Archive for November, 2015

St. Cloud Station Getting Renovations

November 11, 2015

Amtrak has begun a $1.3 million renovation of its station in St. Cloud, Minnesota, that will include improvements to walkways and restrooms.

Other improvement plans include reconfiguring the orientation of how cars park in the station’s parking lot.

The station, served by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, recently received a new roof at a cost of $180,000. Other work recently completed included installation of new signs and a wheelchair lift.

The St. Cloud depot was built in 1909 by the Northern Pacific and features brown pressed brick trimmed with gray granite.

Amtrak estimates that St. Cloud generates $1.1 million in revenue a year while serving 9,950 passengers.

Pueblo Renews Push to Become SW Chief Stop

November 11, 2015

Officials in Pueblo, Colorado, have renewed their push to reroute Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to serve their community.

The effort comes in the wake of successful efforts to assure the future of the train’s current route through western Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northern New Mexico through the use of federal TIGER grants.

The grant money is being used to rebuild the BNSF tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

“If Colorado is going to help save this line, we need to have a stop in Pueblo,” said Sal Pace, a Pueblo County commissioner who has been active in the fight to keep the Southwest Chief on its present route.

Pace is chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission and is promoting the use of Pueblo Union Station. Pueblo has not had intercity rail service since the coming of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.

“The funding mechanism is there,” Pace said about the prospect of a Pueblo stop for the Chief. “The devil is in the details.”

A Colorado State University study estimated that adding Pueblo to the route of the Southwest Chief would attract 15,500 passengers annually and have an economic impact of a $3.4 million.

Pace and others have discussed extending operation of the Denver ski train south along the Interstate 25 corridor.

The ski train currently operates between Denver and Winter Park, Colorado, which is the same route used by Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Colorado passenger rail advocates see extended operation of the ski train as a way to introduce rail passenger travel to Coloradoans living in areas not served by Amtrak or commuter rail service in the Denver metropolitan area.

“The Ski Train is more than just Winter Park for us,” said Jim Souby, president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association and a member of the Southwest Chief Commission. “It’s showing people how great it is to ride the train.”

A Colorado Department of Transportation study of a proposed Front Range rail system that would extend between Fort Collins and Pueblo put development costs at between $500 million and $1 billion.

Amtrak has been noncommittal about revising the route of the Southwest Chief to include Pueblo and Walsenburg, Colorado. At present, the only stations served by the Chief in Colorado are Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.

“We think it’s something worth considering,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “It’s just a question of cost.”

An Amtrak conductor who works aboard the Southwest Chief sees benefits to having the train serve Pueblo.

“Pueblo would be a big stop,” Marcelino Martinez told the Denver Post. “It would probably rival Kansas City and Albuquerque.”

Martinez said some Chief passengers drive from Colorado Springs to board the train. “We get a lot of people driving down (to La Junta) so they can get to Los Angeles,” he said.

Pueblo is home to the Evraz steel mill, which employs 1,200, and is the nation’s leading producer of rail, some of which is going to be used in rebuilding the route of the Southwest Chief.

The federal government also operates a test track for railroad technology to the east of Pueblo.

3 Western Train Histories Posted

November 11, 2015

Historical sketches of the Pioneer, Desert Wind, and San Francisco Zephyr have now been posted to this site. You can find those in the pages column on the far right side of the home page under “Trains and Routes.”

California Zephyr, Empire Builder Make Shorter Trips Because of Freight Train Derailments

November 10, 2015

It has been a tough couple of days for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

A freight train derailment on Canadian Pacific near Watertown, Wisconsin, resulted in the westbound Empire Builder making a detour and passengers making part of their journey aboard a bus.

The derailment of the CP crude oil train occurred on Sunday. Eastbound No. 8 had already passed the derailment site, but westbound No. 7 had just left Chicago.

Nos. 7 reversed course and wound up traveling to La Crosse, Wisconsin, via a BNSF route through Savanna, Illinois.

In La Crosse, the Empire Builder got back on its normal route, but arrived into St. Paul, Minnesota, more than 12 hours late.

