Archive for October, 2014

Playing for Time in the Hoosier State Saga

October 14, 2014

One of the more useful pieces of wisdom that I learned in graduate school is that when evaluating a given situation look for what it not there. Researchers get so focused on what they observe that they forget to consider what they are not seeing.

And so it is in the ongoing soap opera known as Saving the Hoosier State.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman insisted last week that there has been a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings surrounding the Hoosier State saga.

He’s right about that, although some of that has come from Amtrak and Boardman himself.

Of late, the focus has shifted to whether Corridor Capital, the Chicago-based firm that the Indiana Department of Transportation had designated to operate the Hoosier State is up to the task.

Corridor Capital was supposed to take over the Hoosier State on Oct. 1, but it didn’t have contracts signed to do that. So Amtrak agreed to continue operating the train through Jan. 31.

Boardman then traveled through Indiana aboard a special train to remind everyone of that and to profess that Amtrak really, really wants to operate the Hoosier State.

He even said that Amtrak would upgrade service on the train by providing Wi-Fi and business class service.

That, though, amounts to nothing more than adding an unstaffed café car and placing complimentary coffee, water bottles and pastries on the counter. Amtrak could have done that at any time, but chose not to do so. What does that say about how Amtrak views the Hoosier State?

A week later, Boardman was at it again, hinting that Corridor Capital might not be able to meet all of the various federal regulations pertaining to public health and safety matters.

Those may be legitimate issues, but are red herrings. Corridor Capital may find that adhering to federal regulations may be more complicated than it expected, but in the end they will likely get it done.

Whether Corridor Capital would be able to successfully operate a passenger train remains to be seen.

They’ve been suggesting a number of changes that will not necessarily be easy to implement, such as a faster schedule and more frequent service.

We’ll never know for sure until it gets a chance to show if it can do it. But will it? Not if Joe Boardman has his way.

After reading Boardman’s op-ed piece in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, I couldn’t help but think that what we are really seeing is the first round of a public relations campaign designed to deflect blame away from Amtrak if the Hoosier State folds early next year.

Boardman wants Corridor Capital to fail in order to forestall the possibility of other states signing on with private companies that say they can operate intercity rail passenger service.

In short, Boardman wants to maintain the status quo because that protects Amtrak’s interests.

It is not a sure thing that the Hoosier State will continue operating past Jan. 31, 2015, regardless of whether the operator is Amtrak or Corridor Capital.

Who will fund the Hoosier State next year and how much that will cost remains an open question.

If the city of Indianapolis really means it that it no longer wishes to fund the Hoosier State then will the other funding partners pick up the slack?

Even if all of the funding parties agree to continue funding the Hoosier State, for how long will that continue?

What the cities along the Hoosier State route probably really want is for INDOT to pick up funding the Hoosier State. Good luck with that.

INDOT probably really wants to hand the Hoosier State over to Corridor Capital and be done with it other than writing the checks. INDOT probably fantasizes that Corridor Capital will be so successful that neither it nor any of its local government partners will have to underwrite the train’s losses.

Indiana is a politically conservative state and INDOT has, historically, shown little interest in funding and overseeing passenger trains.

It has neither the experience nor the appetite to oversee rail passenger service that its brethren in nearby Illinois and Michigan have.

The Hoosier State might have died a long time ago had it not been for the fact that Amtrak uses it to ferry equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis.

Sure, Amtrak could move equipment on the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal. But it is more convenient to do it on the Hoosier State because that train originates at the Grove.

Compared with the other Midwest corridor trains, the Hoosier State is an ugly step child, lacking the amenities found on those trains.

It doesn’t help that the Hoosier State is forced to endure a slow, circuitous route into Chicago that involves six railroads. That alone presents major challenges to anyone serious about developing the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor.

Neither Amtrak nor Corridor Capital will be able to do much about the Chicago-Indianapolis route.

Everyone seems to agree the route has, in theory, good potential for growth, but no one wants to spend the millions needed to develop it, particularly when it comes to finding a faster way in and out of Chicago.

You have to wonder if the Hoosier State saga is simply a game of all parties playing for time in the hopes that someone else will step forward to take control of the train, including the funding. It is the classical case of, to use a baseball expression, “I got it, you take it.”

