Archive for March, 2015

Southwest Chief to Remain on Present Route

March 30, 2015

The Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief will stay on its present route, Amtrak has revealed.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was quoted by the Santa Fe New Mexican as saying that the deadline to commit funding to a track maintenance pact for the route has been removed.

Amtrak had said that the Chief would have to move off its present route through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico if funding for rebuilding the BNSF track on the line was not reached by Jan. 1, 2016.

“We are making progress. There is no imminent cutoff date. … We do not want to move this train to another route,” Magliari said.

The Chief uses a former Santa Fe route via the southeast corner of Colorado that BNSF makes little use of for freight traffic. Most BNSF freight traffic uses the Transcon route via Amarillo, Texas.

The states of Colorado and Kansas last year sought a federal grant and set aside for track repairs on their sections of the route.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has described funding long-distance trains as a federal government responsibility, authorized $150,000 last year for a study of the Southwest Chief’s costs and benefits.

Even without New Mexico’s commitment of financial support thus far, Amtrak believes all three states have a sound plan in place for upkeep of the tracks.

Magliari and New Mexico State Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, said the plan contains no timetable because all the states now have a strategy to cover costs on their part of the route.

Tom Church, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, says his agency is devising ways to pay for repairs in New Mexico. “We are coordinating an effort with the Southwest Chief Coalition for the Northern New Mexico cities and counties to develop a TIGER grant through the federal Transportation Department,” Church’s office said.

Garden City, Kan., was the lead applicant for a group of local governments that received a TIGER grant last year to help pay for track repairs on sections of track used by the train.

Twelve communities in Colorado, four in Kansas, Amtrak, BNSF and the Kansas Department of Transportation have pledged more than $9 million to secure the $12.5 million federal grant, said Sal Pace, chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission in Colorado.

Although New Mexico lawmakers recently adjourned without allocating money for track repairs, State Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the State Senate’s Finance Committee, said that the $6.23 billion state budget contains money for local economic development projects.

Smith said $37.5 million designated for economic development programs could give Martinez’s administration the money needed to begin maintenance or help obtain a TIGER grant in collaboration with Kansas and Colorado. BNSF is expected soon to provide updated information on track maintenance costs in New Mexico.

The next application for a TIGER grant for the Southwest Chief project will include Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico, Pace said.

“Time is of the essence because we’re told the grant might not be around next year,” he said.

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Amtrak Inspects Proposed Hoosier State Cars

March 29, 2015

The three passenger cars and two locomotives that might be used on the Hoosier State got an inspection by Amtrak officials recently.

The equipment is owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings and stored in Bensenville, Ill.

Under a proposal being discussed by Amtrak and the Indiana Department of Transportation, Iowa Pacific would provide equipment and onboard services while Amtrak would continue to provide the operating crews.

Also joining in the inspection were officials of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train is underwritten by INDOT and many of the communities that it serves.

The IP equipment, which includes two coaches and a dome car, would provide enhanced business class and food service.

Currently, the Hoosier State typically operates with two Horizon fleet coaches and does not have food service.

About a dozen FRA and Amtrak inspectors were joined by a similar number of Iowa Pacific operations and mechanical personnel in making the inspection of the IP equipment.

The locomotives are GP40FH-2 Nos. 4135 and 4144, which formerly served New Jersey Transit. They are geared for a top speed of 102 mph, although no segment of the Hoosier State route has track maintained to that standard.

One of the two 44-seat coaches was built by Budd in the 1950s for Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited. The other was built by St. Louis Car Co. in 1964 for Union Pacific.

Both are of former Amtrak heritage and during that time they were converted to head-end power and received accessible bathrooms

Iowa Pacific has used the cars on its Saratoga & North Creek subsidiary and reupholstered the Amtrak seats.

The cars will have 110-volt at-seat outlets installed and be equipped for Wi-Fi.

The full-with dome car was built for the Santa Fe and later ran on the original Auto-Train and Holland America Westours.

The car would provide upper level business class with hot meals prepared in a lower level galley and serve as a café car for coach passengers on the lower level.

