Archive for September, 2013

Hoosier State Supporters Hold Rally

September 28, 2013

Indiana passenger train advocators held a rally Thursday on the steps of the Indiana State Capitol Building in Indianapolis to try to rally support for the threatened Hoosier State.

Brian Connors, an Amtrak employee who works at the railroad’s Beech Grove maintenance facility, told WTHR-TV, “This is not just an Indianapolis issue, it’s not just a Beech Grove issue.  It’s an Indiana issue, a U.S. issue.”

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Transportation released a 47-page report that concluded that a decision about saving the train should be made at a policy level rather than an economic level.

The report looked at continuing the route as is, upgrading the service (with annual costs ranging from $3.8 million to $10.9 million) and discontinuing the train. The study has narrow scope to determine the value of the train, focusing primarily on the benefits that could be assessed as a monetized value. The study recognized that other benefits from the service include economic impacts, economic impacts on land usage, freight improvements, quality of life, and social benefits.

INDOT has begun negotiations with Amtrak on a funding agreement to retain the route. If the state and Amtrak do not agree on a funding arrangement whereby the state agrees to help underwrite the cost of the train, the Chicago-Indianapolis train will be discontinued.

Amtrak has agreements with most of the states that have trains affected by a federal law that requires most states to pay more, or start paying for, short-distance Amtrak services.

The four states where agreements have not been reached are New York, Illinois, Indiana, and California (San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliners). Amtrak has an agreement with the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority for its service in northern California.

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Michigan Track Work to Begin

September 28, 2013

The second of three route rehabilitation projects in Michigan will begin on September 30 when workers begin working on tracks between Jackson and Battle Creek that are used by Amtrak’s Wolverines.

Crews will work Monday through Thursday, with regular service on Friday through Sunday. Passengers will face delays and modified schedules. 

The overall project is expected to result in improved service for the Wolverines and Blue Water (Chicago-Port Huron, Mich.)

Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation are laying more than 30 miles of new track and installing 130,000 new crossties this year.

One project goal is to cut the travel time between Detroit and Chicago by two hours from the current 6 hours, 30 minutes.

Amtrak, Indiana Ponder Fate of ‘Hoosier State’

September 26, 2013

The Indiana Department of Transportation will begin negotiations with Amtrak on a funding agreement to save Amtrak’s Hoosier State between Chicago and Indianapolis.

The train, which operates four days a week on the days that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate, will continue operating through Oct. 16 while negotiations are underway.

The Cardinal uses the same route in Indiana and Illinois as the Hoosier State.

Federal law requires Amtrak and states to reach funding agreements by Oct. 1 to retain trains that operate less than 750 miles.

Other states where Amtrak operates corridors discussions with Amtrak in 2011 after they adopted a framework for categorizing costs and revenues. However, Indiana refused to sign the agreement with the other 18 affected states.

But a March 15, 2012, rules by the Surface Transportation decreed that Indiana was compelled to comply with its terms. Amtrak has reached agreements with eight states – Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, Washington and California – to continue corridor service. Amtrak said it provided pricing information to INDOT in April and a draft agreement in July.

“If we don’t have an agreement by Monday, Sept. 30, Amtrak will begin steps to notify its employees and the public of the impending suspension of service of trains 850 and 851,” an Amtrak spokesman said.

The spokesman said Amtrak’s cost estimate to retain the Hoosier State is $4 million. The annual cost Indiana would pay is $2.96 million, a reduced number that is likely the result of on-going discussions between Amtrak and its state partners within the framework of federal legislation.

The Hoosier State is used to ferry equipment between Chicago and Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops in south suburban Indianapolis, a fact that undoubtedly weighs on the decision makers for both the state and Amtrak.

Indiana has said it will reveal a state-funded cost-benefit analysis of the existing service and four options Amtrak has provided for improved frequency and departure times on its website at www.in.gov/indot/3200.htm.

INDOT has explained the benefits of daily passenger rail service by dividing the $2.963 million annual cost by the number of annual passengers, which results in $80 of government support for each $24 ticket.

Hearings Held to Rally Support for SW Chief

September 25, 2013

Rail passenger advocates made a pitch recently during public hearings to save the Southwest Chief, a train that is in jeopardy due to route issues.

Hearings were held in Pueblo, Colo., on Sept. 14 and in Garden City, Kansas, on Sept. 19.

The hearings also drew many public officials of both major political parties. Supporters of the Chicago-Los Angeles train are seeking to get the states of Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado to contribute funding to maintain a portion of the route that is owned by BNSF but no longer sees extensive freight traffic use.

BNSF has said that it will no longer maintain the track in question to a condition to support passenger train speeds.

Bob Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, spoke at the Garden City hearing and cited the importance of rail transportation.

“The key date for the Southwest Chief is Jan. 20, 2016, because that is the day that the contract between BNSF and Amtrak expires,” Stewart said. “BNSF is proposing that they’ll need $200 million over 10 years for upgrading the line and maintenance over three states — Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, each of which would have to put up $4 million per year for 10 years,” Stewart said.

According to Stewart, the Southwest Chief route currently has just one train a day in each direction, yet attracts 355,000 passengers per year, or 350 million passenger miles.

