Archive for October, 2013

4 Amtrak Viewliner II Cars Nearing Completion

October 29, 2013
Amtrak's Viewliner diner "Indianapolis" is the only such car in the fleet, but it will soon have company as new Viewliner II diners enter service within the next year. The Indianapolis is shown on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Cleveland in June 2012.

Amtrak’s Viewliner diner “Indianapolis” is the only such car in the fleet, but it will soon have company as new Viewliner II diners enter service within the next year. The Indianapolis is shown on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Cleveland in June 2012.

Amtrak recently offered the news media a glimpse at the new Viewliner II cars that are being built by CAF USA in Elmira, N.Y.

Four cars – a baggage car, diner, baggage dorm and sleeper – are nearing completion and are expected to be field tested this winter on the Northeast Corridor.

The $298.1 million order for 130 single-level long distance passenger rail cars includes 25 sleeper, 25 diners, 25 baggage/dormitory cars and 55 baggage cars. More than 120 suppliers in 25 states and 93 cities are providing parts for the new rail cars.

The new cars will be used on Eastern long-distance trains, including the Lake Shore Limited and Cardinal. The baggage cars will be used on long-distance trains nationwide.

The new long-distance cars will both replace and supplement the existing single-level fleet and allow Heritage fleet cars built in the 1940s and 1950s to be retired.

The first of the new cars is expected to begin service in summer 2014. Those are expected to be baggage and dining cars.

All 130 cars are expected to be delivered by the end of 2015 or early 2016.
Amtrak placed the first of its original order of 50 production Viewliner sleeping cars in service on the Lake Shore Limited in November 1996.

Those cars, built by Amerail, reequipped most of Amtrak’s single-level trains. Amtrak produced three prototype Viewliners, two sleepers and one diner, at its Beech Grove, Ind., shops in 1987.

The new Viewliners will feature modern interiors with better layouts, better lighting and more efficient air conditioning and heating systems, additional outlets to power personal electronic devices, improved accessibility for passengers with disabilities, and bicycle racks in the baggage cars.

The new cars also feature improvements for employees such as functional kitchen layouts that are easier to maintain, a more efficient process to stock food, and an improved baggage car for easier organization, including the addition of bike racks.

The baggage cars can accommodate up to 16 bicycles, baggage dorms up to eight. The baggage cars will have hinged doors that seal, which is designed to provide climate control.

They also will have good lighting, and two levels of pull-down racks (one near the floor) so that suitcases normally will be placed on racks instead of on the floor.

The dining cars have 12 tables, including one ADA table (seats on just one side).

Sleeping cars have 12 roomettes, two deluxe bedrooms (which can be sold as a single suite) and one ADA room, whose door is powered.

For roomette passengers, there are two public restrooms and one shower. There are still fold-down sinks in the roomettes.

For this fleet only, Amtrak is reintroducing its Phase III red white and blue stripes, and the company’s original logo.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman said a decision has not been made on the extent to which the new Viewliners will enhance capacity rather than simply replace older cars. He noted, however, that the order includes 25 diners whereas Amtrak has only 16 single-level diners today.

CAF USA, based in Washington, D.C., is the U.S. subsidiary of Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles S.A.

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Elyria, Ohio, Amtrak Station Damaged by Fire

October 29, 2013
The day after the fire the Amtrak station in Elyria was boarded up. (Photograph by Dan Davidson)

The day after the fire the Amtrak station in Elyria was boarded up. (Photograph by Dan Davidson)

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited are continuing to stop at the Elyria, Ohio, station despite it being damaged by fire last Friday.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria that he could not say if the station will be repaired or replaced. “Service will continue, and trains will stop at the platform. Customers just won’t be able to use the building for a while,” he said.

Elyria fire fighters were called to the station shortly after midnight and discovered the fire inside the station.

Fire Marshal Carl Keith said one engine initially went to investigate the call but additional fire fighters and equipment were soon called to the scene.

“We did a very rough estimate of the building being worth $75,000 and the loss at least $25,000,” he said. “The basement is still intact, but the top floor is pretty much gone.”

Fire crews stayed at the station for more than three hours. A preliminary investigation has ruled out foul play.

“The cause is difficult to determine at this time, but we believe it may have been electrical in nature,” Keith says.

The Elyria station is a modular structure that served Cleveland for several years until the current station in Cleveland was built.

Ann Arbor Eyes Building New Train Station

October 26, 2013
A Wolverine Service train calls at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

A Wolverine Service train calls at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., City Council recently approved spending  $824,875  to  conduct an environmental impact and design study for a new train station.

