Archive for January, 2014

Amtrak Gets Increse in FY2014 Funding

January 17, 2014
Passengers board a late running eastbound Lake Shore Limited in Cleveland on Jan. 10. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Passengers board a late running eastbound Lake Shore Limited in Cleveland on Jan. 10. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Amtrak will score an increase in funding in the omnibus fiscal year 2014 budget bill that Congress is expected to pass. As a whole, transportation received $71.1 billion, which is a reduction of $1 billion from the FY2012 appropriation.

Lawmakers allocated $1.39 billion to Amtrak, which is a $46 million increase over its FY 2013 appropriation.

Fueling the increase is a $1.05 billion capital budget (including $199 million for debt service, $50 million for American With Disabilities Act spending, and $20 million for Northeast Corridor-specific programs).

Amtrak’s operating budget was cut by $102 million although the railroad has an option to “flex” $40 million in capital spending to operations if needed.

The bill also includes $10 million in Department of Homeland Security funding for Amtrak and $23.5 million for the Amtrak Inspector General.

The bill imposes on Amtrak limits on overtime for employees and a prohibition on federal support for routes on which Amtrak offers a discount of 50 percent or more off normal, peak fares. An exception to the latter is made when the loss from the discount is covered by the state and the state participates in setting the fares.

Repealed in the bill is restrictive language included in the Hurricane Sandy relief act pertaining to Amtrak’s access to approximately $80 million in fiscal 2013 capital recovery funds.

Public transit will receive $10.7 billion in FY2014, a $100 million reduction over the amount enacted in 2013.

The budget bill contains nothing for high-speed rail. The Office of Sustainable Communities and its Integrated Planning and Investment Grants, formerly known as the Regional Planning and Community Challenge Grants, received zero funding.

Multi-modal transportation programs fared well in the budget. Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) will get a 20 percent increasing in funding from $500 million in 2013 to $600 million in 2014.

That $500 million translated into $474 million in grants last year with some used for planning and administration. Some $20 million of the 2014 amount is earmarked for planning.
The bill includes $17.8 billion in discretionary appropriations and $53.5 billion in “non-discretionary ‘obligation limitation’ funding” for highways, transit and safety, and some funding for airports.

The obligation limitation is the amount that agencies are allowed to spend, partly based on expected receipts from the Highway Trust Fund.

These figures are $164 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and $4.9 billion below the president’s request.

MAP-21 funding levels for highways and transit will be maintained at $41 billion and $8.6 billion, respectively.

Much of the “highway” money can be used by states for transportation projects that aren’t highways.

In recent years Congress has been unable to agree on a budget so funding levels have essentially been frozen in place. Lawmakers then completed various deals and imposed sequesters without much strategy or forethought.

“For the first time since 2011, no mission of our government will be left behind on autopilot,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski in a statement, noting that all 12 sections of the bill are complete.

 

Amtrak Apologizes To East Lansing Passengers

January 16, 2014

Amtrak has apologized to passengers left stranded in East Lansing, Mich., last week when the Blue Water to Chicago failed to show up during severe winter weather that prompted the cancellation of several trains.

About 20 would-be passengers were affected and will be offered refunds or credits for future travel.

Making matters worse, neither of the Amtrak agents assigned to the East Lansing station showed up for work that day, with both calling in sick.

Amtrak said it has developed alternate plans to open the station if one or more ticket agents cannot open it as usual.

Alton, Ill., Amtrak Station Facing Demolition

January 16, 2014

With a new multimodal station planned to open in Alton, Ill., the existing Amtrak station is facing the prospect of demolition if a buyer is not found who is willing to move it to another location.

“We have two years to try to market that site,” said Greg Caffey, Alton director of development and housing. “We’ve started; we’ve gotten historical documents of the building. We are in the process of getting a consultant approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. It has pre-approved the consultant’s document and architectural document of the building. In the next three to six months it (the plan) will be completed.”

