Archive for April, 2014

Michigan May Acquire Idle Talgo Trains

April 26, 2014

The Talgo trains that the State of Wisconsin ordered, but now refuses to pay for may wind up serving Amtrak routes in Michigan

The Michigan Department of Transportation is looking to buy or lease the Talgo trains.

An MDOT spokesman confirmed that the department has spoken with Talgo Inc., about using the equipment until rolling stock that the state is buying arrives in 2018.

“We are examining the possibility of buying or leasing new equipment to run on Amtrak lines in Michigan until (we get) the new equipment that we have ordered,” MDOT spokesman Nick Schirripa said.

Michigan is partnering with transportation departments in California, Washington, Missouri and Illinois to buy the new trains.

Talgo has passenger equipment sitting in Milwaukee. Talgo is suing Wisconsin after state officials accused the company of never completing promised work and then suspended payment. Nora Friend, the vice president of public affairs and business development in Talgo’s office in Seattle, said Wisconsin won’t be blocking the trains’ sale.

“There is no dispute in Wisconsin about who owns the trains and who has title to them,” Friend said. “Talgo owns them, is free to see them and in fact, the state of Wisconsin will be more than happy if Talgo sells the trains to the state of Michigan or to any other state and entity interested in acquiring them.”

Friend did not say how long the process of selling or leasing the trains would take.

One of the routes the Talgo trains would use would be the Wolverine Service between Chicago to Pontiac that stops in Detroit.

MDOT officials are looking to save money because federal funding of corridor routes has been reduced, which increased the state’s cost to operate the Wolverines from $8 million annually to $25 million.

That includes funding for the Pere Marquette and Blue Water routes that also serve Michigan.

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New Dearborn Amtrak Station Gets High Green

April 26, 2014

Work is moving again on building a new intermodal station in Dearborn, Mich., that Amtrak will use for its Wolverine Service trains.

The Dearborn city council last week approved adding $185,000 to its contract with Neumann Smith, which is providing architect and engineer services for the facility, which is expected to cost $2.7 million.

“The project was originally scheduled for completion in August 2013,” Council President Susan Dabaja said. “Due to circumstances beyond the control of the design team or the City of Dearborn, the construction has been delayed for one year.”

The additional money was requested by the Economic and Community Development Department to cover extended construction administration services as a result of the delay.

The construction timeline was delayed for a year in part because of the sale of the railroad right-of-way to Amtrak. Another delay occurred when the design concept for a movable platform was not approved until this spring.

The Dearborn Council also agreed to extend the lease with Amtrak for the building and parking lot at the rear of the police and court buildings at the same rate of $31,000 per year.

“Amtrak has leased those facilities since 1978,” Dabja said. The previously approved lease extensions expired on April 1.

The city agreed to Amtrak’s request to extend the lease on a month-to-month basis not to extend a year, pending the construction of the new train station and prorated to reflect the number of months necessary for Amtrak to move into the new train station facility.

City officials are optimistic that the new station will be completed in the next few months. The Federal Railroad Administration is helping to fund the new facility, which will be down as the Dearborn Intermodal Passenger Rail Facility.

3 Senators Seek Funding for SW Chief

April 26, 2014

Three U.S. senators announced last week that they are working to seek congressional support in favour of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

In particular, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Mark Udall of Colorado are hoping to keep the Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief in place on its current route.

The senators wrote a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development in advance of the Fiscal Year 2015 budgeting process, urging for a strong level of funding for long distance trains, generally, and for consideration of the threatened Southwest Chief:

“Long distance service remains a critical link for small and rural communities. However, despite their importance, these trains require significant capital investment that has gone unmet.

“As you know, Amtrak has announced a possible reroute of the Southwest Chief due to changing shared-use needs. The potential reroute has raised serious concerns among the affected communities who depend on this service. While all stakeholders are working to find a responsible and reasonable solution that will preserve the current route, how to address the significant capital investment needs necessary to retain the current route remains unclear.

“While we recognize you are operating under very tight fiscal constraints, we hope you will consider the needs of our constituents in this year’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.”

