Archive for January, 2018

Cascades Engineer Missed Speed Warning Sign

January 27, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board said this week that the engineer of the Amtrak Cascades train that derailed in Washington State last month, killing three passengers, told investigators that he missed seeing a speed-limit sign along the track shortly before the train derailed.

The 55-year-old engineer remembered that the Portland-bound train was traveling 70 mph as it passed milepost 15.5. He said he was aware of an upcoming curve with a 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 19.8 and planned to apply the brakes about a mile in advance.

However, the engineer said he did not see mileposts 16, 17 or 18 or a sign warning of the 30 mph zone, which is posted two miles before the curve.

In his interview, the engineer said he saw a block signal at milepost 19.8 — at the accident curve — but thought it a signal that is located north of the curve.

Upon seeing the 30 mph sign at the beginning of the curve, the engineer said he applied the brakes. Seconds later the train left the tracks on the curve.

Other points made by the engineer was that he didn’t feel that having a qualifying conductor in the locomotive with him was a distraction, that he had no reservations about his readiness to operate the train and that he felt rested when the trip began.

The train had locomotives on each end, 10 passenger cars and a baggage car. Investigators have said the train was doing 78 mph when it derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5 near DuPont, Washington.

Two passengers cars landed on the interstate highway during the crash. There were 83 people on board the train with 62 of them suffering injuries. Eight people in vehicles on the highway were injured.

The conductor was in the lead locomotive to learn the route, which was being operated by Amtrak in revenue service for the first time on the day of the derailment.

He told investigators the engineer appeared alert during a job briefing and while operating the train. The NTSB investigation is expected to last 12 to 24 months.

Frigid Outside, Warm Inside

January 25, 2018

Outside the temperature was in the low teens and the wind chill was below zero. A friend and I were waiting to photograph Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited roaring through Geneva, Ohio. No. 48 was running two hours late. It also was running a few minutes behind a CSX stack train.

The usual consist of the eastbound Lake Shore Limited has the Boston cars toward the front and the New York cars on the rear. Typically, No. 48 has two Viewliner sleepers for New York.

This day was no exception. Shown above is the first of the two New York sleepers. Some passengers in those rooms might just now be getting up and about while others might be watching the wintry countryside of Northeast Ohio fly by. Still others might be having breakfast in the “dining car” just ahead of the first New York sleeper.

I placed the phrase “dining car” in quotations because it is not the same as the dining cars that used to run on this train. With Viewliner diners, presumably, being readied for revenue service, the Lake Shore Limited might get a full dining car some day.

Amtrak to Pull Ticket Agents from Niles, Jackson

January 24, 2018

Amtrak ticket agents will be removed on March 1 from stations in Jackson and Niles, Michigan.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago, said the move is being made to save money.

He said an overwhelming majority of passengers no longer purchase tickets from station agents.

As a result of the change, Amtrak might keep the Jackson station open later in the afternoon.

The waiting room is now open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. but three of the six Wolverine Service trains that serve Jackson depart after 2:30 p.m.

Amtrak plans to hire a part-time caretaker to open and close the station and Magliari said that worker could work a split shift and close the waiting area later in the day.

Passengers and those waiting on trains must wait outside the former Michigan Central depot when the waiting room is closed.

Staffing of the Jackson ticket office was reduced last August from daily to five days a week. No agent is on duty on Tuesdays and Wednesday.

Attorney Probing Amtrak Station Lobbying Effort

January 24, 2018

The city council in Lake Forest, Illinois, has hired a special counsel to investigate nearly $200,000 in payments made to a lobbying firm without city council approval in connection with efforts to win an Amtrak stop for the Chicago suburb.

Payments of $192,911, were made between March 2016 and October 2017 to a Washington lobbying firm in an effort to get Amtrak to establish a Lake Forest stop for its Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains.

The city has been seeking the Amtrak stop, which would use an existing Metra station, as well as funding for a pedestrian underpass since 2010.

Attorney Leigh Jeter is investigating the matter and Alderman Jack Reisenberg will serve as lead councilman on the issue.

Reinsenberg said the probe will examine the actions of Mayor Rob Lansing, City Manager Bob Kiely and City Attorney Victor Filippini. Jeter is expected to report to the council next month.


Man Indicted Over California Zephyr Incident

January 24, 2018

A grand jury has indicted a Missouri man on terrorism charges in connection with the stopping of Amtrak’s California Zephyr last year.

Indicted was Taylor Michael Wilson, 26, of St. Charles, Missouri.

He was indicted on one count of attempting to or threatening to “wreck, derail, and disable railroad on-track equipment and a mass transportation vehicle” and one count alleging he attempted “to interfere with, disable, or incapacitate any locomotive engineer or railroad conductor.”

Officials claim that got into the trailing P42DC locomotive of the train and tripped an emergency brake. Amtrak personnel found Wilson in the engineer’s seat “playing with the controls.”

The indictments were returned in a federal court in Nebraska.

The FBI reported finding “alt-right” and “neo-Nazi” literature in his home in Missouri.

Wilson has also been implicated in an incident in which he allegedly pointed a gun at woman during a “road rage” incident in St. Charles in 2016.

An FBI raid of the home he shared with his cousin in St. Charles last month found more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, “white supremacy documents and paperwork,” gunpowder and a “pressure plate” that an FBI agent described as a device commonly used to construct an improvised explosive.

Wilson’s father later gave the FBI 15 rifles and pistols and body armor that belonged to his son.

Wilson’s lawyer in Nebraska, Jerry Sena, said Wilson will plead not guilty to the indictment.

