Archive for August, 2015

Heartland Flyer Testing Carrying Bicycles

August 31, 2015

Passengers can now bring bicycles aboard the Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

Amtrak and the departments of transportation in Oklahoma and Texas are conducting a pilot program whereby passengers must reserve their bikes by selecting “add bike” when booking their trip.

Bicyclists must present the bike ticket to station staff when boarding or to the conductor if at an unstaffed station. There is no charge for the bike reservation.

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Bike Program to Begin on Capitol Limited

August 28, 2015

Amtrak plans to begin allowing passengers to take bicycles aboard the Chicago-Washington, D.C., Capitol Limited.

Although no date has been set, an Amtrak spokesperson said it could be as early as next week. Passengers with bikes must have a reservation and pay a $25 fee for the service.

For some, that might exceed the price of the ticket.

Amtrak’s website shows that roll-on service is available on nine of its routes. Of those, four offer the service for free, two have a $5 fee and three have a $10 fee.

Bicyclists will also be responsible for taking their bikes aboard the train, securing them and removing them once they’ve reached their destination.

The service will be available at all stations served by Nos. 29 and 30 with only standard-sized bikes permitted on board.

The service has been particularly anticipated in Pittsburgh, which is the western terminus of a trail that extends to Washington.

Two major bicycle trails – the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Towpath – run parallel to the route of the Capitol Limited east of Pittsburgh.

Amtrak expressed interest in providing the service five years ago and ran a one-day test with 20 bicyclists in October 2013

At present, Amtrak policies require that bicycles be dismantled and packed in boxes that can only be loaded or unloaded at staffed stations.

There are no staffed stations between Pittsburgh and Washington. Other staffed stations on the route include Cleveland, Toledo and South Bend, Indiana.

In the past, Amtrak has cited a litany of reasons why it has not implemented a bike aboard program on the Capitol Limited until now.

Deborah Stone-Wulf, Amtrak’s chief of sales distribution and customer service, addressed those in a guest blog post for the Adventure Cycling Association’s website (adventurecycling.org) last year.

“We understand and appreciate the synergies between rail and bike travel, and continue to work hard to better serve the bicycling community,” she wrote. “We, however, have many challenges, primarily with our core infrastructure. Among the key issues are finding space for bicycles on our trains and developing the ability to safely and efficiently load and unload bicycles.

“Much of Amtrak’s fleet is quite old with many cars more than 40 years old and bikes were not a consideration during the original design. The good news here is new equipment for long distance trains is on the way, featuring design elements that will help on this front. That still won’t help with our station platforms, however, which are of varying heights and present an obstacle for loading and unloading bicycles.”

Sara Snow, travel initiatives coordinator for the Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Montana, said her organization worked with Amtrak in identifying the Capitol Limited as one of two eastern routes that would test roll-on service. The other is the Vermonter.

Snow said that many of the organization’s 48,000 members use Amtrak to travel to or from biking excursions.

“We identified [roll-on service] as a huge need for making bicycle traveling easier. People have been advocating for this for a long time,” she said.

Greyhound Using Carbondale Amtrak Station

August 24, 2015

Greyhound has begin serving the Amtrak station in Carbondale, Illinois. Previously, the Greyhound pick up location was a Phillip 66 service station.

“Greyhound is excited to continue serving the Carbondale community from this new location,” said Deborah Laney, area manager of Greyhound. “We hope to better serve the Carbondale community by centralizing transportation services in this town. We are thankful to Amtrak and the City of Carbondale for their efforts to make this a reality.”

No Greyhound tickets will be sold at the Amtrak station.

Destinations served by Greyhound from Carbondale include Champaign, Illinois, Atlanta and St. Louis among others.

Amtrak also has direct service between Carbondale and Champaign and the two carriers share a station there. Greyhound has three buses a day to Carbondale.

Talgo, Wisconsin Settle Contract Lawsuit

August 20, 2015

Wisconsin and Talgo, Inc., have reached a $9.7 million settlement of the Spanish rail equipment builder’s lawsuit over a canceled contract.