In May 2013 the city signed a memorandum of agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, Illinois Department of Transportation and Union Pacific Railroad for the purpose of creating a marketing plan to attempt to sell the current Amtrak station, which opened in May 1928.

Citing safety concerns, Union Pacific, which owns the tracks at the depot, has said it wants the depot razed or relocated.

Any buyer for the 1,602-square-foot brick station at 3400 College Ave. would have to relocate the structure within 12 months of purchase.

If no one buys the 86-year-old building, it will be demolished. If a buyer fails to move the depot within a year, it will be razed at the owner’s expense.

The agreement says the city will market the building with a preservation covenant, information on its historic and architectural significance of the structure, financial requirements and any financial incentives available from the city for a minimum of 24 months after Alton completes the marketing materials —unless someone buys it before that — and work in consultation with the Railroad Administration, IDOT and UP.

If the building is demolished, the city would document its architecture and history in accordance with the Illinois Historic American Building Survey Standards and Guidelines. The report eventually would be deposited in archives at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. IDOT also would reimburse Union Pacific for its permit fees.

“I think it would be very difficult to relocate that building,” Caffey said. “In all likelihood, it will be demolished, that is the likely outcome,” as the railroad does not want to maintain the facility once vacant.

The station is subject to provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1996 because the city is receiving a federal $13.85 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for the new facility at Wadlow. The project, FRA officials say, will have an adverse effect on the station.

The former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad station is not on National Register of Historic Places. A letter from David Valenstein, division chief for environment and systems planning at U.S. Department of Transportation, to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency says it would be eligible for the designation for its local significance.

Terry Sharp, president of Alton Area Landmarks Association, said he would like to see the building preserved, but admits finding a buyer could be difficult.

“It is not in the Upper Alton Historical District; it has no protection that way,” he said. “At least three presidents have been through that station, as well as other famous people. We’re concerned about it. It is another building built for a particular reason; it looks like a train station and functions as a train station. It would be pretty small as a restaurant.”

Not speaking for AALA, Sharp said he personally would like to see the city move the station to the Wadlow site where it might be used as a coffee shop.

“I would like to see it moved and integrated into the new train station,” Sharp said. “It’s a doable thing. We’d like to see it preserved. It’s another building I worry about. It would be great to save it.”

The planned multi-modal transportation center will serve Amtrak and Madison County Transit District buses. Amtrak’s Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle stop there daily.

The agreement says the FRA and IDOT invited Osage and Miami tribes, Alton Historical Commission and Alton Area Landmarks Association to concur with terms of the agreement.

Amtrak Offering 20% Fare Discounts in Midwest

January 16, 2014

Amtrak announced on Tuesday that it will offer a 20 percent discount on fares for travel on regional trains in Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri through March 31.

The reduced price fares apply to Lincoln Service trains between Chicago and St. Louis; the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg between Chicago and Quincy, Ill.; the Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale, Ill.; Wolverine Service  trains between Chicago and Detroit; the Blue Water between Chicago and Port Huron, Mich.; the Pere Marquette between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich.; and the Missouri River Runner trains between St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.

Passengers must use Amtrak fare codes V418 for Illinois trains, V313 for Michigan and V539 for Missouri to receive the discount.  Tickets are non-refundable and some blackout dates apply.

Chicago Service Restoration Nearly Complete

January 12, 2014

Amtrak will restore nearly all service to and from Chicago on Sunday, Jan. 12. The exception is Lincoln Service Train No. 301.

Capacity has been added to the Texas Eagle from Chicago to St. Louis to compensate for the cancelation of Train 301.

Amtrak previously restored Chicago Hub Service on other Downstate Illinois routes, plus routes in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Missouri service has operated without interruption.

Tulsa Still Hoping for Rail Passenger Service

January 12, 2014

A demonstration service set to begin in February between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla., may be a blueprint for extending the Heartland Flyer to Tulsa or it may be a short-lived experiment that will become yet another footnote in Amtrak’s history of service expansions that never came to be.

