Archive for December, 2017

Canada Adopts Legislation to Streamline Customs Procedures for Travel to the U.S.

December 21, 2017

Canada has adopted legislation that will streamline customs inspections for those traveling by rail between that country and the United States.

The legislation allows the Canadian government to designate preclearance areas and perimeters, while giving U.S. agents the authority to conduct preclearance screening.

The new law would be a companion to the Promoting Travel, Commerce and National Security Act that the U.S. Congress adopted in 2016.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) had sponsored the law in the U.S.

“With this legislation now in place, Canada and the United States— and especially Vermont — are poised to reap the rewards of improved border security and better economic growth,” Leahy said in a news release. “I look forward to continuing my work and partnership with the Canadian government to make expanded preclearance a reality.”

Investigators Eye Whether Cascades Engineer Was Distracted Just Before Derailment that Killed 3

December 20, 2017

The engineer of an Amtrak Cascades Service train that derailed on Monday near Olympia, Washington, may have been distracted shortly before that accident that left three passengers dead.

Federal investigators have said the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone and left the tracks where the route curves to cross Interstate 5.

The distraction may have been caused by the presence of an employee in the lead locomotive who was being trained.

Investigators are focusing on why the engineer lost situational awareness.

National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said that the train’s emergency brakes were activated automatically and not manually set off by the engineer

Dihn-Zarr said that skid marks from the train’s wheels show where it left the tracks.

However, Dinh-Zarr said investigators still have not concluded why the train derailed or why it was going too fast.

Investigators plan to interview the engineer and other crew members as well as review the event data record from the lead locomotive and an engine on the rear of the train. They also will seek to get images from two on-board cameras that were damaged in the crash.

The second person in the cab of the Charger locomotive was described as a conductor trainee making a trip to become familiar with the route.

Cascades Service No. 501 was making Amtrak’s first revenue service trip over the Point Defiance Bypass.

Officials have not identified the engineer, but he was bleeding from the head after the crash and his eyes were swollen shut.

No. 501, which was traveling from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, had 85 passengers and crew members aboard at the time of the crash. More than 70 people were injured in the derailment of which 35 were hospitalized, 21 of them in critical or serious condition.

Dinh-Zarr said Amtrak crew members had been making test runs over the route for two weeks before scheduled service on it began. The route is owned by Sound Transit and had recently been rebuilt.

Two of the victims were identified as passenger rail advocates Jim Hamre, a retired civil engineer with the Washington State Transportation Department; and Zack Willhoite, a transit agency customer service employee. Both were members of All Aboard Washington.

In the meantime, Amtrak has resumed operating between Seattle and Portland over its previous route.

Cascades No. 502, the morning run from Portland to Seattle, was canceled but trains were to run as scheduled.

It is now known how long it will be before Amtrak can resume using the Port Definance Bypass. In the interim, Amtrak will also use is former station in Tacoma at 1001 Puyallup Ave.

At Least 3 Dead in Cascades Derailment

December 19, 2017

Investigators say an Amtrak train that derailed on Monday near Olympia, Washington, was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone.

The derailment of a southbound Cascades Service train from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, left at least three people dead. Authorities said dozens were injured, including 10 who suffered serious injuries.

The Associated Press quoted unnamed officials as saying six had died in the accident.

Thirteen of the 14 cars on the train left the rails, with one coach landing on Interstate 5 and two others were dangling from a bridge over the freeway.

NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a late Monday news conference that the speed of the train at the time of the accident had been determined by downloading the Event Data Recorder from the rear P42DC locomotive.

Train No. 501 was being pulled at the time of the crash by a new Siemens diesel locomotive that is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

She said it was too early to know why the train was traveling so fast at the time of the crash.

However, it was the first day that Amtrak was using a new route known as the Point Defiance Bypass.

The route is owned by Sounder Transit and has been billed a more direct and faster route. The previous route had followed the shore of Puget Sound.

The WSDOT had rebuilt the Point Defiance line in a $181 million project in which much of the funding came from the Federal Railroad Administration.

On Monday night cranes were brought to the scene of the crash to stabilize the wreckage.

FRA Clears Brightline Service to Orlando

December 19, 2017

The Federal Railroad Administration has cleared the way for Brightline to operate to Orlando, Florida.

The FTA last week issued a record of decision on the Final Environmental Impact Statement it released in 2015.

That will enable Brightline to begin constructing a route from West Palm Beach to a new terminal at Orlando International Airport.

Brightlight will use Florida East Coast tracks Cocoa, Florida, and lay new rails to the airport.

The Cocoa-airport line is expected to have sealed track and a top speed of 125 mph. It will be built adjacent to the Beachline Expressway.

A second track and safety appliances are being installed on the FEC route that will allow a top speed of 110 mph.

Recent news reports have indicated that Brightlight is testing service between

West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and is expected to launch revenue service within a few weeks.

IDOT Head Sees Top Speed of 90 mph for Trains by Summer 2018 in the Chicago-St. Louis Corridor

December 18, 2017

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Randy Blankenhorn said Amtrak trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor should be operating at 90 mph starting next summer.