Heartland Flyer May Lose Oklahoma Funding

March 29, 2015

Faced with a funding shortfall, Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, may be in danger of discontinuance.

The state pays Amtrak $2.9 million to operate the train and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said that is expected to increase to $3.2 million

“Why are we doing this?” asked Senate Appropriations Chairman Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. “Is it more effective and efficient to invest in maintenance and roads that are used more? There is consistent criticism that there is no reason to support rail.”

Patronage of the train, which began in 1999 was 26,832 in its first year. It reached 87,873 in 2012, but has since fallen to 81,226.

Oklahoma and Texas pay 75 percent of the cost of a trip to Fort Worth on the train, which is operated by Amtrak, said Mike Patterson, ODOT executive director.

“Every public transit program in the country and most likely in the whole world is subsidized at some level,” Patterson said. “The governing body has to decide how much they want to participate in that subsidy.”

Patterson said the state’s cost has increased because Amtrak’s contribution to the route has fallen. Amtrak has also warned that raising fares would likely reduce ridership.

Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking ways to make up a $611 million drop in revenue for the state overall, hence the talk of ending state funding of Amtrak service.

Texas has limited its contributions to the Heartland Flyer at $2.5 million.

Amtrak and Oklahoma are operating under a month-to-month contract, and ODOT officials hope Amtrak will reduce the cost, but that might only be possible with fewer train trips.

ODOT Division Engineer John Bowman said the agency has worked with Amtrak to find cost reductions without decreasing service, such as removing one of two locomotives or decreasing the number of passenger cars during non-peak times. However, those changes can only go so far.

“We’ve been going back and forth with [Amtrak] since July on working with those numbers, and we have had some success,” Bowman says. “But more needs to be done.”

Texas transportation officials have explored the possibility of using buses to replace some rail service, an option ODOT says it hopes not to do.

“We have not had much discussion about that,” Patterson said. “I was approached in November from the leadership in TxDOT that they were looking at that type of arrangement. We are making every effort to come up with a solution, but it’s got to be Amtrak’s solution.”

As for a private company taking over management of the Heartland Flyer, Patterson said that would be difficult. “There’s been some discussion about bringing in another carrier,” Patterson says. “But my understanding is that BNSF or any of the Class I operators [along the Heartland Flyer route] want to only let Amtrak run on their line because of the liability issues.”

Amtrak Warns of Cuts if Illinois Reduces Funding

March 29, 2015

Amtrak has warned that the State of Illinois may need to repay more than $1 billion in federal grant money if the state cuts funding of service in the Chicago-Louis corridor.

Ray Lang, senior director of national state relations for Amtrak, said at an Illinois House committee hearing that the cuts being proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner would have a significant impact on other passenger rail routes in Illinois.

Rauner has proposed slashing the state’s share of Amtrak funding by 40 percent from $42 million per year to $26 million.

Lang said if service cannot be reduced on the Chicago-St. Louis route because of the federal payback issue, service would have to be cut on other routes.

Citing the Chicago-Carbondale corridor, he said the Illini and Saluki might be eliminated, leaving only the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans via Champaign and Carbondale.

“You’re talking about elimination of service on routes. Worst-case scenario is that you’d just have the City of New Orleans (train,)” Lang said.

However, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell had a different perspective.

“The state’s financial support for Amtrak’s annual operations is independent of any construction work that’s ongoing or has already taken place,” Tridgell said.

Tridgell said that he was speaking in a general sense and not specifically about the Chicago-St. Louis route.

He also contended that no route decisions have been made. “Everything is still under review,” Tridgell said.

Rauner’s push to cut funding for Amtrak service is in contrast with the policies of former Gov. Pat Quinn, who had pushed for expanded Amtrak service, including new routes to Rockford and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa.

Those proposed new Amtrak routes took a hit when Rauner froze grants that were earmarked to pay for track construction.

State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, expressed outrage that Rauner froze spending on the projects. “That is crazy,” Verschoore told the committee.

Rauner also wants to reduce mass transit spending by $180 million, a level that has Democratic lawmakers who control the General Assembly upset.