In a related development, a coalition of Colorado counties, communities and private donors committed to saving the Southwest Chief have submitted an application for a federal grant to fund maintenance work.

The coalition has raised $250,000 to help match a U.S. Department of Transportation Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery Program grant application being led by officials in Garden City, Kansas.

If the grant is approved, BNSF will receive funding to repair about 50 miles of the Chief route in Kansas and Colorado.

The list of supporters includes Otero County with $10,000, Pueblo with $100,000, Trinidad with $25,000, La Junta with $10,000, Lamar with $10,000, and Bent County with $10,000.

In addition, BSNF has pledged $2 million, the state of Kansas $3 million, and Amtrak $4 million. The TIGER grant application requests $15 million in federal funds for repairs. So far, the state of Colorado has not contributed.

Illinois Town Upset About Being Bypassed

April 17, 2014

Recently announced plans to launch Amtrak service between Chicago and Rockford, Ill., have upset officials in a town that is being bypassed. In fact, you could say that city officials in Genoa are downright angry about it.

“The whole way this was handled was disgraceful,” Genoa Mayor Mark Vicary said. “We just found out about this [Thursday] night. It’s a travesty, and it was taken away from us in the darkness of the night.”

Genoa officials had expected the train to use Canadian National tracks that pass through their town. Illinois Department of Transportation officials has expected that to be the case, too.

But negotiations with CN to use the former Illinois Central route failed to conclude in an agreement, so IDOT struck a deal with Union Pacific, which agreed to allow the train to use a former Chicago & North Western route via Huntley and Belvidere.

The Chicago-Rockford service, which IDOT hopes to launch in 2015, is expected to eventually be extended to Dubuque, Iowa. That would involve having to use the CN route. Until 1981, the former IC route hosted Amtrak’s Black Hawk between Chicago and Dubuque. That service ended following budget cuts that reduced the money available to IDOT to pay for Amtrak service.

The Genoa Area Chamber of Commerce is sending letters to its members asking them to reach out to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to voice their support for the city stop.

“We had no idea this was something that was going to happen,” says Cortney Strohacker, the chamber’s executive director. “We were looking forward to the economic development opportunities it would bring, and were looking forward to not only having Amtrak available for us, but for others who wanted to come to Genoa.”

Service to Rockford to Begin in 2015

April 12, 2014

Rail passenger service is expected to return to Rockford, Ill., in 2015 after the Illinois Department of Transportation reached an agreement with Union Pacific and Metra.

The parties will undertake $223 million in infrastructure improvements to make the Chicago- Rockford route a reality.

The service will be operated by Amtrak and involve one daily roundtrip.

Trains will use a combination of Metra’s Milwaukee District West commuter line and UP’s Belvedere Subdivision. A connection will be built between the two near Metra’s Big Timber station west of Elgin.

The announcement came after several years of negotiations with Canadian National failed to result in agreement to use its tracks, which had been designated as the preferred route for a proposed Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque, Iowa, service.

The former Illinois Central Railroad route now owned by CN previously hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Dubuque Black Hawk. That train, which IDOT helped fund, was discontinued in September 1981 when the state reduced its funding of Amtrak service.

The $223 million will be funded primarily through Gov. Pat Quinn’s “Illinois Jobs Now!” capital program, will include expenditures of almost $14 million to build a temporary station on 7th Street in Rockford. The state will also provide funding for the establishment of stations in Belvedere and Huntley. The initial work on the UP route will accommodate trains at 59 mph by the end of 2015.

Other improvements planned for 2016 will help increase train speeds to 79 mph and allow the inauguration of a second Chicago-Rockford roundtrip.

IDOT said it will continue to talk with CN about an agreement that would allow the route to be extended to Dubuque via Freeport and Galena. All of those cities had been stops for the Black Hawk. Trains magazine reported that Illinois was able to strike a deal with Union Pacific for signal and track upgrades because of the partnership that it has established with UP to increase speeds on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

The Rockford trains will use the same tracks that Amtrak’s Hiawatha service uses between Chicago Union Station and the Western Avenue interlocking as far as Pacific Junction

At the latter point, Rockford trains will use Metra’s existing station to Elgin. There is a crossover connecting Metra and UP at Western Avenue, but it only serves one track.

