Archive for October, 2014

Amtrak Forms Panel to Study Chicago Congestion

October 29, 2014

Amtrak announced on Tuesday that it has established a blue ribbon panel of railroad and transportation industry leaders that will study how to relieve rail congestion in the Chicago region.

The Chicago Gateway Initiative will include former Congressman Jack Quinn, former Surface Transportation Board Chair Linda Morgan and former Amtrak board member Tom Carper.

The panel will ask representatives from the freight railroads that operate in Chicago and other stakeholders to participate in panel activities and recommend solutions.

“The rail gridlock in Chicago is causing unacceptable delays for Amtrak passengers while reducing revenues and driving up [our] operating costs,” said Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman in a news release.

The panel will identify and evaluate infrastructure investments and operational actions that will optimize Amtrak’s on-time performance and improve freight-rail service.

This includes finding ways to minimize disruptions and delays, as well as accelerate construction of infrastructure projects. Final recommendations will be made by the end of May 2015.

Amtrak said that rail congestion in Chicago has been triggered by a combination of rising demand on the East Coast for more intermodal and freight, and crude oil shipments that originate west of Chicago.

Another factor has been what Amtrak terms “underinvestment” in critical rail infrastructure and short-term capital projects.

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BNSF Bridge Work to Force Detour of Nos. 3/4, 5/6

October 29, 2014

Due to bridge work by BNSF near Princeton, Ill., during the weekend of Nov. 15-16, the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr will be detouring over the former Santa Fe mainline route between Chicago and Galesburg.

The trains will get back on their original route via the Cameron Connection near Galesburg.

The westbound California Zephyr will operate combined with the westbound Southwest Chief and depart Chicago at 3 p.m., the scheduled departure time for the Chief.

Passengers ticketed aboard the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg, will be transported by bus between Chicago and Galesburg. The trains will operate between Galesburg and Quincy.

 

Amtrak Sets Revenue, Ridership Records

October 28, 2014

Amtrak said this week that it set a revenue record in fiscal year 2014 and achieved a slight increase in ridership over the prior fiscal year.

Ticket revenue reached in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 hit $2.189 billion, a 4.0 percent jump over the previous year.

Ridership was more than 30.9 million, an increase of 0.2 percent over adjusted FY 2013 numbers.

“The slower growth in ridership than in recent years is due, in part, to a harsh winter season and on-time performance issues associated with freight train delays and infrastructure in need of replacement,” Amtrak said.

Ridership on long-distance routes and state-supported services declined by 4.5% and 0.6%, respectively in FY 2014.

Eight routes outside the Northeast Corridor set ridership records, including the Adirondack, Auto Train, Blue Water, Capitol Limited, Empire Service, Piedmont, and Washington-Lynchburg.”

“However, meeting future growth in passenger demand requires investing in the infrastructure that supports intercity passenger rail and resolving unacceptable congestion delays caused by freight railroads that own the tracks,” said Amtrak President Joe Boardman in news release. “As more and more people choose Amtrak for their travel needs, investments must be made in the tracks, tunnels, bridges, and other infrastructure used by intercity passenger trains, particularly on the Northeast Corridor and in Chicago.

“Otherwise, we face a future with increased infrastructure-related service disruptions and delays that will hurt local and regional economies and drive passengers away.”

Capitol Limited Down to 5 Cars, 1 Locomotive

October 22, 2014

The scuttlebutt on railfan chat lists these days is that an Oct. 6 letter from Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel Elliott III to NS Chairman Wick Moorman asking for a detailed explanation about what the railroad is doing to improve Amtrak on-time performance is responsible for an improvement in Amtrak timekeeping.

Those who follow the on-time performance of the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited have noted that the hours-long delays have begun to disappear.

The trains are still running late, but in the past week or so the tardiness has been more in the range of two hours or less.

The link between the STB letter and the uptick of on-time performance of the two Amtrak routes serving Northeast Ohio is at best circumstantial.