The current top speed on the route is 79 miles per hour exception for a demonstration section between Pontiac and Dwight where 110 mph speeds began in fall 2012.

In an interview with the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Blankenhorn said a nearly $2 billion high-speed rail project to rebuild portions of the route for high-speed service is starting to wind down.

Although the route has an infrastructure for a 110 mph top speed, Blankenhorn said those speeds won’t come until 2019 after a positive train control system is put into operation.  “We are substantially complete,” said Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn expects the project to finish on time and on budget with federal funding accounting for $1.65 billion of the estimated $1.95 billion final project cost.

The state is paying about $300 million of the project cost. IDOT has said that once the project is completed, Amtrak trains will have an 85 percent on-time guarantee.

Union Pacific, which owns the most of the track in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor used by Amtrak will be subject to financial penalties if the 85-percent, on-time guarantee is missed.

Nearly 590,000 passengers rode Amtrak between St. Louis and Chicago during the Illinois fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Patronage has fallen below 600,000 the last three fiscal years as a result of service disruptions caused by the high-speed project work.

One final phase of the project that is still underway is finishing track work in the Third Street corridor in Springfield.

“There’s some crossing work that needs to be done in Springfield, and that’s well underway,” Blankenhorn said.

The work will also include six-foot safety fencing on each side of the tracks. Safety, technology and accessibility improvements are planned for the Springfield Amtrak station.

Workers have made changes to 190 crossings in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor along 330 miles of track, closed nearly two dozen crossings and put up 90 miles of safety fencing meant to prevent trespassing.

The higher speeds are expected to reduce the 5.5 hour trip between St. Louis and Chicago by 11 minutes and by 20 minutes when a second set of tracks is competed near Joliet. Trains traveling 110 mph should cut the running time by 53 minutes.

However, the faster running times won’t address freight rail congestion in Chicago or St. Louis, which Blankenhorn said accounts for many of the delays now occurring.

Just over half of Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains ran late in the three years prior to high-speed rail work.

“It’s not so much about speed as it is reliability,” said Blankenhorn. “Passengers would use our trains a lot more if they knew they were going to be there when they need them and were not going to be an hour-and-a-half late.”

John Oimoen, chief of IDOT’s rail division said installation of the equipment needed for PTC in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor will be completed next spring.

“It’s the challenge of developing the software and getting that information back to (train) dispatcher,” he said.

Blankenhorn said the highest speeds initially will be allowed between Alton and Joliet while the state continues to work to fix the traffic bottlenecks in St. Louis and Chicago. He said those fixes will be “complicated and expensive.”

Lake Forest City Manager Spend Money Lobbying for Amtrak Without City Council’s Knowledge, Approval

December 18, 2017

The city manager of Lake Forest, Illinois, has acknowledged approving payments to a Washington lobbying firm to seek Amtrak service without getting approval of the city council

Bob Kiely said he approved spending nearly $200,000 in city funds in an effort to get Amtrak to make Lake Forest a stop for its Chicago-Milwaukee trains.

The payments were made between March 2016 and October 2017 to the lobbying firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell.

“It should not have happened, and it won’t happen going forward,” said Kiely, who has been city manager for 27 years.

At a recent council meeting, current Lake Forest Mayor Rob Lansing said that Amtrak is supportive of the city’s efforts to become a stop for its Hiawatha Service trains.

But it is unclear if Lansing knew all the details about the city paying a lobbying firm to push for the Amtrak service.

Some council members were miffed to learn the city had been paying a lobbyist with their knowledge or approval.

“This isn’t the way I want to learn things, and this isn’t the way I think information should be disseminated,” council member Prue Beidler said at the meeting during which Lansing revealed without detail that the city had hired a lobbying firm.

Member Jack Reisenberg said he was aware of an October trip Kiely and Lansing made to Washington, though he didn’t know why they were going.

“I didn’t like it,” Reisenberg said of the expenditures being made without council approval. “It should have been handled like other expenditures are handled, via city staff and approved by the council. But I wasn’t terribly upset because I believe the mayor and the city manager were well-intentioned. However, they did not follow longstanding practices of bringing this type of expenditure before the City Council for approval.”

Kiely noted he has authority to spend as much as $20,000 without council approval, although he said he should have brought the matter to the city council in May 2016.

“That was my error, and I did not bring it back to the council as it should have been brought,” he said, adding, “at that point in time, it was part of our regular payments and I quite frankly, I didn’t even think of it.”

Former Mayor Donald Schoenheider began the lobbying effort in March 2016.

Kiely said he and Lansing made the Washington trip to meet with federal agencies and elected officials about the Amtrak stop and to seek funding for a pedestrian underpass at the station.

Amtrak has said that it won’t begin serving Lake Forest until the underpass beneath tracks owned by Metra is installed.

Amtrak Carried 2,770 From Roanoke

December 18, 2017

During the first 30 days of service, Amtrak boarded 2,770 people in Roanoke, Virginia, which averages to 92 passengers per day.

Service to Roanoke began on Oct. 31 by extending a Northeast Regional train that terminated in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Roanoke.

