Archive for May, 2018

Pair of F40s With Mismatching Looks

May 30, 2018

I was on a tour of Amtrak’s shops and coach yards in Chicago. We were allowed to visit a tower that overlooked the yards and I made this image of two F40PH locomotives on a ready track.

It is a contrast of the old and new, although the contrast is not that much.

No. 302 was built in April 1979 and wears the Phase III look that was introduced that year. It was retired by Amtrak in December 2001, still wearing this livery.

No. 255 was built in November 1977 and still sports the Phase II look. This unit would be involved in a derailment at Silver Spring, Maryland, in February 1996.

It was the trailing unit on the Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited that struck a MARC commuter train that had run past a stop signal.

Fort Madison Eyes Grant Extension for Platform Project

May 30, 2018

Fort Madison, Iowa, may need to request an extension of time to use a state grant that it plans to use to build a new platform at the city’s Amtrak station.

The new platform would be built closer to downtown.

However, the city is a few months from a deadline to spend the grant money it received for the project and BNSF, which owns tracks served by the platform, has yet to approve the platform design.

City Manager David Varley said the $750,000 Iowa Department of Transportation grant may be lost if the extension to use it is not approved. The state grant constitutes more than half of the project’s funding.

“As soon as we get these approved plans turned in, we’ve got everything on our end worked out and ready to turn in,” Varley said. “We are still trying to shoot for a date at the end of the year.”

Fort Madison is served by Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief and averages 17 passengers a day. The city hopes that a more favorable location for the boarding site will increase ridership.

Hiawatha Expansion No Longer Contingent on Building New Siding in Lake Forest

May 30, 2018

One obstacle to expanding Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service may have been removed with an announcement by Metra that a proposed three-mile siding is long longer needed.

The siding has been the focus of protests in the northern Chicago suburbs since it was said to be necessary before Hiawatha Service can expand between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Amtrak, Metra and Canadian Pacific trains use the route, but the siding would primarily be used by CP freight trains waiting on permission to enter Union Pacific tracks that they use to access the CP yard (former Milwaukee Road) in Bensenville.

The siding would have been located in Lake Forest and residents there feared that freight trains would idle on it for long periods of time.

In a letter written to the departments of transportation of Illinois and Wisconsin, Metra CEO James Derwinski said the commuter railroad, which owns the tracks in question, now believes Amtrak service can be enhanced by rebuilding a portion of the existing third track south of Rondout.

“Since Metra is focused on investments in our existing system to work towards a state of good repair, we are not currently in a position to actively pursue major capacity expansions of Metra infrastructure beyond the short-term needs of the (Milwaukee District North) Line,” Derwinski wrote.

“Therefore, Metra requests that [the] proposed third main track from Rondout to Lake Forest be reduced to a third main track through the Rondout interlocking limits to a point approximately 2,500 feet geographically south of the (Canadian National)/(Elgin Joliet & Eastern) crossing,” the letter said.

The letter said expanding the track at Rondout would enable an inbound Metra train coming off the Fox Lake Subdivision to move through the Rondout interlocking limits while permitting simultaneous movement on the corridor’s two main tracks.

Lake Forest Mayor Rob Lansing issued a statement lauding Metra’s position.

However, the village of Glenview still views with disfavor Metra’s latest position, because Metra still expects to built a separate two-mile siding in the western part of that city to allow for additional daily Amtrak trains.

“Among other concerns, it’s not clear why the Amtrak service expansion is necessary, given current ridership on the Hiawatha line is only at 39 percent of capacity. Also, a draft environmental assessment released in November 2016 provides no air quality, noise and other health and safety impacts for residents living adjacent to the proposed holding track, nor does it include a freight impact study,” the village said in a statement.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said Metra continues to believe that capacity enhancements are needed to implement the proposed Hiawatha service expansion.

As for the Amtrak service expansion, the next step will be the release of an environmental assessment being conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration in conjunction with IDOT and WISDOT.

