1991. It was rare to see a locomotive at this late date still wearing the Phase 1 livery that Amtrak created in 1972.

While looking through my collection of photographs of Amtrak trains recently I ran across the photo shown above of E unit No. 470. This image was made on August 11, 1991, at the Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis.

Seeing this photo of No. 470 brought back some memories and reminded me of how my thinking about Amtrak’s early locomotive power has changed. But more about that later.

Look at this image and what do you see? Most would probably see a locomotive that is clearly past its prime. The peeling paint suggests that No. 470 had received little attention from Amtrak maintenance forces for some time.

Indeed it was a wonder that No. 470 was still at Beech Grove. It had been nearly eight years since Amtrak had used E units. That No. 470 is still wearing the Phase I livery suggests that it had not seen service for an even longer period of time.

But No. 470 was no ordinary E unit. Built by EMD in May 1955 for the Baltimore & Ohio, it wore number 1454 when it was conveyed to Amtrak. Its original Amtrak number was 400 and the limited roster information that I have indicates that it spent a good portion of its time assigned to Cumberland, Maryland, working on such trains as the Blue Ridge and James Whitcomb Riley.

In 1978 No. 400 was rebuilt into a prototype fuel tender, its traction motors and engine removed and replaced with fuel tanks. The idea was to place it between two F40PH locomotives on long-distance trains so as to avoid having to refuel en route.

Environmental regulations set to take effect in 1983 would mean that Amtrak would have to refurbish its refueling stations, something that might cost $20 million. Hence, a fuel tender was tried as a way to get around having to do that.

The test ruins using No. 400 as a fuel tender were successful. It was renumbered No. 470, the second E-unit to carry that number. The original No. 470 had been a former Union Pacific E9A.

The fuel tender idea failed to catch on, although I do not know why. Maybe the environmental regulations changed, but I suspect that Amtrak decided that instead of using fuel tenders it would refuel locomotives with trucks or refueling facilities owned by its contract railroads.

At the time that I photographed No. 470 on this humid August Sunday I paid little attention to it. I was at Beech Grove courtesy of a friend who was permitted to come in and look around on weekends when no one was working. My primary objective was to photograph the F40s, particularly to get some cab interior shots.

There were a lot of F40s parked outside the diesel shop and a few retired P30CHs. I only grabbed this snap snot of No. 470 because it has been years since I had seen an Amtrak E unit, let along one painted in the Phase I livery.

I wish I had spent more time examining No. 470. I see that the door on the engineer’s side is open and I wish I would have climbed up there and had a look around. The control stand may have been gone by then, but maybe not. But I didn’t have time for an old, ratty-looking E unit. And that was the way it was when the E units were still working Amtrak trains in the late 1970s.

In those days I was disappointed when I saw that the Amtrak train that I was ticketed to ride was being pulled by an E unit. E units were has-beens. I was enamored with the SDP40Fs, the F40s and the P30s because those locomotives represented progress.

Never mind that E units were classics. Their time had come and gone and I didn’t care for them all that much. They were another generation’s locomotive. They did not belong to my generation.

As I write this in 2009, I’m a lot older and a little wiser. I wish that I had not been so dismissive of the E and F units that I once disdained. There aren’t many of them left now except on tourist railroads, in museums and at the head of the Norfolk Southern executive train. I spent most of a day last year traveling to Bellevue just to see the NS executive train so I could see something that was once commonplace.

The SDP40s and P30s are gone now as are many of Amtrak’s F40s. Some F40s still live in commuter train service, on VIA Rail Canada and in other assignments here and there. A few survive on Amtrak as non-powered “cabbage cars” used in push-pull service.

I still have a lot of fondness for SDP40s, P30s and F40s. They remind me of a formative time in my life. It’s funny how things that impressed you at a young age tend to stick with you. Things just seem to make more of an impression when you are in you early 20s. I like that blue and silver Genesis units that are ubiquitous at the head of Amtrak trains today, but I can’t say that I love them as much as I did the aforementioned three models that came out in the 1970s.

To be sure, there are a lot of guys around my age who have always loved E units. It just took me a long time to understand that I should have respected and appreciated them a lot more when I had the chance to see them and ride behind them.

Is a Passenger Rail Resnnaisance at Hand?

April 13, 2009

Could the era of intercity rail passenger service development that many advocates have dreamed about finally be at hand? Is there a passenger rail renaissance just around the corner?

There is much reason for rail passenger advocates to be optimistic these days. Last fall Congress approved the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which included authorization for Amtrak funding of more than $13 billion over the next five years. True, an authorization is not the same thing as an appropriation. Yet it has been a long time since Congress authorized Amtrak funding for more than a year.