Passengers riding today between Spokane, Washington, and Seattle and Portland will ride buses because No. 8 will originate in Spokane.

On Monday, the eastbound Empire Builder was terminated at St. Paul and was to become the westbound train. Passengers rode buses between Chicago and St. Paul.

Also on Monday, a derailment on BNSF in Iowa closed the route of the California Zephyr.

Eastbound No. 6 was terminated at Ottumwa, Iowa, and passengers were taken by bus to their destination. The train was to originate in Ottumwa on Monday night as No. 5.

Amtrak added additional cars to the westbound Southwest Chief that departed Chicago on Monday afternoon to accommodate passengers ticketed aboard the westbound California Zephyr.

At Galesburg, Illinois, passengers for No. 5 were to board buses and travel to Ottumwa to resume their journey by rail.

The extra coaches added to the Chief were to be removed in Kansas City and deadhead back to Chicago on Tuesday.

2 Train Histories Added

November 8, 2015

I have just posted histories of two early Amtrak train names, the Denver Zephyr and City of San Francisco. These names were dropped early in Amtrak’s history and were predecessors of today’s California Zephyr. To find these histories, look under “Trains and Routes” in the pages section on the far right margin. Also new under “Trains and Routes” is a history of the Lake Shore Limited. Additional train histories will be posted in the coming weeks and months.

One Needed Money, Another a Building. The 40-Year Saga of Ann Arbor’s Michigan Central Station Continues To Affect Rail Passengers Today

November 7, 2015
The Michigan Central station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as it looks today.

The Michigan Central station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as it looks today.

A westbound Wolverine Service train arrives in Ann Arbor in May 2012. The remnants of the platform of the Michigan Central station are visible. The station is out of view to the right.

A westbound Wolverine Service train arrives in Ann Arbor in May 2012. The remnants of the platform of the Michigan Central station are visible. The edge of the station is visible to the right.

Penn Central needed money. Detroit restaurateur Chuck Muer needed a building in which to open a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. More than 40 years later the intersection of those respective needs continues to hold implications for rail passengers.

At the center of the story is a grand Romanesque-style railroad station opened in 1887 by the Michigan Central Railroad.

Designed with castle-like walls by Detroit architect Frederick Spier, the station was called the finest on the MC’s route between Chicago and Buffalo, New York.

But by 1969, Penn Central passenger patronage in Ann Arbor had shrunk to about 25 a day.

The financially beleaguered PC didn’t need a grand depot to serve the nine trains a day that used the station. Some of those were commuter runs to Detroit that didn’t operate on weekends.

When Muer offered to buy the station, Penn Central agreed to sell it and in 1970 a seafood restaurant named the Gandy Dancer opened there.

At the time, many viewed Muer as a hero for saving a building in which much local history was vested and that had been neglected by the New York Central and Penn Central.

Former Ann Arbor Mayor Lou Belcher recalled walking the site with Muer and looking at what would later become the restaurant’s main dining room.

He described it as nothing but dirt, poles, railroad ties and equipment.”It was filthy,” Belcher said.

As for Penn Central passengers, they were forced to use a former express office just east of the Broadway Bridge.

“It had a ticket office, restrooms and a waiting area furnished with an old wooden bench with seating for 12 passengers,” said Clark Charnetski, an Ann Arbor resident and former chairman of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

At the time, the outlook for intercity rail passenger service, particularly on routes operated by Penn Central, was bleak.

PC announced in March 1970 that it would end all intercity passenger service west of Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

The Interstate Commerce Commission stalled that plan, but in June when Penn Central filed for bankruptcy protection, Congress moved to create Amtrak.

When Amtrak took over on May 1, 1971, it kept just four trains between Chicago and Detroit. Penn Central continued to operate the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter trains.

And passengers continued to wait for trains in that tiny station area in the former express building. Then Amtrak improved the service and patronage quickly grew.

In 1975, the Michigan Department of Transportation agreed to fund the Detroit commuter trains and Amtrak agreed to operate them.

