Archive for November, 2013

Amtrak IG Suggests Stopping Free Booze, Meals

November 16, 2013
Breakfast is being served in the diner aboard the westbound Capitol Limited in May 2013.

Breakfast is being served in the diner aboard the westbound Capitol Limited in May 2013.

Amtrak’s inspector general has a suggestion for how the national railroad passenger service can whittle down its $72 million annual loss on food service: Stop serving free booze and meals.

Ted Alves said customers traveling on Amtrak’s Auto Train from Virginia to Florida enjoy complimentary wine and cheese and that sleeping car passengers on three long-distance routes get free wine and champagne that cost $428,000 in 2012.

Amtrak employees traveling on free passes consumed about $260,000 in complimentary meals on the Auto Train, Alves said.

“Amtrak’s operating losses on food and beverage services have been a long-standing issue, and they contribute directly to the need for federal subsidies to support operations,” Alves told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Alves said that almost all of last year’s food-service losses came from providing meals on long-distance trains.

In his testimony, Alves outlined a number of ways for Amtrak to reduce waste and cut costs, from contracting out operations to reducing theft and food spoilage.

Amtrak continues to make improvements and expects to break even on food service within the next five years, said Thomas Hall, the railroad’s customer service chief.

Changes have included cashless sales, staffing reductions and supply-chain improvements. Losses have been reduced by 30 percent since 2006, he told the committee.

Long-distance passengers have full menus on their dining cars. On the 43-hour Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, the menu includes a $23.25 Mahi-Mahi dinner with a vegetable medley and three-grain rice pilaf.

Trains run by states in Maine and Alaska use private contractors and have lower labor costs than Amtrak does with its dining service employees, Alves said.

The states pay $7.75 to $13 an hour with no benefits, compared with $41.19 including benefits for an on-board Amtrak employee.

Paul Worley, director of North Carolina’s rail division, said his state switched from money-losing café cars to snacks and vending machines to reduce unsustainable losses on its intrastate Piedmont service. Even so, vending machines wouldn’t be suitable for long-distance trains, he said.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers noted that food and beverage costs represent 1.8 percent of Amtrak’s costs and that the railroad Amtrak reduced those losses by over 30 percent  from 2006 to 2012.

Amtrak’s Hall said his company’s food and beverage structure is not out of line with the rest of the travel industry. He noted that airlines spent an average of $5.45 to $6.46 per passenger on food and beverages since 2008. During that same time period Amtrak spent an average of $6.95 per passenger. The airlines figures don’t include labor costs, which Amtrak’s figure reflect.

Hall said Amtrak would lose $93 million in ticket revenue if food and beverage service was ended. He said that when Amtrak switched from hot meals to a sandwich basket in Acela Express first class, so many passengers switched to business class that the cost in reduced ticket revenues outweighed the food and beverage savings.

Extra Section of Pere Marquette Set for Dec. 1

November 15, 2013

Amtrak will operate an extra section of the Pere Marquette to accommodate Thanksgiving travelers on Sunday, Dec. 1.

No. 372 will depart Chicago Union Station at 10 a.m. and arrive in Holland, Mich., at 2:08 p.m. The equipment will turn and depart as No. 373 at 3:10 p.m. and arrive in Chicago at 5:22 p.m.

Nos. 370/371, the daily Pere Marquette between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich., will operate on an altered schedule on Dec. 1.

No. 371 will depart Grand Rapids at 6 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 8:58 a.m. No. 370 will depart Chicago at 6:30 p.m. and arrive in Grand Rapids at 8:58 a.m.

The Pere Marquette is partially funded by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Amtrak said the Thanksgiving  holiday period is its busiest travel week of the year and to accommodate the expected surge of riders it will operate every available passenger rail car in its fleet and is scheduling extra trains and adding capacity on other routes.

Part of Pennsylvnian Route to be Unreserved

November 15, 2013
Amtrak's westbound Pennsylvanian emerges from a tunnel in Galitzin, Pa., in April 2013.