A number of factors have played a role in improving the fluidity of the NS Chicago Line. Amtrak has also taken steps to protect itself.

One of the steps Amtrak has taken is to alter the practice of having the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited equipment and Toledo-based operating crews make same-day turns in Chicago.

The habitual excessive delays suffered by inbound Nos. 29 and 49 meant that outbound Nos. 30 and 48 were delayed by hours because of the need for crew rest and equipment servicing.

One step has been to scrape together a fourth equipment set for the Capitol that can be sent out regardless of how late the inbound train is that day.

For now, that has meant shortening the consist of the Capitol Limited by removing the Sighterseer lounges in favor of 37000-series diner-lounges.  Half of the car is a full-service diner while the other half serves up lounge car fare.

On one occasion, the makeshift equipment set for the Capitol departed Chicago for Washington, D.C., just nine minutes past its scheduled 6:40 p.m. departure time and passed that day’s inbound No. 29 en route. That No. 30 was staffed by a Chicago-based operating and on-board crew.

Amtrak also has decided to have the Toledo-based crews that bring the Lake Shore Limited nto Chicago to layover there and handle the next day’s outbound Capitol Limited

Inbound Capitol Limited crews are expected to have sufficient rest time to make a same-day turn back to Toledo on the eastbound Lake Shore.

Since these crew and equipment assignments have been implemented, Nos. 30 and 48 have departed Chicago either on-time or less than 10 minutes late every day, something that last occurred back in April.

Another factor has been the opening earlier this month of the Englewood flyover, which separated the NS Chicago Line from Metra’s Rock Island District on the south side of Chicago.

Summer track work on NS has been winding down, meaning that there are fewer segments of single tracking occurring.

NS also has been increasing the number of operating crew members assigned to Chicago Line trains through new hires and transfers from elsewhere in the system.

The Amtrak Capitol Limited “self-help plan” has had pros and cons. Amtrak cut the number of coaches assigned to the Capitol Limited from three to two and eliminated the transition sleeper used by the crew.

Nos. 29 and 30 will continue to carry two sleepers, one of which will be used by the on-board crew. The lower level of one of the coaches will also be used to store checked baggage.

With the Capitol Limited now operating with five cars, Amtrak is assigning one P42 locomotive to the train rather than the customary two.

Amtrak expects to save money on fuel and labor cost due to the reduced number of on-board service employees.

It also means that last-minute travelers might find coach seats and sleeper accommodations aboard the train unavailable.

However, Amtrak only expects to continue using the shortened consists through Nov. 18 eastbound and Nov. 20 westbound.

Grand Rapids Amtrak Station Opening Set

October 22, 2014

Officials in Grand Rapids, Mich., will celebrate on Oct. 27 the opening of the new Amtrak station.

The dedication ceremony for the $6.1 million multimodal facility will begin at 10 a.m. with Amtrak, state and federal officials speaking

The station, named in honor of the former U.S. Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, also serves local bus transit routes, intercity buses and taxis.

The facility is closer to the Grand Rapids business district, offers a larger waiting room, restrooms, a covered canopy and is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Other features include a clock tower and 118 parking spots.

Funding for the project came from a $4.6 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, a $1.5 million match from the Federal Transit Administration, funds from the Michigan Department of Transportation, and from local funds.

Grand Rapids is served by the Pere Marquette, which is scheduled to depart for Chicago at 7:40 a.m. and return at 9.55 p.m.

Amtrak Ridership Declined in FY 2014

October 21, 2014

Amtrak’s string of record-breaking ridership records was snapped last month. For fiscal year 2014, which ended on Sept. 30, Amtrak’s system ridership fell from 31.56 million in 2013 to 30.92 million in 2014.

Excessive tardiness caused by host railroad freight congestion led to declines in patronage of key long-distance trains, which depressed the overall patronage number despite a 10 percent surge in ridership in the Northeast Corridor.

