Archive for September, 2014

Way Cleared for Michigan to Buy Talgo Trains

September 21, 2014

Legislative opposition to Michigan’s purchase of two sets of Talgo trains has been smoothed over and the state is now expected to proceed with the acquisition.

That acquisition was the subject of a summer-long probe in the Michigan Senate after some lawmakers raised concerned about a one-bid contract.

But the senators who expressed concern about that are now are willing to let the deal proceed, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Pappageorge.

“It was appropriate to look into it because that didn’t look right,” Pappageorge said. “Digging into it, we came to the conclusion that Talgo was the right answer — not a perfect one but adequate.”

The Talgo trains that the Michigan Department of Transportation wants to buy were built in and for Amtrak service in Wisconsin.

But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker canceled the deal not long after he refused to accept federal runs to be used to develop service between Milwaukee and Madison. The Talgos have sat idle in Indiana while the Spanish company that built the Talgos and Wisconsin battle in court over money that the company claims Wisconsin still owes it.

Although some Talgo equipment built in Milwaukee later entered service in Oregon, the Talgos built for Wisconsin have yet to enter revenue service.

The Wisconsin Talgo trains have since been moved to Amtrak’s shops in Beech Grove, just outside of Indianapolis.

Pappageorge said Michigan needed to act quickly to acquire the Talgos because federal funds were available.

The $58 million for Michigan’s two train sets is to come from $200 million in federal funds for Amtrak improvements in Michigan and other states, mostly in the Midwest.

Michigan plans to assign the Talgo equipment to the Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) route where it will replace the current Amtrak rolling stock being used.

The Talgos are capable of top speeds of 110 miles an hour and, in a few years once the tracks used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains are rebuilt passengers will be able to travel up to two hours faster between Chicago and Detroit.

State officials also hope to improve Amtrak’s on-time service performance for the Wolverine Service, which ranged from 6.5 percent to 52.3 percent in July. Amtrak’s website reports on-time rates for Wolverine Service have ranged from 21.5 percent to 39 percent in the past 12 months.

Patronage of the Wolverine Service route has steadily has been building back toward a 20-year peak of nearly 504,000 passengers in 2010.

The Talgo equipment is expected to serve during a transition period. Eventually, Michigan Amtrak routes will be assigned “next-generation” passenger car and engine sets that are about to be built.

Michigan Department of Transportation railroad chief Tim Hoeffner said the state will own the cars.

Hoeffner said the Talgo purchase is pending an evaluation of the equipment’s suitability for Michigan’s needs. That inspection combined with the Senate investigation has meant that the Talgo equipment won’t be in service by October as originally proposed, he said.

The Talgo equipment will replace 30- to 40-year-old Amtrak cars on two of the three daily Chicago-Detroit roundtrips.

“The difference between them is like the difference between the car I learned to drive in the 1970s and the cars my kids learn to drive now,” Hoeffner said. The Talgos are similar to sleek, modern trains that run in Europe and Asia.

The Horizon coaches now used lack modern amenities and are deteriorating because Amtrak has no budget to overhaul them, according to MDOT. They have institutional decor, lack carpeting, contain harsh lighting and lack hot water in restrooms, the department says.

The Michigan Senate investigation also was triggered by a challenge from Chicago-based Corridor Capital, which claimed the process seemed to favor Talgo. The state’s bid specifications were so narrow only one company could meet them, Corridor Capital said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, a train buff and volunteer adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on rail issues also raised questions about whether Talgo’s equipment can meet Michigan’s needs — a criticism Corridor Capital continues to press.

“They didn’t meet the minimum requirements,” said Lansing public relations specialist John Truscott, who represents Corridor Capital. “If they did qualify, this would have been an easy decision. We (still) feel it would be just as easy for MDOT to do the right thing and open this back up (for rebidding).”

But Pappageorge said members of the Senate’s Transportation and Appropriations committees found the bid process was handled properly. They also concluded Talgo’s equipment is adequate, based on hours of testimony about train car specifications, he said.

Corridor Capital didn’t help its case when its equipment wasn’t ready to enter service. Hoeffner said Corridor Capital sought a state contract under which it would take over the entire state rail service, not just supply rail cars. It has reached a similar deal with Indiana to operate the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

Michigan transportation analysts believe an “incremental approach” is more prudent. Hoeffner said the goal is to continue building ridership on the Chicago-Detroit route, the busiest of Michigan’s three intercity rail passenger corridors, through faster service and nicer cars.