The study will be done by USR Corps. Public hearings are expected to be held concerning a number of potential station sites and for the station’s design.

“We’re going to need a new train station,” said Mayor John Hieftje, pointing to an increase in Amtrak ridership over the past decade.

Amtrak serves Ann Arbor with six daily Wolverine Service trains linking Chicago and Detroit.

The current Ann Arbor station was built by Amtrak. In the early years of Amtrak, trains stopped at the former Michigan Central depot, which is now a restaurant.

Dome Car to Operate on Illinois Zephyr

October 26, 2013

Amtrak’s great dome car will operate on the Illinois Zephyr  from Nov. 5-22.

No. 10031 is the only dome car left in Amtrak’s fleet. It will operate eastbound from Quincy on No. 380, which departs at 6:12 a.m., and westbound on No. 383, which departs Chicago at 5:55 p.m.
There will be no additional charge to ride in the car and seating is unreserved.

The great dome was built by the Budd Co. in 1955 as Great Northern No. 1391, one of six full-length domes used on the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder operated by GN in partnership with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway.

This November the car will traverse the original route of the Empire Builder from Chicago to Aurora.

“The car features an upper level with windows on all sides to provide passengers with panoramic views of the changing colors of the trees, farmers in their fields and the picturesque communities along the route, including LaGrange, Naperville, Plano, Mendota, Princeton, Kewanee, Galesburg and Macomb,” Amtrak said in a news release.

Acquired by Amtrak in 1971, the car once carried the name Ocean View.

Amtrak said the Illinois Zephyr and its counterpart, the Carl Sandburg (Nos. 381 & 382) carried more than 261,000 passengers in fiscal year 2013, which ended on Sept. 30.

See Something? Now You Can Text Amtrak Police

October 18, 2013

If you’ve ridden Amtrak in recent years, you are probably familiar with its mantra of “see something, say something.” The Amtrak police department recently began accepting text messages from those who wish to report. suspicious activity, crimes or emergencies

The “APD11 Txt-a-Tip,”  program will connect to the Amtrak police department’s National Communications Center via SMS text messaging.

“Contacting the Amtrak police department by text is another tactic in our multi-layered approach to protecting America’s Railroad,” said Police Chief Polly Hanson in a news release. “Our passengers and frontline employees provide an extra line of defense by being an additional set of eyes and ears while in or around our stations, trains, facilities or right-of-way, and now they can report crime or suspicious activity in a convenient and discreet method, by text message.”

“Txt-a-Tip” will follow similar response procedures that are in place when a report is called into the Amtrak police 800 number. Passengers can make reports by sending a text to APD11 from a smartphone or to 27311 from a standard cell phone.

When Amtrak police receive a text the sender will receive a message acknowledging the report, and will then be connected to a live Amtrak Police communications officer who will correspond directly via text message to learn more about the situation and determine the appropriate action.

Amtrak said the initiative is an effort to provide additional communication options for passengers and employees who are deaf or may have hearing loss, allowing easy and efficient communication of emergency information to the police department.

Amtrak Offering Fall Ticket Discounts

October 18, 2013

Amtrak is marking its FY 2013 ridership record with a 31 percent discount off companion rail travel. Passengers must purchase tickets between Oct. 15 and Oct. 21, for travel between Oct. 22 and Dec. 12. The discount is available on regular full adult fares with qualifying adult companion traveling on the same itinerary with tickets issued together. This offer is valid on coach seats on select trains. Blackout dates of Nov. 26, 27, 30 and Dec. 1 apply.

Amtrak announced earlier this week that it carried 31.4 million passengers between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013.

Amtrak, Indiana Reach Funding Pact

October 18, 2013

The Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State will continue to roll after Amtrak reached an agreement in principle with Indiana interests on a funding agreement.

The agreement with the Indiana Department of Transportation and communities along the route is expected to continue the service for a year with an option for an additional four months of operation.

Expected to sign the agreement are the cities of Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Rensselaer, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Beech Grove and Tippecanoe County.

“I am pleased that the state of Indiana, in partnership with local communities, was able to reach an agreement with Amtrak to keep the Hoosier State line operating over the next year,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in a statement. “This agreement will make Hoosier jobs more secure and preserve an important transportation link for Indiana. I am grateful for the leadership of the Indiana Department of Transportation and the generous support of many of the communities with stops along the Hoosier State line.”

The pact allows the state and its local partners to monitor ridership and explore service improvements to ensure the long-term viability of the route, said Indiana transportation commissioner Karl Browning says.