Ideally, that would be INDOT and it still might do that. But I wouldn’t bet a business class ticket on the Hoosier State on it.

Amtrak Woes Depicted in Photographs

October 13, 2014
The Lake Shore Limited has just crossed Brookside Drive in Olmsted Falls on Sunday. It won't go much further as traffic is ahead of it.

The Lake Shore Limited has just crossed Brookside Drive in Olmsted Falls on Sunday. It won’t go much further as traffic is ahead of it.

Amtrak’s problems with tardiness between Chicago and Cleveland on the Norfolk Southern Chicago Line have been written about widely on this blog.

After taking this image on Sunday of a 5-hour late eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Olmsted Falls, it occurred to me that much of what hinders Amtrak can be seen here. But you need to know where to look.

Let’s start with the buckets in the foreground. More than a week ago new ties were laid aside Track No. 2 in preparation for track work.

On this day the work gang was west of here with a crew working at the Mapleway Drive grade crossing, which is a few blocks behind me.

Trains had to contact the foreman to get permission to pass the stop board. Look in front of the nose of the train. The intermediate signals at MP 195 display a stop indication for Track No. 2.

Look further and you’ll see why. An eastbound intermodal train is in the block ahead of the Amtrak.

Look at little to the left and you’ll see what appears to be a crude oil train parked in the Berea siding. Less than three minutes before I made this image an auto rack train went west on Track No. 1 and other trains were backed up behind it headed west.

No. 48 left Chicago on Saturday more than 3 hours late. Note the battered rear of the baggage car. This car is a Union Pacific coach built in 1960 that Amtrak converted to a baggage car.

Who knows how many miles it has racked up and the places it has seen. It could probably continue to roll on but Amtrak’s new Viewliner II baggage cars can’t get here fast enough to give it a respite.

No. 48 arrived into Cleveland at 11:19 a.m., 5 hours and 37 minutes late. It would reach New York Penn Station at 11:45 p.m., 5 hours and 20 minutes late.

When I posted this at 8:15 a.m. EDT today, No. 48 was running 3 hours late.

The rear of the westbound auto rack train passes the head end of No. 48. New ties line the shoulder of Track No. 2. Interestingly, there are no new ties (yet) along the shoulder of Track No. 1.

The rear of the westbound auto rack train passes the head end of No. 48. New ties line the shoulder of Track No. 2. Interestingly, there are no new ties (yet) along the shoulder of Track No. 1.

P42 No. 111 leads Amtrak No. 48 on Sunday. Can we call this an Amtrak bar code unit?

P42 No. 111 leads Amtrak No. 48 on Sunday. Can we call this an Amtrak bar code unit?

Olmsted03

A bit of fall colors enlivens the scene.

 

Capitol, Lake Shore Resume Going to Chicago

October 12, 2014

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited resumed operating to Chicago on Saturday after nearly a week of terminating and originating at Toledo.

The first westbound Capitol Limited to Chicago was greeted with a seven-hour delay between Alliance and Cleveland and finally limped into Chicago Union Station at 7:46 p.m., 11 hours late.

Before now, that would have resulted in the outbound No. 30 being significantly delayed, but Amtrak said it would put together another equipment set for the Capitol.

It apparently did that because No. 30 left on Saturday a mere mine minutes behind schedule.

However, the good fortune would not last. No. 30 departed Sunday morning from Cleveland 4 hours and 5 minutes late.

The westbound Lake Shore Limited fared better, although it was still very late. It departed Cleveland on Saturday 2 hours, 11 minutes late. It halted in Chicago at 3:14 p.m., 5.5 hours late.

No. 48 departed Chicago more than three hours late on account of the crew needing to rest.

Boardman Makes Pitch to Operate Hoosier State

October 11, 2014

Amtrak President Joe Boardman took to the editorial pages of the Lafayette, Ind., Journal & Courier this week to fire the latest salvos in the battle to operate the Hoosier State.

Ostensibly, Boardman was seeking to correct what he termed “inaccuracies and misinformation regarding Amtrak’s operation of the Hoosier State train service under a contract with the Indiana Department of Transportation.”

Boardman said Amtrak can offer several different service models for the Hoosier State, but he called on the state of Indiana to decide what it wants and what it is able to pay for.