Cincinnati Still Pushing to Save Ticket Office

May 30, 2018

Cincinnati officials continue to push to prod Amtrak into delaying closing its ticket office at Union Terminal.

Board of Hamilton County Commissioners President Todd Portune was to introduce a resolution opposing the move.

The resolution asks Amtrak to delay staffing cuts until after renovations are complete and a better assessment of passenger traffic can be made.

“We can’t let Amtrak eliminate servicing passenger rail at Union Terminal without objecting to it, “ Portune said.

The resolution follows a letter sent to Amtrak by City of Cincinnati transit manager John Brazina urging the carrier to at least keep the staff at a temporary ticket office until the Cincinnati Museum Center renovations are complete.

“It is our understanding many people thought Amtrak discontinued service during the CMC renovation,” Brazina wrote.

Amtrak plans to close the ticket office on June 5 as part of a cost-cutting move that will shutter ticket offices at 15 stations nationwide.

The ticket offices targeted for closing reportedly serve 40 or fewer passengers per day.

Cincinnati with 2 million people in its metropolitan area is the largest city among the 15 losing a ticket office.

The next largest city to lose a ticket office is Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the number of passengers who board in Cincinnati has been steady over the past 10 years.

In 2007, 13,032 people boarded the Cardinal at Union Terminal, a number that fell slightly after the Union Terminal renovations began in 2016.

Amtrak trains served 12,481 passengers in Cincinnati in 2016 and 11,382 in 2017. Because Union Terminal is under construction, the Amtrak ticket office and waiting room has been housed in a temporary facility adjacent to the station.

Cincinnati lies on the route of the Chicago-Washington Cardinal, which stops in the Queen City in the dead of night in both directions three times a week.

Local officials and rail passenger advocates fear the closing of the ticket office will depress ridership and that could hurt Cincinnati’s chances at better passenger rail service in the future.

“In so far as the national discussion of train service, we’re starting to fall off the map,” Portune said. “I want to preserve passenger rail service as a transit option, especially for Hamilton County.”

Hamilton County wants Amtrak to share the costs with Cincinnati and other local governments to promote train service at Union Terminal and help push for daily train service here.

Magliari said that fewer than one in 10 passengers buy tickets in person at a ticket window, instead choosing to use an app, the Internet or the phone.

“Maintaining a full-time staff and a hardly used ticket counter was not a good use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Magliari declined to comment on whether Amtrak would reconsider keeping the ticket window open due to pressure from local leaders.

Excursion Being Offered From Alton

May 30, 2018

The American Association of Railroaders is sponsoring trips on June 2 from Alton to Carlinville, Illinois, and return.

The outbound trip will be aboard an Amtrak Lincoln Service train that will depart from the Alton Regional Multi-Modal Transportation Center at 3:30 p.m.

Passengers will return to Alton at 6:30 p.m. aboard the Texas Eagle. During the layover in Carlinville, passengers will be able to get something to eat at one of the two fast food restaurants located a block from the station.

AAR President Rich Eichhorst will offer commentary en route, and railroad souvenirs will be available for purchase.

Non-refundable fares are $35 for adults and $29 for children age 11 and younger.

No Plans to End Long-Distance Trains Amtrak Executive Tell RPA During Meeting

May 30, 2018

Amtrak executives have pledged to the Rail Passengers Association that the carrier has no plans to discontinue long-distance trains.

The pledge came during a meeting last week between RPA CEO Jim Mathews and Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner.

Anderson said during the meeting that Amtrak will always have long-distance trains and it plans selective upgrades to some long-distance trains. Amtrak will also work to improve meal service aboard all trains.

Writing on the RPA blog, Mathews said that in the wake of the meeting that long-distance trains are no longer targets for elimination for now.

