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

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.

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