Archive for March, 2018

The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling. Well, Maybe Not

March 31, 2018

The sky is falling, the sky is falling.

Or so some railroad enthusiasts would have you believe in the wake of a report that Amtrak has decided to ban charters and special moves.

The policy change was announced by Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson in a memo to employees that was leaked to Trains magazine and also posted on railfan chat lists.

In tandem with that, owners of private passenger cars are reporting that Amtrak has been rejecting many requests to move passenger cars.

This particularly has affected car owners who store their cars in the middle of a route because Amtrak has decreed that it will not accept a private car at a station in which the scheduled dwell time is less than 30 minutes.

The implications of this policy change are, indeed, ominous.

It means that such longstanding traditions as the fall New River Train in West Virginia will end.

It means no more Amtrak fall foliage, railfan or rare mileage specials.

It means mainline steam moves are in jeopardy because they operate in cooperation with Amtrak and its liability insurance and use private passenger cars ferried by Amtrak.

It means private car owners who have sunk thousands of dollars into making and/or keeping their cars Amtrak compatible have few, if any, options to run their cars. Seeing a private passenger car or two on the back of an Amtrak train will become an even rarer sight.

Two groups representing private car owners, the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, and the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance have urged their members to contact public officials and opinion leaders to protest the policy change.

It is unclear how much effect that lobbying will have. Owning and operating a private railroad car is a rich man’s game.

Because they tend to be affluent, private car owners might have better political connections than the typical railroad enthusiast or passenger train advocate.

But it is unlikely that public officials will view the Amtrak policy change as a pressing matter of public interest.

Some might see it as rich boys throwing a tantrum because they can’t play with their toys.

Some passenger advocates have applauded Amtrak, which has sought to frame the change as an effort to improve the on-time performance of its trains.

Anderson’s memo referenced trains being delayed due to switching cars and described special moves as a distraction.

He also suggested that specials and hauling private cars hasn’t been all that profitable, but the memo was clumsily worded on this point.

When he wrote that the moves “failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins,” I wonder if he really meant “failed to cover their fully allocated costs.”

The latter was a term railroads used a lot in the 1960s when they wanted to discontinue passenger trains. Using that standard could make a train appear to be losing far more money than the “above the rail” standard which meant that a train earned enough revenue to cover its direct costs.

Some of what Anderson said in his memo few people would dispute. Who would be opposed to Amtrak running on time, operating safely, having clean passenger cars, providing friendly service and offering “great customer-facing technology?” Anderson would have you believe that running special trains are hindering Amtrak’s efforts to do those things.

There is likely more behind this policy change even if Anderson’s memo hints at what that might be when it speaks of focusing on Amtrak’s core mission.

Amid all of the chaff that I read on railfan chat list about the policy change was a thoughtful observation by someone who has seen Anderson use this playbook before.

The poster contended that when Anderson was CEO of Northwest Airlines, it was struggling financially and he discontinued most of the charter flights.

Northwest was devoting seven aircraft to this service, which accommodated professional sports teams among others. Anderson apparently feared that the liability if one of those charters had a catastrophe might wreck the airline.

But the move didn’t turn out to be permanent. After Anderson felt he had sufficiently turned things around the charters returned.

Northwest was later acquired by Delta Air Line, which Anderson also headed. Today Delta is one of the most prominent operators of charter flights for professional sports teams.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, are a regular customer as are many NBA teams.

So the Amtrak policy change might not be permanent, although you never know. One of the first moves that former Amtrak president David Gunn made after taking office was to get the passenger carrier out of the business of hauling mail and express.

Gunn used some of the same arguments that Anderson made to justify banning special moves and charters.

That was more than a decade ago and Amtrak trains still don’t carry any mail. It sold its fleet of express cars.

Anderson may have philosophical reasons for banning special move, believing that Amtrak needs to do more to focus on its core mission.

Yet it is not clear if ending special moves was even his idea. He might have heard from field-level supervisors who have always disliked having to do something that is a non-standard operation.

And Anderson must answer to a board of directors and we don’t know what “direction” they have given him.

There is some thought that Class 1 railroads will follow Amtrak’s lead and impose even more stringent standards on the movement of passenger cars and passenger trains.

We’ve seen how the Wheeling & Lake Erie has banned all excursion trains and with a few limited exceptions won’t move passenger cars in ferry moves.

But I’m reminded of something that W&LE chief Larry Parsons said when I interviewed him for an article I did several years ago for Trains magazine.

The Wheeling had just lost some iron ore traffic and in asking him about it I used the word “forever” as in the business was lost forever.