Using Metra to Elgin will keep the Rockford trains off UP’s freight-congested main line as far as West Chicago, where the line to Rockford diverges. Before the 1971 coming of Amtrak, the former IC served Rockford corridor with a train that operated between Chicago and Sioux City, Iowa.

The UP line to Rockford, which was formerly owned by the Chicago & North Western, has not hosted scheduled passenger service since the early 1950s, although it has seen period excursion trains.

Restoration of Amtrak service to Rockford was among a flurry of announced rail funding programs in Illinois in recent weeks.

Nightime in Cleveland

April 5, 2014

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It is 4:15 a.m. in the Amtrak station in Cleveland. The westbound Lake Shore Limited should have been here a half hour ago. “Julie” says it will arrive at 5:10, the Amtrak agent at the ticket windows says 5:15. Whatever the case, the passengers wait.

Four Amtrak trains a day serve Cleveland and all are scheduled to arrive during the overnight hours.

It’s the reality of being located at the midpoint of routes for which trains are timed to best serve the needs of connecting passengers in Chicago, New York and Washington.

The seats in the Cleveland station are not overly comfortable, but I’d rate them to be better than those in the waiting lounge in Chicago.

Inside the station, it is largely quiet. A few low conversations can be heard, but most of those waiting – which includes some waiting for the eastbound Lake Shore Limited – are trying to nap, reading or using their smart phones.

Outside there is the periodic rumble of passing Norfolk Southern freight trains.

I moved to Cleveland in August 1993 and boarded my first train here the following April. The station hasn’t changed much since then.

If the station seems dated it is because it is. In my collection of Amtrak artifacts is an annual report from the 1970s that shows an Amtrak employee making a model of a “modern” Amtrak station that looks just like the Cleveland station.

During Amtrak’s early years, it was plagued with union stations in cities where there were just four or two trains a day.

These palatial depots were built for a much higher level of traffic and were wonders in their day but to Amtrak management they had become dinosaurs that burned precious cash.

The answer was to create a much smaller standard station that was more to Amtrak’s needs.

When the Cleveland Amtrak station opened in 1976, Paul Reistrup was Amtrak’s president, long-distance trains were pulled by SDP40F locomotives and passenger cars had steam heat.

All of that has gone away, but the Cleveland station remains as a monument to another era. I am not sure why, but there is something vaguely comforting about that.

In many ways, Amtrak is an operation frozen in the past. Change tends to be incremental and comes in small increments at that.

It is the same basic structure that it was in 1971, although with some additions and subtractions here and there, most notable of which are expansions of short-haul corridors funded by the states.

Construction of the Superliner and Amfleet equipment that is assigned today to the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited began in the 1970s, although some of it is slightly newer.

So every time I catch a train in Cleveland it is a bit like going back to the 1970s when I was in college and what I see today in Cleveland was state of the art then.

Are any of those waiting passengers looking at the smart phones watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show? “Love is all around, no need to waste it.”

But it’s not 1974. It’s 2014.

Shortly before 5, I get up and walk out into the cold night air to wait for No. 49.

Soon, I see the lights of an approaching train to the east that has the unmistakable pattern of the headlight and ditch lights of an Amtrak P42 locomotive.

The Lake Shore Limited halts at 5:07 a.m. Eight minutes later, the engineer opens the throttle and we are Chicago-bound an hour and a half behind schedule.

And it’s still night time in Cleveland.

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Amtrak to Move to SPUD on May 7

April 4, 2014

After numerous delays and false starts, Amtrak has announced a firm date for when it will begin using St. Paul Union Depot in Minnesota.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder will begin stopping at SPUD on May 7.

Nos. 7, 27, and 807, are scheduled to arrive at SPUD at 10:03 p.m. and depart at 10:10 p.m. Nos. Nos. 8, 28, and 808, are scheduled to arrive at 7:52 a.m. and depart at 8 a.m. The first eastbound train will arrive at SPUD on May 8

These are slightly different times than the Empire Builder has at Midway station, which will still be used by Amtrak to add coaches and/or private cars.