The meeting yielded information about Amtrak’s plans, including selectively upgrading what Anderson termed “epic, experiential” trains such as the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight

Anderson and Gardner also said Amtrak will issue soon a request for proposals to replace the carrier’s diesel locomotives.

Amtrak plans to move quickly to award a contract and begin getting locomotives built and into service.

A similar request for proposals is expected this year about the availability of single-level train sets and diesel multiple units with the aim of getting that equipment under contract and under construction.

This equipment is expected to be used on corridor type service of less than 600 miles and ideally no more than 400 miles.

Gardner described this as a “sweet spot” in which multiple daily frequencies can be offered with an optimized number of train sets so that fares and trip times can be competitive with other modes of transportation.

Although no time frame was given, Amtrak is planning to replaced its Superliner fleet, which Anderson and Gardner described as having reached the end of its reasonable service life.

They acknowledged that Amtrak will not refurbish the interiors of Superliner cars as it has been doing with Amfleet equipment and Acela Express train sets.

Anderson said the Superliners need new frames and therefore management has decided to replace the cars rather than rebuild them.

In a side note, Anderson and Gardner said the refurbishment of Amfleet I cars is nearly finished.

RPA has pressed Amtrak about its food service in the wake of an announcement in April that the carrier would on April 1 eliminate full-service dining on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in favor of cold meals for sleeping car passengers.

The Amtrak executives said that plan was always considered an experiment and the passenger carrier expects to introduce at least one hot meal offering at some point.

They said Amtrak wants to improve its food service system-wide and is prepared to spend money to do it.

Gardner said that in time Amtrak will upgrade its menus on the Capitol and Lake Shore and offer coach passengers the opportunity to buy meals from that menu in the diner or elsewhere.

In the meantime, Amtrak is seeking to renegotiate its food contracts, upgrade the quality of the food available, and implement a program for passengers to choose their meals ahead of time.

Once chosen, passengers will able to eat their meals when and where they want to eat, whether it be in a dining car, in their room or at their seat.

Amtrak also wants to go cashless, an idea that the carrier has discussed before but never implemented. On-board personnel will be given portable devices to charge passengers for food and beverages.

In a related development, Gardner said the new CAF diners sitting at the Hialeah shops near Miami will soon be in service. He said they are awaiting parts and modification.

Anderson and Gardner elaborated on their congressional testimony about the possibility that Amtrak will not operate on rail lines that are required to have positive train control by late this year but on which the equipment has not been installed.

Gardner said this is not a strategy to discontinue trains or routes, but rather a temporary action until PTC is installed.

Anderson indicated during the meeting that he is laser-focused on implementing an airline-style safety management system by the end of the year, which he said is required of Amtrak by FRA regulation following the National Transportation Safety Board’s implementation recommendation.

He said he has found that freight railroads have a “risk-tolerant” mindset by which “they’re perfectly willing to accept that they’ll wreck a train every three years.”

SMS has been used by airlines to assess individual risks to safe operation and identify specific mitigation steps for each risk.

Anderson said SMS has been proven in the aviation world to not only improve safety but to continuously drive down incidents and risk.

Amtrak plans to identify a range of ways to reach “PTC-equivalent” levels of safety in areas that aren’t fully PTC-compliant.

This includes such steps as issuing slow orders and spiking or blocking facing-point switches for mainline movement.

Different technologies will be deployed to assure accurate train location, sending the conductor up to the head end or, failing everything else, using buses to move passengers around an affected track segment.

Mathews wrote that his take away from the meeting is that that the nature of Amtrak service will evolve and change over time, but that the carrier is pursuing a growth strategy whose objective is to serve more Americans rather than fewer.

“In any case, the long-term shape of the national network will be determined by Congress, which makes the upcoming reauthorization of the surface transportation bill even more important to RPA and its members,” Mathews wrote.

Private Car Owners Plotting Next Moves

May 30, 2018

Private passenger car owners huddled last week to plot their next moves in response to changes in Amtrak’s policies toward handling their cars.

