Archive for February, 2016

Those Waiting for the Pere Marquette in Grand Rapids No Longer Being Left Outside in the Cold

February 17, 2016

A schedule change last year that left Amtrak passengers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, out in the cold for several months has apparently led to a resolution of the problem after a local TV station looked into the matter.

An investigation by WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids found that the station is usually open before the Pere Marquette departs for Chicago but often closed when it arrives at night.

Amtrak logoNo. 371 is scheduled to depart Grand Rapids at 6 a.m., but the posted hours for the station say it doesn’t open until 6:30 a.m. The station opens at 5:30 a.m.

Likewise, the posted hours say the station closes at 10:30 p.m., but No. 370 is scheduled to arrive from Chicago at 11:39 p.m.

The TV station said its investigation found that the station hasn’t been open half the time it’s supposed to be open.

Reporters observed Amtrak personnel being able to get inside the station as others had to wait outside.

The Pere Marquette originates and terminates in Grand Rapids.

The station is owned by the Grand Rapids public transportation agency, the Rapid, and leased to Amtrak.

A contract that Amtrak has with the agency says that it is to “use its best efforts to open or close the station” for Amtrak personnel and passengers to use it.

The posted hours for the Grand Rapids station were fine until the schedule of the Pere Marquette changed last May.

WOOD-TV said that records show that Amtrak last month asked the Rapid to have the station open for a half-hour before the scheduled arrival of No. 370 from Chicago.

Amtrak’s request to the Rapid noted that the two parties had a verbal agreement to have the station vestibule open at night due to a conflict with the station caretaker.

However, the vestibule is small and Amtrak has received numerous inquiries from passengers as to why the lobby and restrooms cannot be made available to those waiting for the train to arrive.

Amtrak also asked that the station open at 5 a.m. for the departing train

In an e-mail message, a Rapid spokesperson said “the change in the train schedule . . . did cause some scheduling problems with the contracted station attendant who has been in place for years, first with Amtrak directly and then with The Rapid.”

The spokesperson said The Rapid continues to work with Amtrak.

“We now have a solution in place to ensure that the station is open before and after the arrival of the train as expected.”

The TV station reported that this past week it observed someone unlock the station and turn on the lights in advance of the arrival of Train No. 370.

He said he had been hired about a week ago, which was about the same time that the TV station began making inquiries of The Rapid.

Located on Century Avenue SW, the $6 million station opened in late 2014. Most of its funding came from a $4.6 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant and a $1.5 million match in Federal Transit Administration, MDOT and local funds.

Trestle Fire Near New Orleans Disrupts CONO

February 14, 2016

Passengers traveling on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans are riding a bus between New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, after a trestle fire Saturday morning closed the train’s route in and out of the Crescent City.

Although the cause of the fire remains under investigation, it may have been caused by a Canadian National work crew doing welding on the bridge.

Amtrak City of New OrleansAmtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said bus transportation for passengers on Trains 58 and 59, which link Chicago and New Orleans, was being provided between Jackson and New Orleans.

It is the second time the bus brigade has operated between those two cities. Flooding last month that closed the CN route also put Amtrak passengers on the bus between the two cites.

“We are working on arrangements for future travel,” Leeds said. “All affected passengers will be contacted directly.”

One Amtrak passenger, Tim Lazaroe, told WWL-TV in New Orleans that passengers were told their train would be diverted in Jackson due to a fire.

“They just announced that due to a fire that has closed the rails, all passengers will have to exit the train in Jackson and will be bused to New Orleans,” he said.

The fire along Interstate 10 near the Bonnet Carre Spillway was reported at 8:20 a.m. by the workers, who were grinding rails.

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said the cause of the fire is being investigated. Waldron said aside from Amtrak trains, the trestle sees four to eight CN freight trains a day.

“I can’t give a timeline when it will reopen,” Waldron said. “You can see from the pictures there is damage that has to be repaired.”

The fire had been extinguished by Saturday afternoon aside from a few hot spots that expected to be put out by Sunday morning.

Officials in St. Charles Parish said they received a phone call from workers on the bridge reporting a fire that started while they were working on the tracks. The workers said they tried to put out the fire but it continued to get worse.

St. Charles Parish spokesman Tristan Babin said the fire was reported contained about 2 p.m.

Port of New Orleans spokesman Matthew Gresham said shipping companies were exploring alternate routes.

“Rail is obviously vital to the Port of New Orleans,” Gresham said. “We move approximately 20,000 to 25,000 containers per year through the port by rail.”

Nearby Interstate 10 remained open during the fire. Louisiana State Police spokeswoman Trooper Melissa Matey said the heavy smoke from the blaze was blowing away from the highway but was being monitored.