The Empire Builder currently passes SPUD each day on its way to and from Midway Station, which opened in 1978. Amtrak passengers in St. Paul will use the Kellogg Entry, a new entryway that will have a ticket counter and baggage services. The Empire Builder will use Gate C on the southernmost end of the depot large waiting room. SPUD presently serves as a terminal for Jefferson Lines, Megabus, Metro Transit, and Minnesota Valley Transportation Authority bus services. On June 14, Metro Transit’s Green Light Rail Line will open with a stop in front of the station. The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority and Amtrak will celebrate the arrival of Amtrak with a free event on May 10, National Train Day. The event will include exhibits on-site and in the nearby railfan park area, which has a view of the wye east of the depot.

A schedule of events will be announced in the coming weeks at www.uniondepot.org and through social media. Burlington Northern train No. 9, the Afternoon Zephyr from Chicago to Minneapolis, was the last passenger train to use SPUD on the evening of April 30, 1971, the day before Amtrak took over the majority of U.S. passenger rail service.

After the trains left, the Union Depot tracks were removed and train sheds torn down, but the head house of the building was renovated for use as offices, restaurants and condominiums. The massive rear concourse and waiting room was purchased by the U.S. Postal Service and used for storage, while the area below the concourse was paved and used as a staging area for trucks serving the neighboring post office.

The concourse went unseen by the public from 1971 to 2012, except when it was used for an exhibition of artifacts from the Titanic in 1999.

SPUD reopened as a multi-modal transportation hub on Dec. 8, 2012 following a $243 million restoration.

Bidders Sought to Operate the Hoosier State

April 3, 2014

The Indiana Department of Transportation has issued a request for proposals from entities interested in operating the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

The train, which is now operated quad-weekly by Amtrak, is currently being funded by InDOT and most of the communities at which it stops.

InDOT and the communities of Rensselaer, Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, and Beech Grove $2.7 million to fund the Hoosier State. InDOT said the purpose of the request is to obtain competitive bids to operate and optimize the service.

If a party other than Amtrak wins the bidding, it would take over the serve when the current agreement with Amtrak expires on Sept. 30, 2014. Indiana’s agreement with Amtrak can be extended through Jan. 31, 2015, by mutual written agreement of the parties. The state and its partners want the selected contractor not only to reduce the cost of operating the train, but also work with INDOT and Hoosier State Partners to improve operations, attract higher ridership and bring in increased revenues, thereby further reducing costs. Bidders have three bid options:

  1. Perform all functions presently performed by Amtrak on the Hoosier State service
  2. Bid on some portion of those functions
  3. Perform all functions presently performed by Amtrak, and add amenities such as Wi-Fi and food service

“The future Hoosier State rail service will connect Indianapolis and other Indiana cities to Chicago with additional trains, increased speed between stations, improved on-time performance, increased ridership, and improved on-board amenities,” InDOT said in a statement that accompanied the request for bids. “The enhanced passenger service will generate more revenue, and reduce the amounts which Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana Hoosier State Partners are obliged to pay to subsidize this service. The future Hoosier State intercity passenger rail service will reinforce Indiana Transportation goals and objectives by providing safer, more reliable, efficient movement of passengers, in a manner, which is more cost effective. The future Hoosier State service will further alleviate roadway congestion, contribute to economic development, improve energy efficiency and protect environmental quality.”

Bidders must explain what improvements will be made to service quality and how such improvements will be implemented and maintained. INDOT and its partners will be especially interested in any ideas for improvement of on-time performance, the RFP said. The state is interested in a three-year contract, extendable for additional three years, based upon mutual agreement. Amtrak has access rights by law to freight railroad corridors, and Amtrak pays only incremental maintenance costs for this access.

Bidders must show the expected access cost to operate over CSX, CN, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, Belt Railroad of Chicago, and Metra. Bidders should recognize that the list of railroads could change, since rerouting in the Chicago region is being considered, the state says.

One potential bidder might be Iowa Pacific Holdings whose president, Ed Ellis, told Trains magazine that, “We are evaluating it. We haven’t decided, but it is of great interest, and Indiana is being innovative in their approach.”