More information about the Hoosier State service, including a cost-benefit analysis of schedule and frequency options, is available at http://www.in.gov/indot/3200.htm.

The agreement is the 19th and last to be reached between Amtrak and the states regarding the operation of passenger routes less than 750 miles in length.

It fulfills Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which required states to share costs with Amtrak under a consistent formula for all short-haul routes.

During the past four years, Amtrak and the states partnered to jointly develop the cost formula which received approval by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

Under the Section 209 policy, state partners pay for about 85 percent of operating costs that are attributed to their routes, as well as for capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use and for support costs such as safety programs and marketing.

Amtrak pays about 15 percent for such costs as centralized dispatching and services, and back shops.

States will continue to benefit from Amtrak’s incremental cost access rights to tracks owned by host railroads, dispatching priority and Amtrak capital investments that support the entire system such as technology improvements like eTicketing.

“This has been a long process and one that has produced agreements that are fair and consistent while recognizing the needs of these states and the unique qualities of these routes,” said Amtrak President Joe Boardman in a news release. “Many of these are our fastest growing services and we are working on expansion plans with our partners in several states.

“Our state partners have told us they are expecting Amtrak to continue to improve the services we provide to them. It is a challenge I know we are ready to meet.”

Amtrak Sets FY 2013 Ridership Record

October 18, 2013

Amtrak set another ridership record this year, its 10th consecutive record in the past 11 fiscal years. In fiscal year 2013, which began on Oct. 1, 2012, and ended on Sept. 30, 2013, Amtrak carried 31, 559, 945 passengers, a 1 percent increase over FY 2012.

The gains came despite extensive service disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy and periodic disruptions in Connecticut.

Ticket revenue set a record as well, increasing 4.2 percent to $2.1 billion.
Much of the increased ridership came aboard regional and short distance trains where ridership increased 2.2 percent and revenue rose by 4.4 percent in revenue.

The large increase was posted by the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains, which added extra capacity when Amtrak refurbished, Wi-Fi equipped Amfleet I train sets.

Lincoln Service ridership rose by almost 10 per cent while revenue increased by 22.7 percent.

The most-improved long-distance train was the Coast Starlight, where patronage rose by 5.5 percent.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman said earlier this week that capacity constraints have limited growth of all services.

Acela Express trains are usually sold out after noon Wednesday through Friday and again on Sunday, and we are severely restricted in the number of trains that can use New York’s Penn Station,” Boardman said.

Boardman said that Amtrak expects to in November issue a request for proposals for the next generation of high-speed, multiple-unit electric train sets for the Northeast Corridor, but there are no plans to order any more coaches for long-distance trains or Northeast Regionals.

“We’ve rebuilt everything we have, but as some of the new cars ordered by the states are delivered, we will have the ability to move seats (in the displaced Amtrak equipment) where we have demand.”

Amtrak’s order for 130 sleeper, dormitory-baggage, diner, and baggage cars now under construction by CAF in Elmira, N.Y., will add some first-class, high revenue capacity next year, but will largely replace existing cars that are more than 50 years old.

Boardman also reported that Amtrak recently supplied an engineer to BNSF because the freight railroad lacked sufficient qualified crews to operate a train over the route normally used only by the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

“We expect to continue operating the Chief on its present route and are in discussions with the states to keep it running there rather than moving it to the [BNSF] Transcon (in 2016),” Boardman said. “There is a new mine opening in the region and we’re hopeful that BNSF will be running more trains on the line, but we’re not expecting their needs will change.”

Boardman reiterated his contention that greater Northeast Corridor revenues have helped offset long-distance train operating support losses.

With a new Amtrak reauthorization and surface transportation legislation soon to be debated, “there has to be a contract in Congress for the national mobility that the long-distance train (network) provides,” he said.

Amtrak Revamps Station Website

October 15, 2013
Amtrak's northbound Saluki rolls into the station at Mattoon, Ill., on May 23, 2013. The station was built by the Illinois Central Railroad but is now owned by the City of Mattoon.

Amtrak’s northbound Saluki rolls into the station at Mattoon, Ill., on May 23, 2013. The station was built by the Illinois Central Railroad but is now owned by the City of Mattoon.

Amtrak recently upgraded and its GreatAmericanStations.com website to include new tools, resources and information.

The company said in a news release that it reorganized the site for easier navigation, added a section on “Getting Your Project Started” and created a downloadable “Development Checklist.”

