Archive for November, 2017

45 Years Later My Memories of My First Amtrak Trip Still Resonate

November 25, 2017

Forty-five years ago today I stood on the platform of the Illinois Central Railroad passenger station in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, in the early morning hours awaiting the arrival of Amtrak train No. 58.

It would be my first ever trip aboard Amtrak, a day trip to Chicago. It would mark my first experience riding in a dome car and my first experience eating dinner in an Amtrak dining car.

I’ve since ridden Amtrak dozens of times and had a full range of experiences good, bad and indifferent.

But none can quite compare to that first trip, which I still remember in some detail as though it happened not that long ago.

For example, I still remember the sound of the brake shoes being applied every time No. 58 approached a town where another rail line crossed at grade.

I also still remember the rush that I felt when I spotted the headlight of No. 58 a mile or so out of town as I stood on the platform. Train time was at hand.

The Panama Limited was about a half-hour late when it arrived in Mattoon and I was disappointed when I saw that the lead locomotive was painted in Amtrak colors rather than those of the ICRR.

The trailing unit still wore an IC livery as did the two units that pulled No. 59 that evening back to Mattoon.

Amtrak was 19 months old on Nov. 25, 1972, and still in he rainbow era in which cars refurbished in Amtrak colors and markings mingled with cars still in their as-received condition from Amtrak’s contract railroads.

I was impressed with the interiors of the refurbished cars with their blue seats and walls with paisley accenting. They looked modern. Today, when I see one of those cars in a museum or on an excursion train they look so Seventies.

At the time of my first Amtrak trip, I was a college student and my traveling companion was my sister’s boyfriend. He was still in high school.

In retrospect, I’m surprised that our parents let us travel to the big city by ourselves as neither of us really knew Chicago and we had some difficulty time finding Union Station to return home after a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.

We had ridden a CTA bus to and from the museum and back but we had had no idea which routes went where.

I had noticed when the train arrived in Mattoon that morning that it had a dome car toward the front of the train.

By chance it was a car or two ahead of the coach in which we had been seated and shortly after the train left Kankakee I asked the conductor if we could sit up there.

“I don’t see why not,” was the reply.

It was dome sleeper and I didn’t know there were such things. It would turn out to be the only time that I rode in one.

As No. 58 made the turn to get onto the St. Charles Air Line in Chicago, I had a view from the dome of the coach yard of the former Central Station.

It was filled with passenger cars wearing IC colors and markings. By November 1972, passenger cars in the IC livery were uncommon on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans trains that I saw. IC passenger locomotives, though, were still the norm.

An IC employee was sitting in the dome section and had a radio. It was the first time I had heard railroad radio transmissions.

We halted and the engineer said on the radio, “Weldon Tower would you tell them that 58 is sitting here. Waiting. ”

I guess we didn’t have the signal yet from Union Avenue interlocking on the Burlington Northern.

No. 58 was scheduled to arrive into Chicago Union Station at 9:30 a.m. and we backed in shortly after 10 a.m.

Despite our adventures or misadventures in finding the correct CTA bus routes we got back in plenty of time to catch our train.

I remember a station announcement that still sticks in my mind because I’ve haven’t heard a boarding announcement quite like it since.

It came from the booming voice of man who wasn’t so much announcing the train’s pending departure as commanding passengers to get on board.

“Your attention please! Amtrak train No. 59, the Panama Limited, intends to leave at six ten p.m.”

It was the use of and emphasis on the word “intends” that got my attention.

This was a transition time between the era of passenger trains operated by the freight railroads and the Amtrak culture that was still taking root.

My ticket, which had cost $11, was on Amtrak stock and placed inside an Amtrak ticket envelope. But it had been endorsed with an ICRR stamp and issued by an IC employee.

My next Amtrak trip in December 1972 had a ticket issued on former Pennsylvania Railroad stock and placed inside a Penn Central ticket envelope.

Not long after the Panama Limited left Chicago, we made our way to the dining car. It had angled tables and seating, something I’d never seen and have not seen since.

