Archive for February, 2014

East St. Louis May Get Amtrak Station

February 27, 2014

Officials in East St. Louis, Ill., have taken steps toward seeking to establish an Amtrak station.

The St. Clair County County Board may spend $500,000 for a station along Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor. The money would be used to help the Illinois Department of Transportation with design and planning work.

Board Chairman Mark Kern asked the panel’s other members last week to support the station. The total cost of the station is unclear, but if built the facility likely would open in 2017.
The closest Amtrak stations to East St. Louis are Alton and St. Louis.

Although numerous Amtrak trains pass through East St. Louis, the city has never had Amtrak service.

Before the coming of Amtrak, some intercity passenger trains served the Relay Station in East St. Louis.

CZ Set to Return to Denver Union Station

February 21, 2014

Amtrak’s California Zephyr is expected to resume serving Denver Union Station on Feb. 28.

Although westbound No. 5 on Feb. 28 will stop at the temporary facility, eastbound No. 6 will leave from Union Station’s new passenger platform under the large white canopy behind the station.

The Chicago-San Francisco Bay train had been served from temporary facilities the past three years while the redevelopment of Union Station and its surrounding area into a modern rail and bus transportation center and hotel-restaurant-business complex has been underway.

Also part of the project was construction of a new commuter rail station at Union Station that will serve Amtrak and the East, Gold, North Metro, and Northwest Rail commuter rail lines. When improvements are complete, Union Station will be the centerpiece of the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks transit expansion program and serve as a multimodal hub for the region.

In addition to the eight-track Amtrak and RTD commuter rail station, the $484 million Denver Union Station redevelopment project includes a 22-bay regional bus facility, a new light rail station for current and future light rail lines, extension of the 16th Street Mall Shuttle, and several public plazas to integrate transit services with adjacent neighborhoods.

NM Legislature Fails to Act on SW Chief Funding

February 21, 2014

The hopes of supporters of keeping the Southwest Chief on its present route took a hit on Thursday when the New Mexico legislature adjourned without approving a bill that would contribute state funding toward rebuilding the tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

Although the House had earlier approved such legislation, the Senate did not act.

Five bills that sought solutions for keeping the Chief on its historic ex-Santa Fe route via Raton, Lamy and Las Vegas, N.M., failed to pass.

However, in adopting a state budget, the legislature authorized a study and collaboration between the state’s Transportation Department and its counterparts in Kansas and Colorado, which also stand to lose stops on the Southwest Chief line if it is rerouted in 2016.

“I am disappointed, because I feel like there’s so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who represents several Northern New Mexico counties. “Fortunately, Amtrak’s lease with BNSF doesn’t expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple. Unfortunately, the agreement we had worked on with the other states required all parties to come to the table, and the failure of these bills to pass kind of communicated to the other states that New Mexico wasn’t willing to make that investment.”

The three states along with Amtrak and BNSF have been in discussions about a cost-sharing arrangement in which each entity would contribute an estimated $4 million annually for 10 years. If a deal cannot be reached, the Southwest Chief might be rerouted via more southerly path through Amarillo, Texas.

Also standing to lose service are Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, Colo.; and Garden City, Dodge City and Hutchinson, Kan.

“Time has always been of the essence, and I don’t think this is ideal,” Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said when he learned New Mexico had not passed funding provisions for the train. “Does it give any of us the wiggle room we’d like? No. But it doesn’t mean the end of this.”

Garcia is pushing legislation in Colorado to the save the route of the Southwest Chief. That bill unanimously cleared its first committee vote last week.

New Mexico Transportation Secretary Tom Church has said he favors waiting a year before making a commitment to fund the project so a study can be conducted to assess the train’s economic impact on New Mexico relative to the investment. The study will be conducted before the start of the next legislative session in January 2015.

Identifying a funding strategy could be part of the study. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has been reluctant to commit state money to the project. She has said Amtrak historically has been funded by the federal government and that should guide decisions in New Mexico about the passenger train’s future.

Roch said everything from localized taxes in communities that benefit from the line to expanded private-sector use of the rails is being eyed as a possible solution. Identifying an industry to use lease the line for cargo transport in order to make maintaining the track more appealing to BNSF would be optimal, he said.

“I think that’s where our best hope lies,” Roch said. “I’ve engaged the governor directly on that. She’s committed to support those efforts. That would fix the issue without an investment of tax dollars.”

Garden City, Kan., Mayor Dan Frankhauser said he is worried about the partner states’ ability to find money for the track rebuilding and the fast-approaching deadline.

“Waiting another year, that’s going to be cutting it right down to the wire,” he said. “We’re all going to have to make some decisions. It’s going to be here before we know it.”

Supporters of the passenger line cannot dwell on what didn’t get done, but should turn their attention to what needs to happen next to sustain it, Roch said.

“All hope is not lost,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the state of New Mexico will step up for those communities that will be devastated if the Southwest Chief is rerouted.”

Hiawatha OT Performance Lackluster in January

February 21, 2014

Harsh weather and commuter train interference led to a lackluster on-time record for the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service in January.