Iowa Pacific Holdings, will sponsor three round-trips between Tulsa and Oklahoma City that have been dubbed the Eastern Flyer. The Tulsa World described the excursions as a test to determine if there is even enough interest to launch regular scheduled service.

“We really want to see what the demand is for regular passenger rail,” said Tracie VanBecelaere, a spokeswoman for Watco Cos., a small railroad operator based in of Pittsburg, Kan., and a partner on the Eastern Flyer excursions. “The main reason to run this is to get a feel for what passenger service could be like.”

Iowa Pacific and Watco will bring retro passenger cars to Oklahoma on three weekends, making round trips from Sapulpa starting in the morning with a return trip at night. Tickets start at $70 with additional charges for sitting in luxury cars and food service.

The Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, has carried more than a million passengers since it started nearly 15 years ago and reportedly the route was eventually be expanded to Tulsa.

No one involved with the Eastern Flyer has described it as the type of passenger rail service that some in the region have sought for decades. Ticket costs are too high to justify commuter passenger service and the trip is too slow.

But it has been 42 years since Tulsa had rail passenger service of any kind and 46 years since Oklahoma’s two largest cities were linked by train. Tulsa’s last passenger trains were the Santa Fe’s Tulsan, which made their last trips between Kansas City and Tulsa on April 30, 1971.

The Eastern Flyer has given some hope that a route to Oklahoma City might be within reach. It’s been 46 years since the state’s two largest cities have been linked by train.

More than 700 tickets have been sold for the Eastern Flyer, Iowa Pacific officials said.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has received thousands of comments supporting a rail plan, saying it would connect Oklahoma City to Tulsa and reduce the need to drive.

One obstacle to starting a Tulsa-to-Oklahoma City route is a 97.5-mile stretch of state-owned rail line known as the Sooner Sub.

The class II railroad route between Sapulpa and Oklahoma City is a windy stretch of rail that the state bought in 1998 to keep it from being abandoned.

Stillwater Central Railroad, a part of Watco Cos., leases that rail line for about $500,000 a year.

The remaining stretch that connects Sapulpa to Tulsa is owned by BNSF Railway.

After 15 years of ownership, ODOT says interest has grown in the Sooner Sub line and the state has put the stretch of rail up for sale.

“The intention since the line was purchased was always to sell it at a later date,” said Tim Gatz, ODOT’s deputy director.

However, Gatz said that there are provisions in state law to ensure the Sooner Sub line is available for passenger rail in the event of a sale.

Passenger rail advocates fear that the sale of the Sooner Sub line could kill the chances of service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Watco Cos. is interested in developing passenger rail on the line and will likely make a bid on the railline, VanBecelaere said.

But the rail line is in need of an estimated $200 million in repair and upgrades to bring it up to passenger train standards. Passing sidings would need to be added.

The top speed on the line is 30 miles per hour, said Craig Moody, rail programs division manager at ODOT.

At that rate, a trip from Sapulpa to Oklahoma City would take more than three hours, nearly double the travel time of a car on the nearby Turner Turnpike.

ODOT plans to take bids on the Sooner Sub line through Jan. 30, and the department will pass a recommendation on to a board of the governor’s cabinet later in 2014.

Oklahoma City had a 20-year absence of rail passenger service until the Heartland Flyer began in 1999.

But even with higher-than-expected patronage rates, the service was nearly discontinued when a federal grant ended in 2005. But a rally to restore the service resulted in the Oklahoma Legislature giving $2 million a year to fund the service.

Extending the route to Tulsa would seems like an obvious addition that could eventually be further extended to Kansas City, Mo.

“Oklahoma City to Tulsa is the missing link in this part of the country,” said Evan Stair with Passenger Rail Oklahoma, a private advocacy group. “The demand is there. They could do four to six trips a day.”

The Federal Railroad Administration in 2009 identified Tulsa to Oklahoma City as one of 11 potential rail projects targeted for possible federal funding.

ODOT made a proposal for federal transportation dollars in 2009 for a high-speed rail project that would accommodate a train running 110 miles per hour, but the $2 billion proposal was rejected.