Amtrak Revenue Falling Short; Boardman Orders Department Heads to Reduce Spending by 3.8%

February 13, 2016

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has directed department heads at the passenger railroad to cut their spending by 3.8 percent and warned that further budget cuts lie ahead.

In a letter sent within the company, Boardman blamed bad weather and low gasoline prices, which have resulted in less-than-budgeted revenue.

Amtrak logoAmtrak ended Fiscal Year 2015 on Oct. 1 with a $305 million operating loss, which was $70 million worse than planned. The FY 2016 budget expects an operating loss of $245 million.

“We are going to need to take more aggressive actions to reduce our costs, some of which may be painful to take,” Boardman wrote.

Boardman said that low gasoline prices mean that some who would take the train are now driving short distances or flying long distances.

In particular, Boardman said, Amtrak had a “disappointing” Thanksgiving travel period. The letter also said a massive East Coast snowstorm in January disrupted service.

“Our company needs cash to pay our daily expenses, and our cash position is becoming a concern,” Boardman wrote.

An Amtrak spokeswoman said it would be premature to conclude that Amtrak will impose layoffs.

Boardman’s letter said Amtrak will make “all necessary investments” for employee and customer safety.

Among the cost-cutting mandates that Boardman cited are eliminating nonessential business travel and asking employees to conduct business by phone or video conference.

He also recommended delaying new costly projects and making new hires.

EPA Finds Dirty Air in Chicago Union Station

February 11, 2016

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says passengers and workers at Chicago Union Station are being exposed to high levels of air pollution.

EPA researchers drew that conclusion after taking air samples during a two-week period last July.

Using portable aerosol monitors to measure microscopic particles in the air around the station platforms and nearby streets, the researchers found particularly high levels of PM2.5 along the south platforms.

Chicago Union StationChicago-based EPA Air quality specialist John Mooney said PM2.5 are liquid droplets and acids, metals, or other pollutants that are byproduct of diesel fuel-burning locomotives.

EPA researchers had expected lower levels of pollutants on the south platforms. “They were higher than we like to see,” Mooney said.

Passengers on the platforms inhale these PM2.5 particles and Dr. Samuel Dorevitch of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health said that microscopic particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter could travel from the nose or mouth to the lungs

“The Union Station isn’t just an ordinary [station]. It also has diesel emissions and those Metra trains run on diesel emissions. Along with being plain old bad, the PM2.5  [are] a known human carcinogen,” Dorevitch said.

Dorevictch said that once the particles pass through the bronchial sacs into the lung cells and into the bloodstream, they can trigger an inflammatory response, which can cause cancer.

The EPA is working with Amtrak and Metra to minimize the effects of PM2.5 on Union Station users and workers. “Exposure to PM2.5 is something we try to minimize. We have a situation that needs attention,” Mooney said.

Some short-term solutions that the parties are considering include changing the direction of trains entering platforms, making sure trains don’t idle excessively on the platforms and maintaining a safe distance between passengers and locomotives.

Replacing older locomotives for cleaner and more efficient fuel-burning locomotives would be the best solution, but that would take time and money.

“We all know the long-term solution is to move to cleaner engines,” Mooney said. “And there are cleaner technologies out there now; the technology has improved considerably.”

In the meantime, Mooney said that the EPA, Amtrak and Metra are working with building owners to see if their [ventilation systems] can run longer and harder as a way of protecting workers in the area around the station.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger railroad is updating ventilation systems and viaduct systems surrounding Union Station.

“The ventilation is an important issue and it’s going to be addressed through an ongoing process through the city’s master plan. We are working with the city on the Canal Street [ventilation system] that covers all the tracks,” he said.

In a statement, Metra said it was partnering with the city of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority on a long-term solution to address the air quality issues that could be solved through the master plan to reconfigure and redevelop Union Station.

Mooney said it won’t be clear if any progress has been made until another air quality study is conducted.

Ramsey County Nudges Study of 2nd Chicago-Twin Cities Train by Putting up $300,000

February 11, 2016

The Ramsey (Minnesota) County Board of Commissions has approved spending $300,000 to begin an environmental assessment of adding a second train between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesapolis-St. Paul.

A feasibility study conducted by Amtrak nine months ago said the train is expected to need $6.6 million in annual in operating subsidies. That Minnesotamoney would need to come from sources in Minnesota, Wisconsin and/or other parties.

Currently the Twin Cities and Chicago are linked by Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which serves 100,000 passengers a year.

The Amtrak study estimated that another train between Chicago and St. Paul could draw 155,000 passengers annually.

“The second daily train is to grow the market, provide greater reliability at conventional speed of 79 miles per hour,” said Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

MnDOT is expected to form a partnership with Ramsey County in conducting the environmental study. The first phase of that study is expected to be finished by late 2017 and will produce cost figures for construction, capital needs and operating costs.

