Archive for January, 2017

Harsh Weather Hinders Amtrak in the West

January 26, 2017

Adverse weather conditions in California has made travel a challenge on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Amtrak logoTrains magazine reported that heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have resulted in Nos. 5 and 6 operating hours late.

No. 5 that departed Chicago last Friday arrived on Tuesday in Emeryville, California, nearly 12 hours late. It took nearly six hours to travel between Truckee and Roseville, a trip that normally takes 3 hours, 20 minutes.

Consequently, No. 6 was more than five hours departing on Wednesday as workers cleaned and stocked the train with food, beverages and supplies.

Last Monday, No. 6 was eight hours late departing from Emeryville and arrived in Truckee 10 1/2 hours late.

Bad weather has also affected the route of Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Falling rocks and mud prompted BNSF to close its Fallbridge Subdivision in Washington state, which is used by the Portland section of the Empire Builder. It instead continued on to Seattle with Portland passengers being placed on buses or Amtrak Cascade trains.

Keeping a Watch on the Platform in Joliet

January 25, 2017

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Amtrak operating crew members have always had radios to communicate with each other. A conductor can tell the engineer by radio that boarding is complete and it is time to leave.

But engine crew members still like to do things the old fashioned way and look in the side mirror to see how the boarding process is going.

It is June 25, 1977, in Joliet, Illinois. The St. Louis-bound Statehouse has arrived and is boarding passengers.

At the time, it was the only train on the Chicago-St. Louis route funded by the State of Illinois.

The engineer is at the throttle of a P30PH locomotive. Known as “Pooches,” the P30s were a common sight on Midwest corridor trains in the 1970s, particularly on Illinois Central Gulf routes.

It was an era when the Statehouse and other corridor trains might be pull into the station behind a P30 or an F40PH. You just never knew.

Empire Builder in Milwaukee

January 24, 2017

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The Milwaukee Amtrak station is larger than it needs to be given the level of service that it has. I’m speaking of the train shed, not the waiting room.

It’s not that Milwaukee sees just two trains a day as is the case in many cities. No, it has seven Hiawatha Service roundtrips plus the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Still, there appear to be more track in the station than what Amtrak uses. Shown are three views of the Milwaukee station during the station stop of the westbound Empire Builder in May 2014.

Layoffs Threaten Passenger Car Order

January 24, 2017

The factory that is to build new passenger cars for use on Amtrak routes in the Midwest and California has just laid off 100 workers, throwing the future of the order into further doubt.

Nippon Sharyo had already laid off workers from its plant in Rochelle, Illinois, in 2015 and 2016.

nippon-sharyoThe Japanese company has a contract to build 172 bi-level cars with $551 million of the cost being paid for with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The cars are ticketed to replace the Horizon fleet cars that are now typical on Midwest corridor trains.

Nippon Sharyo has attributed the layoffs to continuing production and mechanical issues. Chief among those is the failure of a prototype car to pass a stress test in 2015.

The funding for the passenger cars will expire on Sept. 30, 2017, and revert back to the U.S. treasury if it is not spent by that date.

“The Midwest states know that there are delays relevant to Sumitomo and Nippon Sharyo being able to deliver equipment,” Tim Hoeffner, head of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s rail office, told Trains magazine. “The states don’t know what the new delivery schedule is yet and are waiting for Nippon Sharyo, California (which is leading the railcar procurement) and the Federal Railroad Administration to come back to us with a proposed schedule and a path forward.”

Fill ‘er Up With Diesel Fuel

January 23, 2017

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Except in New Jersey, full-service gas stations where someone comes out and fills up your vehicle have rapidly vanished from the American landscape.

But on the railroad, it is common for someone to top off the tanks of locomotives with diesel fuel. And so it is with Amtrak.

At many intermediate stations on the Amtrak network, a fuel truck drives up before the arrival of a train and the driver gets out and puts diesel fuel into the locomotive tanks.

It is routine that is not practiced in all that many places when you consider how many stations that Amtrak has.

But it is train time ritual nonetheless and one that gets little attention from passengers or railroad photographers.

This particular scene unfolded in Sacramento, California, on June 26, 1999, as a worker fills the tanks of the Los Angeles-bound Coast Starlight.

Alton Seeking Buyer For its Amtrak Station

January 23, 2017

Alton, Illinois, is making a push to save its existing Amtrak station, which once served the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad.

300px-Lincoln_Service_map.svgThe city has created a marketing brochure with the goal of finding a buyer for the station, which will close once the new Alton Regional Multi Modal Transportation Center opens later this year.

The current depot, located on College Avenue, will close and the city has a year to sell or demolish it.

Because the station is located next to tracks owned by Union Pacific, any buyer will need to follow guidelines established by the railroad as to what uses of the property can be made.

The new owner, though, would have the option of moving the station building to a new location.

The city is working with the Alton Area Landmarks Association in seeking a buyer for the property.

Alton is served by the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Penn Station Info Board Being Removed

January 23, 2017

A New York Penn Station icon fell by the wayside on Monday (Jan. 23, 2017).

The large train arrivals and departures board was removed in favor a passenger information display system that was actually activated last October.

Amtrak logoAmtrak said the new system features LCD displays that are easier to read and synchronize audio and visual messages.

The passenger carrier also contends that the system will improve foot traffic flow because although the new video screens are smaller, they are dispersed throughout the station.

