Archive for June, 2017

CSX Management Change Hinders Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service to the Gulf Coast

June 15, 2017

An Alabama member of the Southern Rail Commission said talks with CSX over getting approval to reinstate Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast have gone back to square one.

Commission member Jerry Gehman of Atmore said that since E. Hunter Harrison became CEO of the railroad last March that management has said that the cost of reinstating the service will be $2.3 billion, take it or leave it.

Gehman said that talks with the railroad facilitated by the Federal Rail Administration had whittled the price tag down to less than $800 million.

But then Harrison took over and “ . . . he is not amenable to our interests,” Gehman said. “Their position was fixed and firm. They said we should go back to the original estimate of $2.3 billion, that they would have no further negotiations, and they walked out of the meeting.”

Gehman said the FRA believes that the price of reviving Amtrak service east of New Orleans should be $117 million.

Now, Gehman said, any chance of seeing the service launched by end of this year is gone.

“We understand CSX’s position; unfortunately, it’s a hostile position, but they’ve made it very clear,” he said. “That hostile position is simply a negotiating tool.”

The Commission plans to continue negotiations. “What I left the [June 9] Rail Commission meeting with was frustration, aggravation and ‘how can I become a better negotiator?’” Gehman said. “My frustration comes from seeing the possibility, not the perspective of the railroad. I would not say that I’m disheartened, but I’m certainly disappointed.”

Gehman said a more aggressive posture on the part of the Rail Commission might be more beneficial.

 

NC Service Disruptions Set for June 26

June 15, 2017

More service disruptions are in store for Amtrak in North Carolina due to Norfolk Southern track work.

On June 26, Piedmont Service Nos. 73 and 76 will be canceled without alternative transportation being provided.

Piedmont Nos. 74 and 75 will operate between Raleigh and Greensboro. There will be no service to High Point, Salisbury, Kannapolis and Charlotte.

The Carolinian will operate between New York and Greensboro. No service will be provided to High Point, Salisbury, Kannapolis and Charlotte.

Amtrak to Build New Engine Facility in Seattle

June 15, 2017

Amtrak will build a $28 million locomotive service facility in Seattle to serve two long-distance trains and the state-funded Cascades service.

Construction is expected to begin this month and be completed in two years. The first step will be demolition of the site’s existing buildings, utilities, tracks and other structures.

Workers will then construct a new 31,000-square-foot locomotive shop that will have a new 125-ton drop table being funded by the Washington State Department of Transportation and a 55-ton overhead bridge crane.

Seattle is the western terminus of the Empire Builder from Chicago and the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles. The Cascades trains operate to Portland and Eugene, Oregon; and to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Hickory Creek to Ride Rear of LSL

June 14, 2017

The Hickory Creek, the ex-Twentieth Century Limited tail car will be traveling to Chicago for the Nickel Plate Road 765 trips. It will leave New York City on the Lake Shore Limited on June 14. It will head back to NYC on the Lake Shore on June 19.

Photograph by Jack Norris

Amtrak Introduces New Dining Car Fare

June 14, 2017

New menus have been introduced to the dining cars of most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Returning to the breakfast menu is French toast while new selections include chicken, bacon & cheddar quesadillas, and Thai-spiced pulled coconut pork sliders at lunch. New dinner items include seared shrimp, and chicken and bacon fettucine carbonara.

Dinner entrees have been expanded to include six distinct offerings, in addition to a new field and sea combo that includes the new shrimp offering paired with the existing flat iron steak.

Detroit SMART Buses to Serve Troy Amtrak Station

June 14, 2017

Local bus service will return to the Troy Transit Center in suburban Detroit, which is also used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains.

The recent signing of a court order this week involving the city of Troy and an Oakland County developer paved the way for the return of bus service provided by Detroit’s SMART bus system.

The settlement ended years of litigation that began in 1999 and had kept the buses away. “We’re very happy that the parties were able to reach an agreement without going to trial,” said SMART communications manager Beth Gibbons.

SMART buses will resume picking up and dropping off riders at the Transit Center.

The City of Troy agreed to pay $100,000 to developer Gary Sakwa and his Grand/Sakwa Properties, owners of a 75-acre shopping center and condominium complex that surrounds the transit center.

An earlier lawsuit was settled when Troy agreed to spend $4.15 million in federal transportation funds to buy the 2 acres under the center from Sakwa, whose ownership he claimed under previous legal rulings.

“It certainly is a welcome step in the right direction” for mass transit in southeast Michigan, said Megan Owens, executive director of TRU, or Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit group of bus riders.

Six daily Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverine Service trains serve the transit center.

Future of Alton Amtrak Station Remains Murky

June 14, 2017

The future of the soon-to-be former Amtrak station in Alton, Illinois, remains murky and city officials say there is little they can do about it.

“The city is out of the loop, the inquiries are to go to Union Pacific,” said Greg Caffey, Alton’s director of development and housing.

UP owns the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio depot and has said it will have it razed if no one comes forward with a plan to move the 89-year-old structure away from its current site at 3400 College Avenue.

The city has been trying to find a new owner for the station, but Caffey said UP has not informed him of any solid offer from a group wanting to buy and move the station.

Calli Hite, director of corporate communications for UP said in a statement that the railroad continues to evaluate options for the depot. “We do not have a timeline for a decision,” she said.

Amtrak leases the station from UP but plans to move this year to the under construction Alton Regional Multi-Modal Transportation Center.

The facility is expected to be completed this month although Amtrak and the city have yet to agree on a lease for the national passenger carrier to use it.

Under terms of the $13.85 million federal grant being used to fund development of the new station, it must be completed by June 30.

It is located at the former Robert P. Wadlow Municipal Golf Course, Golf Road at Homer Adams Parkway.