The state has agreed to pay Talgo to end the dispute, which began when current Gov. Scott Walker voided a contract for two Talgo trainsets.

As part of the agreement, Talgo will retain title to the two train sets it built for Wisconsin, but which have yet to be used in revenue service.

The equipment was originally intended to be used on Amtrak’s Hiawatha route between Chicago and Milwaukee and on a never-developed route between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin.

“The state signed contracts with Talgo and then absolutely walked away from that,” said Lester Pines, an attorney for Talgo. “(Talgo) didn’t like this litigation and it’s happy it’s over. They’re not in the business of suing people.”

The Talgo trains were built under terms of a 2009 contract negotiated by former Gov. Jim Doyle.

After Walker voided the contract, Talgo filed suit in November 2012, naming Walker and Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb.

In May 2014, a state arbitration board rejected Talgo’s financial claims against the state.

The two completed trains are now in storage at Amtrak’s Beech Grove, Indiana, heavy maintenance facility.

There have been reports that the state of Michigan has expressed interest in acquiring or leasing the Talgos for use on state-funded routes.

No Public Word Yet on City’s Recommendation for New Ann Arbor Amtrak Station Location

August 20, 2015
Wolverine Service No. 352 calls at the Ann Arbor Amtrak station.

Wolverine Service No. 352 calls at the Ann Arbor Amtrak station.

A recommendation on a site for a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been made, but not yet made public.

Ann Arbor transportation program manager Eli Cooper said a final draft analysis of alternative locations for the station has been sent to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

However, he declined to disclose the preferred location, saying only that the draft report includes a comprehensive review of options for a new train station on Fuller Road or Depot Street. Another option is to not build a new station.

“The report also discusses a recommendation to preferred location,” Cooper said. “Recognizing this is a draft document and subject to agency review, comments and amendments, it is best to wait until the final version is available.”

The Ann Arbor News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the draft report and is awaiting a response from the city.

Although city officials have discussed a new Amtrak station for years, a formal study wasn’t begun until 2014.

City officials say the current station on Depot Street, which was built by Amtrak in 1983, is inadequate.

Cooper said the station site report must be reviewed by MDOT and then sent to the Federal Railroad Administration for final review

“I’m thinking we’re into early- to mid-September [for public release of the report] if all goes well,” he said.

Public hearings to discuss the recommendations will be scheduled after that.

Ann Arbor planners have considered demolishing the existing Amtrak station and building a new station at that location.

Other options include a new station at a city-owned parking lot along Fuller Road in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital.

There has also been a proposal to return to the former Michigan Central Railroad depot, which was converted into a restaurant in 1970.

If the city stays with the existing Amtrak location on Depot Street, it would need to acquire a portion of the DTE-owned MichCon site north of the station to build a new station and parking lot.

DTE has agreed to collaborate with the city to make that work if that option is chosen.

A new station could either be at ground level or elevated.

Ann Arbor officials expect ridership on the Chicago-Detroit corridor to increase significantly in the coming decades.

Amtrak’s current Wolverine Service is projected to expand from the current three roundtrips a day to 10. Also ahead is a proposed Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter service.

City voters will have the final say before a new station can be built.

Ann Arbor is paying URS Corporation $824,875 to lead the train station study, much of which is being funded by a $2.8 million federal rail planning rant.

Final design of a new Amtrak station is identified as a $2.6 million expense in 2016-17 in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan.

The station itself is expected to cost $44.5 million and be built in 2017-18 with 80 percent of that funded by the federal government and possible local partners.

Amtrak to Close Winona Ticket Office

August 20, 2015
The westbound Empire Builder during its stop in Winona, Minnesota, in May 2014.

The westbound Empire Builder during its stop in Winona, Minnesota, in May 2014.

Amtrak will close its ticket office at the station in Winona, Minnesota, at the end of August.

Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said Amtrak notified the city recently about the closing.

“It’s not what we wanted to hear,” he said.

The station will remain open to serve the daily Empire Builder and Amtrak has arranged for someone to open and close the station at train times as well as keep it clean.