The state also funds Amtrak’s Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water and the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette.

“All customers want to know is: When do I leave, when do I arrive and is it convenient?” Hoeffner said.

The trip now takes about 6.5 hours, but Hoeffner said that MDOT’s goal is to cut the travel time to four hours, which is about the same amount of time needed to drive the route between the two cities.

The state has purchased the tracks used for much of the Wolverine Service route within Michigan and has launched a track rebuilding program that should be completed in late 2017 or early 2018.

Pere Marquette Observes 30th Anniversary

September 21, 2014

Supporters of Amtrak’s Pere Marquette recently celebrated the train’s 30th anniversary by noting that patronage has nearly doubled since the Chicago-Grand Rapids, Mich., train debuted in 1984.

At a ceremony last week, local, state and Amtrak officials recognized the role that the train plays. “The demand here in the Grand Rapids area for a passenger train into Chicago continues to grow every year, which is absolutely tremendous,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Ray Lang of Amtrak added that the growth in ridership could spur future service expansion. “I have every reason to believe that there’s enough demand on this corridor for additional frequencies and we would love to entertain that question in the future,” Lang said.

Amtrak officials also said that the carrier is offering a 30 percent fare discount on the Pere Marquette for the rest of September.

The Pere Marquette, Nos. 370 and 371, began service on Aug. 5, 1984, and serves Grand Rapid, Holland, Bangor and St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, Mich. It is funded in part by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

 

Chicago Union Station Rehab Plans Set

September 21, 2014

 

For four years planners have been studying ways to reconfigure Chicago Union Station, which to most people is a maze of ramps and escalators along with leaky roofs and crowded walkways.

Since 2010 the Chicago Department of Transportation, Amtrak, Metra and other agencies have been designing a master plan for the station, which hosts 120,000 rail passengers on weekdays.

Union Station is like a “warren of obscure passageways with no natural light,” said Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s manager of media relations. Amtrak owns the station.

Last remodeled by Amtrak in 1992, work will get underway at Union Station next year to add dedicated lanes on Canal Street to improve access to CTA buses and to build an off-street bus terminal on Jackson Boulevard. between Canal and Clinton streets to provide direct, weather-protected connections between the station and CTA buses while also relieving congestion on nearby streets.

Longer-term projects converting unused platforms for use by commuters and Amtrak passengers, realigning tracks to accommodate wider platforms and building new stairways so passengers can exit the station without using the concourse.

No major changes are planned for the historic Great Hall, which dates to 1925 and is the site of the iconic stairway scene in the 1987 movie “The Untouchables.”

Amtrak expects ridership growth as it adds service on existing routes, adds new service to the Rockford and the Quad Cities region and from the development of high-speed rail, said Joe Shacter, director of public and intermodal transportation for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

David Kralik, Metra’s head of long-range planning, acknowledged the congestion caused by service disruptions, particularly involving BNSF trains that use the station’s south concourse. BNSF is the busiest of Metra’s 11 lines.

Metra has tried to encourage passengers to wait in the Great Hall during delays. “There’s just not enough space for everyone,” Kralik said.

 

 

WB California Zephyr to Run Earlier

September 18, 2014

Amtrak said this week that the westbound California Zephyr will operate 50 minutes earlier from Sept. 23 through 30 due to repair work being done by host railroad Union Pacific.

Train No. 5 will operate according to a temporary schedule at all stations from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif.

It will depart Chicago at 2:50 p.m. and operate approximately 50 minutes later at all stops through arrival in Denver the next morning.

From Denver to arrival Emeryville, Train 5 will operate on a temporary schedule. For more information, check http://www.amtrak.com or call 800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).

Amtrak Service Suspended South of Springfield

September 17, 2014

Amtrak service south of Springfield, Ill., has been was suspended this week in favor of buses. The Texas Eagle will be detouring over a Union Pacific route via Watseka, Villa Grove, Tuscola and Pana, Ill.

The service suspension is due to track work being carried out on the UP-owned track between Springfield and St. Louis. Lincoln Service trains 301, 303, 304, 305, 306 and 307 will operate between Chicago and Springfield through Sept. 24. Trains 300 and 302 will operate Chicago-Springfield through Sept. 25.