“I do not think I can support that deep of a cut to any of these transit agencies,” said state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, who chairs the appropriation committee. “I tell you, something’s got to give.”l

Bills Introduced for EIS for Illinois High-Speed Rail

March 29, 2015

Some Illinois lawmakers are continuing to push for high-speed rail in the state even in the face of threatened cuts to the existing state-funded Amtrak service.

Senate Majority Leader Clayborne, D-Belleville, and Representative Ammons, D-Champaign, introduced identical bills seeking $15 million for a Tier I environmental impact statement for a Chicago-East St. Louis/Indianapolis high-speed line.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has pushed for the over the past few years and says that a Tier I EIS is a critical piece of planning work needed to design a route.

The proposed route would connect O’Hare Airport, Chicago Union Station, McCormick Place, Champaign, Decatur, Springfield and East St. Louis. It would also feature a branch to Indianapolis from Champaign.

NM Rail Backers Still Pushing for Chief Track Pact

March 29, 2015

New Mexico passenger rail advocates are continuing to push for state support of a cost-sharing agreement to upgrade the tracks used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

The $4 million agreement would rebuild BNSF tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train that BNSF has said it will not maintain to passenger train speeds because there is little freight traffic on the route.

BNSF has said it would maintain the route to 30 mph standards whereas Amtrak insists the Chief must be allowed to operate at 79 mph.

The New Mexico rail advocates held a public meeting at the Amtrak station in Albuquerque, a city that stands to lose service if the Chief if rerouted or discontinued.

The proposed track upgrade pact would involve funding from the States of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas as well as Amtrak and BNSF.

The expenses would be shared for 10 years.

Thus far New Mexico has not committed any funds toward the project and the state legislature recently adjourned without acting on the proposal.

Mayor Insists Proposed Amtrak Route Still Alive

March 29, 2015

Rockford, Ill., Mayor Larry Morrissey insists that the proposed Amtrak service to his city isn’t dead even as another public official said no new service was coming to the state.

Speaking with city officials by his side, Morrissey said the funds to build the rail line have been available since 2009.

At a recent public hearing, more than 150 people heard local elected officials, business leaders, and others demand that the state continue with the $223 million project to Amtrak service to Rockford by the end of 2015. State Sen. Steve Stadelman of Rockford scheduled the hearing Gov. Bruce Rauner put the Rockford service project on hold.

The elected officials attending the hearing listened and asked questions of the more than 20 witnesses who testified at the three-hour hearing. Many argued that a delay or cancellation would jeopardize economic stimulus benefits.

“The investment we’re talking about has an equally important impact on freight rail and our ability to attract industry,” said Morrissey.

The Illinois Department of transportation had been overseeing the upgrading of track between Rockford and Belvedere from 10 mph to 79 mph.

Morrissey noted that plans were already underway to rejuvenate the downtown area with a $24 million sports facility, a 75-room boutique hotel, and a $60 million, 150-room hotel and conference center complex.

The mayor noted that all of those projects would “have a direct connection to the train platform.”

“Without economic development of a major nature we’ll keep wallowing in (budget and employment) problems that the state has,” said Belvedere Mayor Mike Chamberlain.

Huntley Mayor Charles Sass said his village had already spent $4 million on planning for a downtown station and was poised to start construction.

IDOT Deputy Director John Oimoen said the project’s environmental studies are nearly finished and detailed engineering that would determine specific improvements and operating costs is between 15 and 20 percent complete.

One of the most impassioned argument for the Rockford service came from businesswoman Angela Fellars, the owner of a digital marketing and technology agency.

“The opportunity cost of not being able to work on a train between here and Chicago is costing me $400 a day in wasted work time spent driving. I’m angry that we even have to debate why this is a good idea,” she said. “Because I could spend some more time with my family, engage more in my community, volunteer more, and be a more active citizen. That’s why we need this train.”

Bagging 5 Amtrak Trains in Northwest Indiana

March 25, 2015
First train of the day. The Detroit (Pontiac) bound Wolverine Service No. 350 crosses the swing bridge over Trail Creek in Michigan City, Ind.