Whatever that might be, Boardman made a pitch that Amtrak continue to operate the Hoosier State.

“Amtrak believes it remains Indiana’s best long-term choice for safe, reliable intercity passenger rail service,” he wrote. “Amtrak brings proven expertise in delivering passenger rail service, railroad operations, safety and security, equipment maintenance and repair. We want safe and effective passenger rail service to succeed for the benefit of Indiana’s people, businesses and communities. Let’s get this done.”

Currently, Amtrak operates the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train under a contract with INDOT that will expire in late January 2015. The train is funded by INDOT and local governments along its route.

Earlier this year, INDOT said it has chosen Chicago-based Corridor Capital to operate the train. Although Corridor Capital was supposed to take over operations this month, that didn’t happen.

Instead, Amtrak agreed to operate the Hoosier State for four more months.

Trains magazine reported on Friday that Corridor Capital and INDOT have still not reached an agreement to operate the Hoosier State.

“The primary reason is that state officials failed to actively engage Amtrak in negotiations for track-access rights with the freight railroads until weeks before the new operator was to take over this fall,” the magazine reported. “With the clock ticking on a four-month Amtrak contract extension that expires Jan. 31, 2015, those discussions are finally underway.”

Boardman last week rode a special train to whistle stop along the route to make a pitch for Amtrak to continue operating the Hoosier State.

His op-ed piece in the Journal & Courier may have been the latest ploy in those efforts or it might have been part of a larger public relations campaign to deflect blame away from Amtrak if the Hoosier State is discontinued in February.

During last week’s journey, Boardman visited with various Indiana officials and also announced the rollout of food service and WiFi service aboard the Hoosier State.

The service amenity upgrades, which have since been implemented included adding a food-service car with business class seating.

However, the car does not have an attendant and business class travelers are limited to consuming complimentary beverages and pre-packaged pastries that are left on the counter for them.

“I learned a lot during the tour about community desires for this service, and I believe the community representatives gained some valuable insights into the challenges and complexities of operating a safe and efficient passenger rail service,” Boardman wrote in his op-ed piece.

Without naming it, Boardman took another shot at Corridor Capital.  “The leasing company designated as Indiana’s vendor claims to have ‘indestructible’ railcars that are ‘available now,’ but it was unable to meet the Oct. 1 deadline to assume the service.”

A Corridor Capital spokesman told Trains that he could not reveal what passenger cars and motive power will be used. “Three parties, each with much at stake, are at the table discussing their respective roles and public disclosure of (those details) would be premature,” the spokesman said.

In its bid proposal to INDOT earlier this year, Corridor Capital said it expected to use Amtrak conductors and engineers.

But Amtrak has since insisted that it will deal only with INDOT as a primary contractor and not a subcontractor of another party.

Amtrak has also raised the issue of whether the equipment to be used by Corridor Capital would comply with Amtrak and Federal Railroad Administration standards, and, because the Hoosier State crosses state lines, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration rules.

“Operating passenger rail service is no small task, especially for the inexperienced,” Boardman wrote. “Recently, a private operator providing trains in New Mexico lasted only four months before failing — on a route much shorter and less complicated than the Hoosier State. The complexity of the challenge along the Indianapolis-Chicago route is much greater. Amtrak stands ready to work with INDOT and the communities to prevent a similar outcome with the Hoosier State.”

Trains also reported that Herzog Transit Services, which also bid to operate the Hoosier State, told INDOT in a June 6 letter that “the right of access … must belong to the state of Indiana, not a third party operator” as required by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

However, INDOT officials have been expecting that Corridor Capital would be responsible for obtaining access to railroads over which the Hoosier State operates as well ensuring that it was in compliance with FRA operating and safety regulations.

The Hoosier State uses six railroads to travel between Indianapolis Union Station and Chicago Union Station.

Rochester Depot Construction to Begin This Fall

October 11, 2014

Construction of the new Amtrak station in Rochester, N.Y., is expected to begin soon.

New York Department of Transportation Beau Duffy said the agency is awaiting approval of the design-build contract by the state Comptroller’s office before a final schedule is set.