“We have a mobility crisis in this country, especially when you get outside of the major cities. The airlines are cutting back service,” Stewart said. “We see this problem around the country, where medium-sized cities have lost airline service, bus service and where Amtrak is their one connection, their one link to the rest of the country. We’re going to have 100 million more people between now and 2050. How are we going to move them around? We have an aging population, too, that doesn’t want to go through all the hassle of the airport, or the cost.”

He said that airlines and highways receive much higher government subsidies than the rails do.

“We’re all for good airlines and highways. Don’t misunderstand me. But we think the rails need to get their fair share of the support that they need,” he said. “Your state (legislators) and your federal congressman should know how important this train is. Think about it, if you guys happen to lose that American Airlines flight, this train is going to become even more important to the citizens of Garden City as a means of connecting with other cities.”

Amtrak Website Gets New Look

September 25, 2013

Passengers booking a trip at the Amtrak website will find a new look and be able to choose which fare level they wish to purchase.

Fare options are now divided into the following “Fare Families,” and you may select any available fare. In the past, passengers could book only the lowest available fare.

Saver: Deeply discounted, non-refundable coach fare available 14 days or more in advance on certain routes (primarily Northeast Regional).

Value: Best available coach or Acela Business Class in all markets (refundable minus a 10% fee) or Unreserved coach fare (non-refundable).

Flexible: Fully refundable coach.

Premium: Shows total rail fare plus accommodation charge for sleeper, Business Class and Acela First Class. You can use the “change” arrow buttons to toggle between different accommodation types, but it will default to the lowest available Premium fare (even in the sometimes-experienced cases where a Bedroom is going for less than a Roomette). Non-Acela Business Class and Acela First Class are fully refundable prior to departure; sleepers are refundable minus a 10% fee up to 15 days prior to departure and not refundable afterwards.

The website explains the terms and conditions of each Fare Family. 

Amtrak did not make any changes to telephone, at station, QuikTrak or mobile app booking.

Track Project Begins on Wolverines Route

September 21, 2013

The first of three Michigan track improvement programs began on Sept. 9 and will result in delays and modified schedules for Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains.

The work, which is expected to be completed in November, involves laying more than 30 miles of new track and 130,000 new ties. Crews will work 10-hour days during the project.

Transportation planners expect the track rehabilitation will result in more reliable service.

The project is part of the Accelerated Rail Program being carried out by Amtrak for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“Unlike past projects to make needed repairs, this track improvement work is an upgrade to the route owned by the state of Michigan,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail. “Passengers will feel the difference, and they and freight shippers will experience even higher reliability across the route.”

MDOT is leading a three-state effort to improve the 300-mile corridor between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., which serves Detroit.

Amtrak trains in mid-Michigan will be able to operate at speeds up to 110 mph, as they do now for 80 miles in southwestern Michigan and part of Indiana.

“We are condensing a lot of improvement work that was anticipated over the next two construction seasons into 12 to 14 weeks this fall,” said MDOT Rail Operations Manager Al Johnson. “This provides the great benefits from more reliable track conditions sooner and eliminates the need for similar track disruptions next year.”

Amtrak and MDOT hope to reduce the end-to-end travel time between Chicago and Pontiac by about two hours from the current 6 hours, 30 minutes.

This first phase of the project will largely take place east of Jackson with work done Monday through Thursday. The tracks will be open for all trains on regular schedules on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

 

Michigan Amtrak Route Gets $9.3M Tiger Grant

September 21, 2013

A $9.3 million grant to make improvements to the Amtrak route between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, Mich., is the only rail-related project in the Great Lakes region that received Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants announced this week.

The projects ranged from track work in New England to a new bridge in Washington.

In making the announcement about the grants, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he hoped that awarding $474 million in funds for the 52 projects would encourage Congress to pass a transportation bill.

The TIGER grant program was created in a 2009 economic stimulus bill. States are awarded grants for transportation projects that “will have a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area or a region.”

The Michigan project will involve upgrading two main tracks between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to support train speeds to 110 miles per hour. A second main track capable of supporting speeds up to 110 mph will also be constructed.

The project involves replacing 26,100 ties, installing five split-point derails, and the putting in 8,108 feet of concrete crossing panels at grade crossings.

Upon completion, Amtrak trains using the route, which includes the Wolverine Service and the Blue Water, are expected to operate 10 mph faster, which will result in eight minutes of times savings per trip.

The Kalamazoo-Dearborn route is a designated high speed rail corridor.

