Archive for December, 2013

Genset Locomotive Operating in Chicago

December 17, 2013

The Amtrak Chicago terminal now has a genset locomotive shuffling cars about the yard and making up trains, Trains magazine has reported.

Amtrak recently placed into service the first of two MP14B genset locomotives that were built by MotivePower in Boise, Idaho, and delivered in early September.

Before the first locomotive (No. 592) could be put into service, some software issues had to be worked out.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Amtrak has accepted delivery of its first genset and expected to accept the second unit shortly.

In 2011, Amtrak received a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation for two locomotives to be used in Chicago.

The gensets are likely to replace 500-series GE B32-8WH locomotives currently assigned to yard service. This will enable those units to return to road service.

What’s Behind Empire Builder Troubles? Plenty

December 16, 2013

There as a time when the Empire Builder had one of the best on-time records of Amtrak’s long-distance fleet. But then an oil boom happened and that combined with a bountiful harvest in the plains to cause rail freight traffic to skyrocket. Further complicating matters has been severe winter weather.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland trains got caught in the middle and the results were not pretty. The Builder often operated hours late.

Amtrak last week annulled complete operation of the Empire Builder on select days in an effort to “reset” its equipment pool.

It hopes that it will be able to position equipment and staff so that the train can adequately serve holiday travelers over its 2,200 mile route.

Trains magazine reported last week that Amtrak does have enough equipment to originate a section of the Builder in every instance in which the train doesn’t arrive at a terminal in time for a quick turn-around.

The Chicago and Seattle terminals have some spare “protect” equipment that can be assigned to the next outbound train if mechanical problems develop, but only Chicago normally has enough Superliners to create an entire train.

Operating crew assignments are designed for crew base along the route, but there are a limited number of “extra board” conductors and engineers available to fill in at each location.

On-board service employees are based in Seattle, but the Portland coaches, lounge, and sleeper are staffed from the Chicago crew base.

If the westbound Empire Builder is delayed more than five hours, it is short-turned at Spokane and buses transport passengers west of there. This is done to enable the eastbound train to depart Spokane on time.

No. 8 could incur up to 14 hours of delay and the equipment would still have time in Chicago for servicing. However, the staffing assignments would be severely disrupted.
Winter storms in early December further delayed the Empire Builder and exhausted the Chicago base of extra cars

But winter weather is just one piece of the puzzle that Amtrak must deal with in getting the Empire Builder over the road in a timely manner.

The crude oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken formation has led to increased freight traffic on the BNSF’s Hi Line and stretched the capacity of the track to the limit.

BNSF is expanding the route’s capacity, but the freight demand has outstretched those efforts.

At times, virtually every siding on the route has been filled with mile-long freight trains awaiting crews and/or power. This has deprived dispatchers of the operating flexibility needed to move trains.

No. 8 is scheduled to arrive into Chicago at 3:55 p.m., which provide ample time for passengers to connect to the Cardinal, Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited and City of New Orleans as well as the Midwest corridor fleets of trains bound for Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Carbondale, Ill.; Quincy, Ill.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Port Huron, Mich.

The average delay for the Empire Builder has reached 310 minutes, or a little over five hours. At the same time, ridership on the Empire Builder has risen and it is often booked full.

In recent weeks, No. 8 has pulled up to the bumper post at Chicago Union Station at such times as 4:05 a.m., 9:33 p.m., 12:20 a.m., and 3:30 a.m.

Hence, Amtrak’s decision to cancel the Empire Builder between Minneapolis and Spokane in mid December while still operating service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and between Spokane and Seattle.

Full daily operation of the Empire Builder was to resume on Dec. 15 westbound and Dec. 16 eastbound.

Local Officials in Dark About New Amtrak Route

December 16, 2013

Elected officials in Northern Illinois say that have not heard anything officials about the plans to launch Amtrak service between Chicago and East Dubuque, Ill.

Recent news media reports indicated that the Illinois Department of Transportation, Amtrak and the Canadian National Railway had made progress in negotiations for use of a former Illinois Central route that runs via Rockford, Freeport and Galena.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn had pledged that the train would begin operations in 2014. Yet the Rockford Register Star received interviewed several local officials and none of them said that they had received word about when the train would begin.