I don’t remember what I ordered but am sure it was one of the least expensive items on the menu.

I was impressed with the efficiency of the waiters and their business-like approach to the job. They were constantly going back and forth from the dining area to the kitchen and doing so with authority as they carried their trays.

These men probably had worked for the IC or some other railroad before Amtrak and everything about them was old school.

There were a lot more of them than is the case aboard today’s Amtrak dining cars.

After dinner, we took it upon ourselves to go back to the dome car, figuring that the “permission” we had received that morning was still good that evening.

It was neat to see the signal bridges ahead as No. 59 rushed southbound. The green signal would turn to red shortly after the lead locomotive passed it.

A couple of sleeping car attendants – they might have still been routinely referred to as porters then – were sitting in the dome section and asked us if we were sleeping car passengers.

We were not.  One of them replied that the dome was supposed to be for those in the sleepers.

He didn’t exactly order us to leave, but we had gotten the message. We stayed for a few more minutes and then went back to our coach seats.

The trip seemed to end all too quickly. It had been slightly longer than three hours.

I stepped off the train in Mattoon feeling awed by the whole experience. I wanted to do it again and often, but it would be a few more years before I was in a position to do that.

By then Amfleet cars had come to the Midwest and Superliners were on the horizon. The Amtrak culture had taken a firm hold. The private railroad passenger service era had faded away.

Between 1994 and 2014 I would ride Amtrak from Cleveland to Mattoon a couple times a year to visit my Dad.

Every time I stood on the platform in Mattoon to wait for the City of New Orleans or the Saluki for Chicago, I would look to the south for the headlight of the approaching train and be taken back to that morning in November 1972 when my first experience with Amtrak was seeing the headlight of a EMD E unit charging northward into my memory.

Trucker Blamed for 2016 S.W. Chief Derailment

November 24, 2017

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that a truck driver’s failure to properly secure an unattended truck led to the March 2016 derailment of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief near Cimarron, Kansas.

The derailment resulted in 28 people being injured and caused $1.4 million in damage to the tracks of the BNSF La Junta Subdivision.

The NTSB said that the day before the incident, the unattended truck rolled downhill and damaged the BSNF tracks.

The Chicago-bound Southwest Chief derailed when it crossed the misaligned tracks.

In its report, the NTSB said neither the truck driver or his supervisor reported the incident to local authorities.

“Railroads are not required to post emergency contact numbers other than at grade crossings,” NTSB said in its report. “In situations such as this one, the correct approach is to call 911 and report the concern. Using this approach, local emergency officials can notify the railroad about any potential issue with its equipment.”

The Southwest Chief was operating at the time with two locomotives and 10 cars.

Amtrak Holding Black Friday Fare Sale

November 24, 2017

Amtrak is joining in on the “Black Friday” craze and offering discounted coach fare tickets up to 30 percent on select trains nationwide.

The sale runs through Monday (Nov. 27) and travel must be completed between Dec. 11, 2017, and March 25, 2018.

Restrictions and blackout dates apply. Like all of its promotional fares, the “Black Friday” fares are yield managed and the price goes up once predetermined benchmarks are hit.

Would-be passengers wanting to buy a “Black Friday” fare need to know the train number and its schedule. The fare will not be displayed until you are completely logged in to the Amtrak website.

Cardinal Ridership Up 7.25% in FY2017

November 21, 2017

Amtrak’s Cardinal saw a 7.25 percent ridership boost in fiscal year 2017.

Figures released by the national passenger carrier show the tri-weekly Chicago-New York train carried 112,432 passengers, up 7,601 from FY 2016.

“It’s been inching up, but to have that kind of an increase is a good thing,” said Chuck Riecks, a vice president with the national Rail Passengers Association and co-chairman of West Virginia-based the Friends of the Cardinal group.

Riecks described the ridership figures as encouraging given the on-time issues Nos. 50 and 51 have had during this year’s operational problems on host railroad CSX.