Parsons responded that “forever is a very long time.”

Management changes and so do situations. People change their minds about how they view things. Some have described the Amtrak policy change as a work in progress and we haven’t heard the last word on the new policy.

Anderson’s memo left an opening for some special moves if they meet the railroad’s strategic goals. Those can be defined broadly or defined narrowly.

We are entering an era in which special moves and mainline steam will be rarer than they are now. But not necessarily nonexistent. Forever is, after all, a very long time.

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Ski Train Unaffected by Policy Change

March 30, 2018

A ski train in Colorado operated by Amtrak will not be affected by a recent policy decision to stop operating charter and special trains.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the change, which was revealed this week, doesn’t affect the Winter Park Express because that service is in the second year of a three-year contract.

Magliari said the announcement doesn’t affect the ski train and even if the train were to be halted after the contract expires it would be unaffected by this week’s policy change.

The ski train began operating in January 2017 after a previous service last operated in 2009.

Amtrak uses equipment for the ski train that has been removed from other trains after their consists shrink for the winter. The Winter Park Express operates between Denver Union Station and the Winter Park ski resort.

Amtrak Policy Change Has Private Car Owners Scrambling

March 30, 2018

Amtrak’s recent decision to cease running charter trains and specials as well as to curtail carriage of privately-owned passenger cars on its trains has sent a trade organization scrambling to rally its members to seek to apply political pressure on the passenger carrier to reverse the decision.

The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners sent a memorandum to its members this week urging them to contact lawmakers and opinion leaders about the significance of private cars but acknowledged that there is little it can do to attack Amtrak’s decision in court.

AAPRCO told its members in the memo that it is “working to get the most accurate information about the full extent of Amtrak’s policy, which may not yet be firmly in place, and to mount the strongest possible effort to push back against it.”

In the meantime, Amtrak’s decision has prompted the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society to delay selling tickets for a planned trip in Chicago in September behind its 2-8-4 Nickel Plate Road No. 765.

The steam locomotive is to pull excursions between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois, on track owned by commuter railroad Metra.

However, the Fort Wayne group relies on privately-owned cars that would use Amtrak trains and facilities to reach Chicago.

Several private car owners have reported in recent weeks that Amtrak has rejected some of their requests to move their cars.

Amtrak’s new policy pertaining to the carriage of private passenger cars will prohibit attaching and detaching those cars to Amtrak trains at points where an Amtrak train is scheduled to dwell for less than 30 minutes.

However, the carrier has yet to spell out in detail how it will handle private cars going forward.

“At this time, we feel it would be imprudent to open ticket sales as previously scheduled before we have more clarity on the situation,” said a Fort Wayne Society news release. “As such, this policy will force us to revisit our contractual agreements with car owners, re-confirm both their availability and costs, and confirm Amtrak’s ability to transport them to our venue. Amtrak’s participation was critical to last year’s Joliet Rocket trips.”

It is not know yet if these development will affect a planned visit of the NKP 765 to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in late September.

For those excursions, the FtWRHS uses CVSR’s own passenger fleet and does not need to bring in private passenger cars.

As for Amtrak’s policy change pertaining to charter trains and special trains, AAPRCO President Robert Donnelley told his members that the association’s annual convention and mid-year special trains are at risk.

“Amtrak’s stated rationale for these changes is that private varnish has the potential to worsen on-time performance, which is a major concern of President and CEO Richard Anderson,” Donnelley wrote. However, he took issue with that.

Another private car owner trade group, the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance said it has contacted Amtrak to express its concerns but it also has told its members that the implications of the Amtrak policy change are ominous.

“The policy as officially released on March 28, 2018, will have drastic effects on many private car owners, excursion operators, private companies, and tourism in many communities that utilize Amtrak’s service,” RPCA President W. Roger Fuehring told Trains magazine.

“As we move forward, we hope to have an open dialogue with Amtrak in regards to discussing this policy. We look forward to returning not only the revenue stream to Amtrak that we produce with our clientele, but the goodwill that we generate on behalf of Amtrak with every trip.”

One point of contention in talks with Amtrak and the private car owners will be how much revenue the national passenger carrier receives from fees charged to handle the cars.

AAPRCO contends that the private car business adds $10 million in gross revenues to Amtrak, but a recent Wall Street Journal article said it was $4 million.

The memo written by Amtrak President Anderson and sent to employees that announced the ban on most special moves and charters suggested that Amtrak has not been recovering its fully allocated costs for those trains and that they have become a distraction.

AAPRCO’s Donnelley has instructed his group’s members to talk up the importance of private passenger cars and the number of jobs associated with the industry.