Patronage of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder was down by 17 percent in September, with Nos. 7 and 8 carrying 450,932 in FY 2014.

The Empire Builder had Amtrak’s highest ridership among long-distance trains in FY 2013, but in FY 2014, it was eclipsed by the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight, which carried 459,450.

The Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited saw its ridership decline by 11.6 percent in September. Long-distance train ridership fell by about 200,000 during FY 2014.

Another factor in the diminished system ridership was a technological advance. Previously, Amtrak estimated multi-ride ticketholder numbers, but now it can record precise ridership numbers because each passenger’s ticket is scanned aboard the train.

This affected ridership numbers for such commuter-heavy routes as California’s Capitol, Pennsylvania’s Keystone, and Maine’s Downeaster corridors where the patronage was down by 589,000.

Ticket sales for the long-distance fleet fell by more than $15 million in FY 2014, but that was offset by sales on other trains that enabled Amtrak to post another revenue record. In FY 2014, Amtrak ticket sales were up 4 percent to $2.189 million compared with $2.105 million in FY 2013.

Much of the increase came from an 8.2 percent boost in the Northeast Corridor, which accounts for 54.5 percent of the Amtrak’s system ticket sales. Long-distance trains generate 23.3 percent of ticket sales while state-supported routes provide 22.2 percent.

Capitol Limited Gets Diner-Lounge

October 21, 2014

If the Capitol Limited looks a little shorter these days, it is. Through Nov. 18 on Train No. 30 and through No. 20 on Train No. 29, the Capitol will have just one food service car, a combined diner-lounge.

Previously, the standard consist of Nos. 29 and 30 included a dining car and Sightseer lounge.

But Amtrak recently scraped together an extra equipment set for the Capitol as a hedge against late arrivals in Chicago by No. 29 that resulted in No. 30 departing late as well.

That was because the equipment that terminated in Chicago on No. 29 made a same day turn there to become that day’s departing No. 30.

Amtrak said that half of the diner-lounge will be devoted to full-service dining while the other half will be used as a lounge.

An Amtrak news release suggested that the meals available in the full-service dining section of the car will be the same as those available in a regular diner.

The news release cited “extreme freight train interference on the Norfolk Southern Railway in Ohio and Indiana” as prompting the equipment shuffling.

“Delays caused by freight train congestion leaves insufficient time to service trains at the end points for their return trip,” Amtrak said in the news release.

Englewood Flyer in Chicago to be Dedicated

October 19, 2014

Completion of the Englewood Flyover in Chicago will be celebrated with an Oct. 23 ceremony.

The $133 million project included construction of a triple-track bridge to carry three of Metra’s Rock Island District Line tracks over four Norfolk Southern Chicago Line tracks on Chicago’s south side. The flyover opened earlier this month.

The NS line in question hosts Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Blue Water, Pere Marquette, and Wolverine Service.

The dedication ceremony will include officials from Norfolk Southern, Metra and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

 

 

Capitol and Lake Shore Performance Improving

October 17, 2014

It may not be worth stopping the presses to report, but all four Amtrak trains serving Northeast Ohio arrived in Cleveland today (Friday, Oct. 17), before 6 a.m.

The eastbound Lake Shore Limited was a mere nine minutes late, even making up four minutes of time after leaving Elyria.

Alas, the eastbound Capitol Limited was the spoiler, having halted in Cleveland nearly 3.5 hours late at 5:44 a.m.

As for the westbound trains, No. 29 arrived at 3:31 a.m. (39 minutes late) and No. 49 arrived right behind it at 3:44 a.m. (7 minutes late).

How will those trains fare getting into Chicago? It is tough to say as the performance of Nos. 29 and 49 has been all over the map for the past few days.

On Thursday, No. 29 was 39 minutes late at Cleveland, but nearly two hours late arriving into Chicago. The Capitol got there at 10:37 a.m., whereas the scheduled arrival time is 8:45 a.m.

