Archive for January, 2015

Amtrak Hoosier State Gets 60-Day Extension

January 30, 2015

Amtrak’s Hoosier State has received a 60-day lease on life. The quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train was to end after its contract expired on Saturday although Amtrak and Indiana Department of Transportation officials had hinted that it would continue rolling.

The two parties announced on Friday that they have agreed to continue negotiating a long-term contract whereby Amtrak will continue to operate the train but an INDOT contractor would provide some services.

“INDOT is negotiating renewal of the service on behalf of the state, Beech Grove, Crawfordsville, Indianapolis, Lafayette, Rensselaer, Tippecanoe County and West Lafayette,” the agency said in a news release.

Those communities had agreed in 2013 to fund the Hoosier State through early 2014.

“In recent weeks we have made much progress on a long-term deal,” said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield, adding that he expected the deal to be finished before the extension is exhausted on April 1.

The survival of the Hoosier State was cast into doubt after Congress voted in 2008 to require states to absorb most of the funding of Amtrak trains with routes shorter than 750 miles.

The change affected 19 states and all but Indiana have found funding solutions.

Initially, INDOT and its seven local government partners agreed to pay Amtrak $2.7 million to keep the Hoosier State rolling for a year with a clause that the deal could be extended through Jan. 31, 2014.

Last June INDOT said that a private company, Corridor Capital, would take over the Hoosier State on Oct. 1, but the parties involved were unable to negotiate a contract.

Iowa Pacific, which had responded to INDOT’s request for proposals in early 2014, has been discussed as providing marketing and onboard service for the Hoosier State.

It is not clear if the train will continue to operate with Amtrak equipment, but it appears likely to continue to have Amtrak operating personnel.

The Hoosier State operates on days that the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate between Indianapolis and Chicago. Both trains serve the same stations.

All of the communities served by the Hoosier State except Dyer have been helping to fund it for the past year.

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Amtrak to Help Pay for Chicago Station Project

January 30, 2015

Amtrak will pony up $12 million toward rehabilitating Chicago Union Station. As the owner of the station, Amtrak will work with the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation, commuter rail agency Metra and the federal government.

“By bringing Union Station into the 21st century, we will bring more economic opportunities to residents all throughout the City of Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “A modern transit system is essential to a thriving economy for Chicago. With this investment in the future of Union Station we will provide a more reliable link between downtown and our neighborhoods, connecting residents to work and keeping Chicago on the move.”

Union Station is America’s third busiest rail terminal with about 120,000 passengers using it daily.

Ridership increased on both Amtrak and Metra has resulted in the facility reaching its maximum capacity, resulting in overcrowded waiting areas and platforms.

Amtrak said that its funding will be used to createcapacity improvements that will result in a more comfortable atmosphere for riders.

This will include a larger passenger concourse, safety improvements, and enhancing temperature controls throughout the terminal.

The Union Station renovation project will be supported by several other projects already underway to connect Amtrak, Metra, and the Chicago Transit Authority with downtown destinations.

Some Empire Builder Connections Restored

January 23, 2015

Amtrak has restored connections to the Empire Builder that were severed last year when the train’s on-time performance became erratic.

This includes same connections between the Empire Builder and the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight in both directions in Portland, Ore.

Also restored was a connection in Chicago to Lincoln Service train No. 307 for St. Louis.

Improved timekeeping and a shorter schedule that became effective on Jan. 12 enabled Amtrak to restore the connections to Nos. 7 and 8, which operated between Chicago and Portland/Seattle.

Amtrak’s policies for connections are that there must be at least one hour of dwell time between the scheduled arrival of a train and the scheduled departure of the connecting train.

However, Amtrak blocks connections in its reservation system if a particular train has proven to be unreliable in arriving at a terminal in time to make a connection.

In doing this, Amtrak avoids the responsibility of getting travelers to their destinations by chartering buses or housing passengers overnight in hotel rooms.

After the Empire Builder’s arrival reliability in Chicago became suspect, the only connections in Chicago that Amtrak continued to ticket from the Empire Builder were to trains leaving more than four hours after the arrival of No. 8. Only the New York/Boston-bound Lake Shore Limited and the New Orleans-bound City of New Orleans met that criterion.

Empire Builder ridership and ticket revenue fell last year by 16 and 19 percent, respectively. The completion of BNSF track expansion projects in Montana and North Dakota has resulted in the Empire Builder seeing a greatly improved on time record.

St. Paul Rail Project Would Benefit Empire Builder

January 20, 2015

A proposed $1 million rail project in St. Paul, Minn., would benefit the operations of Amtrak’s Empire Builder say Minnesota public officials.

The Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission and Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority are urging the state legislature to fund the environmental analysis and engineering of a grade separation project in the St. Paul rail yards.

The project would ease freight rail congestion near St. Paul Union Depot, which is used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland train.

According to the county’s East Metro Rail Capacity Study, the east metro rail yard handles 10,000 cars per day, or 5 percent of the nation’s freight volume.

That represents 110 daily freight trains of Canadian Pacific, BNSF and Union Pacific.

County planners foresee that number growing to 160 daily trains before long, and they’re worried that any future commuter rail, high-speed rail or passenger rail service will have a tough time maneuvering in and out of the city on freight rail tracks.

Amtrak moved its St. Paul station stop from Transfer Road to the Union Depot in May 2014.

The UP/BNSF grade separation project would separate the Union Pacific Altoona lines from the four BNSF main lines.

BNSF, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific have pledged $125,000 each while the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority will contribute $125,000.

Ramsey County and Minnesota Department of Transportation have also been in discussions with Amtrak about adding a second daily round-trip from Chicago.

Lawmaker Files Bill to Fund Hoosier State

January 15, 2015

An Indiana legislator has filed a bill that would continue funding of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State amid reports that Amtrak and the Indiana Department of Transportation are having product talks about extending the train’s operation past the end of January.

INDOT and Amtrak has said they do not expect service to end when the current funding agreement expires on Jan. 31.

State Rep. Randy Truitt’s bill (House Bill 1217) would appropriate $3 million for INDOT to contract with Amtrak to provide rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago.

Gov. Mike Pence has proposed a spending recommendation with language similar to Truitt’s bill, but also authorizes INDOT to purchase rail equipment. Truitt’s bill has been referred to the House Ways & Means committee.

In the meantime, directors of All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit passenger rail alliance, on Tuesday night adopted a resolution urging continuation of the quad-weekly Hoosier State, which operates on days that the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate.

Amtrak Offering Midwest Route Fare Discounts

January 11, 2015

Amtrak has announced that it is offering 20 percent fare discounts on select Midwest routes.

Trains on which the discounts are being offered include the Lincoln Service (Chicago-St. Louis), Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg (Chicago-Quincy, Ill.) Illini/Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale, Ill.) Wolverine Service (Chicago-Detroit), Blue Water (Chicagop-Port Huron, Mich.), Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids, Mich.) and the Missouri River Runners (St. Louis-Kansas City)

One way fares might be as low as $28 between Chicago and Detroit, and $24.80 between Chicago and Grand Rapids or Port Huron.

To receive discounts, apply Amtrak fare codes V653 for Illinois trains, V7163 for Michigan trains and V419 for Missouri trains.

Tickets are non-refundable and some blackout dates apply. See the Deals tab on Amtrak.com for other applicable restrictions, including advance reservation and purchase requirements for discounts through March 31. Terms and conditions may vary.

Sunset Ltd. Sked Change Won’t Affect Texas Eagle

January 11, 2015

A schedule change to the eastbound Sunset Limited will not affect the operation of the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

On Jan. 26, No. 2 and 422 will begin departing Los Angeles two hours earlier at 8 p.m. in order to accommodate Union Pacific track work.

The trains will operate two hours earlier at all stops through El Paso, Texas, when a two-hour layover will allow the train to return to its regular schedule. The temporary schedule will be in place through March 22.

No. 2 operates tri-weekly to New Orleans. No. 422 is the section of No. 2 that has through cars for Chicago that are interchanged to the Texas Eagle in San Antonio.

Rail Groups Pushing for Hoosier State Pact

January 11, 2015

A West Virginia rail passenger advocacy group issued a call to Indiana officials to continue funding the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State beyond Jan. 31.

Friends of the Cardinal has a vested interest in the continuation of Indiana’s state service because the Chicago-New York train that operates through West Virginia shares a route with the Hoosier State in Indiana and Illinois.

The Cardinal operates three days per week with the Hoosier State running on days that the Cardinal  does not run.  The Hoosier State faces a Jan. 31 deadline for the Indiana Department of Transportation to secure a new operator for the train, which is currently operated by Amtrak.

INDOT has been investigating private sector operators to take over the service. Last summer it had announced an agreement with Chicago-based Corridor Capital to operate the Hoosier State, but that agreement fell through.

The Cardinal advocacy group noted that INDOT continues to seek cost information from Amtrak and that Iowa Pacific has also talked with the state transportation agency about operating some facets of the service.