The service, which includes 14 trains a day, had its worst on-time performance in five years with more than a quarter of trains arriving late

Amtrak data showed that 73 percent of Hiawatha trains arrived on time in January, meaning within 10 minutes of scheduled arrival. The last time numbers dipped into that range was in January of 2009, when on-time performance was 71 percent.

Most of the delays last month were due to interference from Metra commuter trains, equipment issues and harsh winter weather, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The longest Hiawatha delays were two hours on evening trains from Chicago to Milwaukee on Jan. 5 and Jan. 28. Out of the nearly 400 Hiawatha trains that traversed the route, about 14 percent were 30 minutes or more late, and 7 percent were an hour late or longer.

Magliari said January’s performance fell short of Amtrak’s goals and customer expectations, but he also called it an anomaly.

The Hiawathas had an on-time performance of 90 percent or higher a little more than half the time. In 2013, about nine out of 10 Hiawatha trains arrived on time.

IDOT to Hold Hearings on Chicago-St. Louis Line

February 21, 2014

The Illinois Department of Transportation will conduct public hearings next week to discuss further development of the Chicago-St. Louis used by Amtrak.

The state is rebuilding the tracks between Joliet and Granite City, Ill.,  to increase train speeds from 80 to 110 mph.

IDOT will define the scope of the projects by preparing Purpose and Need Statements. The statements will govern all future decisions about the projects. The hearings will be held on the following dates and locations:

Chicago, Feb. 24
Chicago Union Station, The Union Gallery
500 W. Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, IL 60661
4-7 p.m.

Joliet, Feb. 26
Jacob Henry Mansion, Victorian Ballroom
15 S. Richards Street
Joliet, IL 60433
4-7 p.m.

Orland Park, Feb. 27
Homewood Suites by Hilton Orland Park
16245 S La Grange Road
Orland Park, IL 60467
4-7 p.m.

East St. Louis, Feb. 25
Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center
101 Jackie Joyner-Kersee Circle
East St Louis, IL 62204
5-7:30 p.m.

Iowa Pacific Seeks to Provide Okla. Service

February 21, 2014

Iowa Pacific Holdings is seeking approval from then state of Oklahoma to operate regular passenger service over state-owned tracks.

The letter to Gov. Mary Fallin said IP wants to launch passenger train service on the Tulsa-Oklahoma City corridor “at once.”

The letter from IP President Ed Ellis says the Eastern Flyer demonstration trains running this month on the Stillwater Central’s Sooner Subdivision have been highly successful operationally and with customers. The trains operated between Tulsa suburb Sapulpa, and Midwest City, an Oklahoma City suburb.

“We operated these demonstration trains to validate our assumptions regarding passenger service in the corridor which we have proposed to operate at no cost to the State of Oklahoma, unlike the [Amtrak] Heartland Flyer which costs the State of Oklahoma over $2 million annually,” Ellis said. “Now that the demonstration runs have given us both data and experience, and some exceptionally positive customer feedback, we are prepared to begin regular service at once, with phased improvements to come over the next one to two years.

Ellis asked that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation immediately name Iowa Pacific as “passenger operator” on the Sooner Subdivision, including the Oklahoma Department of Transportation-owned rights into downtown Tulsa, and engage with Iowa Pacific in developing a contract for passenger train service on the Sooner Sub.

“We request that the contract development begin independently of any potential sale of the line, since the line is presently owned by the state, since no decision has been made on a buyer, and since the State retains complete rights to contract for passenger service at this time,” Ellis wrote. Iowa Pacific is asking for a five-year contract with the state, renewable for three successive five-year terms.

Oklahoma purchased the line from BNSF in 1998. Watco affiliate Stillwater Central operates freight service on the route under a lease that runs 2017, but the state is considering selling the line. Four bidders have emerged: BNSF Railway, Watco, Iowa Pacific and Fortress. A state panel will review the bids and decide whether to accept one of the bids in April or May.

Ellis said passenger trains could be running by Memorial Day. Under the IP plan,  service would be phased in as follows

• May 1, 2014: Two daily round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest City, with a running time of 2 hours, 50 minutes.

• Sept. 1, 2014: Six round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest City with a running time of 2 hours, 25 minutes. Five round trips would be offered on weekends.

• Oct. 1, 2014: Six round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest, and two round trips between Tulsa and Midwest City. The running time between Tulsa and Sapulpa is to be determined with BNSF. Five round trips would be offered on weekends.

• Within nine months of startup, reduce the running time to 2 hours, 15 minutes through improvements to curve elevation and improvements to main track speed.

Dedicated shuttles will be provided from Sapulpa and Midwest City to downtowns, universities, airports, and Bartlesville. Intermediate stops will be established at Bristow and Stroud. Iowa Pacific would also run additional special event trains as may be warranted for sports, entertainment and special events. Running times will be determined jointly with Stillwater Central.

Iowa Pacific says it will take all revenue risk for operation of these services, and there will be no purchase-of-service cost to the state of Oklahoma. The company will pay the train-mile cost (as adjusted for inflation) for use of the trackage rights between Sapulpa and Tulsa and be responsible for all costs to develop, operate, and maintain stations along the route.