But travelers will need to call Amtrak’s national reservations number or check its website for train and travel information.

Amtrak said the closing is part of a company-wide effort to close ticket offices that have seen a decline in ticket sales.

Ticket offices at Amtrak stations in St. Paul, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin will remain open.

Winona station is the second-busiest in Minnesota, with 20,318 boardings and alightings in 2014.

The busiest station is St. Paul, which posted 94,077 boarding and alightings. La Crosse had 24,036 during the same period.

Amtrak said sales of tickets at its ticket offices has declined in recent years as many passengers turn to online ticket purchasing and have the ability to check arrival and departure times with automated phone apps.

FRA to Study Chicago-Ohio Rail Corridor

August 20, 2015
Passengers wait in the Amtrak station in Cleveland.

Passengers wait in the Amtrak station in Cleveland.

A rail passenger corridor from Chicago to Ohio will be a focus of the upcoming Midwest passenger rail study to be undertaken by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FRA will spent $2.8 million to study passenger rail in the Midwest and southeast.

The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission asked the FRA last November to include the Chicago-Ohio corridor in its planning activities.

The MIPRC applied for passenger-rail planning on behalf of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

MIPRC said that it has received more than 90 letters of support, including some from participating departments of transportation, cities and counties, MPOs, freight railroads elected officials, unions, universities and other advocacy groups.

The FRA study will seek to identify and state a long-term passenger-rail vision for Midwest and southeast.

 

Cincinnati Interests View FRA Midwest Rail Study as Step Toward Daily Amtrak Service to Chicago

August 18, 2015

Cincinnati area rail advocates are hailing a pending Federal Railroad Administration study as a potential step toward daily Amtrak service to Chicago.

The FRA recently said it would conduct a $3 million study of rail passenger service in the Midwest and Southeast.

The study will cover Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and 10 others states.

At present, the only Amtrak service in southwestern Ohio is the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

No. 50 to New York passes through Cincinnati on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No. 51 to Chicago serves the Queen City on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

In both instances, the trains are scheduled to arrive at Cincinnati Union Terminal between midnight and 4 a.m.

Derek Bauman is the southwest regional director for All Aboard Ohio, a statewide rail passenger advocacy group. He and other Cincinnati area residents have spent the past 15 lobbying for daily rail service to Chicago.

“It’s great news that the Midwest is being afforded these planning dollars,” he said.

Passenger advocates would like to see Cincinnati-Chicago service developed further, including making infrastructure improvements to reduce the current 7-hour running time.

“We haven’t seen anything like this come down the pike in some time — if ever,” Bauman said. “Being a part of this larger effort gives us here locally a great resource to lean on.”

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a long-time advocate for bringing rail transit to the region, also views the the FRA’s plan a “real positive shot in the arm.”

“This funding makes the vision real,” Portune told WCPO-TV. “It tells us there is not only verbal support, but there is now financial support for doing the preliminary environmental work that’s needed for high-speed rail service between Cincinnati and Chicago.”

Portune also said that the pending planning process “communicates to the region, ‘Now is the time to get your act together.'”

Beyond a daily connection to Chicago, Portune said daily rail service out of the city center of Cincinnati could lead to other local transit options connecting Downtown to Hamilton’s County’s west side communities.

Bauman said All Aboard Ohio is seeking to development partnerships with local chambers of commerce, educational institutions, and other organizations soon to draft model plans to supplement the FRA’s study on a local level.

“It’s important for us as a region to stay in tune with what’s going on,” he said.

Rail passenger proponents are also working the city of Oxford and Miami University in a campaign to establish a stop of the Cardinal in Oxford, Ohio.

November Trial Set for Michigan Man Charged in Assault Aboard Amtrak Train Last December

August 18, 2015

A Michigan man charged with assaulting four people aboard an Amtrak train last December will go on trial in mid-November.

Michael Darnell Williams, 44, of Saginaw, Michigan, appeared in court on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing on 12 felony charges related to the Dec. 5 incident on the train as it stopped at the Niles, Michigan, station.