He said Amtrak’s addition of business class service to the Cardinal in January 2016 helped to boost patronage.

The Cardinal serves eight stations in West Virginia and most of them saw an increase in ridership.

White Sulphur Springs handled 5,878 passengers, a 12.6 percent increase. The station serves passengers headed for the famous Greenbrier resort and was a beneficiary of the business class service, which features 18 leather seats, complimentary beverages and a lounge area reserved for business class and sleeper car passengers.

Thurmond — the smallest town in America with regularly scheduled passenger rail service — saw the largest proportional jump, an 18 percent increase to 345 passengers.

Other stations posting slight increases included Charleston (9,812 passengers), Prince (2,988) and Alderson (449).

The ridership figures for Huntington and Hinton fell in FY 2017, in part because Amtrak had attributed to those stations passengers riding Amtrak coaches on the New River Train.

That added about 2,800 passengers each year to each city’s ridership figures.

Hinton’s Cardinal ridership in FY 2017 dropped by 81 passengers from 7,344 to 4,463.

Huntington’s ridership fell by 14.5 percent from 10,723 to 6,925 passengers, or a decline of 998 passengers.

During the past year Amtrak removed its ticket agents from Huntington, thus ending ticket sales and checked baggage at that station.

“That clearly reflects the loss of the station agent,” Riecks said of the decline in Huntington passengers.

Montgomery also saw a decline in ridership, dropping from 669 to 500 passengers.

In the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited route, the two West Virginia stations posted ridership gains.

Martinsburg handled 11,267 passengers, up 146, while Harpers Ferry saw a 12 percent increase in passengers to 8,267.

New Platforms Open in Meriden

November 21, 2017

New platforms and a pedestrian bridge have opened at the Amtrak station in Meriden, Connecticut, but additional work still needs to be completed.

“Amtrak trains are now pulling up to the new platforms and the [pedestrian bridge] is open to customers,” said John Bernick, assistant rail administrator. “Both platforms opened up to allow for the completion of the track work and the removal of the temporary platform.”

Meriden is served by Northeast Regional Service trains between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts.

City Planner Robert Seale said sidewalk and landscaping work remains to be done in front of the station.

The pedestrian bridge will enable residents of the city’s east and west sides to more easily move between the two areas. Local officials said the tracks have long constituted a barrier.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the station is expected to be held soon.

Colorado Museum in Amtrak Depot to Close

November 21, 2017

A Colorado railroad museum housed in a depot that serves Amtrak will close next Monday.

The Glenwood Railroad Museum was unable to reach a lease agreement with the depot owner, the Union Pacific Railroad, in Glenwood Springs.

The museum’s five-year, $250-per-year lease expired at the end of 2016.

UP demanded the museum pay market-rate rent, which museum officials said would be more than $25,000 annually.

That would have eaten up the museum’s total income. “It’s just sad that we’re unable to raise the funding necessary to preserve what I think is a very important part of the history, the story of this county and this community,” said Pat Thrasher, museum manager and president of the Western Colorado Chapter of National Railway Society.

The museum plans to return to their donors some of the artifacts on display and is seeking to donate the remaining artifacts elsewhere.

Thrasher said museum officials considered relocating, but he thinks it is essential to be located adjacent to an active railroad depot.

“I would like to think we’re more than just a place where Amtrak passengers hang out while they’re waiting for a train,” he said.

The Glenwood museum had scheduled its hours around train times for Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Missouri River Runner Ridership up in Jefferson City

November 20, 2017

The Missouri Department of Transportation reported that ridership on the Missouri River Runners spiked 5 percent between July and October at Jefferson City.

Thus far this year, ridership has been 13,950. Last year’s patronage for the same period was 13,330.

MDOT Officials believe the ridership boost has been the result of increased gas prices and successful summer promotions attracting new riders.

Officials had blamed falling gasoline prices for a decline in ridership of the  St. Louis-Kansas City trains.