The former information board was centrally located and drew traffic to it, particularly during peak periods when passengers would stand beneath the board towering 10 feet over their heads to wait for the track for their train to be posted.

Workers began Monday morning removing the former information board, a process that will continue throughout the week.

Penn Station handles 665,000 people a day riding 1,200 trains.

Pointing Eastward

January 21, 2017

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Amtrak P42DC No. 75 is on the point of the eastbound California Zephyr as it makes its station stop in Sacramento,  California.

This is a crew change point and a new engineer will take the right-hand seat in the cab to man the control of No. 75 ans it, a fellow P42 and an F40PH throttle up to move No. 6 eastward en route to Chicago.

The image was made on June 25, 1999, and was scanned from a slide.

Amtrak to Transfer Half of Denver Crew Base

January 21, 2017

In what is being framed as a cost-cutting move, Amtrak is moving 21 train operating positions from Denver to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Feb. 1.

amtrak-california-zephyrAmtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier expects to save almost $1 million annually by making the move although he declined to explain how that will be the case.

Magliari said all of the affected employees are conductors and engineers. If all of the workers agree to transfer, none of them will lose their jobs or their work seniority.

They are assigned to the Chicago-San Francisco Bay California Zephyr. Magliari said it will take 90 days for the train crew members being transferred to become fully qualified.

The move will bring to 44 the number of Amtrak employees in Nebraska, all of them based in Lincoln or Omaha.

Earlier, Amtrak had moved its crew base in Omaha to Lincoln, which Amtrak said was to cut costs and make for a more efficient operation.

Denver-based Amtrak employees who elect not to transfer to Lincoln will be given the opportunity to transfer elsewhere on the Amtrak system without losing their seniority.

If not enough Denver-based workers agree to move to Nebraska, Magliari said Amtrak will open those positions to others within the Amtrak work force.

The changes will cut the number of workers at the Denver crew base in half.

Amtrak will continue to base conductors and engineers in Denver to operate Nos. 5 and 6 between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado.

Ann Arbor City Council Approves Funds for New Amtrak Station Design and Engineering Work

January 19, 2017

The Ann Arbor (Michigan) City Council this week approved a contract with a consultant to begin design and engineering work for a new Amtrak station, but not before city officials had to defend the need for the new facility.

michiganBy an 8-3 vote, the council agreed to pay for the work, but not before some questioned the need for the station, saying that Amtrak ridership in Ann Arbor has been falling for the past three years.

Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, acknowledged the ridership decline, but said in any event a new station is needed because of the crowded conditions at the existing station and its poor condition.

“I would invite council members, members of the community, to come out and experience the existing Ann Arbor Amtrak station during periods of heavy use,” Cooper said. “The waiting room is substandard for the complement of passengers boarding trains today. This is based on the current ridership.”

Amtrak opened the existing modular station in 1983. When Amtrak began service in 1971, it served Ann Arbor through the former Michigan Central passenger station.

But it was squeezed out of that facility, which is today a privately owned restaurant known as the Gandy Dancer.

A new Amtrak station is projected to cost more than $2 million with 80 percent of that cost being picked up by a federal grant.

But the station project has drawn the ire of some council members because it is behind schedule and over budget.

The city has yet to settle on a site for the new depot, which could be built near the existing station on Depot Street or in Fuller Park.

Voting against spending money for the design and engineering work were Jack Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy and Jane Lumm.

“This is a project that’s been consistently behind schedule and over budget,” Lumm said. “I’m not sure what makes us think that won’t continue. A good portion of the local dollars already invested are gone, and I fear, wasted. And we sit here tonight being asked to commit another $500,000 of taxpayer money.”

Lumm noted that the city faces a deadline to get the station completed before the federal grant expires.

“But because of the delays along the way, the clock is running out on the grant funding, so we’re now being asked to scramble and dive in to the next phase immediately,” she said. “That’s just not how we should be doing things.”

Cooper admitted that ridership projections that were calculated in 2014 may be overly optimistic.

One projection was that Ann Arbor would be handling nearly 1.4 million rail passengers in 2025. That would include Amtrak patronage of 969,000 and 516.000 for a still-to-be-funded commuter rail service to Detroit. It was also based on Amtrak service increasing from three to 10 roundtrips a day between Chicago and Detroit.

In Amtrak’s fiscal year 2016, which ended on Sept. 30, it handled 122,534 passengers, an 18 percent drop from ridership of three years earlier.

“The anticipated commuter service and the forecast and projection for future growth in both rail ridership and use at this station are, if you will, perhaps not well founded, but the need for the initial investment is in order to remedy the defects of the current station,” Cooper said.

Amtrak and state transportation officials have said that falling gasoline prices have cut into Amtrak ridership in Michigan.

Another factor was that during summer and fall of 2016 track work between Battle Creek and Jackson cut the level of service.

The work sponsored by Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation affected 41 miles of track and involved replacing 26,000 railroad ties, repairing or installing 15 track switches, realigning or modifying 29 railroad curves, repairing 23 railroad grade crossings and improving road profiles at crossings.

Amtrak also upgraded its signal system east of Kalamazoo. The work was originally scheduled to be completed in September but did not end until November.

The State of Michigan owns most of the route between Kalamazoo and Deaborn while Amtrak owns the route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.

The work was conducted as part of the Michigan Accelerated Rail Program with state officials saying that passengers will benefit from improved reliability, a smoother ride and the first 110-mph Amtrak service in the Midwest.