The new facility will replace an Amtrak-built depot and is expected to cost $29.8 million. That is 12 percent higher than an earlier cost estimate and the difference will be made up with state rail funds, DOT officials said this summer.

Federal grants will cover about $18.5 million, with most of the remainder being state funding.

The station will be built on Central Avenue in downtown Rochester and will serve the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited, the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf and the Empire Corridor trains operating between New York and Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Wolverines to Begin Serving Troy on Oct. 14

October 11, 2014

Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains will begin serving the new Troy Transit Center in suburban Detroit on Oct. 14.

Subsequently, Wolverine trains will stop for the final time at the nearby Birmingham station on Oct. 13. The Troy Transit Center is located approximately one quarter mile southeast of the Birmingham station.

The Troy station is located at 1201 Doyle Drive. Amtrak said the scheduled arrival times for Wolverine Service trains at Troy will be the same as at Birmingham.

The Wolverines operate between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac). The Troy station is located on tracks owned by Canadian National (former Grand Trunk Western).

New Viewliner II Cars Hitting the Rails

October 11, 2014

Amtrak’s new Viewliner equipment has begun appearing in revenue service. A handful of the 130 cars being manufactured by CAF USA have been deployed.

The entire Viewliner II order is expected to be done by late 2015. Most of the cars will be assigned to eastern long-distance route, including the Lake Shore Limited. Some baggage cars are expected to see service nationwide.

Amtrak altered its order in late August, reducing the number of baggage-dorm cars from 25 to 10 and increasing the number of baggage cars from 55 to 70.

Daylight Amtraks in Northeast Ohio

October 9, 2014
Even by the usual standards of the "Late for Sure Limited," No. 48 was exceedingly late last Sunday.

Even by the usual standards of the “Late for Sure Limited,” No. 48 was exceedingly late last Sunday.

The Great Steel fleet is back! Four private cars bring up the rear of the Lake Shore Limited.

The Great Steel fleet is back! Four private cars bring up the rear of the Lake Shore Limited.

A 15-hour late eastbound Capitol Limited rolls through Olmsted Falls, Ohio, on Sunday, Oct. 5.

A 15-hour late eastbound Capitol Limited rolls through Olmsted Falls, Ohio, on Sunday, Oct. 5.

I noted that the consist did not have a Sightseer lounge. There appeared to be two dining cars, one of which probably doubled as a lounge.

I noted that the consist did not have a Sightseer lounge. There appeared to be two dining cars, one of which probably doubled as a lounge.

Last Sunday was not a day that Amtrak wants to remember. Its computer system was down and two of its trains, the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited were operated many hours behind schedule.

Under normal circumstances, the four Amtrak trains that operate through Cleveland pass through in darkness. During the summer, you could spot the eastbound Lake Shore Limited in daylight east of Cleveland, but the other three trains are strictly nocturnal creatures even if they are an hour or two off schedule.

With daylight Amtrak trains through Northeast Ohio no longer a sometimes thing, I decide to try to do an Amtrak double dip. I had been wanting to photograph the Lake Shore and Capitol on the same day. Here was my chance.

After getting to Olmsted Falls, a western Cleveland suburb, I called Amtrak Julie to get a status report on the late trains.

The Amtrak website had not been working properly when I left home, rendering inoperative the reservations and train status functions. I would later learn that this problem would last for much of the day on Sunday.

But now the problems had migrated to Amtrak’s reservation phone number.

Instead of getting Julie, I heard a voice I’d never heard before saying that Amtrak was experiencing higher than normal call volumes.

Those who were calling to make a reservation were urged to call later or on Monday. Those who wished to speak to an agent were warned that the wait could exceed a half-hour. Those who just wanted train status were SOL. I would have to rely on my scanner, which, fortunately, was working just fine.

Amtrak No. 48 had left Chicago at 1:29 a.m., nearly four hours late. No. 30 had departed Union Station at 2:54 a.m., 8 hours and 14 minutes late.

And that was before they reached the usual congestion on the Norfolk Southern Chicago Line.

Already eight hours late, Amtrak No. 48 was held at CP 203. As the Toledo East dispatcher put it, “we have to wait for three westbounds to be flushed out of Cleveland before I can get you a route.”