The economic stimulus bill contained $8 billion to be spent on passenger rail development while President Barack Obama proposed in his first budget another $5 billion in grants to states for high-speed rail development. Other parts of the stimulus package are also expected to benefit rail development.

While many presidents have paid lip service to rail passenger service, Obama seems to have a genuine interest in it. He many times has expressed admiration for the high-speed rail systems of Western Europe.

Amtrak may be a major beneficiary of this fledging renewal of passenger rail development. The National Association of Railroad passengers recently observed on its web site that “[Amtrak President Joe] Boardman may be in the unusual position of heading Amtrak at a time when funding for passenger trains is a question of not how many millions of dollars but how many billions—between the passenger rail reauthorization and the stimulus bill, Amtrak stands to receive more than $3 billion in funding, more than double the funding levels it usually receives.”

So what can rail passengers advocates expect in the coming months and years? Opportunity is knocking and many are more than willing to answer the door. The media and cyberspace worlds are chock full of accounts of plans and proposals for all manner of upgrades, renovations and new routes and trains that passenger rail advocates and state transportation officials want to see come to fruition.

Some of these ideas are pretty solid and have been subject to extensive published studies. Others are more fanciful than realistic. Even in a best case scenario it will take years for new passenger cars and locomotives to be built and placed into service. It will take years for tracks to be rebuilt in order to achieve higher speeds and better operating conditions.

It will take even longer for new systems to be planned, built and opened. No doubt there is going to be a lot of NIMBY opposition to true high-speed rail in America.

For rail passenger advocates, these are not ordinary times. Nonetheless, it is still not clear that a passenger rail renaissance is beginning to unfold. A lot of things still need to happen and many of them are subject to the vagaries of a political system that has never embraced intercity rail passenger service as anything other than a novelty.

We should not underestimate the value of having a president who favors rail development and is willing to spend public money on it. Yet I wonder how much Obama really understands about how expensive the high-speed rail systems that he admires are going to
be. Does he grasp what needs to be done to create such systems in the United States? Will he be willing to spend the political capital needed to win the fights? Will he be around long enough to win the war?

Much of the money that is being allocated toward rail development these days is being done in the name of economic stimulus. Presumably, the economy will recover in the next couple of years and the need for and political support of economic stimulus will
wane, a victim of bailout and stimulus fatigue.

As it is, many voices in Washington and elsewhere are sounding the alarm that the government is spending too much money on stimulus. They can be expected to continue to seek to reign in government spending and it is not likely that they are going to grant passenger rail development an exception.

The political climate favoring passenger rail development may cool about the time that the projects now in the germination stage reach full bloom. If that happens, the future funding of high-speed rail, Amtrak and other things rail related will be thrown into doubt
if not outright throttled.

A lot of public officials continue to believe that spending money on intercity rail development is wasteful. They are not going to go away, not going to stop speaking out about “pork barrel” spending and not going to cease applying the pressure that has kept Amtrak funding under tight wraps all these years.

There is no evidence that those who favor high building and airport development have curtailed their appetites for public money for their own development interests. If anything the desire and need for highway and aviation development is growing.

And there is only going to be so much money to go around. There is so much pent up desire for new and expanded rail service that some desires are going to go unfulfilled and some rail passenger advocates are going to come away from this rennaisance bitterly disappointed if not disillusioned. There just is not enough money and political will to make everyone’s wishes come true.

Still, if you care at all about passenger trains, these days are ones to be savored. A lot is going to happen, some of it good, some of it not so good. It remains to be seen if this is the springtime of rail passenger development or one of spells in the middle of October
when it warms up enough to make you think that it is summer again and freezing temperatures promise to return the next day.

Whatever the case, it promises to be an interesting ride. When was the last time we could say that?

Notes From 2,500 Miles Aboard Amtrak

April 2, 2009
The second seating in the diner of the City of New Orleans is just getting underway as the trains heads north through the Mississippi delta country on March 20, 2009.

The second seating in the diner of the City of New Orleans is just getting underway as the trains heads north through the Mississippi delta country on March 20, 2009.

Just over a week ago, my wife and I returned from an Amtrak trip between our home in  Cleveland and New Orleans. The journey covered more than 2,500 miles and involved riding the Capitol Limited between Cleveland and Chicago, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy. Here are a few observations about our excursion.

Timekeeping was pretty good on all trains. No. 29 was seven minutes late arriving in Cleveland, but that was largely because the train had to do a run-around move and then back into the station. Arrival in Chicago was 31 minutes early. No. 59 reached New Orleans 48 minutes early and No. 58 halted at Chicago Union Station 15 minutes early. The eastbound Capitol Limited was three minutes late arriving in Cleveland.

To be sure, schedule padding had a lot to do with the early arrivals at the terminal points. No. 59 was late departing every station except Homewood and Jackson. The other three trains were often late at intermediate points, as much as 44 minutes late leaving Newbern on the southbound City of New Orleans.