His memo said this would include employment at shops and other vendor facilities that support private passenger cars.

The railroad preservation community has launched an online petition to protest Amtrak’s decision at the website change.org. The petition has received more than 450 signatures with a goal of 500.

Talgo Set Repaired, to Return to Cascades Service

March 30, 2018

A set of Talgo equipment are slated to return to revenue service in the Pacific Northwest.

The Talgo train, which is owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation, was repaired in Milwaukee by Talgo after it was damaged last July in a derailment in Steilacoom, Washington.

The Series 8 Talgo Mount Jefferson will be ferried from Milwaukee as a special Amtrak train.

Trains magazine cited an unnamed source as saying the special is expected to leave on March 30 and follow the route of the Empire Builder. It will be pulled by Amtrak P42 No. 161.

Oregon owns two Series 8 Talgo sets, Mount Jefferson and Mount Bachelor, both of which are assigned to Amtrak Cascades service. The Talgos were built in Milwaukee in 2013.

Amtrak to Halt Charters, Specials

March 29, 2018

Amtrak has apparently decided not to agree to operate special trains and certain private varnish movement.

Trains magazine reported on Wednesday that it has obtained a copy of a memorandum sent to Amtrak employees outline the policy change.

“Generally, Amtrak will no longer operate charter services or special trains. These operations caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains,” the memo read in part.

“There may be a few narrow exceptions to this policy in order to support specific strategic initiatives, for example trial service in support of growing new scheduled service. Otherwise, one-time trips and charters are immediately discontinued.”

Many questions remain as to the scope of the policy, but the magazine said that some private car operators already have had their move requests denied.

Among them is the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society in Huntington, West Virginia, which was told that Amtrak would not longer allow the society’s passenger cars to be attached or detached in Huntington on the tri-weekly Cardinal, effective at the end of April.

“We are trying to better understand if Amtrak will allow the cars to be moved at beginning or end points,” Assistant General Manager Joe Rosenthal told the magazine.

The Huntington group is unsure if it will be allowed to move its cars on any Amtrak train even if they are moved to Chicago or Washington.

Rosenthal said the policy change apparently also spells the end of the 51-year tradition of operating the New River Train.

“West Virginia will be losing a huge economic impact and it’ll be particularly devastating to the cities of Huntington and Hinton,” he said.

The New River Train typically operated on the third and fourth weekends of October from Huntington to Hinton, West Virginia, and in recent years has used Amtrak locomotives and crews.

The New River excursions typically carry 5,000 riders annually and are the largest mainline excursion trains in the United States.

Downeaster Trial Expansion Scrapped

March 29, 2018

A proposed extension of Amtrak’s Downeaster service has been canceled.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Downeaster, had planned to operate an extension from Brunswick to Rockland, Maine on three weekends this summer.

But Patricia Quinn, executive director of the authority, said the trial service was scrubbed because Amtrak could not conduct a risk assessment of the 58 miles of track to be used by the service in time for the trial runs.

Quinn said Amtrak would conduct its assessment later this year and that the authority is looking to conduct the trials in 2019 with a schedule that “hopefully can be more robust than three round trips.”

The trial service had been expected to operate in August with intermediate stops in stops in Bath, Wiscasset and Newcastle, Maine.

Budget Bill Gives Boost to Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service Along the

March 28, 2018

Gulf Coast proponents of restoring Amtrak service are looking toward a provision of the recently approved federal budget as a cause for optimism.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains $20 million for a grant program aimed at initiating, restoring or enhancing passenger rail service.

An aide to Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the program is competitive but was created with the Gulf Coast service in mind.

The Southern Rail Commission said the budget bill contained $592 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, which has $35.5 million to restore lost passenger service.

The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, a partnership between the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission and 28 cities, regional planning councils and state departments of transportation last July sent a report to Congress that urges creation of daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Orlando.

The route was served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until that service was suspended following extensive damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The report estimated the cost of service restoration at $115 million, but track owner CSX contends it would be $2 billion.

The working group has expressed doubt about the CSX figure but said it could not validate it without knowing the methodology behind the estimate.

Since the report was completed, CSX has offered for sale the track between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida, that Amtrak once used.

Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, is optimistic that if CSX sells the track that could boost efforts to restore passenger service to the Florida panhandle.

“(State and federal regulators) could make the passenger train a condition of sale,” Ross said. “That they have to maintain the line to at least current standard, and that they have to allow the (passenger) train.”

The Southern Rail Commission is also seeking twice-daily rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got a short-term opportunity to get something done,” he said.