“I haven’t heard anything,” said Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz who added that he’s worried that funding for the train could get caught up in budgetary debates in Washington, D.C.

“It would be a shame if the expansion of rail service into northern and northwest Illinois were to become the victim of budgetary forces or the forthcoming elections.”

Gitz supports the new Amtrak route and fears that if the service doesn’t begin by 2016 it may never happen.

Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, called the negotiations with CN agonizingly slow. “The governor says he’s disappointed that the cost has skyrocketed,”
Stadelman said. “Conversations are taking place now, revisiting the issue, determining the future of Amtrak service. “This service is still going to happen, it’s just taking longer than it should.”

IDOT has estimated infrastructure costs at $60 million for the route through Genoa.

The city of Rockford is moving ahead on a plan to construct a $12 million train and bus station at South Main Street and Kent Creek.

“The city and Rockford Mass Transit District will be announcing their architectural team that will help design the downtown station soon, hopefully right after Thanksgiving,” said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

“It has just been a difficult and lengthy process. … Getting signed contracts out of Springfield has seemed to take an eternity.”

Ernst hasn’t heard anything new on the proposed Amtrak route since the summer.

“As far as I know the state and the CN still have not reached agreement. But seeing as they both signed a nondisclosure agreement for the negotiating period, IDOT has not been able to divulge how close (or how far apart) they are. But given the length of time, I have to believe that they still are far apart.”

Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, has asked IDOT for a report on the status of the proposed Amtrak but still hasn’t received it.

“At this point, I’ve been told that IDOT is close to an agreement (with CN) where a contract can be worked out,” he said. “Now, what ‘close to’ means, we don’t have a definition yet.”

Amtrak Expected to Receive $1.4B in FY 2014

December 16, 2013

Amtrak is expected to receive about $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2014 under a two-year appropriations bill that was adopted by the House of Representatives last week.

The bill now goes to the Senate where passage is considered likely despite some vocal opposition by conservative Republicans and some Democrats.

Appropriations committees will soon decide how much Amtrak and other programs will get for the current fiscal year.

Amtrak’s appropriation is expected to be a slight increase over the $1.3 billion that is received in fiscal year 2013.

Empire Builder Operation Curtailed

December 12, 2013

Faced with severe timekeeping issues, Amtrak has decided to temporarily curtail operations of the Empire Builder by operating stub trains at both ends of the route on select dates this month.

Eastbound No. 8 will operate between Seattle and Spokane, Wash., only on Dec. 13 and 15. The trains will return to Seattle on Dec. 14 and 16.

Buses will substitute for train No. 8 on Dec. 11. Substitute bus service will operate between Spokane and Portland, Ore., on Dec. 11, 13, and 15.

Nos. 7 and 8 will operated Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul on Dec. 12 and 14. Train No. 8 will operate east of Minneapolis/St. Paul only on Dec. 13, 15, and 17.

Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari said the reason for the service reduction is because of freight congestion on the BNSF route used by the Empire Builder.

He said the congestion has reached record levels and there are not enough crews or equipment to handle the volume.

Some of the increased traffic jam is the result of crude oil trains coming from North Dakota. Amtrak is contacting passengers to offer to reschedule their travel.


Amtrak Eyes Better ‘Builder’ OT Performance

December 11, 2013

Those who follow railfan oriented chat lists have known for months about the lackluster ontime performance of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, but now the news media are starting to take notice.

A Montana newspaper, the Flathead Beacon, recently reported that an increase in freight traffic combined with track work projects on BNSF in North Dakota and Montana are behind the tardiness

During October, the Empire Builder had an overall on-time performance rate of 41 percent, but the eastbound train had a zero percent performance.

This made the on-time record of the Builder among the worst in the Amtrak system.

“It has certainly been a concern of ours, of BNSF Railway and of our passengers,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.

BNSF spokesman Matthew Jones said a primary reason for the delays is track improvement projects. The railroad is spending $115 million in Montana and $220 million in North Dakota to resurface track and replace more than 100 miles of rail and 310,000 ties.