Roanoke Eyes Building Amtrak Station

November 20, 2017

Now that Amtrak is serving Roanoke, Virginia, the city is now talking about building a train station.

Roanoke City Manager Robert Cowell said a deal is not imminent, but the city council has meet four times in secret sessions to discuss transit facilities, including acquisition of property to build a new mass-transit passenger center that could serve Amtrak.

“It’s a pretty fairly complex set of questions that the council is really wrestling with, never mind how to pay for any of this,” Cowell said.

Roanoke city buses are currently served by the Campbell Court bus station, which belongs to Valley Metro, and is located 250 feet from the railroad tracks used by Amtrak.

The three-floor facility is largely vacant and described as antiquated.

One idea being floated in the city is to build a multi-modal facility near the tracks and repurpose Campbell Court into stores, offices and housing.

The city had budgeted $4.5 million for the intermodal station project, which is less than half of what a consultant estimated the facility would cost.

Valley Metro does not own any land adjacent to the railroad tracks used by Amtrak.

City council member David Trinkle said the council is looking at creating a public-private partnership. “There’s just no way that facility is going to be built without that,” he said.

The council has justified its closed door meetings to discuss the proposed intermodal facility as consideration of the purchase of “real property” for public use or the “disposition” of the 13 real estate parcels that make up Campbell Court, or both, according to a purpose statement for the meetings.

The council has cited a clause in Virginia’s open meetings law that allows for when meeting publicly would “adversely affect” its bargaining power or negotiating strategy.

The Roanoke Times reported that there are four obvious locations for a train and bus station near the tracks.

These properties immediately adjacent to the Amtrak boarding platform include a renovated buildings known as Warehouse Row, which are leased to tenants; the Roanoke Station Garage, a parking deck; the surface parking lot across from Campbell Court operated by Tennessee-based Premier Parking; and the corner of Jefferson Street and Norfolk Avenue, occupied by multiple commercial buildings with tenants.

NARP Rebrands Itself Rail Passengers Association

November 20, 2017

The National Association of Railroad Passengers is rebranding itself as the Rail Passengers Association.

The name was rolled out during NARP’s convention earlier this month and the November newsletter will be the first to show off the new name and logo. The newsletter itself has been renamed Passengers Voice.

However, the passenger advocacy group will continue to be formally known as NARP.

The group said the Rail Passengers Association name is a brand name just as Amtrak is a brand name for the National Passenger Railroad Corporation.

A new logo that NARP has dubbed “The Window,” features an outline of a rail passenger car window.

Amtrak Ridership up 1.5% in FY2017; Operating Loss Was Lowest it’s Been in Decades

November 16, 2017

Amtrak recorded its lowest operating loss in decades this year the carrier said on Thursday. The national passenger carrier said it broke passenger and revenue records for the year ending Sept. 30, helping to narrow its operating loss to $194 million.

During the period Amtrak recorded 31.7 million passenger trips, a 1.5 percent increase over FY2016 and had total revenue of $3.2 billion, an increase of 1.1 percent over FY 2016.

In breaking out ridership by service type, Amtrak said it carried 12 million in the Northeast Corridor, up 1 percent, which set a record.

State-supported trains carried 15 million passengers, a 2.1 percent increase, while the long-distance routes carried 4.6 million riders, an increase of 0.9 percent

Amtrak also set a record for cost recovery, covering 94.7 percent of its operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues.

“Over the next several years, we’re aiming to cover total operating costs from ticket and other revenues by strengthening our services and continuing to drive efficiency,” said Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia in a statement. “To do this, we are making investments in tracks and stations, on our trains, and in the delivery of customer service so that we can serve more customers with a better experience.”

Amtrak said it cuts its debt from $3.3 billion on Sept. 30, 2007, to $1.2 billion on Sept. 30, 2017, a reduction of 64 percent over the 10-year period.

Other notable milestones for Amtrak in FY2017 included a 19 percent increase in membership in its Amtrak Guest Rewards program and launching a national partnership with ride-sharing service Lyft.