Archive for July, 2015

Empire Builder Suffering from Late Running Again

July 7, 2015

A Trains magazine study of the on-time performance of the Empire Builder has found that the train is again being plagued by delays.

Slow orders that were imposed in late June have resulted in the trains taking more than 10 hours to travel 430 miles between Havre, Montana, and Minot, North Dakota.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland train is scheduled to take seven hours between the two cities, both of which are service stops for the Builder.

In 2014, the Empire Builder suffered from extreme delays due to BNSF track work and freight congestion.

The route used by Nos. 7 and 8 has seen an increase in freight traffic, much of it driven by crude oil trains coming from the oil fields of North Dakota.

Amtrak had created a sixth equipment set to protect the Builder and after the on-time performance of the route improved, it dispersed that equipment elsewhere and restored most same-day connections in Chicago that had been broken last year due to the chronic lateness of No. 8.

Trains noted that the en route delays had been virtually eliminated in North Dakota between Fargo and Minot.

The magazine noted that delays to the Empire Builder in both directions have occurred on virtually every trip since June 25.

Combined with other periodic delays from Spokane, Washington, to Whitefish, Montana, and on the Portland section, late West Coast arrivals have resulted in tardy eastbound Seattle departures on seven of eight days beginning June 25.

A forest fire closed BNSF’s Scenic Subdivision in Washington state on June 29, which prompted Amtrak to consolidate the Seattle and Portland sections.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said additional speed restrictions have been imposed as a result of high temperatures on the Hi Line used by the Builder in Montana and North Dakota.

“Additionally, we have been conducting significant maintenance activity in these areas. Six separate gangs are at work on the Hi Line and Glasgow subdivisions and various expansion, replacement, and maintenance activity will be occurring across much of the region through the summer and into the fall,” she said.

McBeth said that BNSF is in the second year of a program to increase track capacity on its Northern Corridor.

She said the track work will result in enhanced infrastructure that will benefit Amtrak and BNSF freight customers.

Trains also reported that every other long-distance train from the West has suffered occasional significant delays in recent weeks.

Between June 21 and July 5, 16 eastbound arrivals missed all connecting trains in Chicago with the California Zephyr accounting for nine of these instances.

In the past, Amtrak has held the eastbound Lake Shore Limited for late in-bound western trains.

But it been doing that less and now rarely holds No. 48 for more than 20 minutes past its scheduled 9:30 p.m. departure from Chicago.

LSL Wheel Assembly Catches Fire in Hudson, N.Y.

July 7, 2015

A wheel assembly on a car of the eastbound Lake Shore Limited caught fire on Monday afternoon, delaying the train for about an hour in Hudson, New York.

Hudson firefighters were called to the Amtrak station at 4:40 p.m. Monday after smoke was seen coming from the wheel areas of an Amtrak train that had just arrived at the station. The train had multiple fires in its undercarriage

Hudson Fire Department Chief James Schermerhorn said the fires were caused by dead leaves that had gotten pulled into the wheel wells and ignited. Firefighters spent several minutes pumping water into the wheel wells.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that crew members were forced to call for help from city firefighters when they could not extinguish the fires using hand extinguishers on board the train. Magliari said there were no injuries resulting from the fires.

Although Hudson is a stop for Empire Service trains, it is not a scheduled stop for the Lake Shore Limited.

Amtrak Will Run Hoosier State a While Longer

July 7, 2015

The Indiana Department of Transportation has asked Amtrak to continue operating the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State while it works out contract details for having Iowa Pacific take over the train.

It is the fourth time that INDOT has requested an extension on an October 2013 contract with Amtrak after federal lawmakers stopped funding routes shorter than 750 miles.

INDOT has an agreement with Iowa Pacific whereby it will furnish locomotives and passenger cars while Amtrak continues to provide operating crew members. Iowa Pacific will take an active role in marketing the service, which operates quad-weekly on days that Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate in Indiana.

Iowa Pacific was originally set to take over the Hoosier State on July 1 and conducted a test run in late June.

INDOT says that Amtrak will continue operating the Hoosier State for only as long as it takes to finish the contracts and give the required notices of a change in service.