Jones said there are also more crude oil trains and general freight trains running across the Hi-Line, reflecting an improving economy. Trains carrying new automobiles have increased by 10 percent over the past year.

BNSF handles an average of 38 freight trains per day run between Glasgow , Mont., and Minot, N.D., which is 18 more trains than the daily average in 2008, at the height of the economic downturn, Jones said.

He said the track repairs are wrapping up, which should enable the line to become more fluid.

Magliari said Amtrak is expecting to be able to improve the on-time performance of the Empire Builder as a consequence.

Colorado Officials Endorse SW Chief Route

December 7, 2013

A resolution supporting the current route of the Southwest Chief was adopted by 30 southern Colorado commissions on Dec. 3.

The Chicago-Los Angeles train uses a BNSF route that is danger of being downgraded to 30 mph operation two years from now.

BNSF has told Amtrak and the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas that maintaining the route at passenger train speeds would cost $200 million over 10 years.

Public officials in the three states have been debating whether to help underwrite that expense.

“Right now there is a bipartisan group of legislators working on the issue and there is likely to be a bill at this upcoming session to support the Chief and to add a stop in Pueblo, while keeping the existing stops,” Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace told the Pueblo Chieftain.

Amtrak’s agreement with BNSF to maintain the route in its current condition will expire on Jan. 20, 2016.

Hearing Set on Sprinfield Rail Route Relocation

December 6, 2013

A public hearing on plans to relocate the tracks of Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor through Springfield, Ill., will be held on Dec. 10.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is hosting the meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Springfield Hilton Hotel.

Information will be presented about the project to relocate passenger and freight traffic off of the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio route that is now owned by Union Pacific and used by Amtrak.

Rail traffic will be shifted a former Wabash route owned by Norfolk Southern that runs parallel to 10th Street. The UP route is parallel to Third Street.

As part of the relocation  roadway underpasses will replace grade crossings and quiet zones will be established between Stanford and Sangamon avenues.
A brief presentation will be made at 5:30 p.m. Attendees will have the opportunity to review exhibits and meet with IDOT and study team representatives.

Work Continues to Develop 2 Illinois Routes

December 5, 2013

Negotiations between the Illinois Department of Transportation and Canadian National may lead to Amtrak service between Chicago and Rockford, Ill., in late 2015.

The two parties are discussing an infrastructure improvement plan and budget for the former Illinois Central route that once hosted Amtrak’s Black Hawk between Chicago and East Dubuque, Ill.

IDOT hopes to extend the service to Dubuque shortly after the service begins serving Rockford.

The state is also working to launch service between Chicago and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa.

Construction is set to begin in early 2014 on a connection at Wyanet, Ill., that will link BNSF’s former Chicago Burlington & Quincy main line between Chicago and Galesburg and Iowa Interstate’s former Rock Island line to the Quad Cities.

The Chicago-Quad Cities service is expected to start in December 2015.
The train will serve a  multi-modal station in Moline, Ill., that will cost $16.7 million.

The facility will be funded with $10 million from a federal TIGER II grant and $5 million from IDOT.

Moline’s depot will be housed in a former Sears warehouse at 12th Street and 4th Avenue. The second through sixth floors will serve as an extended-stay hotel with at least 80 rooms. The building will also include 5,000 square feet of retail space for coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, as well as a public waiting area, ticket counters, and restrooms.

Thruway Buses to Serve Ames, Des Moines

December 5, 2013

Amtrak is offering a temporary Thruway Bus connection in Iowa to the California Zephyr during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The buses will offer a guaranteed connection with Nos. 5 and 6 at Osceola, Iowa, and serve two central Iowa cities.  Amtrak said it will be able to ticket passengers from Ames and Des Moines to more than 500 locations that it serves.

The Thruway connection buses, operated by Arrow Stage Lines, will operate between Dec. 18 and Dec. 20, 2013, and between Jan. 11 and Jan. 13, 2014.
Fares from Ames or Des Moines to Chicago start at $61 and to Denver at $98. The fares are one-way.

The buses will board passengers at the Ames Intermodal Facility and the bus depot in Des Moines.

The Amtrak station at Osceola served more than 14,000 passengers last year.