Chartered buses will be provided in both directions at all stations between Springfield and St. Louis. These buses will operate earlier than schedule times for their respective trains so Amtrak urges passengers to confirm their bus departure and arrival times when making reservation.

The service suspensions will occur again between Sept. 30 and Oct. 9.

Track and signal upgrades have been underway between Springfield and Alton all summer. The latgest work will occur between WR, Lenox, and Wann interlocking between Alton and St. Louis.

The UP track here has a top speed of 79 mph, but is only signaled for that speed for southward movements. Northbound trains between WR and Lenox Tower use a parallel Kansas City Southern-owned route that has jointed rail and a top speed of 30 mph.

The KCS track will be removed from service through Oct. 9, with the exception of the Sept. 26 through Sept. 29 period when crews will be moving equipment for the next construction phase.

Memphis To Celebrate Its Railroad History

September 17, 2014

 

The railroad history of Memphis will be on display during the grand opening of Memphis Central Station on Oct. 4.

The occasion is the 100th anniversary of the station. The event is being sponsored by the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum.

A ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. with free admission for the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Amtrak Exhibit Train will be  on hand and open for tours by schools and groups between noon and 5 p.m. on  Friday (Oct. 3) and to the public on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

A Norfolk Southern exhibit car will be on display during the same hours as the Amtrak train. A Canadian National locomotive cab will be open for visitors on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. BNSF, CSX and Union Pacific will all have locomotives on display.

“The 100th anniversary of the opening of Memphis’ Central Station marks a major event in the railroad history of the Mid-South,” said museum President Mike Fleming. “Preserving the ‘Rich and Colorful Railroad History of Memphis and the Mid-South’ is the goal of the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum.”

For additional information, call 901-590-3099 or go to www.mrtm.org. Museum entrance fees will be waived on Saturday.

Memphis Central Station is served daily by Amtrak’s City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.

 

Vision for Rockford Station Shown at Hearing

September 17, 2014

 

A building a local man wants to repurpose was not among those presented to the community recently during a public input session about Rockford’s new Amtrak station.

About 100 people gathered at the Webbs Norman Center to offer their input about where the station should be sited in relation to the Ziock Building, at 416 S. Main St. Four sites were among those offered for public comment, except 514 S. Church St., the building deconstruction visionary Bill Howard wants to turn into the Amtrak depot using repurposed materials.

Howard’s plan is to deconstruct the west portion of the building and use the materials to transform the east portion into the train station.

Spokesmen from Friends of Ziock (FOZ), the group credited for spearheading the future $53 million high-rise hotel project, have a different idea. They say the Church Street building should be preserved and used for condos and retail space.

The City of Rockford is currently not leaning toward either plan. The city plans to raze the former Chicago and Northwestern freight depot, along with three buildings owned by S&L Warshawsky, Inc., and use the space for parking. The city is currently in negotiations with Warshawsky to purchase 431 S. Main St., 501 S. Main St., and 319 Cedar St. Aldermen voted last month to use eminent domain if a sale cannot be reached.

During Wednesday’s two-hour session, participants were surveyed about a dozen possible station designs, each showing different architectural styles. The survey also asked about demographics and amenities the depot could include.

“The idea tonight is to get high-level input about a station location,” City of Rockford Manager of Comprehensive Planning & Design David Sidney said. “It important to find out what the community wants to see. That’s what this open-house format is designed to do.”

While an Amtrak site will not be announced until after the public weighs in a second and possible-third time, leaders say the city is committed to build it downtown, along Union Pacific Railroad tracks near the Ziock Building.

Chicago-based Legat Architects has been awarded a $250,000 contract to design the station. A $10 million state subsidy will build it.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) announced this spring that a single train will begin running between Rockford and Chicago by next fall. The announcement sparked a plan to build a temporary station at 703 Seventh St. Although that plan has been ruled out, a temporary depot could be built elsewhere along the Union Pacific line if necessary.

The deal to use Union Pacific tracks replaces the one with Canadian National Railway that would have also brought a new Amtrak station to Genoa instead of the hub now planned in Belivdere. The agreement was scrapped when the state, Canadian National and Amtrak could not come to terms.

A future agreement with Canadian National would extend the Chicago-Rockford route to Dubuque, Iowa, something officials say could happen as early as 2016.

More information about the Amtrak station planning process is at Rockfordconnections.mindmixer.com. 