The environmental study is expected to cost $600,000 with the expense split among MnDOT, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission.

“We’re finalizing the contracts right now and will have a consultant on board within a month,” Krom said. “If everything lined up with funding, we could have trains running in three or four years. But a lot of things would have to line up between now and then.”

Ramsey County officials said they acted to put up Minnesota’s share of the money for the environmental study because MnDOT lacks the funds to do so.

The Amtrak study of a second Chicago-St. Paul train did not assume that Amtrak would operate the service or that it would use the exact route of the Empire Builder in the Twin Cities region.

“There’s been no determination of who would be offering the service. It’s way early for that,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Four potential routes in Minnesota were identified in the Amtrak study, including stops and/or terminal points in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Fridley and St. Cloud.

The study said that the existing infrastructure at St. Paul Union Depot favored it being the terminus for the route because it would be the least expensive option and the quickest to implement.

Some other station options would involve sharing stations with the Northstar commuter rail line, which could result in scheduling conflicts. The Empire Builder route through Wisconsin would likely be used.

The second Chicago-Twin Cities train is seen by some as a step toward developing high-speed rail between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

MnDOT is also studying the Northern Lights Express corridor from Minneapolis to Duluth, but has put on hold a study of developing high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minnesota.

Work Progressing on New Rochester Station

February 11, 2016

Officials in Rochester, New York, say a new intermodal terminal to serve Amtrak is progressing well and is expected to open as scheduled in autumn 2017.

A mild winter has enabled workers to make good progress, including beginning excavation work. The $29.8 million station will replace a modular structure built by Amtrak in 1978.

Rochester

Artist rendering of interior of Rochester station now under construction.

The new intermodal facility is being built on the site of the Amtrak-built depot on the north edge of downtown Rochester.

City officials have closed some streets so that workers can strengthen 115-year old bridges used by Amtrak and CSX trains.

St. Paul Street, which has been closed for fourth months, is expected to reopen next week at which time North Clinton Avenue will be closed.

Federal and state funding is paying for the bulk of the costs of building the new station, which will be used by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited, the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf and four New York-Niagara Falls, New York, Empire Service trains.

The Amtrak-built station has been razed and passengers are using a temporary station and boarding platform.

The project involves building a fourth track near the station and realigning three other tracks, all of which are owned by CSX.

Amtrak trains will be able to stop in Rochester without blocking CSX trains.Passengers will access the station platforms through underground tunnels.

IDOT Intends to Finish High-Speed Rail Project

February 10, 2016

Despite a budget stalemate and the desire of the governor to reduce spending on Amtrak service, the Illinois Department of Transportation expects to spend all of the $1.1 billion in federal funds it has been awarded to upgrade the Chicago-St. Louis corridor to higher speed rail.

IDOT faces a Sept. 30, 2017, deadline to spend the money or else return to the federal government what it has not spent.

IDOTDuring a meeting in Lockport, Illinois, this week, IDOT officials said the budget standoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly won’t affect work on the high-speed rail project.

Scott Speegle, IDOT’s passenger rail marketing manager, said the department continues to work with the Federal Railroad Administration on the project and intends to meet the 2017 deadline.

Speegle spoke at the Gladys Fox Museum at the invitation of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

The high-speed rail program began in 2010 and involves upgrading the corridor in some places to a 110 mph top speed.

Illinois is providing $850 million of the cost of the $1.95 million project, which includes $637 million for track and structure improvements; $194 million for grade crossings, fencing and bridge improvements; and $609 million for rolling stock and equipment.

“I don’t think it’s a secret, certainly not to most folks, but right now we’re in some respects in a holding pattern primarily due to the [state’s] budget and financial situation,” Speegle said in reference to the budget fight.

Also in limbo are other rail and station improvement projects, including an extension of Amtrak service from Chicago to Rockford and the Quad Cities region.

“None have been canceled, but until funding is identified, they probably won’t be moving forward at this point any time soon,” Speegle said.

The Chicago-St. Louis corridor has 11 stations and is served by four daily Lincoln Service roundtrips and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

MoDOT Gets Kansas City PTC Bill Lowered

February 10, 2016

Union Pacific and the Missouri Department of Transportation have reached an agreement about the division of costs for installing positive train control in Kansas City on the route that hosts Amtrak’s Missouri  River Runner trains.

The agreement cuts the cost that MoDOT will have to pay to install the federally-mandated safety system that is expected to cost $32 million in the Kansas City region.

Amtrak Missouri River RunnerMoDOT’s share had been put at $18 million, but officials said that number has been reduced to $7 million.

That occurred after transportation officials conducted a study that found that freight trains carrying hazard materials are heavy users of the track in Kansas City used by Amtrak.

Eric Curtit, the railroads administrator at MoDOT, said freight railroads therefore will pay more of the costs for the PTC system that initially had been assessed to MoDOT and Amtrak.