Named the Michigan Executive, the trains began originating in Jackson and also served Chelsea and Ypsilanti.

In truth, though, those trains had always originated there because Penn Central had a crew base there. The trains just deadheaded between Jackson and Ann Arbor.

MDOT also built a 75-space parking lot west of the Broadway Bridge where the present Amtrak station is situated today.

Patronage kept growing and the small station, which was cramped even during the Penn Central era, became even more crowded.

Then Muer said he wanted to expand the former Michigan Central station. Battle lines were being drawn and something had to give.

* * * * *

Many in a community tend to get nostalgic when talking about their city’s railroad station even if they have never used it for train travel or haven’t been in it for many years.

Ann Arbor is no exception and many continue to extol the virtues of the past of a building that has been extensively re-purposed.

Of course, there was a time when the Michigan Central station played a central role in Ann Arbor life.

A historic marker at the station grounds says that enthusiastic crowds gathered to see presidents, prominent politicians and visiting dignitaries, some of whom spoke from the rear platforms of trains.

University of Michigan football teams left from there to play games in far-flung stadiums in the Big Ten conference.

Cheering crowds welcomed home or sent off troops in shows of patriotic fervor. Distinguished lecturers and concert artists arrived to perform at the University of Michigan or other venues in town.

In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both spoke at the depot.

Also making whistle stops in Ann Arbor over the years were Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan and Winston Churchill.

The station’s interior featured ornate waiting rooms, an elaborate ticket booth, red oak ceilings and trim, French tile floors, stained glass windows and a large terra cotta fireplace. The grounds outside included a garden with a fountain.

Two smaller buildings, a railway express office and a baggage facility, were connected to the depot by a metal canopy.

That is how the station is often described and while it looked like that during the heyday of rail travel, it was much less attractive by the late 1960s.

“Some local historians say that Muer saved the old station, but it is my understanding that there was never any threat to its existence,” Charnetski said. “Similar stations in Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Niles were never torn down. With the exception of Battle Creek, those other stations are now used by Amtrak.”

Amtrak was painfully aware of the limitations of the station facilities that it inherited from Penn Central.

Some thought that Amtrak was eyeing taking over the former Michigan Central station, which was designated a historical site by the Michigan Historical Commission in 1974 and then entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

A city commissioner even warned Muer at a ceremony to “watch out for the Amtrak wolves who might want the station back.”

Amtrak was testing French-built Turboliners on the Chicago-Detroit route and assigned the new equipment there on April 10, 1975. When a second Turboliner was added on April 27, Amtrak launched a third Chicago-Detroit roundtrip.

Passengers liked the equipment and ridership in May 1975 was up 40 percent over that of April. By July, so many wanted to ride the Turboliners that as many as 100 of them had to stand in the aisles on weekend trips.

The growth in the Chicago-Detroit corridor coincided with a plan by Muer to build an addition to the station, a plan that divided the folks of Ann Arbor between late 1975 and 1976 when the city council ultimately voted to allow the expansion, despite protests from historic preservationists.

Muer expanded the Gandy Dancer’s dining and kitchen facilities by enclosing the space between the main building and the former baggage station, which was then used for storage.

He also installed a new glassed-in dining area beneath the metal canopy on the track side. The expanded restaurant opened in September 1976.

* * * * *

For its part, Amtrak sought in 1978 to enlarge its waiting room by glassing in the canopy between the express building and the depot  in a manner similar to what the Gandy Dancer had done with the restaurant portion.

Workers tore off the glass entrance to the small Amtrak station and poured concrete footings for the addition.

But Muer objected to the work, saying the number of passengers using the station had grown to 250 a day by 1975 and there wasn’t enough parking. In response, the city issued a stop-work order and a small station became even smaller.

Many passengers were forced to wait for trains outside in the cold and snow.

As a makeshift solution, Amtrak bought an old surplus portable classroom building from the Ann Arbor schools and installed it beneath the Broadway Bridge to serve as an overflow waiting room.