Amtrak’s westbound Pennsylvanian emerges from a tunnel in Galitzin, Pa., in April 2013.

Effective Dec. 3 the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian will become an unreserved train east of Harrisburg, Pa. Amtrak passengers traveling between Harrisburg, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, Exton, Paoli, and Philadelphia will no longer be required to make reservations for coach seating.

Travelers bound for points between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg will continue to need to have reservations for travel.

Keystone Service trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia are already unreserved, but reservations are required to New York City.
Amtrak will require reservations on all trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia during the peak Thanksgiving travel period. That restriction ends on Dec. 3.

New Mexico Lawmakers Ponder SW Chief Funding

November 14, 2013

As New Mexico lawmakers ponder whether to provide funding to Amtrak to be used to maintain the tracks used by the Southwest  Chief in the northeast corner of the state, the governor has signaled a lack of enthusiasm for the proposal.

Gov. Susana Martinez thinks the federal government should pay for all of the costs of the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

“We’re happy to discuss various proposals around this important issue,” Martinez said in a statement to The New Mexican newspaper of Santa Fe. “But Amtrak was created and funded by Congress since its inception, and thus, any agreement should not stick the taxpayers of New Mexico with a large tab. According to the New Mexico [Department of Transportation], the state has never provided state funds for Amtrak service. We’re willing to work together on this issue, but any agreement needs to take that reality into account.”

The Chief may be rerouted or its route truncated by 2016 because the BNSF route that it uses in western Kansas, southwestern Colorado and northeast New Mexico is sparsely used by freight service.

The route needs millions in repairs to maintain it to passenger train speeds and Amtrak has asked the three states involved to pay for that. New Mexico’s share would be $4 million a year.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of national/state relations, said Amtrak would like to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route, but BNSF plans to downgrade a portion of it between Newton, Kan., and La Junta, Colo., by early 2016.

Although Amtrak could continue to use that stretch, the Chief  would have a top speed of 30 mph. Amtrak trains now travel the line at 79 mph.

BNSF doesn’t use the route of the Chief between Trinidad, Colo., and Albuquerque. The New Mexico Rail Runner Express’ dozen commuter trains a day use the route between Albuquerque and La Bajada, where the Rail Runner leaves the main track to follow Interstate 25 into Santa Fe.

BNSF has indicated a willingness to share the costs of maintaining the deteriorating sections of track with Amtrak and the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. That would amount to $4 million a year for 10 years from each party, which Lang called “the best solution here for the public.”

BNSF spokesman Joe Faust said the company has received a formal request from Amtrak concerning such a deal, but the railroad has made no decision on whether such an arrangement is feasible.

Lang said Amtrak can’t afford the full cost of the track improvements itself and it’s unlikely that Congress would provide the money.

A New Mexico legislative committee heard testimony this week about the fate of the Southwest Chief. Amtrak officials said that unless the states agreed to pay for track repairs that the Chief might be rerouted through Wichita, Kan., and Amarillo, Texas, via the busy BNSF Transcon route, which hosts more than 100 freight trains a day.

In an agreement made during the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson, New Mexico agreed to buy the 182 miles of the track the Southwest Chief uses between the Colorado border and Lamy.

But earlier this year. BNSF and the Martinez administration agreed to cancel the sale.

The state Department of Transportation is seeking public comment on its five-year rail plan which, according to a news release, “identifies current and future passenger and freight rail facilities, services, needs, issues and opportunities.”

Among those appearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee to endorse state funding for the track were Raton Mayor Pro-Tem Chris Candelario, Mora County Commission Chairman John Olivas, Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz and Santa Fe Mayor David Coss.

All of the county and municipal officials as well as most of the senators and representatives on the subcommittee favored the expenditure, citing the benefits to the economies of communities along the route.

“From New Mexico’s perspective, this is a cheap proposal,” state Sen. Timothy Keller, D-Bernalillo. “This price tag, I think, is very low and very feasible.”

Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble told lawmakers that “The continuation of the passenger train through Northern New Mexico is vital to the economic well-being of each of the counties, cities and towns in the region.

In New Mexico, there’s an estimated $29 million annual economic impact from spending related to train passengers.

During fiscal year 2013, more than 12,500 passengers got on or off the Southwest Chief at the Lamy depot, and nearly 125,000 passengers boarded or disembarked from the Chief in New Mexico.

If no track maintenance deal is reached, Amtrak’s Lang said the Southwest Chief could continue serving Albuquerque,  but Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, which is near Santa Fe, would lose service.

Amtrak would no longer serve Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas, and Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad in Colorado if the Southwest Chief route is changed.

“Losing this Amtrak would devastate us,” said Candelario.

Olivas said losing Amtrak service would “be a substantial hit to our county government.”

A report presented to lawmakers indicates the rail line provides 368 jobs and $30 million in economic benefit in New Mexico each year.

Philmont Scout Ranch near Raton is one of the groups that could feel the pain of losing the Chief.

“The train has always been a viable option for nearly 4,000 people each summer,” said Mark Anderson, director of programming for Philmont Ranch.

Pact Reached for Amtrak to use SPUD

November 13, 2013

St. Paul Union Depot will soon be the Twin Cities stop for Amtrak’s Empire Builder after public officials approved a 20-year lease with Amtrak this week.

The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners  approved the lease and service is expected to begin “in the first quarter of 2014,” according to the agreement.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland train was supposed to begin serving SPUD in December 2012, but an agreement among Amtrak, BNSF, Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific, Ramsey County, and the Federal Railroad Administration took longer than expected.

New tracks were installed in October that will connect SPUD’s platform to nearby CP and UP mainline tracks.  Signal work and testing must still be completed before the tracks are ready for service.

Amtrak will use 3,800 square feet of space for ticketing, baggage handling, a first class passenger lounge, offices, and a staff area.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Amtrak will pay up to $144,586 for the first year as a share of operating costs. That cost will increase at 3 percent annually for the 20-year term. Amtrak has the option to extend the lease for one additional 20-year term.

“We do estimate that their costs at Union Depot would be right around that $140,000 or $150,000 amount,” said Jean Krueger, real estate asset manager for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad authority. “The lease establishes that as their initial limit. If their actual costs are less than that, they will pay actual costs.”

Amtrak currently uses Midway Station in St. Paul, which opened in 1978 to replace the Great Northern Station in downtown Minneapolis. If Midway Station is sold or demolished, the maximum “rent limit” would increase by $44,000.

Although the Midway station will close when Amtrak begins using SPUD, its tracks will still be used for private car and Amtrak coach switching.

Amtrak Great Dome to see Additional Service

November 12, 2013

The Midwest tour of Amtrak’s great dome car has been extended through the Thanksgiving travel period.

Amtrak said on Monday that the car will operate on some Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains and on select Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains.

The car will be assigned to the Milwaukee route Nov. 25-28 on Numbers 329, 332, 333, 336, 337, 340 and 341; and Dec. 1 on trains 331, 334, 335, 338, 339 and 342.

On Nov. 29 and 30 the car will operate on Lincoln Service Nos. 303 and 306.

The dome car has been running this month between Chicago and Quincy, Ill.

The car’s upper level is equipped with windows on all sides, including the entire length of the roof, to provide panoramic views. It was built in 1955.

Feel the Wheels Rumbling ‘neath the Floor

November 10, 2013

Wheels04

A few weeks ago I was leafing through an issue of The Railroad Press while browsing at a Barnes & Noble store in Mentor, Ohio. An article about photographing the details of railroad operations caught my eye.

Although I’ve sometimes photographs details of railroad infrastructure, e.g., tracks and signals, I haven’t made this something that I look for when I’m trackside.