The Capitol Limited was just over an hour late into Cleveland on Wednesday and 1:34 late into Chicago. On Tuesday, it was 59 minutes late at Cleveland, but 3:35 late into Chicago.

No. 49 has followed a similar pattern. On Thursday, it was nearly 3 hours late at Cleveland and 4:11 late into Chicago. The scheduled arrival time in the Windy City for the Lake Shore Limited is 9:45 a.m.

On Wednesday, the Lake Shore Limited was 48 minutes late at Cleveland and 56 minutes late into Chicago. On Tuesday No. 49 was 44 minutes late into Cleveland, but 4:15 late into Chicago.

The eastbound Capitol Limited had its best day on Wednesday when it arrived in Cleveland 56 minutes late. The scheduled arrival time is 1:45 a.m.

No. 30 was 2:17 late on Thursday and nearly three hours late on Tuesday.

The eastbound Lake Shore Limited was 1:55 late on Thursday, 3:06 late on Wednesday and 6:37 late on Tuesday.

Neither Amtrak nor its passengers can be pleased with these performances although there is a glimmer of hope that things are looking up and the excessive late running that has plagued these trains over the past two months may become more of an abnormality rather than the rule.

STB Asks NS for Info on Amtrak Delays

October 14, 2014

The Surface Transportation Board has asked Norfolk Southern to address the on-time woes of Amtrak trains that it hosts in the upper Midwest.

The letter asked NS how it intends to the on-time performance problems of Amtrak passenger trains using NS tracks.

The STB cited serious delays that have occurred on NS, singling out Amtrak’s Chicago-Washington, D.C. Capitol Limited and the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited. Also adversely affected have been trains that operate between Chicago and various Michigan cities.

These routes collectively carried 1.5 million passengers in 2013 on 14 daily trains, an average of 294 riders per train.

Ridership had growing on these routes in most years since 2000, but has since stagnated due to the delays.

Federal law states that a host freight railroad that fails to meet an 80 percent on-time performance standard for Amtrak passenger trains in two consecutive quarters may be fined by the STB.

However, the measures used to determine Amtrak’s on-time performance are currently being challenged in court by the railroad industry. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in that case in December.

The STB letter, sent on Oct. 6, requested the NS provide information pertaining to:

  • The primary causes of delays experienced by Amtrak trains on NS lines.
  • Locations where delays occur most frequently.
  • Measures that NS is taking to improve Amtrak performance, including but not limited to expansion of network capacity and resources, changes to train dispatching protocols and procedures, and modifications of network operating plans.
  • NS’s expectation of when Amtrak service will improve.

The on-time performance of the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited fell to 4 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in August with the average delay per arrival being four hours.

All Aboard Ohio has reported that most of the delays occurred west of Toledo and in areas where track construction was occurring, much of it in Indiana.

The track work includes installing a third main track between Goshen and Elkhart, Ind., and between Porter, Ind., and the Illinois-Indiana border.

Although the Englewood Flyover in Chicago, which has recently been phased into service, separated the NS Chicago Line from an at-grade rail-rail crossing with the Metra Rock Island District, All Aboard Ohio noted that this project was designed in 2010 to address rail traffic levels of four years ago, not the boom in rail traffic which has occurred since.

Of late, the worst of the traffic congestion has been occurring between Toledo and Cleveland.

Amtrak and NS intermodal trains have had to snake their way around lower priority freight trains awaiting fresh crews.

Some observers have contended that the delays have been made worse by errors caused by NS’s new Auto-Router computer-aided dispatching software.

The Ohio passenger advocacy groups contends that all Northern Ohio stations are limited in their ability to process passengers from more than one track, requiring passenger trains to run against the flow of rail traffic half of the time to reach a station platform.

All Aboard Ohio contends that this “slalom” causes up to 80 minutes of delay per day to Amtrak trains and at least as much delay to NS freight traffic.