Archive for September, 2014

Amtrak Moves to Makeshift Station in Joliet

September 30, 2014

Joliet Union Station still stands, but it is no longer used as a train station by Amtrak of Metra. Passengers now use new platforms and a temporary station located east of the tracks.

The station, which includes an Amtrak ticket office, is located on the northwest corner of East Jefferson Street and Mayor Art Schulz Drive (formerly North Michigan Street).

The temporary facility, which is expected to be used until a permanent station, the Joliet Regional Multi-Modal Transportation Center, is completed in late 2016.

The temporary Amtrak facility is about situated two blocks northeast of the 102-year-old Joliet Union Station, directly across from Silver Cross Field.

Metra agreed to move in order to avoid disruption of freight service on BNSF and Union Pacific freight lines caused by cross traffic on Metra’s Rock Island District.

The closure of Union Station was effective at 10 a.m. last Friday. The last Metra trains to use the Union Station platform were Chicago-bound No. 508, which departed at 9:21 a.m., and Joliet-bound No. 505, which was scheduled to arrived at 9:53 a.m.

The first trains to use the new platform, located east of the crossing on the north side of the tracks, were the outbound No. 510 at 10:21 a.m. and inbound No. 507 at 10:53 a.m. Also affected are Metra’s Heritage Corridor trains and Amtrak’s Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle.

Friday morning’s St. Louis to Chicago Lincoln Service train No. 300 used the Union Station platform while Chicago to St. Louis No. 303 used the new platform. Once construction is complete, Amtrak will move to the new When opened in October 1912, Joliet Union Station served the Santa Fe, Rock Island, Chicago & Alton, and Michigan Central.

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Grant may be SW Chief Route ‘Game Changer’

September 26, 2014

A senior Amtrak official has described the successful work in Kansas to gain federal funds to upgrade the route of the Southwest Chief as being a “game changer” in the efforts to keep the Chicago-Los Angeles train on its existing route.

Ray Lang made the comments during a meeting with the New Mexico State Transportation Commission on Sept. 18 in Raton, N.M.

Lang, senior director of state government relations, was referencing a $12.5 million TIGER Grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration that will be used to upgrade and maintain 244 miles of track from Hutchison, Kan., to the Colorado state line.

Lang said that Amtrak will contribute $4 million, BNSF will provide $2 million, and the Kansas Department of Transportation will pay $3 million for track rehabilitation.

The six-member transportation commission met before a crowded room of state and local government representatives from Colorado and New Mexico.

Amtrak has been seeking funding from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to pay for track upgrades and maintenance of 632 miles of track used by the Chief in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico.

BNSF, which owns the track has said that after January 2016 it would only maintain the rails to support speeds of 30 mph. Amtrak wants top speeds of 79 mph.

The New Mexico legislature has thus far not committed to spending any money to help main the route of the Chief.

“We are essentially talking about a public-private partnership that may not be typical for transportation in New Mexico, but it is common throughout the United States,” civil engineer and soon-to-be Raton City Manager Scott Berry said before the state transportation commission.

New Mexico State Rep. Dennis J. Roch expressed gratitude to his colleagues for their support of the campaign to prevent the Southwest Chief from being moved to a more southern route.

“Refreshingly, this is not a partisan issue,” said Roch, who represents House District 67 which includes a portion of northern Colfax County – including Raton.

Roch, who is up for re-election in the 2014 general mid-term elections in November, said keeping the Southwest Chief on its present route is priority No. 1 for his district constituents.

Berry agrees. “Amtrak is really the single most transportation issue to Raton.”

 

Private Cars Face Oct. 1 Inspection Deadline

September 26, 2014

Private car owners are facing an Oct. 1, 2014, deadline to comply with Amtrak regulations that all wheels and axles must be ultrasound tested before being allowed to operate on Amtrak trains.

As of Sept. 22, Amtrak had tested 89 cars of which five failed the standards announced in early 2013.

Lee Trombecky, Amtrak’s manager of regulatory compliance, said of the five cars that failed inspection, seven axles were found to have condemnable defects.

There are about 450 private cars, including railroad-owned equipment, that could be Amtrak-certified, but no more than about 125 actively operate in Amtrak service.

“We are planning to bring the defective axles to Wilmington and cut them open so our engineers can investigate what we’re finding inside those axles,” Trombecky said during the recent convention of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners. “I know everybody was upset why we were doing this but it is all about safety. We don’t want cars out on the railroad and something breaking, and we know (testing) has been painstaking and costly, but we appreciate what you’re doing.”

Brian Gallagher, Amtrak’s operations director, said that that poor Empire Builder on-time performance precluded picking up a private car in Fargo, N.D., that its owner wanted to send to the AAPRCO convention.

“But I called the division and we had to say ‘no’ because that 25 to 30 minutes (needed to add the car and complete a brake test) could make or break the rest of that trip,”  Gallagher said.