Like most railfan photographers, I tend to look for moving trains to record. But the beauty of detail is that it invites you to linger for awhile and take in the intricacies that often go unnoticed when a train is rushing by.

Details also remind you that there is more to a railroad than just locomotives and their liveries.

That article was still fresh in my mind when I went into my collection to dig out an image to illustrate a post and found this image of the wheels of a Horizon coach.

It is August 2012 and I am at Effingham, Ill., photographing the southbound Saluki.

I’ve long been fascinated by the sight of steel wheels on a steel rail. The rails at this crossing of the Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central) with CSX (ex-Pennsylvania Railroad) look to be pretty chewed up.

In the streamliner era, the steps into the car folded up and out of sight. But Horizon car steps are permanently fixed into place just as they were with heavyweight cars.

We all need to take the time to appreciate such small detail.

Indiana Towns Awaiting Hoosier State Contract

November 9, 2013
The northbound Hoosier State boards passengers in Crawfordsville in August 2011.

The northbound Hoosier State boards passengers in Crawfordsville in August 2011.

Despite various figures being thrown about, Indiana communities that agreed to fund continued operation of Amtrak’s Hoosier State say they still have not seen just how much they will have to pay each month.

Although the Indiana Department of Transportation recently posted a signed copy of its agreement with Amtrak to fund the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train, local government leaders have yet to sign their own contracts with InDOT.

InDOT and the communities served by the train agreed last month to pay $2.7 million annually to keep the Hoosier State operating for another year. That action became necessary because a federal law directed Amtrak to cease paying all expenses for trains with routes shorter than 750 miles.

The 196-mile Hoosier State route carried 36,768 passengers in fiscal year 2013 and generated $892,553 in ticket revenue, according to Amtrak.

“Troy Woodruff put out an email this week that we should have them in the next couple weeks,” said Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said, referring to the INDOT chief of staff.

In the meantime, local governments are making final arrangements to approve the funding they agreed to provide.

Tippecanoe County expects to pay $25,000 per month, Lafayette will pay between $16,000 and $20,000 per month and West Lafayette expects to pay a total of $200,000.

Also agreeing to put up funding has been Beech Grove, Indianapolis, Crawfordsville and Rennsselaer. All but Beech Grove have stations served by the Hoosier State and the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal. Beech Grove is home to a major Amtrak locomotive and car repair shop.

The town of Dyer is the lone community that has refused to contribute money to pay for the Hoosier State.

The payments were based on the number of Hoosier State passengers who passed through each community’s train station.

The 12-month agreement between InDOT and Amtrak has an option for four additional months of service and provides an opportunity to improve the service, attract more patrons and increase revenue.

 

Extra Lincoln Service Train Set for Dec. 1

November 9, 2013

Amtrak will be offering an extra Lincoln Service roundtrip between Chicago and Normal/Bloomington, Ill., on Sunday, Dec. 1 to handle Thanksgiving holiday crowds.

No. 309 will depart Chicago Union Station at 10:30 a.m. and make all stops to Normal, where it will arrive at 12:44 p.m.

The equipment will turn and become No. 308, departing Normal at 1:15 p.m.

Amtrak will operated its full slate of Lincoln Service trains as scheduled on Dec. 1. This includes four daily Chicago-St. Louis roundtrips plus the Chicago-San Antonio, Texas. Texas Eagle.

In fiscal year 2013 Amtrak carried record 740,275 passengers in the corridor, a 10 percent increase from FY 2012.

Talgo Files Claim With Wisconsin for $66 Million

November 9, 2013

Talgo Inc. is suing the state of Wisconsin over its decision to refuse to accept two train sets that it ordered and which were built in Milwaukee.

The $66 million claim was filed on Thursday with the Wisconsin Claims Board and alleges that Republican Gov. Scott Walker acted in bad faith.