Local and state politicians have tackled the concept of an Oklahoma City-to-Tulsa rail line several times over the past two decades, but those efforts have fizzled as high costs for the project were replaced by other funding priorities.

Tulsa Transit studied a link to connect Broken Arrow to downtown Tulsa, but the proposed $43 million project lost momentum because of costs and a lack of popular support.

Another proposal being studied by lawmakers and transportation officials in Kansas calls for extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kan., just north of Wichita, to connect with the Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief. That route would bypass Tulsa.

“It’s really the best way to connect Oklahoma City to the rest of the country,” said Gary Lanman, vice president of the Northern Flyer Alliance. “If you want Amtrak service, this is the way to go.”

The Tulsa City Council formed a committee in 2012 to advocate for a passenger rail line to Oklahoma City and get it established as quickly as possible. A report from the task force said that cities along the Fort Worth-to-Oklahoma City route have seen increases in local sales because of passenger rail traffic.

In early 2013, the Oklahoma Legislature commissioned a study on the Oklahoma City-to-Tulsa passenger rail corridor, calling for an environmental study and developing proposals for what passenger rail might look like.

The intent of the study, Gatz said, is to have a “shovel ready” rail project in the event that a federal transportation grant develops to cover costs on repairs, upgrades and equipment purchases.

It’s too early, said Gatz, to see if ODOT may endorse a plan to bring a national carrier such as Amtrak to extend service to Tulsa or to contract with a local operator such as Watco Cos.

The state intends to finish gathering data sometime in 2014, develop a handful of proposals and then hold a second round of public meetings sometime next year. The entire study should be finished by summer 2015.

Amtrak No. 48 Does the Cleveland Shuffle

January 11, 2014
Shuff01

Amtrak No. 48 arrives in Cleveland just after 11 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 10. The train was forced to use an industrial track to do its station work in Cleveland. One of the Cleveland Amtrak agents has a cart full of luggage ready to load aboard the train.

The eastbound Lake Shore Limited on Friday morning was already running four hours late when it reached the outskirts of Cleveland. Here, it would encounter a complicated situation that delayed it by three more hours.

I don’t know all of the information behind the situation, only a few bits and pieces. I’ll pick up the story when I arrived at the Cleveland Amtrak station at almost 9 a.m. with the objective of getting some daylight photos of No. 48. The scheduled arrival time for No. 48 is 5:35 a.m. Amtrak’s website estimated that it would arrive at 9:08 a.m.

I took up a position on the platform and waited. Shortly thereafter, I saw a train coming toward the platform, but it wasn’t Amtrak. It was a CSX local with steel coil cars doing a backup move. “Not a good sign,” I thought. Amtrak must have been delayed further.

The CSX local went past and stopped east of the station. From the angle I saw I thought it had backed into a siding. Apparently not. A report on Train Orders.com indicates that the CSX crew outlawed and its train was sitting on the mainline that Amtrak uses to go east to Buffalo, N.Y. To see that post and photos go to:

Maybe so, but I also later learned that about 7:30 a.m. a CSX local had run a stop signal near the Cleveland Drawbridge on NS. NS supervisors were on the scene investigating. The CSX crew reportedly claimed that the slack ran out on the train, which is why it went past the stop signal. Whatever the case, it was a factor in Amtrak 48 having to do its station work in Cleveland from a track known as 44 Industrial.

It is not unheard of for Amtrak trains to use this track, but typically that is only for specials. I’m not aware of a scheduled Amtrak train using 44 Industrial to do its station work. It may have happened before, but it is probably not all that common.

There must have been something else going on because Amtrak 48 was stopped west of the Cleveland Drawbridge for quite some time. Initially, the Amtrak agent said 48 would arrive at 9:30 a.m. Then a half-hour later an announcement was made that the train was stopped with mechanical problems. Whatever was going on, No. 48 did not arrive at the Cleveland station until 11:08 a.m.

The train had to make three stops to do its station at the “grade crossing” of 44 Industrial.