First train of the day. The Detroit (Pontiac) bound Wolverine Service No. 350 crosses the swing bridge over Trail Creek in Michigan City, Ind.

Not since last October have I seen, let alone photographed, an Amtrak train. Considering that the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited had numerous days this past winter when they were running hours behind schedule, to say that I’ve been shut out might seem odd.

But the opportunity never came about for me to get trackside to photograph those late running trains.

So recently when a friend asked me to accompany him on a trip to Michigan City, Ind., to deliver some garden railway equipment to a guy from Wisconsin who bought it, I eagerly said yes.

All of Amtrak’s 10 Michigan service trains pass through Michigan City and as I studied the schedules I saw that we would have a shot at getting five of them.

Not since the last time I was in Chicago have I see that many Amtrak trains in a single day.

We wound up photographing three of the trains in Michigan City and two more at Porter, where the line from Detroit joins the Chicago Line of Norfolk Southern. Here is a gallery of what I was able to capture on that day.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Wolverine Service No. 351 for Chicago approaches the old Michigan Central coaling tower that still stands astride the tracks in Michigan City.

Wolverine Service No. 351 for Chicago approaches the old Michigan Central coaling tower that still stands astride the tracks in Michigan City.

Amtrak MC 05e

P42 No. 29 brings up the rear of Wolverine No. 351. Think of the thousands of New York Central passenger trains and steam locomotives that have passed beneath this massive coaling tower over the years.

P42 No. 29 brings up the rear of Wolverine No. 351. Think of the thousands of New York Central passenger trains and steam locomotives that have passed beneath this massive coaling tower over the years.

The Blue Water from Port Huron, Mich., has a typical Michigan service consist of a mixture of Horizon and Amfleet equipment with a P42 locomotive on each end. All five of the trains that we say had a P42 on each end.

The Blue Water from Port Huron, Mich., has a typical Michigan service consist of a mixture of Horizon and Amfleet equipment with a P42 locomotive on each end. All five of the trains that we say had a P42 on each end.

The Chicago-bound Blue Water has a clear signal at Drawbridge in Michigan City. The view was made by the Center Street grade crossing.

The Chicago-bound Blue Water has a clear signal at Drawbridge in Michigan City. The view was made by the Center Street grade crossing.

Crossing the swing bridge over Trail Creek in Michigan City. I was later told that the bridge is now operated by the Amtrak control center in Chicago and that operators are no longer stationed in the tower next to the bridge. In the background is a Northern Indiana Public Service Company power generating plant that receives shipments o coal by rail.

Crossing the swing bridge over Trail Creek in Michigan City. I was later told that the bridge is now operated by the Amtrak control center in Chicago and that operators are no longer stationed in the tower next to the bridge. In the background is a Northern Indiana Public Service Company power generating plant that receives shipments o coal by rail.

A Wolverine Service train twists its way off the NS Chicago Line at Porter and enters the longest stretch of Amtrak-owned rails outside of the Northeast Corridor.

A Wolverine Service train twists its way off the NS Chicago Line at Porter and enters the longest stretch of Amtrak-owned rails outside of the Northeast Corridor.

Think there are enough signs greeting train crews going from NS to Amtrak ownership in Porter? Shown is the rear of the mid-day Wolverine Service train to Detroit (Pontiac).

Think there are enough signs greeting train crews going from NS to Amtrak ownership in Porter? Shown is the rear of the mid-day Wolverine Service train to Detroit (Pontiac).

The last train of the day was the Chicago-bound Wolverine Service mid-day train. The consist had but one Amfleet car amid a sea of Horizon equipment.

The last train of the day was the Chicago-bound Wolverine Service mid-day train. The consist had but one Amfleet car amid a sea of Horizon equipment.

Amtrak Viewliner II Baggage Cars Enter Service

March 25, 2015

Amtrak’s new Viewliner II baggage cars entered revenue service this week on the East Cost.

The first trains to carry the cars were the northbound Silver Meteor (New York-Miami) and northbound Carolinian (New York-Charlotte, N.C.).

Altogether, Amtrak ordered 55 of the cars and plans to assign them to all of its 15 long-distance routes.

