Archive for October, 2011

Amtrak 40th Anniversary Train Visits Michigan

October 20, 2011

The Amtrak 40th anniversary train sits at the former Michigan Central station in Jackson, Mich., on Oct. 8, 2011.

Amtrak’s 40th anniversary exhibit train rolled in Jackson, Mich., over the weekend of Oct. 8-9, making its only scheduled stop of 2011 in the eastern Great Lakes region. The train will be in Milwaukee next weekend before traveling to the West Coast to spend the rest of the year.

The train, which is comprised of five cars, was parked at the restored former Michigan Central station in Jackson. Although photographs of the train at earlier stops showed P40DC No. 822 at one end of the train and former F40PH No. 406 at the other, in Jackson, the two units were together with the nose of No. 402, which is now a non-powered control unit, facing west.

It was just as well because the location of the train would have placed No. 822 beyond the platform and away from easy view. Still, I would have liked to have photographed the nose of the 822 without any obstructions. The 822 and 406 wear the heritage Phase III livery.

The five-car train included 10-6 sleeper Pacific Bend, which was not open to the public, three baggage cars turned into display cars and an Amfleet lounge. The latter serves as a gift shop.

Admission to the train was free. Most of the exhibits are uniforms once worn by Amtrak employees, dining car china, posters and other paper artifacts. The uniforms were donated by Amtrak employees and placed on mannequins that were tailored to look somewhat like the employee who donated the artifact.

A particularly popular attraction was a collection of four locomotive horns. Push a button and you could hear what the horn blowing for a grade crossing. Also on display was a control stand from a geep switcher, seats from passenger cars, and catenary from an electric locomotive used in the Northeast Corridor.

The displays were housed in three baggage cars with each car roughly making up a decade of history presented in chronological order. The exhibits provided a nice but general overview of Amtrak history. The primary purpose was to show how the face of Amtrak has changed over the years and to appeal to a general audience, not a group of passenger train junkies.

Still, there was plenty for the devoted passenger train historian to view, including numerous items I with that I had in my own collection.   

The Jackson depot’s waiting room was also transformed into a display area with exhibit from Operation Lifesaver and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, among others.

The display train was parked on main No. 1, which affected Amtrak operations early Saturday afternoon. The eastbound Wolverine Service No. 350 from Chicago was running a half-hour late and the dispatcher held it west of the station until the arrival of westbound No. 353. After the latter completed its station work, it crossed over from Track 2 to Track 1 and No. 350 rolled into the station.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Heritage units 406 and 822 were part of the display.

Uniforms donated by Amtrak employees, posters and other paper artifacts were plentiful in the exhibit train.

Dining car china used over the year was a focal point of the displays.

 

HO scale model trains were used to represent Amtrak equipment. Shown is an E unit in the Phase I livery that was part of the "rainbow era" train.

 

Westbound "Wolverine Service" Train No. 350 prepares to pass the Amtrak 40th anniversary train in Jackson, Mich.

Advertisements

Upgrades Being Made to Midwest Routes

October 20, 2011

An Amtrak "Wolverine Service" train rolls into Jackson, Mich., on Oct. 8, 2011. The Michigan Department of Transportation has received a federal grant for track work that will cut the running times of Amtrak trains in the state. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

The U.S. Department recently announced funding of two projects that will affect Amtrak service in the Midwest. A groundbreaking was held in Chicago for construction of the $133 million Englewood flyover.

The project will separate tracks of the former Pennsylvania Railroad and former Rock Island Railroad that cross at grade in the Englewood neighborhood. The former PRR tracks, now owned by Norfolk Southern, are used by Amtrak’s Michigan trains as well as the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.

Englewood has long been a source of delay for Amtrak trains forced to wait until Metra commuter trains on the ex-Rock Island line clear the crossing.

The federal government granted $126 million to the project, which is part of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program to reduce rail congestion. The Englewood crossing handles 78 Metra trains on weekdays along with 60 Amtrak and freight trains.

U.S. DOT also announced that it has granted $196.5 million to the Michigan Department of Transportation for track and signal improvements between Detroit and Kalamazoo.  The improvements will allow for speeds up to 110 mph over portions of the routes of Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water services, resulting in a 30 minute reduction in travel time between endpoint destinations.  

The Blue Water is a daily roundtrip between Chicago and Port Huron via Flint and East Lansing while the Wolverine service consists of three daily roundtrips between Chicago and Pontiac (Detroit) via Niles, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Jackson, Ann Arbor and Dearborn.

Work on the 135-mile segment between Detroit and Kalamazoo will involve preliminary engineering, final design and construction. The project includes new, continuously welded rail and ties, fiber optic lines and infrastructure to support a positive train control system, rebuilding 180 highway-rail grade crossings, and gates and flashers at 65 private highway-rail grade crossings.  Construction is expected to begin in late spring 2012.

In addition, MDOT expected to receive a $150 million U.S. DOT grant later this year to purchase the Detroit-Kalamazoo track after grant conditions are met. The track is now owned by Norfolk Southern. Amtrak owns the route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.