Williams pleaded not guilty to the 12 charges he faces and demanded a trial by jury. His next court dates are Sept. 16 for a case conference, Nov. 10 for a status conference and a jury trial starting Nov. 17 or 18.

Although Williams waived the preliminary hearing, the court heard testimony from the train’s conductor, who was stabbed during the incident.

Dontrel Bankhead, 40, was the conductor of the Chicago to Port Huron, Michigan, Blue Water, and the first person to be attacked.

Bankhead said he spoke with Williams after he came back to the cafe car, the last car on the train.

“The person caught my attention,” Bankhead said. “He asked how many people were on the train and how much money was on the train. I was under the impression he was going to rob the train. He also spoke about how much money a conductor made.”

Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd wanted Bankhead’s testimony to be put on the record because he had traveled from out of town to testify.

Bankhead said Williams also talked about knowing that people had been killed the week before.

When Bankhead asked Williams to return to his seat, he refused, instead spending five minutes between the café car and a coach.

“He stood between the two cars and then came into the car I was in but again refused to sit down,” Bankhead said. “He had his hands in his pockets since coming out of the cafe car.

“We decided to ask him to be escorted off the train at the next stop. We were 15 minutes past the New Buffalo stop and coming into Niles.”

When the train arrived in Niles, Bankhead said he continued to talk with Williams who at one point said he wanted to say a prayer.

Williams heard a radio transmission about him and saw police officers on the platform at the Niles station.

“I took one step forward and he did not move,” Bankhead said. “Then I saw his hands come out of his pockets and he was holding a knife. He struck me in the neck, in the back of my shoulder, in the rib cage, in my face and in my ear.”

Bankhead said his wounds required surgery and he was hospitalized for three weeks, including one week in South Bend, Indiana, and two weeks in Chicago.

He told the court that he is still recovering and being treated for physical and psychological injuries.

Williams faces five counts of assault with intent to murder, five counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, one count of carrying a concealed weapon and one count of resisting and obstructing police.

The assault with intent to murder charges carry maximum penalties of life in prison, while the assault with a dangerous weapon charges carry maximum penalties and four years in prison.

The carrying a concealed weapon charge has a maximum penalty of five years in prison and the resisting police charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Williams was found competent to stand trial earlier this month after receiving medications and treatment for his psychological problems, including paranoia and schizophrenia.

The court has yet to rule whether he can be held criminally responsible for his actions. He remains in jail on $1 million cash or surety bond.

Amtrak Looks to Boost Checked Baggage Revenue

August 18, 2015

Having seen how the airline industry annually rakes in $3.3 billion from checked baggage fees, Amtrak is trying to boost its own baggage revenue.

Effective Oct. 15, Amtrak will begin charging $20 per bag for luggage that exceeds the carrier’s weight and size limitations.

Amtrak allows passengers to bring aboard without charge two personal items that each must weigh no more than 25 pounds or exceed the dimensions of 14-by-11-by 17 inches.

Passengers are also allowed two carry-on items, each of which must not exceed 50 pounds or the dimensions of 28-by-22-by-14 inches.

Under the new policy, bags over 50 pounds must be repacked in a box to be provided at a station if checked baggage is available or, if possible, on onboard the train.

If checked baggage service is available at the passenger’s origination and destination point, the passengers must check baggage that exceeds the size and weight limitations.

A post on Trainorders.com, contained internal Amtrak documents showing that airlines make an average of $8.75 per bag.

Amtrak, which handles 4 million checked bags annually, earns an average of 29 cents per bag

The report cited U.S. Department of Transportation statistics that showed that during the first nine months of 2015 Southwest Airlines, which markets itself with the slogan “Bags Fly Free,” earned $117 million in checked baggage fees.

Amtrak earns $693,000 a year in checked baggage revenue.

The DOT statistics said that 83 percent of all airlines charge for all checked bags.

By its projections, Amtrak believes that if 10 percent of checked bags were charged, the potential revenue would be $8 million. If 25 percent of checked bags were charged, the potential revenue would be $20 million.

Currently, Amtrak charges for just 0.9 percent of the checked baggage that it carries.