In 1979, MDOT asked the Michigan passenger advocacy group if Ann Arbor needed a new station. By now Ann Arbor was the second busiest Amtrak station in Michigan. Of course it did, but where would it be located?

Following a June 1979 meeting between MDOT and city officials, a committee was formed to recommend a station site.

On the committee were representatives of the city, MDOT, Amtrak, the University of Michigan, Greyhound and other interested parties, including the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

Pollack Design Associates of Ann Arbor conducted a 98-page study that was released in November 1979.

It examined a number of locations, but the parking lot for commuters that MDOT had built on Depot Street was favored.

Congressman Carl Pursell obtained a federal earmark for the new Amtrak station, which was built in 1983. The site included a 100-space parking lot across the tracks.

A year later, the Michigan Executive was discontinued. Since then, Amtrak service through Ann Arbor has remained at six trains a day. For the past several years, the service has operated under the Wolverine Service moniker.

* * * * *

Although on the small side, the 1983 station is still used and is the busiest Amtrak station in Michigan today, seeing 147,093 passengers in 2014, a 31 percent increased over a decade earlier.

In many ways, Ann Arbor is in the same situation it was in the late 1970s with an Amtrak station that many, including the current city administration, views as inadequate to meet the city’s present and future needs.

MDOT purchased from Norfolk Southern the tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo used by the Wolverines and has launched a track rehabilitation campaign to boost train speeds and cut the running times.

State officials are talking about expanding the number of trains between Chicago and Detroit with up to 10 roundtrips a day the long-term goal.

There also are discussions about restarting Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter service, although that is not imminent.

The city is again studying sites for a new station, which is expected to be largely funded by the federal government and built in the 2017-2018.

“Today we have a similar choice of what to do,” Charnetski said of the process of studying potential sites for a new Amtrak station.

One of those options would be to do what some feared Amtrak wanted to do in the middle 1970s and take over the former Michigan Central station.

Because the station is privately owned, taking it over and re-configuring it for transportation use is not all that simple. But the idea continues to glow in the minds of some with those dreams driven in part by nostalgia.

City Council Member Sabra Briere said she’s fascinated by the idea of having the depot becoming a train station again.

“There were a lot of really bad decisions made in the history of time, and many people would say that was a bad decision,” she said of letting the depot become a restaurant.

Former mayor Belcher understands the affinity that many have for the former station because it is part of the city’s history.

“I know at one time it meant a lot to the whole city, because that’s basically where all the U of M alumni, students, football traffic, everything else, came into Ann Arbor,” he said. “So many people who first came to Ann Arbor used that train station.”

But Belcher opposes converting the depot back to a train station and expressed doubt that the current owner of the restaurant, Landry’s Inc., would agreed to it.

“It’s a hell of a place to eat,” Belcher said of the Gandy Dancer, noting it’s packed on Sundays for brunch, and patrons cheer and clap whenever trains pass.

“My view of historical buildings is that, if a lot of people use them and enjoy them, and revel in their history, that’s historical preservation,” Belcher said. “They can build another train station anywhere they want. That’s the Gandy Dancer now.”

Rail advocate Charnetski takes a similar position. He thinks that the best solution would be to build a new station on Fuller Road.

“I personally favor the Fuller Road site, mainly because of its location on the most important bus transit route in Michigan and its proximity to the [University of Michigan] Medical Center,” Charnetski said.

The Fuller Road site is also along the proposed route of the Ann Arbor Connector, a high-capacity intracity transit system that’s in the planning stages.

Acknowledging that three decades ago he favored a Depot Street location, Charnetski noted that the Fuller Road location would require using city parkland. But he said circumstances have changed and so has his opinion.

* * * * *

Eli Cooper is Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager. He said the city is looking at using the former Michigan Central station because the FRA asked it to do so.

“They requested the same level of concept planning and cost estimation as the other sites remaining in the analysis,” Cooper said.

But that also includes the current site of the existing Amtrak station on Depot Street. Although there has been talk for years of a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, the latest efforts only began in 2014.

The city had ruled out using the former Michigan Central station and instead focused on the Fuller Road site or the existing Amtrak station site.