One stumbling block to service restoration could be the lack of positive train control on the line between Pensacola to Orlando.

San Joaquin Expansion Being Eyed

March 28, 2018

A California city has taken a step toward expanding Amtrak’s San Joaquin service into new territory.

The Butte County Association of Governments board of directors approved a $495,000 option contract to acquire the former Western Pacific station in Oroville.

The option is good for 90 days and is contingent on the association receiving a grant to help pay for the building.

BCAG Executive Director Jon Clark said the station could also be used for a proposed commuter bus line to Sacramento.

The San Joaquin service current operates between Bakersfield and Sacramento with some trains operating as far west as Oakland.

Funding for San Joaquin service comes from the State of California.

Transportation officials have said that Oroville is probably as far north as San Joaquin service can go due to freight train service on the route to Redding via Chico.

No study has yet been done on ridership potential from Oroville, but officials believe that it would be considerable.

There is an Amtrak Thruway bus route connecting with San Joaquin service at Stockton from Marysville, Oroville, Chico, Red Bluff and Redding.

Renovation of the Oroville station might cost as much as $4 million.

A portion of the depot is used by an insurance agency while most of the structure used to be used by a restaurant and mico-brewery.

Duluth Service Moves to Design Stage

March 28, 2018

Proponents of restoring intercity rail passenger service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, have moved into the design phase of the project and also are seeking money to fund it.

“The planning is done. There is no more planning that needs to be done. Now we are ready to build,” said Frank Loetterle, project manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Rail Office.

Loetterle said MnDOT is in “extensive discussions” with Amtrak and BNSF, which owns the tracks to be used by the proposed Northern Lights Express.

Once capital operating funding is secured, the service could be in operation in about two and a half years after the final design process begins.

The project is expected to require between $500 million and $600 million.

Derrick James, governmental affairs senior officer at Amtrak, described services such as Northern Lights as “the future for passenger rail.”

James said a Midwest regional rail system of higher-frequency passenger trains would “stitch together the economy of the Midwest” while providing the connectedness that young people and the business community seek.

“If we want to keep the Twin Ports on the map, because we know we’ve got the quality of life here, to keep the young people, we also have to be competitive in connecting our universities, connecting our business community. A highly developed rail station with supportive zoning can be a catalyst for more economic development in the area around the station,” James said. “It’s not about the train, it’s about our economy and we’re building an economy that’s open to everyone and is accessible for everyone.”

Last month the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Northern Lights development plan. Work has also been done on an environmental assessment.

The proposal calls for four daily trips with intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley in Minnesota and Superior in Wisconsin.

Plans envision a top speed of 90 miles per hour, but an average speed of more than 60 miles per hour.

The route previously had Amtrak service that ended in April 1985 when state funding of the route lapsed. The North Star had once operated between Chicago and Duluth.

Consultant Says Getting New Intercity Rail Passenger Service Takes Persistence

March 28, 2018

A consultant told those seeking rail passenger service from western Massachusetts to New York City that the process is all about finding money to fund the service.

“The list is long where there was no money,” said Vinay Mudholkar, an international transportation consultant. “There will be no railroad if you don’t push hard.”

Mudholkar said that advocates for the service must use finesse and tenacity in dealing with government bureaucrats and railroad companies.

“You have to have that fire in you — don’t say you don’t have the money,” he said during a public hearing in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The campaign to start the rail service is being headed by Karen Christensen, who is on a quest to restore intercity rail passenger service over the Housatonic Line between Grand Central Terminal in New York and Pittsfield.

The line lost passenger service in 1972 and is now operated for freight service by the Connecticut-based Housatonic Railroad

The State of Massachusetts has acquired 37 miles of track between Pittsfield and Canaan, Connecticut, with the idea of restoring passenger service.

But the project has lagged due to doubts about Connecticut’s ability to invest in track upgrades.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has estimated it could cost $200 million to rebuild the track between Pittsfield and Danbury, Connecticut.

Massachusetts transportation officials may use The Berkshire Flyer, a seasonal weekend line, as a pilot to test the New York-Pittsfield market.

That service would offer service from New York Penn Station to Pittsfield via Albany on Amtrak.

Some lawmakers also want to upgrade rail service between Boston and Pittsfield, which is current provided by on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited.

Mudholkar said government officials need to act quickly and not let the existing rail fall apart.

He also urged building a working relationship with the freight rail company using the line. “Don’t create animosity,” he said.

Acknowledging that it won’t be easy, Mudholkar said getting money for rail service is never easy. “You’ve got to have that spirit,” he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything.’ ”