Iowa Pacific Holdings President Ed Ellis has said that planned improvements to the Hoosier State will include food and beverage service, WiFi and a business class section.

Iowa Pacific operates several excursion trains around the country, including a service on the back of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans that uses restored vintage Pullman cars.

Amtrak Exhibit Train to Visit Grand Rapids

July 7, 2015

The Amtrak exhibit train will roll into Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 25.

The train will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the year-long Amtrak Train Days. The train will be parked at the Amtrak station.

Also being featured will be the Chuggington Kids Depot with toy train and coloring tables.

For more information, visit  http://www.amtrak.com/exhibit-train

 

Streets Near Dearborn Amtrak Station to Close for Crossing,Track Work on Wolverine Route

July 7, 2015

Work on upgrading the tracks used by Amtrak through Dearborn, Michigan, will result in some streets in the Detroit suburb being closed.

The work to upgrade the route for higher-speed rail service will not close the John D. Dingell Transit Center, where six Amtrak Wolverine Service trains stop daily.

Workers will be doing track work and making grade crossing improvements.

Michael Frezell, communications manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the work will begin July 20 and be finished by mid-November. Not all streets will be closed at the same time.

Each detour has been approved by local agencies, road authorities and emergency responders.

Frezell said MDOT is doing what it can to minimize the inconvenience for those driving in the area.

“Once these projects are complete it will be benefit for motorists as there will be smoother grade crossings complete with new concrete panels. It also will be a benefit for Amtrak passengers as trains will be able to go through this area faster and more efficiently,” Frezell said.

Nearly 79,000 Amtrak passengers used the Dearborn Amtrak station last year, making it the busiest in metro Detroit.

2nd Chicago-St. Paul Train Study Released

July 4, 2015

A feasibility study of operating a second passenger train between Chicago and Minnesota has concluded that the service would cost $95 million to implement and require an annual operating support of $6.6 million.

The expected start-up costs would be for infrastructure capacity improvements. The figures are for a Chicago-St. Paul, Minnesota, service. Operating between Chicago and St. Cloud, Minnesota, would cost an additional $46.4 million.

The study was conducted by Amtrak for the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of transportation.

The only intercity rail service between Chicago and Minnesota is the daily Empire Builder, which operates between Chicago and Seattle/Portland.

The study’s scope included an assessment of schedules, ridership, revenue, infrastructure investments, operating costs and equipment needs. It assumed that the second round trip would use the same route as the Empire Builder via Milwaukee and La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The study recommended an environmental review of the project. The proposed second train would depart from Chicago in the morning and in mid-day from St. Paul.

Ridership on the additional daily train would be an estimated 155,000 passengers. The Empire Builder carries 104,000 between St. Paul and Chicago.

The study is available at www.dot.state.mn.us/passengerrail.

Amtrak Website Gets New Look

July 2, 2015

The Amtrak website has a new look, the first cosmetic overhaul of the site in more than five years.

The new look will change again next year as Amtrak tweaks one of the site’s elements.

“The refresh is focused on delivering customers with an easier navigation designed to streamline the booking process,”Amtrak said in a statement. “The new aspirational display was designed to inspire customers to experience the unique elements of train travel and easily explore the more than 500 destination served by Amtrak.”

The website’s new design includes providing a cleaner look with less clutter, easier navigation and a new design.

The travel planning map features an interactive map overlaying Amtrak routes and stations on top of a Google Map whereby users can enter any address, city, state, or ZIP code to locate the nearest Amtrak station, then enter a destination point to find the most convenient Amtrak route.

The bottom of the homepage encourages membership in the Amtrak Guest Rewards program and has a link to the Track a Train map.

The new website design also seeks to draw attention to special offers and discounts tailored by region based on the location of a computer or device’s IP address.

For example, users located in the Washington, D.C., area would receive discounts on Acela ExpressNortheast Regionals and Auto Train.

The former Routes and Stations tabs are now combined into a new “Destinations” tab, with links to route guides, city guides and vacation packages.

Information about on-board accommodations, meals and baggage policies are under the “Experience” tab.

The “Deals” tab points toward current promotions, regular discounts, multi-ride tickets and rail passes.