BNSF Track Work Disrupts San Joaquins

January 24, 2018

Amtrak said in a service advisory that due to track work being performed by BNSF, bus service will be provided for the San Joaquin trains between Stockton and Merced on January 28.

Trains 716 and 718: will operate from Oakland to Stockton San Joaquin Street Station, where passengers will detrain and board a bus that will take them to Merced. Passengers will then board their train, which will continue the trip to Bakersfield.

Trains 717 and 719: will operate from Bakersfield to Merced, where passengers will detrain and board a bus that will take them to Stockton San Joaquin Street Station. Passengers will then board their train, which will continue the trip to Oakland.

Train 703: will operate from Bakersfield to Merced, where passengers will detrain and board a bus that will take them to Stockton Downtown. Passengers will then board their train, which will continue the trip to Sacramento.

Train 704: will operate from Sacramento to Stockton Downtown, where passengers will detrain and board a bus that will take them to Merced. Passengers will then board their train, which will continue the trip to Bakersfield.

All buses will stop at Modesto, but service will not be provided to or from Turlock-Denair.

Amtrak to Renovate Latrobe Station

January 24, 2018

Amtrak will renovate the station in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to improve accessibility for passengers with disabilities.

The passenger carrier will be designing the improvements this year with construction to begin in 2019.

Amtrak will replace the existing boarding platform with one that rises eight inches above the top of the rail.

Also planned are modifications to the parking lot, the stairs to the platform and the passenger waiting area. Signs will be installed that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Latrobe is a stop for the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian and served 4,246 passengers and generated $247,569 in fiscal year 2017.

Michigan Trains Running Faster Now

January 24, 2018

Most Amtrak trains serving Michigan have faster running times, the Michigan Department of Transportation said this week.

Wolverine Service trains between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) have seen 20 minutes cut from their schedules. Blue Water service between Chicago and Port Huron, Michigan, has seen a smaller running time cut.

Both lines use rails owned by Amtrak between Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Porter, Indiana.

Amtrak dispatchers control the Chicago-Detroit line as far east as Dearborn except for a portion of track in Battle Creek that is owned by Canadian National.

MDOT acquired 135 miles of track from Norfolk Southern in 2012 that are used by Amtrak between Kalamazoo and Dearborn except for the CN track in Battle Creek.

The top speed between Porter and Kalamazoo 110 mph. The maximum speed is 79 mph on the MDOT-owned track, but that is expected to rise to 110 mph this year after the completion of positive train control testing and assignment of Siemens Charger locomotives to the route.

The State of Michigan has used $347 million in federal funds to replace rails, smooth curves, upgrade crossings and signals and improve train signaling and communication systems. These improvements are expected to result in higher running speeds.

MDOT funded a connection in West Detroit for a faster route to a CN line that serves Amtrak stations in Detroit, Royal Oak, Troy and Pontiac.

“At MDOT’s direction, Amtrak work crews have corrected years of deferred maintenance and have taken over dispatching,” said Joe McHugh, Amtrak vice president of state-supported services in a statement. “We have created the longest railroad segment outside the northeast that is being made ready for an even more reliable and faster Amtrak service.”

The Conference is Over

January 24, 2018

Having conferred with the engineer of Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder during a station stop in Milwaukee, the conductor is walking back to his post. No. 7 was running behind schedule due to having to wait in Chicago for connecting passengers from a late Lake Shore Limited. The Milwaukee Amtrak station was built by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.

Infrastructure Plan Details Leaked

January 23, 2018

What was purported to be a copy of the long awaited Trump administration infrastructure plan was leaked on Tuesday and it shows that federal grants cannot make up more than 20 percent of the cost of any project.

If so, that would mean that the federal government could end up contributing less to infrastructure projects than it does today. Under current rules, the federal share of some projects is as much as 50 percent for new transit projects.

The six-page plan was first reported by the website Axios and does not provide any details about cost. Much of the contents of the plan are consistent with news reports and public statements made by federal officials.

For example the plan would devote a quarter of the funding to rural infrastructure projects.  Also as has been previously reported, the plan would give states more authority to impose tolls on highways that receive federal funding.

Specifically, the documents calls for states to have “flexibility” to collect interstate tolls and to use toll revenues to fund infrastructure projects.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump had pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure plan but in recent weeks there has been talk that the federal share of the plan will be only $200 million over a 10-year period.

The leaked copy of the plan outlines use of federal grants to spur state, local, and private investment. Aside from transportation, the funds could be used for broadband installation, water projects, waste treatment programs, electric transmission lines and veteran’s affairs facilities.

Reuters reporter David Shepardson was skeptical that the document was written by a government agency, saying it appears to have been based on a Legislative Referral Memorandum that has been making the rounds.

Information in the document suggests that it was written on Jan. 8 and lists the name of a Washington lobbyist as the author. Neither that lobbyist nor the White House would comment on the document.

Ten percent of the funding would be used for what is termed a Transformative Projects Program that focuses on innovative or “ground-breaking” infrastructure projects that might be riskier investments for private entities, but “offer a larger reward profile.”

Also included in the plan is the use of tax incentives for private investors, including expanding the use of private activity bonds, and the creation of a new “Public Lands Infrastructure Fund,” which would put aside money from mineral and energy extraction on federal lands and waters.

There is no proposal to increase the federal gasoline tax as some, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have proposed as a way of shoring up the sagging Highway Trust Fund. The gas tax has not risen in more than two decades.

It is still not clear when the Trump administration will release the plan, but some believe it will be following the State of the Union address. Trump is expected to touch upon infrastructure in that speech to Congress.

Nor is it clear what type of reception that the plan will receive in Congress. The Hill website noted that Congress has historically been loath to expand the use of tolls to pay for infrastructure projects.