The engineer on No. 48 had gone into the station while the boarding was completed. When he came out all of the passengers were back aboard as well as the two conductors. He expressed surprise that the train had been “buttoned up” already. That’s because he wanted to go to the café car the refill his coffee.

He noticed that I had a hand held scanner and asked if I was on channel 64 — the NS Road channel. He seemed surprised to see a digital readout of the frequency and not the AAR number. He also asked “how do you key this thing up.” I explained that it was a receiver and not a two-way radio.

He must have found a two-way radio someplace because I heard him asking the conductors to meet him at the café car for a job briefing. He also must have gotten his coffee refilled while inside the café car.

Finally, No. 48 got the signal to do the backup move and exactly one hour after it had been projected to arrived, it came rolling past the platform at the Cleveland Amtrak station.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Two Cleveland Amtrak agents load and unload baggage from the Boston baggage car of 448.

Two Cleveland Amtrak agents load and unload baggage from the Boston baggage car of 448.

Passengers are lined up waiting to board the train. They are standing on the crossing of the Waterfront Line. The Amtrak station is out of view to the right.

Passengers are lined up waiting to board the train. They are standing on the crossing of the Waterfront Line. The Amtrak station is out of view to the right.

The baggage work is complete and No. 48 is pulling down for the first of two passenger stops.

The baggage work is complete and No. 48 is pulling down for the first of two passenger stops.

Passengers were allowed to detrain for a smoking stop or to stretch their legs. That break has ended and the last of the passengers is reboarding the train. The view shows the sidewalk that leads from the Amtrak station out across the RTA tracks and toward the platform. The two people in the foreground are the Cleveland Amtrak agents.

Passengers were allowed to detrain for a smoking stop or to stretch their legs. That break has ended and the last of the passengers is reboarding the train. The view shows the sidewalk that leads from the Amtrak station out across the RTA tracks and toward the platform. The two people in the foreground are the Cleveland Amtrak agents.

Everyone is on board and the Amtrak train has the signal to do a backup move. The plan was for Amtrak to backup onto Chicago Line No. 1 west of the drawbridge and wait for the CSX local to get out of the way west of the drawbridge on Chicago Line No. 2. Here No. 48 is backing up past the station on 44 Industrial.

Everyone is on board and the Amtrak train has the signal to do a backup move. The plan was for Amtrak to backup onto Chicago Line No. 1 west of the drawbridge and wait for the CSX local to get out of the way west of the drawbridge on Chicago Line No. 2. Here No. 48 is backing up past the station on 44 Industrial.

 

The RTA Waterfront Line trains were passing the Amtrak station frequently as No. 48 did its station work. By the time I took this photograph, Amtrak 48 had been in Cleveland at the Amtrak station for 47 minutes.

The RTA Waterfront Line trains were passing the Amtrak station frequently as No. 48 did its station work. By the time I took this photograph, Amtrak 48 had been in Cleveland at the Amtrak station for 47 minutes.

Shuff08

This is the photo that I originally had expected to make when No. 48 arrived. This image was made nearly three hours after the Lake Shore Limited had been projected to arrive.

: No. 48 is headed for New York where it arrived at 12:33 a.m., nearly six hours late. No. 448 arrived in Boston at 3:29 a.m., more than six hours late. The baggage car on the New York section looks like it has racked up quite a few miles and quite a bit of use.

: No. 48 is headed for New York where it arrived at 12:33 a.m., nearly six hours late. No. 448 arrived in Boston at 3:29 a.m., more than six hours late. The baggage car on the New York section looks like it has racked up quite a few miles and quite a bit of use.

 

Amtrak Restores More Service on Saturday

January 11, 2014

Amtrak will restore all of its Wolverine Service on Saturday, Jan. 11.  Also restored today will be the Chicago-Quincy, Ill., Carl Sandburg.
However, the following Lincoln Service trains have been canceled: 300, 301, 304 & 305 are canceled. Also still not operating today are the southbound Saluki and the northbound Illini.