 

 

 

Michigan Still Mulling Talgo Purchase

September 17, 2014

Michigan may be poised to pay $58 million for a pair of Talgo train sets that were built for service in Wisconsin, but have yet to turn a wheel in revenue service.

A futher evaluation of the Talgo equipment is needed before the Michigan Department of Transportation will move ahead with a potential purchase said Tim Hoeffner, head of the MDOT’s rail division. This study is expected to prevent the Talgos from entering service next month as had been discussed.

It is not clear if the purchase price also includes a maintenance facility.

The Talgos would be assigned to the Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverine Service. That route currently sees equipment assigned from the Chicago pool of Midwest corridor service equipment. Most of the equipment it that pool is Horizon fleet cars.

TIGER Grant Will Fund Chief Route Rehab Work

September 11, 2014

The efforts to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico got a boost this week when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $12.5 million grant to be used to maintain the tracks.

The TIGER grant came in response to an application submitted by 11 southern Colorado communities, in collaboration with the state of Kansas, Amtrak, and BNSF.

This amount exceeds the $9.3 million that Colorado communities and Kansas offered as a match. Amtrak has committed to continue operating the Chicago-Los Angeles train over its existing route for 20 years. BNSF has pledged to maintain for 20 years the new rail that will be installed along the route.

Amtrak has sought a $100 million funding commitment in order to maintain the route to passenger train speeds. BNSF has said that it would only maintain the route to 30 mph speeds after its contract with Amtrak expires in January 2016. Amtrak and BNSF agreed to provide funding share equal to that of the states.

The TIGER grant is expected to preserve service by the Chief for the immediate future for further funding from the states is likely to be needed to keep the train running over the current route.

Amtrak to Track Train Delays Electronically

September 5, 2014

Amtrak has begun implementing an electronic delay reporting system that seeks to show the reasons why its trains are delayed en route.

Amtrak Vice President of Operations D.J. Stadtler discussed the delay reporting system at a Surface Transportation Board field hearing held in Fargo, N.D., to hear complaints from shippers about service on BNSF and Canadian Pacific.

Stadtler told Trains magazine that the railroad is testing the delay reporting system on the Fort Worth-Oklahoma City Heartland Flyer and Boston-Brunswick, Maine, Downeaster corridor.

Amtrak hopes to implement the delay reporting system on all route by the end of the year.

The passenger railroad already uses a GPS-based monitoring system to keep track of its trains. That system is accessible to the public on the “Track-a-Train” feature on the Amtrak website.

If Amtrak’s monitoring system detects a delay, the conductor of the delayed train will receive a prompt on his or her iPhone to report the reason for the delay.

That information will be sent to Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center in Wilmington, Del., and relayed to the host railroad.

The thinking is that this will provide accountability for dispatchers and their supervisors as well as letting Amtrak personnel know about recurring trouble spots due to slow orders or rail traffic congestion. Currently, such information between Amtrak and its host railroads involves paper documents sent by fax.

Tardiness has become a problem for Amtrak this summer with systemwide long-distance train endpoint on-time performance falling below 40 percent in July.

Of particular concern has been the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder. Its all stations on-time figure was 9.9 percent, the worst for any train on the system. Schedule padding enables Nos. 7 and 8 to arrive on time at their endpoint number 24.5 percent of the time.

Stadtler said BNSF officials told him that slow orders on the Devils Lake and Valley Subdivisions in North Dakota would be removed in October as six track and signal projects are completed.

Amtrak has been talking with BNSF about a schedule that will be more realistic and reliable than the most recent adjustment to the schedule implemented last April that extended the running times in both directions.

Stadtler said, though, that systemwide year-to-date trends “have shown little signs of improvement” and suggested that the STB monitor the on-time statistics that Amtrak publishes as well as asking the host railroads to report periodically on their handling of Amtrak trains.

Host railroads need to “take Amtrak on-time performance seriously,” Stadtler said.

“Amtrak services nationwide and particularly the long-distance trains are experiencing growing levels of delay on host railroads,” Stadtler said. “If this is not addressed, it will translate into significant impacts to our service, our passengers and our bottom line.

“We want to avoid [delays], and we prefer to address and fix this system-wide problem by working cooperatively with our host railroad partners,” he said. “We do, however, have an obligation to provide the traveling public with the level of service mandated by the statute, and we therefore believe that the STB could significantly assist us by monitoring the statistics.”