He says that anytime a train loses time, host railroads “lose more for us. If we’re not where we say we are going to be, we get sidetracked – literally.”

Gallagher said that costs are “through the roof on late trains. If you have to charter a plane to fly a crew to some little grass strip in the middle of Montana, that’s significant.”

Gallagher also said that Amtrak is looking at a plan to rebuild more P42 and P40 locomotives. However, it lacks funding for the project and can’t afford or to buy new locomotives.

“We’ve had some catastrophic failures out there but we’re doing the best we can do,” he said.

Despite Amtrak’s meager financial resources, Gallagher said, “the board (of directors) and the administration has made a decision: We’re not cutting any trains. That I can tell you.”

Amtrak Poised to Begin Service in Troy, Mich.

September 26, 2014

After delays lasting more than a decade and many trips through the courts, the Troy Transit Center is poised to open within a month and become an Amtrak station.

The suburban Detroit facility would replace Amtrak’s Birmingham station on the Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverine Service route.

The transit center, located at Maple and Coolidge Highway, is expected to also serve regional bus routes and taxi services.

The City of Troy was finally able to approve a lease agreement with Amtrak, which had withheld its support until the city had taken ownership of the 2.7 acres of land on which the transit center sits.

“We’re very pleased to take the next step in the process,” Troy Mayor Dane Slater said. “I’m excited that we are on schedule for the transit center to open in the fall.”

Troy will be reimbursed for all operational costs and maintenance expenses. The lease will extend for 20 years with a 10-year option to renew.

The lease approval finally moved along after Oakland County Circuit Judge Leo Bowman issued an order on Aug. 15 transferring to Troy the title to the land on which the multimodal facility sits.

The order required the city to pay $1.05 million — the independently appraised value of the 2.7-acre property near Maple and Coolidge Highway — to developer Grand/Sakwa Properties, which owned the surrounding shopping center.

The land containing the transit center was deeded to the city in 2000 as part of a negotiated court settlement that granted an intense mixed-use commercial and residential development not allowed by the city’s zoning ordinances.

The land was sold to Troy for $1 as a part of a 1999 consent judgment, amended in 2000, that allowed Grand/Sakwa to build a 77-acre mixed-use commercial/residential development, even though Troy’s zoning ordinance at the time did not allow such developments.

Grand/Sakwa agreed to give the land for the transit center provided that the money for the center was secured by 2010. Troy landed an $8.4 million federal grant for the transit center, but Grand/Sakwa said it was not acquired before the 10-year deadline. Therefore, the developer said, the land reverted back to it.

Troy offered $550,000 for the site, based on a 2010 appraisal before the transit center was built.

Despite the court proceedings dragging on, the Troy City Council approved a scaled-down version of the transit center in January 2012.

The 28,000-square-foot center was completed last fall at a cost of $6.3 million. In May 2013, the court of appeals granted the reversion of the parcel. Troy initiated a condemnation case, allowing the city to purchase the land.

New Grand Rapids Amtrak Station to Open

September 26, 2014

The new Amtrak station in Grand Rapids, Mich., is expected to begin boarding passengers next month.

The last hurdle to opening the station was the building of a CSX crossing at Century Avenue SW. That work is expected to be finished on Oct. 10.

The $5.2 million station was supposed to open in 2013 but had become bogged down with numerous delays.

Named after former West Michigan congressman Vern Ehlers, the station will replace an existing depot on Wealthy Street.

The station will be the eastern terminus of the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which is funded in part by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“The track work has to be inspected by CSX; that’s a separate agreement, as we own the railroad spur,” said Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid.

Rapid officials touted the convenient location of the new Amtrak station, saying that Central Station, which serves all of the six-city bus system’s busiest routes and the new Silver Line bus rapid transit system, is just down the street.

Ceremony Marks Track Rehab Completion

September 25, 2014

State and railroad officials gathered on Sept. 22 in Granite City, Ill., to celebrate the completion of a track rehabilitation project on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis route.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn joined officials from Union Pacific and Amtrak at the ceremony.

“The work done today will help residents get to their destinations quickly and efficiently for years to come,” Quinn said. “I am proud that our state is leading the way on this transportation trend of the future.”

The state, UP and Amtrak are working to reduce the travel time between Chicago and St. Louis of 5.5 hours by a half-hour by late 2015. Another half-hour is expected to be shaved by the end of 2017 when two-thirds of the corridor will be capable of hosting trains traveling 110 mph compared to just 15 miles today between Dwight and Pontiac.

In addition to track rebuilding, 300 grade crossings have been updated. Work will begin soon to install Positive Train Control. UP is building or extending 13 passing sidings.

“Working together with the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, we have made great strides on this important public-private partnership,” said Donna Kush, UP Vice-President, Public Affairs, for the Northern Region. “Our engineering team has produced some very impressive numbers since this project started in 2010.”