The claim is likely to lead to litigation and revive discussion about Walker’s controversial decision shortly after he took office in early 2011 to turn down a $810 million federal grant to pay to upgrade Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service corridor to higher speed rail as well as conduct development work for Milwaukee-Madison service. Eventually, the Madison route was expected to be extended to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice declined to comment, but Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the state did nothing wrong in backing out of the deal with Talgo.

“My understanding is we followed all the rules that were required,” Vos said. “There were no bad faith negotiations.”

Vos said that the Talgo contract included a provision voiding the deal if lawmakers didn’t provide money for the trains in the state budget. He said Republicans used that clause and refused to hand over the remaining money for what they saw as a bad deal. “There’s an ‘out’ in the contract,” Vos said.

However, Talgo’s claim asserts that the state improperly invoked that provision. “Wisconsin’s purported funding shortfall was deliberately staged by Gov. Walker and the DOT in an effort to evade the state’s contractual commitments to Talgo,” the claims states.

If the Claims Board agrees with Talgo, the Republican-controlled legislature and Walker would also have to sign off on the decision, which observers say is unlikely to happen. If Talgo’s claim is rejected, the Seattle-based company could sue the state.
Wisconsin signed a deal in 2009 with then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, to purchase at least two train sets from Talgo.

The train sets were to be assigned to Amtrak’s Hiawatha service and later used on the Madison route.

The state also agreed to a 20-year maintenance agreement to service the trains. That pact also included a maintenance facility and the option to purchase two additional train sets.
Walker made no effort to hide his disdain for the rail project during his 2010 campaign.
Nonetheless, Talgo continued to build the trains after Walker took office and notified the state in January 2012 the train sets were ready for delivery.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation refused to accept them. After an unsuccessful attempt at mediation in November 2012, Talgo filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court, asking Judge Juan Colas to declare that Talgo had the right to terminate the contract and take ownership of the train sets, which have sat in storage since their completion.

Talgo’s latest claim is in addition to the lawsuit that it filed in November 2012.

If it prevails in its 2012 lawsuit, Talgo would keep the train sets and the $42 million the state has paid for them. Talgo says it is owed another $10 million on top of what it has already been paid. If Talgo is able to keep the train sets, it will sell them to another state, the company’s attorney said.

In its $65.9 million claim filing with the Claims Board, Talgo also argues that Wisconsin owes bond holders an additional $70 million because it borrowed that much for the two mothballed train sets but never took possession of them.

“If the Talgo’s reasoning is correct, taxpayers would have to pay Talgo $65.9 million and immediately refund $70 million to bond holders rather than paying that sum off over the coming years,” wrote Patrick Marley in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The state, acting through the DOT, bears the responsibility for its lack of any attempt to negotiate prior to termination,” the claim says.

The transportation department has not had a chance to review the complaint, says agency spokeswoman Peg Schmitt, adding that it has worked to honor terms of the original contract.

Talgo’s $65.9 million claim includes $18.6 million in unpaid invoices and interest, $23.5 million in lost business, $10.5 million in damage caused by state officials “continually defaming” Talgo’s reputation, and $9.8 million in lost maintenance work. The remainder covers an array of other costs, such as for insurance and legal work.

Part of the dispute revolves around whether the state or Talgo is responsible for the cost to test the trains. Talgo maintains the state invented the disagreement over testing as a ruse to claim a breach in the contract.

Its filing includes an email from Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to Walker’s office in February 2011 discussing attempts to sell the trains to other states.

Talgo’s claim contends the Wisconsin DOT recognized that it needed to pay for testing—and tried to come up with a way to pay for it without seeking more money from the legislature. WisDOT proposed advancing money to Talgo under its maintenance agreement so the firm could use the funds to pay for testing. That way it appeared Talgo, rather than the state, was paying for testing.

WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said in a statement the state incurred $52 million in costs—most of which has gone to Talgo—for the trains. The trains have not been turned over to the state, do not meet specifications, and are not compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Schmitt said. ‘We’re waiting for delivery of completed trains that will provide the state with ownership of an asset for which public dollars were used,” Schmitt said in her statement.