The cars were built at the CAF USA plant near Elmira, N.Y. Earlier, they were ferried to Amtrak’s Hialeah maintenance facility in Miami for inspection.

Amtrak has ordered 130 single-level, long-distance passenger cars, including diners, sleepers and baggage-dorm cars.

Detroit-Grand Rapids Rail Service to be Studied

March 17, 2015

A proposed Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids intercity rail service has reached the study phase.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority approved a $100,000 contract with Transportation Economics and Management Systems for a ridership and cost estimate study.

The study also will examine demand and feasibility for the corridor that also would serve Holland. Planners will look at the economic and financial impacts of establishing the service.

AAATA is acting as a conduit for pass-through grant funding on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council, which is taking the lead on the study.

“We provide public transit locally and we are in general in favor of providing public transit to connect this region with other regions,” said Michael Benham, the AAATA’s strategic planner. “There are a number of cities in Michigan that are not connected with one another, and so this is kind of the beginning of an effort to do that.”

Benham said that Amtrak only serves a limited number of cities and the proposed Detroit-Grand Rapids corridor could increase the number of Michigan cities connected by rail.

On the eve of Amtrak, the Cheapeake & Ohio operated two roundtrips between Detroit and Grand Rapids via Lansing, but Benham said a number of alternative routing options will be considered.

One route might have the trains pass through Ann Arbor, although he conceded that might be difficult to do because of the lack of connections between the rail lines that the train would need to use.

For several years, Ann Arbor and state transportation officials have eyed establishing commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and between Ann Arbor and Howell.

The Michigan Department of Transportation even acquired former Metra bi-level commuter coaches for the service, which still lacks a funding source.

The cars are being stored in Owosso and the state is making lease payments on them even though they have nowhere to operate.

Of late there have also been discussions about establishing rail passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City with intermediate stops in Cadillac, Mount Pleasant, Alma, Owosso and Howell.

That service would be a continuation of the proposed WALLY commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Howell.

Reinstating Detroit-Grand Rapids rail service has been talked about at times over the past four decades, but the latest efforts began in 2010 when the Michigan by Rail team, made up of the MEC and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, collected public input for Michigan’s State Rail Plan that favored establishment of rail service between Michigan’s east and west coasts.

In the 2011 Michigan State Rail Plan, an alternatives analysis and environmental review were recommended for the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor.

In 2013, MEC and MDOT came out in favor of studying Detroit-Holland service. The AAATA received a $100,000 grant from MDOT for the study.

AAATA issued a request for proposals in November and received three bids from interested firms. MDOT must approve the study contract with TEMS before it can be signed.

Benham said it’s unlikely the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor project would involving new tracks.

“All the routes that are being looked at are intended to be routes that already have tracks between the two points,” he said.

AAATA board chairman Charles Griffith describes passenger rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids as another piece of a larger puzzle.

Although he said he is encouraged that expansion of intercity passenger rail and the establishment of commuter rail have received much attention, there is still much to be done.

“A lot of these things are still in the study phase, so in some ways it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to actually having rail as an option,” he said.

“It hasn’t exactly become clear to me what the pathway is to actually getting the service up and running and securing the funding.”

As for those idle passenger cars, MDOT is considering subleasing them or getting rid of them. Through May 2014, MDOT had spent $9.5 million to lease and refurbish seven cab and 16 coach cars and is still on the hook for another $2.7 million, according to a state audit that concluded MDOT did not effectively oversee the lease. Planned restroom upgrades for some of the cars could cost another $3.7 million.

However, Benham described that spending as an investment.

“We talk about public involvement. The railcars really give us an opportunity to involve the public in a hands-on way,” he said.

“People wonder what is this commuter rail thing. They see the cars, they get on them, they look around, they go, ‘Ah, this is what you’re talking about.’ Most people get pretty excited about that and it becomes more real and less of this abstract project.”

AAATA recently launched an 18-month feasibility study for the proposed WALLY commuter rail line using a $650,000 federal grant. Consulting firm SmithGroup JJR has been hired to oversee that study.