Granted, I was asleep during many hours of our journeys, but I noted very little freight train interference en route. The longest delay we incurred was when the northbound City of New Orleans sat for a while next to the New Orleans airport waiting for the southbound City to clear the single track ahead.

Upon leaving Memphis on No. 58, I heard the CN dispatcher tell our engineer on the radio that a freight would be in the siding at Tipton and that we might catch up with another freight ahead of us and experience a slight delay. I’m not sure if that was the case or not.

Arguably, it helped that the track work season has yet to start in earnest. There was no severe weather to contend with. We traveled in March and in my experience that’s a good month to ride Amtrak. Perhaps with the recession there are fewer freight trains to get in the way. Still, it seemed that the dispatching provided by the host railroads has improved.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meal service in the dining cars. Amtrak seems to slowly be upgrading food quality and perhaps the worst of the “diner lite” era is over. On the Capitol Limited to Chicago, I noted that you have something of a choice with the omelet. Last September when I rode the Capitol you had no choice because, I was told, the omelet was made from a mix and you could not leave anything out that you didn’t want.

It was my first experience with the cross country diner on the City of New Orleans and I couldn’t tell any difference in the quality of food or service in this car compared with other Amtrak diners. I did note, though, that the New Orleans style cuisine touted in the Amtrak timetable did not live up to its billing. There was no bread pudding in either direction, no jambalaya or red beans and rice. The menu did feature seafood gumbo, which I did not try.

The diner on the southbound trip did not have the chef’s special of crab cakes. The server claimed that those are put on by the commissary in New Orleans, which had failed to stock the diner well enough for the trip to Chicago and return. The crab cakes were
available on the northbound trip. I found them quite good, accompanied by a very tasty sauce. Sure, the crab cakes were not as good as the one I had in a French  Quarter bistro, but given what Amtrak has to work with that is probably not a fair comparison. It was good enough that I ordered the crab cakes on the Capitol Limited.

For the most part, the menu on the City of New Orleans was the same as that on the Capitol Limited, but with some variation. The City offered a cheddar and broccoli quiche at breakfast that was more like a casserole. It was so good that I ordered it twice. This offering was not available on the Capitol Limited, whose catch of the day at dinner was Mahi Mahi as opposed to salmon on the City of New Orleans. I sampled the salmon on the southbound trip and found it good, although not great. It was enhanced with a nice  sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. The latter tasted like homemade, not instant.

On all four trains, we had diners set up in the new configuration. I’m not sure what to think about this. Yes, it does give the diner a non-traditional look, but if you draw one of the short tables, you wind up sitting with your back to the window. That I didn’t like. Yes, I could see out the window on the opposite side of the car, but that required looking over someone else’s table.
I wonder if this new seating arrangement has reduced the capacity of the diner. That did not appear to be much of a problem on the City of New Orleans, but was an issue on the Capitol Limited. Shortly after leaving Chicago, a dining car employee announced he would soon come through the coaches to take dinner reservations with the earliest seating at 9 p.m. The train departs Chicago at 7:05 p.m. Serving begins as early as 6:30 p.m. but sleeping car passengers get first crack at reservations. With three sleepers on the train, there are a lot of first class passengers to feed.

The dining car guy never did come through the coaches to take reservations. When he announced the 9 p.m. seating, he apparently said something about open seating now. We went to the diner and were promptly seated. That the server never came through the coaches was hardly surprising. With just two servers and seatings every half-hour I just didn’t see where there would be time for anyone to break away to the three coaches to take dinner reservations. On nights like these, the diner could use some more help.

If you have not dined on Amtrak lately, they are still using the paper plates and stainless steel silverware with cloth napkins at some meals. This does not appear to compromise the quality of the food much, although real china would be better.

The on-board personnel of the City of New Orleans in particular was friendly and accommodating. There were coach attendants on the Capitol Limited, but they never seemed to be around much and I had no dealing with them. 

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal has a first class lounge called the Magnolia Room. It is not staffed and you enter it by punching in a code that you must get from the ticket counter. It was a nice lounge, although it does not have enough chairs. Also, if you don’t wish to watch TV you are out of luck.

From my observations, all of the trains were full or near capacity. Although we had sleepers on the City of New Orleans, I heard an announcement as we sat in Chicago that the train was full and that every seat was needed. This was in March on a Monday night.
Presumably, Amtrak would be able to sell more seats during the peak travel season this summer if it has cars to add to the trains.

In summary everything worked out the way that it should. The few glitches that occurred were not significant enough to spoil our enjoyment. We both had a very good trip. This was Amtrak as good as it can be given the resources it has and the conditions under which it must operate these days.