“Additional case studies showcasing Great American Stations success stories will be uploaded to the website in the coming months, emphasizing stations as anchors for economic development, catalysts for historic preservation and tourism growth, potential sites for commercial and cultural uses and points of civic pride that reinforce local identity,” the release said.

The website, which was launched in 2006, contains information on more than 500 Amtrak-served stations and their communities.

Amtrak serves more than 500 stations. Railroads own about 22 percent of those facilities, Amtrak owns 14 percent, transit agencies and state Departments of Transportation own 12 percent and the remainder are held by various parties including private individuals and redevelopment agencies.

MDOT Investing ‘Millions’ in Amtrak Service

October 14, 2013
A Detroit-bound Wolverine Service train pauses at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

A Detroit-bound Wolverine Service train pauses at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

Ridership of Amtrak’s 10 trains serving Michigan has been on the rise of late, but the state and Amtrak want more.

The Michigan Department of Transportation and Amtrak are planning to invest millions of dollars into improving rail passenger service in the state.

To do that, MDOT officials say that traveling to Chicago by train needs to be as convenient – if not more so – than driving.

Much of the investment being made by MDOT involves paying Amtrak more money to operate the existing service.

That move, though, was not by MDOT’s choice. A 2008 federal law required Amtrak and the states hosting routes of less than 700 miles to reach funding agreements whereby the states chipped in a larger share of the operating costs.

Much of that new funding will go toward paying the expenses of the Wolverine Service, which operates three times a day in each direction between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich. (Detroit).

Michigan has long helped fund the Blue Water Chicago-Port Huron) and the Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids).

But federal law now required Michigan to share in the cost of the Wolverine.

The new tab for the state is $25 million, which is more than triple the $8 million MDOT has paid over the past few years to fund the Blue Water and Pere Marquette.

Amtrak carries about 800,000 riders on its Michigan trains and the service is popular.

“If we don’t pay for any Amtrak service . . .  we have no Amtrak service,” said Tim Hoeffner, the state’s rail director.

In cooperation with Amtrak, MDOT has taken a number of steps to enhance Michigan services in the hopes of building ridership and revenue, which could lessen the amount of funding that Michigan must provide.

Passengers can, for a $10 fee, stow their bicycles on board some trains.

MDOT is spending $10 million to bring free WiFi service aboard all Michigan trains, starting in January 2014. MDOT and Amtrak believe this investment will be recouped after the first year because more people will choose the train.

But the most high profile and expensive step that is being taken involves rehabilitating the tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn to allow for higher train speeds and shorter trip times.

Michigan purchased the Kalamazoo-Dearborn segment of the ex-Michigan Central route last December from Norfolk Southern for $140 million.

MDOT received about $350 million in federal funds to buy and improve those track and is kicking in $37.5 million in state funds.

The track work includes rebuilding the rails and signal system in order to allow speeds of up to 110 mph.

On the Amtrak-owned 100 miles of track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.,  trains already can travel at higher speeds.

The Wolverine route illustrates the challenge that Amtrak has competing with automobile between Chicago and Detroit.

The Wolverine takes 6.5 hours to go the distance whereas driving typically is about two hours shorter, depending on traffic conditions.

Driving trip from East Lansing to Chicago takes about four hours whereas the Blue Water is scheduled to cover the distance in exactly four hours.

Not helping the cause has been tardy trains. Amtrak’s Michigan trains were on schedule just 38 percent of the time in the past year, with most of the delays the result of interference from other trains.

Since the 1990s, MDOT’s payments to Amtrak have steadily grown, but so has patronage. Ridership reached was 793,000 in 2012, the same year that MDOT funding to Amtrak topped $8 million.

In 1994, by comparison, Amtrak carried 589,000 passengers and MDOT paid $965,000 — $1.5 million when adjusted for inflation.

MDOT’s current subsidy amounts to about half of Amtrak’s total revenue for its Michigan service, Hoeffner said.

Michigan has supported the Blue Water since its 1974 inauguration and the Pere Marquette since it began in 1984.

For a while in the 1990s, the Blue Water operated as the Chicago-Toronoto International.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Lansing State Journal that passenger rail service is an economic boost for communities.

Government funding of Amtrak is no different than funding of roads, he said, adding that road maintenance relies partly on gasoline taxes that are insufficient to pay for the total operation.

“The fact is, without an operating agreement and the cost, and the contract to pay for the cost, there won’t be service,” Magliari said. “The more people that are on the train paying a higher price, the more passengers are paying the fixed costs of operating the trains.”

Amtrak Michigan map