The policy changes have raised fees and restricted how often and where private cars can operate.

The meeting involved members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance.

Although the joint meeting did not produce any announced major strategy initiatives, AAPRCO President Bob Donnelley said the policy changes are forcing many of his group’s members to close or curtail their operations.”

PRCA president Roger Fuehring said Amtrak’s actions have adversely affected employees, suppliers, and the hospitality industry that works with private rail car trips.

Second Generation Turboliner

May 29, 2018

Back in the mid 1970s Amtrak tried to make a splash by leasing a couple of French-built gas turbine trains.

Capable of traveling 125 mph, Amtrak knew that the Turboliners would not be able to get close to that in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor where they were introduced in August 1973.

But the Turboliners were the newest equipment that Amtrak had to show off.

The first sets of Turboliners were built in France, but California-based Rohr Industries would build seven Turbotrain sets that were delivered between 1976 and 1977.

These Turboliners were based on the earlier French design but had American couplers and a re-designed cab car.

The Rohr or RTG Turboliners were capable of operating in electrified third rail territory so they were assigned to Empire Corridor Service in New York.

I was waiting for a commuter train in Beacon, New York, in December 1982 on what is now Metro North when one of the RTG Turboliners came charging past.

I had just enough time to get my camera  out and compose this image.

Adirondack Gets Summer Sked Change

May 29, 2018

In anticipation of Canadian National heat restrictions this summer, Amtrak is adding time to the schedule of the Adirondack in Canada between May 26 through Sept. 3.

Train 69 will get an additional 25 minutes before Montreal while Train 68 will depart Montreal 10 minutes earlier and get additional time at the border.

All scheduled times from Rouses Point south will remain the same.

Congressman Spar Over Whether a Train is Surface Transportation

May 29, 2018

A group of five Republican congressmen is trying to argue that railroads are not surface transportation.

Four of them are from Florida and are trying to block Brightline from issuing bonds to raise money to pay for an extension of the intercity passenger railroad to Orlando, Florida, by arguing that only roads constitute surface transportation.

However, a bi-partisan group of congressman along with former Rep. John Mica are countering the railroads indeed a form of surface transportation.

The issue arose after Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao seeking her help in blocking Brightline from being able to obtain private activity bond financing.

Meadows, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, wants DOT to suspend an approved allocation of $1.15 billion in private activity bonds to Brightline.

He was joined in the letter by four Florida congressmen, including Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) who represents an area north of West Palm Beach, Florida, knkown as the Treasure Coast.

Brightline trains will pass through this region at 110 mph after Florida East Coast Railway tracks are rebuilt.

Their letter argues that federal money spent on Brightline highway-rail crossing improvements should not count as a qualifying factor for the bonds because a railroad is involved.

The letter further argues that the the money is for crossings on FEC tracks not owned by — but leased to — Brightline and that involving a railroad “circumvents the intent of Congress.”

Writing his own letter to Chao, Mica said he “was involved in drafting and adoption of language … with the clear intent to establish eligibility of transportation projects which have a public benefit.”

Railroads were intended to be covered by the legislation, Mica said, in order “to provide a means of shifting the obligation from the taxpayer to private investors, and to encourage their subscription to help fund highway, rail, and other transportation projects.” He concludes, “It would be a setback if this first-of-its-kind project in the U.S. was not afforded this opportunity as Congress intended.”

Also writing in support of Brightline was House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) and eight other members of Florida’s congressional delegation.

“We disagree with those who suggest a rail system, whether freight or passenger, is not a ‘surface transportation project.’ ” they wrote to Choa.

Brightline opponents have spent $7 million in public funding finding the passenger carrier through lawsuits. All of those suit but has been dismissed.

The bond Brightlines wants to sell would be less expensive than private borrowing options or a $1.75 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan.

Brightline had asked DOT to extend past May 31 the deadline for private activity bond sales.