Then the FRA handed down an edict to include the former Michigan Central station in the study.

Cooper said the project team had already included a study of the MC station location as part of the environmental review process.

“We submitted materials to the FRA including information about the (Gandy Dancer) site,” he said. “The FRA requested we continue to evaluate this location as part of the environmental review. They asked that we develop concept plans and costs associated with use of the (Gandy Dancer) as one of the alternatives.”

A reporter for the Ann Arbor News has sought comment from the owner of the Gandy Dancer, but has yet to receive a reply.

The city recently submitted to MDOT a preliminary report about sites for the proposed new Amtrak station.

But officials are being tight-lipped on which site they favor, saying that they expect to hold public hearings.

Chuck Muer, the restaurant owner who started this process decades ago by buying the Michigan Central station from Penn Central, won’t be around to see the outcome.

Muer, whose fine dining restaurant empire grew to more than 20 seafood restaurants, vanished in 1993 after setting sail from the Bahamas in a 40-foot sailboat. No trace of him and his boat, Charley’s Crab, were ever found.


Fargo Station to be Renovated in 2016

November 7, 2015

Work is expected to get underway next February or March on modernizing the Amtrak station in Fargo, North Dakota.

The project will bring station into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fargo is served by the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Amtrak said it will spend $1.3 million to upgrade the station’s platform, doorways, bathrooms, water fountain and other areas. The parking lot will be redone and the ticket counter lowered so that wheelchair users can see over it.

Amtrak officials are also looking at remodeling the station in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to bring it into ADA compliance.

Amtrak Opens Temporary Rochester Depot

November 7, 2015

Amtrak opened a temporary station in Rochester, New York, this past week while the existing facility is razed and replaced by a larger and more modern facility.

The temporary deport is located on Central Avenue and is adjacent to the existing station, which Amtrak build in the 1970s. The interim station will have a ticket office, waiting area and a parking lot.

Amtrak and New York officials expect the new $30 million station to open in fall of 2017.

That facility will feature a two-sided, high-level passenger platform that will be reached via an underground concourse.

Two Amtrak trains will be able to board simultaneously. Rochester is served by the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf and New York-Niagara Falls, New York, Empire Corridor.

Pike Company of Rochester won the contract to build the new station.


Amtrak Adds Michigan Thanksgiving Trains

November 6, 2015

In cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Amtrak is adding additional trains on two of its three Michigan corridors.

Wolverine Extra No. 356 will depart Chicago at 9:30 a.m. and make intermediate stops in Michigan at New Buffalo, Niles, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Jackson before arriving in Ann Arbor at 3:14 p.m.

The equipment will turn and become Wolverine Extra No. 359 at 4:05 p.m. to Chicago with the same intermediate stops as No. 356. No. 359 is scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 7:50 p.m.

Nos. 356 and 359 will operate on Nov. 25, 28 and 29.

An extra section of the Pere Marquette will operate on Nov. 25 and 29 between Chicago and Holland, Michigan.

No. 372 will depart Chicago at 10 a.m. and make intermediate stops in St. Joseph and Bangor before arriving in Holland at 2:11 p.m.

The equipment will turn and depart Holland at 3:10 p.m., making the same intermediate stops before arriving back in Chicago at 5:27 p.m.

Amtrak is encouraging passengers to plan for Thanksgiving travel and book their reservations now in order to obtain the best availability and pricing.

The travel days that are most likely to sell out are the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after the holiday.

Other than on Thanksgiving Day, morning trains typically have more available seats than those in the afternoon and evening.

Buses Replace Maple Leaf in Toronto Nov. 21, 22

November 6, 2015

Amtrak passengers riding the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf will begin or end their journey in Toronto on a bus on Nov. 21 and 22 due to bridge work being performed by VIA Rail Canada.

Amtrak Nos. 63 and 64 will originate at and depart from the Mimico GO Transit Commuter Station in Etobicoke, eight miles west of Toronto Union Station.

Passengers will be transported by bus between Toronto Union Station and the Mimico GO Transit Commuter Station.