“Should contract negotiations with Amtrak not conclude before Jan. 31, then INDOT would discuss a short extension of the existing service,” the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance wrote in its most recently monthly newsletter, All Aboard Indiana.

Amtrak Efforts to Avoid Winter Mechanical Issues May Not be Working as Quite as Well as Intended

January 11, 2015

Although it received the most attention, the Lake Shore Limited that departed Chicago more than 13 hours late last week was not the only train that day that left behind schedule.

Only eight of Amtrak’s 29 scheduled daily trains departed that day on time.

The problems with winter-induced mechanical problems also occurred despite Amtrak taking several measure before winter began to avoid a repeat of the problems that has hindered operation of its trains in the past.

Trains magazine reported that Amtrak has refused multiple requests to explain the nature of the locomotive problems that caused No. 48 to depart Thursday at 11:08 a.m. That train, which arrived in Cleveland after 8 p.m., did not reach New York Penn Station until 9:20 a.m. on Friday. That was nearly 15 hours late.

Last Wednesday, 14 of Amtrak’s Amtrak Chicago departures left the terminal more than a hour late.

Aside from the Lake Shore Limited, the Empire Builder left for Seattle and Portland at 8:08 p.m., nearly 6 hours late. The Los Angeles-bound Southwest Chief got out of town after a delay of 5 hours and 23 minutes, getting the highball at 8:23 p.m. The problems with the Lake Shore Limited began with its inbound counterpart was more than 4 hours late arriving.

No. 48 left once, but was turned back by Norfolk Southern because the Amtrak operating crew was on short time.

Amtrak was deadheading a new crew from Toledo for No. 48 aboard the westbound Capitol Limited and wanted to put that crew aboard when the trains met. But NS nixed that idea so No. 48 backed up into the station and didn’t leave for another three hours.

Trains reported that as part of Amtrak’s preparation for the winter of 2014-2015 Amtrak replaced the traction motors in its General Electric P42DC locomotives with newer models that were supposed to fend off short-circuiting ground faults caused by the ingestion of fine snow. The magazine said that anecdotal evidence suggests that that fix hasn’t worked and as occurred last winter Amtrak lacks enough engines ready in Chicago to stand in for those that are disabled. Trains reported that P42 locomotives can’t be freely substitute for each other because they are captive to routes that have signaling systems unique to the train’s route.

For example, the motive power on the Southwest Chief must have ex-Santa Fe Automatic Train Stop pickup shoes attached to its trucks

Trains operating between Chicago and St. Louis, and on the Chicago-Michigan routes must be equipped with different forms of Incremental Train Control cab signaling for 110 mph operation. The Empire Builder has performed remarkably well despite having to run through double-digit below zero temperatures and snowy conditions in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana.

Through late last week, No. 8 had arrived early into Chicago five times and was less than about an hour late on the other three occasions.

It remains to be seen if the train can sustain that performance once about 3 hours of eastbound recovery time is removed from the schedule that was added last April. Elsewhere,  winter conditions plagued various rail operations. On New Jersey Transit, trains were affected when the cold caused mechanical issues with the overhead wires that power the trains.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s trains were affected by concerns over cracked rails and air brake systems leading to slower operating speeds.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority—which serves the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia—saw five of its six metro rail lines suffer significant delays. Virginia Railway Express, which also serves Virginia and the District of Columbia, experienced problems as well.

Amtrak Seeks to Reduce Cold at Chicago Depot

January 11, 2015

In the wake of a water pipe break incident and an episode in which some 170 passengers for the Lake Shore Limited froze and shivered their way through the night, Amtrak said it is changing traffic patterns for pedestrian flow at Chicago Union Station to improve temperature conditions.

The changes will be in effect through Feb. 28 and was undertaken in cooperation with the Metra commuter rail agency in Chicago. Amtrak owns the station.

The plan includes limiting the use of some doors, which Amtrak said will improve the control of the influx winter air into the station.

Amtrak said this should reduce the likelihood of such incidents as the sprinkler pipe break that occurred last week.

No changes are planned for the entrances at the Chicago River, and to and from Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard., Those are the highest volume routes for most station users and Amtrak said all exterior entry and exit locations will remain in service.

The connecting corridor between the north and south Concourses will be closed between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Foot traffic to the ticket offices for Amtrak, Metra and Greyhound, to and from Canal Street or to and from other services will be redirected.

Use of the automatic doors and escalators between the east side of Canal Street and the concourse will be limited in off-peak times. Elevators will operate at all times.

Doors to the service drive will be limited to emergency use or open only events in the Great Hall. Pedestrians will be directed instead through the Great Hall or to and from other entrances.