Hoosier State to Stay With Amtrak For Now

July 1, 2015

The Indiana Department of Transportation announced on Monday that contracts enabling Iowa Pacific Holdings to begin operating the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State on July 1, have yet to be reached.

Amtrak will continue to operate the quad-weekly train, which runs on days that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate.

The announcement came after Iowa Pacific completed a test run last weekend on the route with its own equipment.

Iowa Pacific will furnish the locomotives and passengers cars along with providing on-board service. Amtrak engineers and conductors will continue to make up the operating crews.

Once Iowa Pacific takes over, the trains are expected to have Wi-Fi and food and beverage service.

INDOT officials remain optimistic that Iowa Pacific will be taking over the service and note that a number of snags have occurred to prevent that from happening thus far.

It took four safety inspections of the equipment to be used on the trains before inspectors from Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration cleared them to carry passengers.

During a June 5 inspection at Iowa Pacific’s shop in Bensenville, Illinois, FRA and Amtrak inspectors cited equipment problems that had been identified during the first inspection but still hadn’t been fixed.

“We had expected the things that were found wrong in the previous two inspections would be corrected by now . . . which is troubling,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said at the time.

Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis said his company took steps to comply with the safety regulations.

“There was a pin in the air brake chain that was the wrong size that has to be changed,” he said. “That has to be the right size.”

Ellis also said that some federal regulations had changed since Iowa Pacific acquired the cars from Amtrak.

“For example, we now have cars that have separate bins for trash and recycling and we had to build those specifically for these cars,” he said. “Two or three steps were involved because we built them the way we thought they met the standards, but (inspectors) requested changes.

“As the regulations have changed, we’ve worked to comply.”

The rail cars did pass an inspection conducted during the second week of June.

INDOT and Amtrak initially signed an agreement for funding the Hoosier State in October 2013 after Congress stopped funding Amtrak routes that are shorter than 750 miles.

The state and communities served by the 196-mile route agreed to pay Amtrak about $3 million annually.

Ellis said he’s ready to go, but Amtrak is not as enthusiastic.

“Our crew was able to operate the equipment for a test run to and from the location in suburban Indianapolis where we’re told Iowa Pacific will service it,” Amtrak’s Magliari said.

“There are many unresolved issues, and we’ve supplied INDOT with a list of the open issues.”

Neither Amtrak nor INDOT officials would be specific about those issues.

“In addition to the contracts, some documentation needs to be done in terms of the inspections that have taken place,” said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield.

“And then there’s information that we’re working to obtain from the parties.”

That includes INDOT developing contract language that ensures accountability and consequences for compliance with Amtrak and federal safety standards, an issue that raised by the Federal Railroad Administration in March.

No one will estimate how long it will take to resolve these issues, but some local Indiana leaders still expect Iowa Pacific to take over the train.

“Everybody is still trying to reach that end goal,” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said. “Whether it’s July first or sometime later, I feel we’re still moving forward.”

In Crawfordsville, Mayor Todd Barton has posted a public celebration he’d planned for Wednesday evening at the Amtrak station.

“We checked with INDOT to make sure everything still looked good and July 1 was still a firm date,” he said. “We will reschedule when they have a firm transition date.”

Wingfield mentioned the transition more than once during an interview with a reporter from the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

“A short term agreement with Amtrak may impact the transition schedule,” he said. “There are many threads that run through this.”

However, Wingfield told Trains magazine that “contract discussions with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific are advanced. As with any such negotiations, it is hard to predict a time duration. We are working with the parties to gather the remaining information and complete some steps in sequence before finalizing and signing the long-term service agreements.”

Chicago Union Station Switches Being Rebuilt

July 1, 2015

Beginning July 6 Amtrak will begin a 40-day project to rebuild switches at the south end of Chicago Union Station.

Most of the work on Control Point Harrison will be performed overnight and on weekends.

Located beneath the new post office building north of Roosevelt Road, CP Harrison handles the majority of rail traffic at the station.

During the project, workers will replace six switch and turnout points used primarily by Metra trains to access tracks 2 through 14.

Amtrak said some Metra trains could encounter minor delays and platform changes during the evening and on weekends.

Metra said it is working with Amtrak and BNSF to minimize the disruptions.