The proposal asks the state to use its best efforts to secure funds for additional upgrading of the Sapulpa-Midwest City line, and to work with Iowa Pacific and the city of Oklahoma City to secure rail access between Midwest City and the Santa Fe station in downtown Oklahoma City, so that all trains can operate from downtown Tulsa to downtown Oklahoma City.

NM House OKs Funding SW Chief Route Work

February 19, 2014

The New Mexico House of Representatives approved legislation this week that would authorize the state to spend $40 million to keep Amtrak’s Southwest  Chief on its current route via Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, N.M.

The money would come from oil and gas revenues. The bill must now be approved by the state senate. However, the legislature is set to adjourn later this week and the fate of the Chief funding bill in that chamber is uncertain.

In Colorado, legislation to create a financing authority for that state’s $40 million share of track improvements is making its way through the House.

Amtrak has called for the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to help fund $200 million in rail improvements to the BNSF Railway lines that make up the Southwest Chief’s current route.

The three states would contribute equal shares toward the track upgrades and those amounts would be matched by BNSF and Amrak.

The bill passed by the New Mexico House makes that state’s contribution contingent on the other parties providing their share of the total cost.

The parties must reach a funding agreement by the end of 2014 or else Amtrak might reroute the train to a more southerly BNSF route through Oklahoma and Texas in early 2016.

The New Mexico bill, which passed on Tuesday on a 47-12 vote, would authorize the issuance of severance tax bonds between 2016 and 2025.

“Someone has to start, and I think that once they see the seriousness of a commitment from the state of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas will follow,” said bill sponsor Roberto Gonzales said.

“So many times we overlook the needs of the smaller communities,” said Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro. “And this is an issue where we’re dealing with the lifeblood of a community – actually a region.”

Gonzales said that there are no provisions for the Southwest Chief project in the state budget.

Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque, said he supports keeping the Chief on its present route, but questioned using severance tax for bonds to pay for it because the bonding capacity on mineral-extraction revenues in the state is nearing its limit.

Colo. Committee OKs Amtrak Funding Bill

February 15, 2014

A Colorado legislative committee has approved a plan to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its current route in southwestern Colorado

On a 13-0 vote, the Local Government Committee approved a bill late Thursday night that now moves to the another House committee or to the House floor for consideration.

“We had a huge turnout in the committee room, and many experts from throughout the state — and even a few from outside the state — testified in support of the bill,” said Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, a sponsor of the bill. “I’m proud of the collective effort of Southern and Southeastern Colorado to save the Southwest Chief.”

Amtrak may reroute the Chief due to maintenance issues on its BNSF route. The bill is a measure to provide a solution for a five-way partnership with Kansas, New Mexico, Amtrak and BNSF to fund track repairs and maintenance.

It also would add a stop in Pueblo, Colo.

In the meantime, some public officials are hoping that making cuts in onboard services might save money that would in turn help preserve the Southwest Chief

Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman has said he’ll seek to help rescue the route of the Chief through such cost-cutting measures, including eliminating complimentary wine and cheese, as well as pillow chocolates, flowers and vases, and newspapers on its long distance routes.

That move was in large part a response to congressional criticisms of losses from Amtrak’s food and beverage service,, which totaled $72 million in fiscal 2012, according to the news website Politico Pro.

Cutting costs and eliminating those losses keeps Amtrak moving toward its goal of continuing “to serve small-town America that is being abandoned by airlines and bus companies,” Boardman said, “and keep communities such as Trinidad and La Junta … connected by rail to the rest of the nation.”

BNSF Promises Action on Empire Builder Route

February 15, 2014

BNSF officials told North Dakota’s congressional delegation that the railroad is committed to adding more crews and equipment to address congestion that is delaying its freight and Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

An oil boom combined with a harsh winter has caused delays of hours for he Builder. BNSF promised to add 5,000 crewmembers system wide, with 250 temporary workers in North Dakota.

Also, BNSF will send 5,000 rail cars and 125 locomotives to the area within the next few weeks.

The railroad committed to end the directional running of the Empire Builder in North Dakota by month’s end, which forced westbound passengers onto buses for Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Rugby.

Fort Wayne Seeks Rail Service Study

February 13, 2014

Indiana officials are moving ahead with an environmental study of a proposed high-speed rail passenger route linking Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, via Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Fort Wayne city council voted unanimously to contribute $200,000 to the study, about 10 percent of its cost.

The proposed $1.2 billion project envisions trains operating at 110 mph. The Chicago–Fort Wayne travel time would be less than than two hours and business class ticket would cost $39-49. The study is expected to take 18 months to complete.

“I believe this is critically important. If we do not move forward diligently, this project could be in jeopardy,” said city council member Geoff Paddock. He is also a board member of the Indiana Passenger Rail Association.

The passenger advocacy group says the line would be self-supporting and could turn a profit.

Allen County, in which Fort Wayne is located, may contribute $50,000 to the study, but needs to identify a source of funding.

At one time, Fort Wayne was served by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Broadway Limited and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited. Both trains were rerouted away from Fort Wayne in November 1990 after Conrail downgraded the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in Indiana and western Ohio. Amtrak established a stop at Waterloo, Ind., to serve Fort Wayne.