INDOT to Seek Rail Operator Proposals

January 11, 2014

The Indiana Department of Transportation has hired a consult to draft a request for proposals to operate rail passenger service between Chicago and Indianapolis.

INDOT said it will seek a rail operator who can better serve the needs of Indiana passengers.

The state and various communities along the route agreed last October to underwrite the cost of the quad-weekly Hoosier State, which had been in danger of discontinuance without the funding.

That funding will last for a year, but could be extended to February 2015.

That agreement also directed INDOT to seek subcontractors who could lower costs or upgrade service, an arrangement Amtrak says is common with services across the U.S.

INDOT has hired R.L. Banks & Associates to draft the request for proposals.

“We are looking to see if competition improves the options for taxpayers and riders on the Hoosier State,” said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield.

Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act required states to pay most of the operating costs for routes under 750 miles long.

For the Hoosier State, that amounted to $2.7 million annually.

“[I]n some states we operate the trains but don’t provide the cars,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak. “Sometimes we provide the cars, and others provide the food service or the maintenance.”

State officials expect Amtrak will continue to play an important role in running trains in Indiana, whatever response the request for proposals gets.

“Amtrak will still be a key part of the service, even if other contractors provide some services,” said Wingfield. “There will be no disruption in service.”

Ann Arbor To Study New Station Sites

January 11, 2014

Ann Arbor is still seeking a plan and location for a new train station after a previous pact with the University of Michigan expired.

The City of Ann Arbor has hired URS Corp at a cost of $827, 875 to undertake an environmental review that will include public hearings, site selection and conceptual design for a new depot along the Wolverine Service route in the city.

Previously, the city reached a memorandum of understanding with UM to create a station at Fuller Road.

Although work on that project was halted two years ago, some city council members still held out hope that the Fullerton Road site might be revived.

It wasn’t and the council voted this week to officially end the UM pact.

“It’s just to basically give some official process to the termination,” said council member Stephen Kunselman.

That doesn’t mean a new train station on Fuller Road is out of the question. It just means the old agreement is no longer valid, the Ann Arbor News reported.

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, who had actively supported the Fuller Road Station project, said he didn’t have any problems with ending the memorandum of understanding with UM.

“It’s a little bit like digging up someone who died a few years ago and reburying them, but again, it’s not anything I’m opposed to,” he said, drawing laughs from council members who characterized it as “checking for a pulse” one last time.

The city and university announced plans in 2009 to collaborate on development of a intermodal transportation station on the site of an existing parking lot along Fuller Road, directly in front of the UM medical center.

The memorandum of understanding was a conceptual agreement for working together on the project, which would have included in its first phase a shared parking garage, a bus stop with passenger waiting areas, and bicycle parking and lockers. Future phases could have included additional parking, rail amenities, a bus terminal and skywalk connections to the hospital.

The city and university pursued the goals of the memorandum through February 2012, when both parties announced that the Fuller Road Station project no longer would be pursued after funding assumptions had changed.

The university has since built a 725-space, six-story parking garage on Wall Street.

Ann Arbor will explore multiple options for building a train station in the city.

The city might develop the station on Depot Street or not move forward at all.

Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said he anticipates the project getting underway this month with an initial meeting planned for Friday between city staff and the URS Corp. consulting team.

“We will review and establish a detailed schedule at that meeting,” he said. “Generally, and according to the URS proposal for this project, the public meetings are planned at appropriate times when information is available to share.”

A little less than $165,000 of the consultant’s fee is coming from city funds that were already budgeted, with the rest covered by a federal rail grant.

Cooper said public meeting dates haven’t been determined, but there’s expected to be contact with stakeholder groups within a month or two, and then the first public meeting likely will be held soon thereafter.

Final design of a new Amtrak station is identified as a $2.6 million expense in 2015-16 in the city’s capital improvement plan. Construction of the station is shown as a separate $44.5 million line item that same year.

The mayor has said he expects most of the funding to come from the federal government with other local partners potentially contributing funds. Ann Arbor residents will vote on the project before any construction gets underway.