Other rail related projects that received TIGER funds include:

  •  Construction of a second platform at the New Haven, Conn., station to help expand Amtrak service between Springfield, Mass., and New Haven ($10 million).
  • Enhancements at the Port of Baltimore ($10 million).
  • Rebuilding 6 miles of track near West Trenton, Pa., so SEPTA commuter trains and CSX freight trains do not have to travel on the same corridor ($10 million).
  • Rebuilding of 9 miles of track on the Vermont Rail System to FRA Class III standards ($8.9 million).
  • Improvements to intermodal facilities in Miami to increase freight and future passenger service on the Florida East Coast Railway ($13.7 million).
  • Realignment at the Port of Pascagoula Bayou Harbor that will eliminate 16 grade crossings through Pascagoula, Miss. ($14 million).
  • Construction of a multi-modal station to support transit, commuter and intercity rail service in Raleigh, N.C. ($10 million).
  • Restoration and improvements to Oklahoma City’s Santa Fe Depot to restore space for Amtrak ($13.5 million).
  • Commuter and freight rail enhancements in central Texas ($11.3 million).
  • Rail improvements in Springfield, Ill., for future high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis ($14.4 million).
  • The construction of a streetcar line in downtown Kansas City, Mo. ($20 million).
  • Replacement of bridges on California’s Surfliner passenger route ($14 million).
  • Replacement of a wooden trestle in Tacoma, Wash. that serves Amtrak and Sounder commuter trains ($10 million).

 

Passenger Train Forum to be Held in Toledo

September 21, 2013

The Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association and Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments are hosting a passenger rail forum on Oct. 7 at 11 a.m. The event will be held at the Toledo Club, 235 14th St. Toledo, OH 43604.

During the forum, community and business leaders, and rail supporters will discuss issues and opportunities affecting rail transit in the region.

Planned speakers include John Robert Smith, co-chairman of advocacy group Transportation for America; Tim Porter, chairman of the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association; Bill Thomas, CEO of Downtown Toledo Development Corp.; and Jerry Wicks of the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network. Registration for non-members is $33 and $20 for students.

For more information or to register, go to passengerrailforum.eventbrite.com.

California Zephyr Detouring via Wyoming

September 21, 2013

The Chicago-Emeryville, Calif., California Zephyr will detour “until further notice” via Wyoming west of Denver.

The detour, which began Sept. 20, was prompted by track wash outs on the train’s regular route via the former Denver & Rio Grande Western route via Grand Junction, Colo. The tracks are now owned by Union Pacific.  

Amtrak said it will provide chartered buses for passengers to and from Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction; and Green River, Helper and Provo, Utah. Local conditions prevent Amtrak from providing alternate transportation to Fraser-Winter Park and Granby, Colo. Amtrak has previous used the detour route for its San Francisco Zephyr and Pioneer.

Although considered less scenic than the mountainous D&RGW route, the Union Pacific’s transcontinental route features high plains and pronghorn antelope and other wildlife. The route last saw regularly scheduled Amtrak service in 1997 and has been used for other detours since then. No passenger stops will be made on the detour route in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Crews will change at Green River, Wyo.

Planners Eye 4 Chicago-Porter Passenger Routes

September 21, 2013

Transportation planners from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan have narrowed their options for a double-track passenger route between Chicago and Porter, Ind., to be used by Amtrak trains serving Michigan and the East Coast.

The four route options under consideration would use portions of Canadian National, CSX, Indiana Harbor Belt, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, and Norfolk Southern tracks. The route options are:

  • Follow Norfolk Southern’s main line east from Chicago Union Station to Porter and build parallel to the current route used by Amtrak trains. To acquire sufficient right-of-way adjacent to the NS main line, the passenger tracks would use a parallel Commonwealth Edison alignment.
  • Follow NS from Chicago Union Station to Gary, Ind., where the passenger line would follow CSX and South Shore routes through Miller and Ogden Dunes, then return to the NS right-of-way for the last stretch into Porter. This option also makes use of ComEd right-of-way near the state line.
  • Follow the same right-of-way as the previous options to Gary and then joins the former Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way, now abandoned, to Tolleston. From there the passenger route would follow CSX’s Porter Branch into Porter.
  • Follows the St. Charles Air Line east from just south of Chicago Union Station to the Metra Electric line then go south along Metra and CN rights-of-way to Riverdale. There, the route follows the IHB to Tolleston and then the CSX Porter Branch into Porter.

Two of the routes options have routing options near Tolleston that would presumably have grade separation at Porter to send trains over or under the NS main line.

The transportation planners must designate a preferred route as part of the Federal Railroad Administration-mandated environmental impact statement process. The passenger line would be used by Amtrak’s Blue Water, Pere Marquette, Wolverine Service, Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited trains.

These trains currently use NS’s busy freight line between Chicago and Porter, where the routes to Michigan diverge. Officials with the Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan state departments of transportation and FRA are holding a series of public comment meetings to gather further information on the process of determining a final route.

Last week, Matt Webb of the consulting firm HNTB presented the latest developments to a group of about 60 at Chicago Union Station’s Union Gallery.

Other meetings were to take place in Gary, Porter and Dearborn, Mich. The route options presented were chosen from 85 possible route combinations. The initial cut was to 10 options, from which these four emerged.

A Record of Decision on the final preferred route is expected from the FRA by the end of 2014. At that time, interested parties will have a single preferred route for which to arrange funding. The complete EIS process for the Chicago-Porter corridor is expected to cost $4 million. Construction of the passenger corridor, depending on the route chosen, could cost up to $2 billion. Shorter term, some congestion relief on the current NS/Amtrak route should come from a $71.4 million federal high speed rail grant given to Indiana to construct high-speed crossovers or passing tracks at eight locations between Porter and the Illinois border.