Amtrak had forecast that ridership at Roanoke during the first year of service would be 38,000, an average of 104 passengers per day.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the carrier still expects to meet that projection, noting that ridership changes with the seasons.

Suspended Pacific Surfliner Service Restored

December 18, 2017

Amtrak resumed Pacific Surfliner service in California on Saturday to San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Oxnard that had been suspended due to wildfires.

This includes service to all intermediate stations, including Surf Beach and Goleta.

Amtrak sent a tweet on Friday saying that the next day all Pacific Surfliners would be back to normal except for Train 774, which would originate in Los Angeles instead of San Luis Obispo. No checked baggage service would be offered at Santa Barbara.

Amtrak had ceased operating south of Santa Barbara due to the fires. The suspension also affected the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight, which had been suspended south of Emeryville, California.

Amtrak to Make Discounted Fares Less Generous

December 15, 2017

Amtrak is poised to become less generous with its discounted fares starting next month.

Trains magazine quoted anonymous sources as saying that a number of changes will be made to fare discounts and cancellation policies in the wake of a review ordered by Amtrak co-CEO Richard Anderson.

Under the present policy, passengers who cancel a reservation before their scheduled departure time can convert the entire value of their ticket into a voucher to be applied to future Amtrak travel within a year.

The new policy will impose a 25 percent cancellation penalty for sleeper and super saver fares.

Passengers who cancel and seek a cash refund will see 10 percent of the value of their ticket deducted for coach or Acela Business Class reservations if canceled within 48 hours of scheduled departure.

Also under the present policy, a 15 percent penalty is imposed for sleeping car reservations canceled within seven days of departure. The penalties are waived for business class or Acela first class reservations.

The new policy deducts 25 percent of the value of a canceled sleeping car ticket or a coach or Acela Business Class ticket purchased with a saver fare regardless of whether the remainder of the ticket value is returned as cash or a voucher.

The penalty does not apply if the reservation is changed for a future date or otherwise modified short of cancellation. If a change results in a lower fare, the full difference can still be refunded as a voucher.

Many existing discounted fares will continue to be offered, but the discount will be less.

The 15 percent senior discount will be cut to 10 percent and the age eligibility threshold increased from 62 to 65.
Likewise, the disability discount of 15 percent will be cut to 10 percent. Unchanged are the requirements that passengers buying a disability fare ticket do so with an Amtrak agent by phone or in person at a staffed station. The disability discount will continue to apply to all rail fares.

Amtrak now allows up to two children between the ages of 2 and 12 to travel for half off the full adult rail fare when they are accompanied by an adult paying full fare.

The new rules will allow only one child per accompanying adult. All other children must pay the full adult fare.

The new rules will also create an exemption whereby many discount fares will not apply to the highest fare bucket.

Under the existing rules, all discounts can be applied to all fares except saver or E-bucket fares that require a ticket purchase at least three days in advance of travel.

The new rules will mean that only the disability discount can be applied to “full Y” bucket fares, which typically carry the highest rail fares and apply to the last tickets sold.

This change will also affect such discounts as student, AAA members, Veteran’s Advantage members and National Association of Railroad Passengers member discounts.

“Full Y” fares are the only ones available for purchase aboard a train from a conductor.

All discounts apply only to the rail fare and are not applied to accommodation charges for sleeper, business class and Acela first class tickets.

Tickets acquired with Amtrak Guest Rewards points will carry their own change and cancellation penalties.

Moorman Set to Leave Amtrak Dec. 31

December 15, 2017

Amtrak co-CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman is about at the end of the line as the head of the rail passenger carrier.

Moorman

Moorman, who came on board as CEO in September 2016 after a long career at Norfolk Southern that included serving as the company’s CEO, will leave Amtrak on Dec. 31. He plans to continue to serve the carrier as a senior adviser.

When he agreed to take the Amtrak job, Moorman made it clear he would only serve as a transitional CEO and assist the process of finding his replacement.

That led the Amtrak board of directors last June to hire Richard Anderson, a former Delta Air Lines CEO. Anderson and Moorman have held the co-CEO titles since then.

“I have greatly enjoyed my time at Amtrak, and firmly believe that the company is well-positioned for the future,” Moorman said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing my work with Richard and the entire Amtrak team to further advance passenger rail in this country.”

When Moorman was hired, he was assigned the responsibility to focus on improving operations, streamlining Amtrak’s organizational structure, and finding his successor.

Moorman has had his share of challenges, including an emergency program to rebuild track at New York Penn Station and improving the company’s safety culture.

The latter was described as “broken” by a National Transportation Safety Board report on an accident that left two Amtrak maintenance workers dead when they were struck by a train at Chester, Pennsylvania.

Amtrak has also shown concepts for high-speed equipment slated to replace Acela train sets in the Northeast Corridor and put into service new locomotives built by Siemens.

“The Board is grateful for Wick’s significant contributions since he joined the company, and we are pleased that he is continuing to serve as a senior advisor,” said Tony Coscia, chairman of the Amtrak board.