“We argued that we should not have to bear the full (cost) given the amount of hazardous material moving through the area,” he said.

At one point last year, Amtrak had threatened to cease operating its St. Louis-Kansas City trains because it said it could not afford its share to install PTC in either city.

MoDOT said the agreement on sharing the PTC costs in Kansas City means that the River Runner service will continue uninterrupted.

“We’ve reached a working agreement that’s fair to all parties,” Curtit said.

Missouri state senator David Pearce said the agreement will allow MoDOT to pay its share of the PTC costs over several years.

Curtit noted that federal law requires all rail routes hosting hazardous cargo to have a PTC system in place.

The cost to install PTC in St. Louis is expected to be lower than it is in Kansas City, but cost estimate has not yet been determined.

“They’re not as far along as Kansas City,” Curtit said.

Union Pacific will pay all costs of installing PTC on track that lies outside the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan areas.

“There’s a huge cost between Kansas City and St. Louis,” Curtit said, saying that the total cost for PTC installation statewide is estimated at $62 million.

Railroads have until 2018 to install and turn on their PTC systems. UP has said that it expects to meet that deadline.

Amtrak Wants Times at Intermediate Stations Included in STB On-Time Performance Rules

February 10, 2016

In the ongoing battle before the Surface Transportation Board over on-time performance rules for Amtrak trains, the passenger carrier is arguing that the standards must also encompass intermediate stations as well as endpoint terminals.

Amtrak contends that measuring on-time performance at all stations located on a host railroad is the only viable method of measuring passenger train performance.

STBThat assertion was made to the STB as part of its proceeding in Ex Parte 726, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on On-Time Performance under Section 213 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

The law allows Amtrak to ask for an STB investigation in cases in which freight train operations deny Amtrak’s right of preference as contained in the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act that created Amtrak.

Citing STB decisions as well as rulings by its predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, Amtrak told the STB “[T]he only measurement that meets all these requirements is the one that measures performance of Amtrak trains on host railroads at all intermediate stations as well as at endpoint stations . . .”

The Amtrak brief said that incorporating on-time performance at all stations “is the most inclusive and revealing measurement of Amtrak train performance.”

The freight railroad industry, though, has a different take on the issue.

Norfolk Southern told the STB that its proposed rule implicitly adopts Amtrak’s published timetable as the on-time standard.

“[M]any, if not most, Amtrak schedules cannot and have not provided a meaningful or realistic standard for assessing on-time performance,” NS said in its brief.

NS argued for a rule that factors in calculations of “allowances” or “thresholds” for determining if a train is on time.

The Southern Rail Commission supported Amtrak, saying, “the proposed rule for measuring on-time performance is inadequate and doesn’t come close to providing the full picture of the performance of the system.”

The Commission said that Amtrak has been forced to pad schedules to provide the host railroads ample flexibility in hitting on-time performance metrics.

“Much of the padding builds in ample recovery time for the host railroads’ lack of preference for passenger trains, and still arrive at the endpoint destination on-time,” the Commission said in its brief.

The rule proposed by the STB would only take into account on-time performance at endpoint terminals, which Amtrak argued would mean that only 10 percent of Amtrak stations were being taken into account.

It said that would result in an incomplete and in some instances distorted view of actual performance that would not accurately reflect the experience of two-thirds of Amtrak passengers.

Furthermore, Amtrak said, it would leave on-time performance within 24 states unmeasured because those states have no endpoint stations and leaves unaddressed the many routes where performance appears to be above 80 percent when measured only at the last station on the route, but is significantly and chronically less than 80 percent at stations all along the route.

A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads told Railway Age magazine that host railroads “recognize the importance of Amtrak and are committed to a reliable passenger rail service while still meeting the shipping needs of the nation’s freight customers.”

John D. Heffner, a partner at Strasburger & Price, told the magazine that Amtrak’s agreements with its host railroads impose penalties for poor performance and incentives for good performance.

“What seems to be lost on everybody, lost on the individual and lost on the STB, is that by and large today’s freight railroads don’t really have any desire to run passenger trains late because running them late screws up their network,” he said.

LSL Boston Section Still Not Operating to Chicago

February 8, 2016

The Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited is still not operating to Chicago, the National Association of Railroad Passengers reported on its blog last week.

Amtrak Lake Shore LimitedFor near a year, Nos. 448 and 449 has operated only between Boston and Albany-Rensselaer with passengers bound for points west of there having to make an across the platform transfer.

Amtrak attributed that to construction work to expand the Albany-Rensselaer station.

It had been expected that the Boston section would resume operating to Chicago on or about Feb. 1. Now, NARP says, it is unclear when Nos. 448 and 449 might resume operating to Chicago or if that will happen.