With the westbound traffic out of the way, No. 48 came rolling through Olmsted Falls at 2:16 p.m. It would arrive at the Cleveland station at 2:29 p.m., nearly nine hours late, but not before signal problems at the Drawbridge.

It would finally reach New York Penn Station at 3:50 a.m., which is nearly 9.5 hours late. The rear of No. 48 offered a bonus with four private cars.

I am not sure of the heritage of the observation car, but the tail sign read “The Crescent.” Shades of the days when this was the way of the Great Steel Fleet.

I had no idea where No. 30 was or even if it was still rolling. For all I knew, it had been canceled at Toledo as had the westbound Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

But I decided to stick it out a while longer and my persistence would soon pay off. I heard the Toledo East Dispatcher talking to Amtrak No. 30 to give it a speed restriction through a crossover.

It finally showed up at 4:15 and must have been further delayed because the arrival time at the station downtown in Cleveland was 4:51 p.m.

NS Says Chicago Line Congestion is Easing

October 9, 2014

An online reported indicated that Norfolk Southern told its fellow railroads during a meeting on Tuesday that it has made progress in untangling congestion on its Chicago Line. Amtrak may also resume operating the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited to Chicago on Saturday, a day earlier than planned.

During the meeting, according to the report, railroads operating in the Chicago Terminal said that delays on the NS Chicago Line had had a negative effect on the performance of all freight railroads.

But NS offered some hope that things would improve by pointing out that it had no dead freight trains tied down for 100 miles east from Chicago.

NS said it might be able to commit to handling the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited over their entire route between Chicago and Cleveland as early as Thursday.

But Amtrak said it had contracted with a bus company through Friday to shuttle passengers between Chicago and Toledo.

Amtrak had originally planned to resume operating trains 29/30 and 48/49 to/from Chicago on Sunday, Oct. 12. Amtrak reportedly is preparing to have equipment sets ready in Chicago as a contingency plan for days when Nos. 29 and 49 arrive in Chicago very late.

Late arriving trains from the East had resulted in  late departures of Nos. 30 and 48 because the equipment makes a same day turn and must be serviced in the interim.

Under normal circumstances, both the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited would reach Chicago by 10 a.m., giving Amtrak workers more than six hours to service the equipment before No. 30 departs at 6:40 p.m. and No. 48 leaves at 9:30 p.m.

During the meeting, one report has it, a representative of the American Association of Railroads warned that negative media reports about poor performing Amtrak trains could undermine the position of the freight railroads in current litigation over the legality of federal on-time standards for Amtrak trains.

There also is a report that NS is routing some oil trains via Kansas City in order to avoid the Chicago terminal.

In the meantime, Amtrak’s eastbound Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited continue to operate hours late. At 6:20 a.m. today, No. 30 was running nearly three hours late out of Cleveland. No. 48 was an hour and a half late and had yet to arrive in Elyria.

Westbound Nos. 29 and 49 were both shown as between Elyria and Oak Harbor. However, the Amtrak website would not provide status information due to a “service disruption.”

Empire Builders Swap Routes in North Dakota

October 9, 2014

The saga of the Empire Builder has taken another turn as the trains have swapped routes in North Dakota.

The eastbound train is now operating via the KO Subdivision between Minot and Fargo with the westbound train now making the regular stops in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby.

Those communities will be served by buses connecting with eastbound No. 8. Amtrak officials told Trains magazine that the flip was made at the request of BNSF to better expedite trains in both directions as grain harvest traffic patterns emerge.

BNSF has instituted directional running in part because the westbound train’s schedule would interfere with track and signal rehabilitation, especially if it was delayed by freight congestion at BNSF’s Dillworth Yard near Fargo, as was often the case.

Most of the track work has been completed, with only some passing track power switch and signal installation remaining. Amtrak also has increased the dwell time at St. Paul Union Depot dwell times. The westbound Builder had begun taking the KO Sub since last May in an effort to alleviate delays caused by freight congestion.

BNSF has been undertaking a track capacity expansion program prompted by increased freight traffic, much of it oil traffic. Amtrak and BNSF officials said the status of operations of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder will be reviewed in early January. BNSF recently removed some slow orders on the route.

Amtrak officials said they have been told by BNSF that track work is expected to be completed west of Grand Forks by the end of November.