The grant also include money to raze the existing station, but UP would have to pay for that work on it own if it is not completed by Sept. 30.

Caffey said Amtrak would not likely move to the new station until mid or late July.

Terry Sharp, president of Alton Area Landmarks Association, said this week that although his organization has sought to generate interest in saving the College Avenue depot, time appears to be running out.

“We don’t have anything lined up; the last three to four months, myself and the group from Facebook (Save the Alton Train Station) have explored different ways in how to do it,” he said.

A St. Louis company that specializes in moving structures estimates it would cost $150,000 to move the 1,602-square-foot brick station to Gordon F. Moore Community Park or Rock Spring Park.

However, the city has said it doesn’t have any use for the station and therefore doesn’t want to be responsible for it.

UP has said it would sell the station for $1 and take a tax write off, but whoever buys it must pay to move it to a location off railroad property.

Sharp said it is hard to plan to move a building when no one has determined a destination.

“It is kind of a circular problem, trying to find a place to go and figure out a use for it,” he said. “I didn’t want to dump it on the city. They could work out a use for it, maybe it could be a concession stand, maybe they could put it at the entrance to Gordon Moore Park. Maybe they could use it as a clubhouse at Rock Springs Golf Course. I am trying to find a use for it. I am trying to find a place for it. I am going around in circles. I have talked to developers, businessmen and (an attorney) trying to get some interest, trying to pick their brains,” he said.

Sharp said another challenge is overcoming the lack of interest in the community toward saving the depot. “People talk about how great old train stations are that are still around, but we haven’t gotten a lot of public sentiment,” he said. “Maybe when it gets closer to the deadline. I was hoping this would be part of the (April 4) election, but none of the candidates brought it up. We’ve tried, I said I would try, but nothing has clicked.”

Piedmont Disruptions Set for June 19

June 14, 2017

Norfolk Southern track work on June 19 will result in the cancellation of some Amtrak Piedmont trains and a shortened route for other trains.

Trains 73 and 76 will be canceled and no alternative service provided. Nos. 74 and 75 will operate only between Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina, only.

There will be no service at the other stations served of High Point, Salisbury, Kannapolis and Charlotte.

Amtrak Promoting Kids Travel to National Parks

June 14, 2017

Amtrak is working with the U.S. Department of the Interior to try to boost attendance at national parks and cultural attractions by extending its 75 percent discount to fourth-graders, with the purchase of one regular adult fare.

The discounted fare will be available through Aug. 31 for travel through Sept. 3.

The fares are being offered as part of the Every Kid in a Park program. Families are invited to visit the Every Kid in a Park website to obtain a pass for free entry for them and their families to more than 2,000 federally-managed lands and waters nationwide.

In a news release, Amtrak said it offers service to or near more than 260 national park lands, monuments and historic sites

These include the national parks of Glacier, Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  Amtrak and the National Park Service also work together as part of the Trails and Rails program.

The reduced fares for children require making reservations a minimum of three days before travel. Seats are limited and the offer is valid on all Amtrak trains except Acela Express and Auto Train. Terms and conditions apply.

Ann Arbor to Continue Station Studies

June 13, 2017

The Ann Arbor City Council will stay with the process of creating a new Amtrak station at least for a little while longer.

The council this week voted 8-3 to provide additional funding to a consultant to finish an environmental assessment and to move forward with preliminary engineering designs for multiple possible sites.

The council acted after the Federal Railroad Administration sought additional information and analysis of different alternatives.

Speaking in favor of continuing the process, Mayor Christopher Taylor said Ann Arbor demands better rail service.

“Better rail service for the city of Ann Arbor is critical to our economic improvement, to our quality-of-life improvement, to our environmental improvement,” Taylor said. “It is part of, I believe, the vision for the future of Ann Arbor that is shared by residents everywhere.”

But in voting against the proposal, council member Jane Lumm was skeptical that the city could meet its ambitious target dates for study and design work.

The city faces a late September deadline to spend a $2.8 million federal grant that it received in 2011.

The council’s latest action authorizes spending another $137,026 for the study and design work, which will now total $1,088,700 and must be completed before the federal grant expires on Sept. 30.

The city has yet to decide on a site for the new station. Among the proposals have been building a new depot off Depot Street or Fuller Road. Three other locations are still under consideration, including the existing Amtrak site on Depot Street, part of Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital, and the former Michigan Central station, which is now the Gandy Dancer restaurant.

When asked why the city was doing preliminary engineering work for all the different alternatives as opposed to one preferred option, City Administrator Howard Lazarus said the FRA believes that Ann Arbor doesn’t “have a clear winner.”

The new station selection process has been dragging on for more than a decade, a point brought up by the dissenting council members.

Lazarus recommended moving ahead with the environmental assessment and releasing it to the public for a 30-day review.

The city would then seek a “finding of no significant impact” declaration from the FRA for a preferred option for a new Amtrak station.

At that point, he said the city would have a finished document that would be “non-perishable” and could be used to position the city for future FRA funding for final design and construction.

Lazarus and Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said Ann Arbor remains at the mercy of the FRA.

Cooper said there have been private communications with the FRA over the past few years, but he was not at liberty to share that information publicly.

The grant was actually awarded to the Michigan Department of Transportation which along with the FRA has specific processes with regard to freedom of information.

Both agencies have told the city that they don’t want draft materials being released to the public.

However, Cooper said no final decision has been made about where a new train station should be built.

He said city staff, MDOT and the FRA look forward to receiving public views on the environmental assessment once the FRA authorizes its release.

Lazarus said that if the council failed to approve spending another $130,000, “we’re going to have to put a fork in it [station project] because it’s done.”