Changes in Store for ‘Lake Shore Limited’

October 20, 2011

The eastbound "Lake Shore Limited" passes through North East, Pa., in late July 2011. In the lead is heritage Unit No. 66. Scenes like this will be harder to photograph here if the train is rescheduled to operate earlier as Amtrak has proposed. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Earlier operation in both directions. A “no cash accepted” dining car. Upgraded meal choices in the lounge car. These are among the changes that Amtrak has in store for the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

The changes, some of which are at least a year away, were outlined in a performance improvement plan that Amtrak issued in September.

Amtrak has proposed rolling back the Chicago departure of eastbound Nos. 48/448 to 6 p.m. from its current 9:30 p.m. slot. The rational is that earlier arrivals in New York and Boston would improve ridership and revenue. Amtrak reasons that that would occur due to better connections with commuter and other Amtrak trains.

Amtrak also plans to change the westbound schedule, noting that much of the delays that No. 49 experiences occur in the middle of its route, particularly east of Cleveland. The report did not say what the revised schedule would be other than to note that Nos. 49/449 would need to arrive in Chicago an hour earlier to provide adequate time to service the equipment before it heads out later that day for the East Coast.

At the same time, Amtrak plans to have the Capitol Limited depart Chicago about an hour and half later at 7:30 p.m. However, that change can’t be made until CSX finishes a clearance project on the Capitol’s route through West Virginia. That construction is not expected to end for another year.

For several years, the Lake Shore Limited departed Chicago at 7:30 p.m. That changed in 2007 when the departure time was moved to 10 p.m. on account of habitual tardy arrivals in the Windy City of Amtrak’s western long-distance trains. Rather than putting the “misconnects” up in hotels, Amtrak elected to operate Nos. 48/448 on a later schedule.

As for the on-board service changes, the Amtrak report said that coach passengers buy 47 percent of the meals served in the diner and many of them pay in cash. This slows service because the lead service attendant must spend “a great deal of time handling and accounting for cash transactions,” the report said.

Amtrak plans to address this in a two-pronged manner. It will institute a policy that all dining car purchases must be made with a credit or debit card. It also will begin offering moderately-priced fare in the lounge car to supplement the current menu of hot dogs, pizza and pre-packaged sandwiches.

The report said that coach passengers spend, on average, $10.30 per meal in the dining car, leading Amtrak to conclude “there may be an unmet demand for intermediate food options between the relatively high-priced meals sold in the dining car and the . . . [food] available in the lounge car.”

In a pilot program, Amtrak will convert the Lake Shore Limited dining car into a club-diner that will continue to offer full-service meals, but add at-table beverage service outside of normal meal hours. As for the lounge car, the new offerings will include freshly-prepared sandwiches and salads similar to those served in café cars aboard the Boston-Washington Acela Express. If the Lake Shore Limited club-diner concept is successful, it may be expanded to other long-distance trains.

In the meantime, plans to institute a third Chicago-New York service by operating through cars via the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanianhave stalled due to an equipment shortage. The same shortage has also delayed plans to expand operation of the Chicago-New York Cardinal from tri-weekly to daily. The Capitol-Pennsylvanian cars would be interchanged at Pittsburgh.

The equipment shortages may begin easing in October 2012 when the first of the 130 Viewliner II cars that Amtrak ordered from CAF USA are expected to enter service.

The Lake Shore Limited report also showed that the average age of passengers aboard the train is 54, that 62 percent of the riders are women, 53 percent are employed, 65 percent have a college degree, 41 percent have a household income between $50,000 and $100,000, and that 88 percent were traveling for non-business reasons, with 56 percent saying it was to visit family or friends.

Although the report did not provide any numbers, it indicated that passengers connecting with other Amtrak trains in Chicago accounted for a “significant portion of the Lake Shore Limited’s ridership and revenues.” Ridership in fiscal year 2010 was 364,460 and continues to trend upward. The report said riderhip in FY2011 – which ended Sept. 30 – was up by 7.1 percent over FY2010 for the period Oct. 1 to Aug. 31.

The average coach passenger travels 483 miles while the average sleeping car passenger on the Lake Shore Limited travels 764 miles.

Ten city pairs accounted for 44 percent of the FY2010 patronage with the largest of those being Chicago-New York (11 percent). The other top city pairs were Buffalo-Chicago and Chicago-Syracuse, with 5 percent each; Albany-Chicago and Chicago-Rochester, with 4 percent each; and Boston-Chicago, New York-Syracuse, Chicago-Toledo, New York-Rochester and Albany-Boston, all accounting for 3 percent each.

The effects of the proposed changes for Northeast Ohio residents boarding and detraining at Cleveland will be relatively minor.  Passengers coming from Chicago will be able to have dinner in the diner. But Cleveland’s “middle of the route” status means that Amtrak operations here will continue to be a nocturnal operation and, in fact, will become darker as the Lake Shore Limited schedule gravitates more toward the dead of night hours.

Depending on how the Capitol Limited is rescheduled, Amtrak may find itself placing four of its six Chicago-East Coast trains through Cleveland in relatively close proximity. With Cleveland having a single-track platform, Amtrak passengers can expect to bear the brunt of the operating challenges that may occur if one or more trains is operating substantially late.