The State of Illinois is contributing $400 million toward the project. Another $1.3 billion is being provided by the federal government. To date, the construction project on the corridor has upgraded more than 2.6 million linear feet of rail, added more than 1.3 million tons of ballast, and replaced 646,000 ties.

Deliveries of new diesel locomotives from Siemens and passenger coaches from Nippon Sharyo are due to begin in summer 2016. Crews thus far have upgraded more than 2.6 million linear feet of rail, added more than 1.3 million tons of ballast, and replaced 646,000 ties.

The Chicago-St. Louis corridor hosts four Lincoln Service roundships and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas  Eagle.

 

 

WB Empire Builder Detour to Stay Until January

September 25, 2014

Amtrak announced this week that the detour of the westbound Empire Builder in North Dakota will continue through Jan. 12, 2015.

Amtrak agreed last May to move Chicago-Seattle/Portland No. 7 to the freight-only KO Subdivision via New Rockford, N.D., which meant missing stations at Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. Those stations are currently served by a chartered bus service.

The eastbound Empire Builder continues to operate via its regular route through those communities.

In a news release, Amtrak said Empire Builder passengers can expect to encounter delays en route due to continued BNSF freight train congestion.

Amtrak estimates the average train delay is eight to 10 hours. Through June, Amtrak said ridership of the Empire Builder had fallen by 15 percent and the railroad estimated that the trains are losing $1 million per month.

Also contributing to the delays is construction on the route that BNSF is undertaking to increase its capacity. In particular, an increase in crude oil trains has necessitated the track capacity expansion projects, which are costing BNSF nearly $400 million.

Amtrak said it would reassess whether to continue the detour the westbound Empire Builder after the December holiday season.

Among the projects are additional and lengthened passing sidings and added double track. In a news release, Amtrak said that once those projects are completed it expected the on-time performances of the Empire Builder to significantly improve.

Colo. Commission Eyes Chief Funding Needs

September 23, 2014

A Colorado Commission created to save intercity rail passenger service in the southwest corner of the state recently held its first meeting to begin pondering a plan to take to the legislature.

“We came up with a plan today of what information we have to have in order to ask the Legislature for funding next year,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who chairs the Southwest Chief Commission.

The commission will work with officials in Kansas and New Mexico to keep Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief on its present route.

The route’s owner, BNSF Railway, has said that it will no longer maintain the route to passenger train speeds after January 2016.

Amtrak and BNSF have said they would contribute funding to renovate the route if the three states will also kick in funding.

Last week, federal officials awarded a $12.5 million grant for the most urgently needed repairs in western Kansas and eastern Colorado. The tracks also need to be rebuilt in New Mexico and elsewhere in Colorado so that the Chief can continue to travel at between 60 to 70 mph.

On a recent trip to Raton, N.M., Pace watched as 15 people boarded the train at Trinidad, Colo. “It showed me the Chief is important,” he said. “If we don’t make this work, there may not be a Southwest Chief.

Pace and other commission members went to Raton to discuss the future of the Chief with members of the New Mexico Transportation Commission.

“There was a full house, and no negative comments,” Pace said. “Everyone was upbeat about the Chief.”

The Colorado commission is also examining changing the train’s route to serve Pueblo. The Chief currently stops in Colorado at Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.

Chicago-Detroit Route EIS Completed

September 23, 2014

Public comments will be taken on a Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates planned improvements to the Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) rail corridor used by Amtrak.

The study was prepared by the Federal Railroad Administration and the departments of transportation in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.

The statement reviews the project’s purpose and need, identifies reasonable route alternatives, describes the affected environment, and analyzes the potential environmental impacts of the alternatives considered, including the no-build alternative, FRA officials said in a news release.

Public comments must be submitted to the FRA by Dec. 19. The study will also be the subject of public hearings in Michigan (Oct. 28), Illinois (Oct. 29) and Indiana (Oct. 30).

Transportation planners are working to upgrade the corridor for high-speed rail service. The State of Michigan owns much of the route between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, Mich., while Amtrak owns the route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.

Michigan is currently overseeing a project to rebuild the tracks over the portion that it owns. The Amtrak-owned section has already been rehabilitated.

Amtrak operates three daily Wolverine Service roundtrips between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac). The Chicago-Port Huron, Mich., Blue Water and the Chicago-Grand Rapids, Mich., Pere Marquette use a portion of the route.

Amtrak Extends Delay Warning for LSL

September 23, 2014

Amtrak has extended through Oct. 29 its notification of possible delays on trains serving New York State on the CSX Water Level Route.

The Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited will be subject to delays of up to 45 minutes on Sunday through Wednesday due to CSX track work between Buffalo and Rome, N.Y.

Also affected are the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf and the New York-Niagara Falls, N.Y., Empire Service trains.

Amtrak said passengers should sign up for delay notifications when booking their travel and to check the status of their train on Amtrak.com, its mobile apps or at 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245).