Archive for July, 2018

Poll Finds 74% Favor More Transit Aid

July 25, 2018

A large majority of Americans believe that Congress should increase public transit funding, the American Public Transportation Association said this week.

A poll conducted for APTA by the Mineta Transportation Institution found 74 percent of respondents favored increased federal transit funding and 80 percent support using tax dollars for creating, expanding and improving public transportation in their communities.

The poll also found 80 percent of respondents said public transit is important to communities because it “helps businesses flourish.”

The survey collected data from 1,201 interviews with individuals across the United States.

Shuster Releases Infrastructure Plan

July 25, 2018

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has introduced an infrastructure plan that would be paid for in part by an increase in fuel taxes.

Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) said his plan would result in significant federal investment in infrastructure projects and grant programs at least through 2021 and also bolster the sagging Highway Trust Fund.

The plan would raise federal user fees on gasoline and diesel fuel by 15 cents per gallon and 20 cents per gallon, respectively with the tax hikes phased in over three years.

Once the phase-in is completed, the user fees would be indexed to inflation, then zeroed out in 2028.

As a way of reforming the highway trust fund, Shuster wants to see the creation of a panel of experts to study and recommend solutions to ensure the fund’s long-term solvency.

Shuster’s plan also would establish a national, voluntary pilot program to test the viability of replacing current HTF user fees with a per-mile user fee.

Legislation reflecting the plan will be introduced in the coming weeks and months.

Shuster said he developed his proposal in consultation with members of both major political parties.

“This discussion draft does not represent a complete and final infrastructure bill,” Shuster said in a statement. “It is meant to reignite discussions amongst my colleagues.

First Glimpse of a Charger

July 24, 2018

Amtrak’s SC-44 Charger locomotives have been in service for several months on Midwest corridor routes, but it was only recently that I got my first glimpse of one.

I was in Effingham, Illinois, to observe the arrival of the northbound Saluki, which is shown above.

The Chargers are operating on most Midwest routes with the notable exception of Wolverine and Blue Water trains.

Amtrak has said the Chargers won’t be assigned to those trains until the positive train control system can be aligned with the PTC system used on Amtrak-owned track in Michigan and Indiana.

My first impression of the Chargers was favorable unlike my first thought about the now ubiquitous P42 and P40 units.

The nose of the Charger is similar in design to that of a Genesis locomotive and we’ve all had years to become accustomed to the latter.

New Check-in Procedure in Albuquerque

July 24, 2018

Amtrak has instituted a new check-in and seat assignment process for coach passengers boarding the Southwest Chief in Albuquerque.

There is now a reception desk, located next to the exit door to the platform for coach passengers to check in and receive a seat assignment.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said coach passengers are being directed to have at least one member of their party wait at the reception desk for train arrival.

An Amtrak employee will assign seats based on the train’s availability upon arrival.

Passengers who are on the platform with no boarding pass will be directed back to the station reception desk to receive their assignments.

Sleeping car passengers, as well as anyone seeing off or greeting passengers, will go directly to the platform.

Wolverines To Allow Bikes Onboard

July 24, 2018

Bicycles will be allowed onboard Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverine Service trains effective July 26.

The service will be available at all stations and cost $10 per bike.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said bicycle reservations are required and bike tickets must be presented to the conductor when boarding the train.

Passengers can reserve space for their bikes by selecting “add bike” when booking their reservation at Amtrak.com.

Bike reservations also can be made by calling 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245) and at Amtrak ticket offices. Only four bicycles are permitted per train.

Passengers will be provided a bike tag by station employees and by the train crew at unstaffed stations. Passengers must present their bike tag to retrieve their bike from the train crew at their destination.

Amtrak is advising passengers carrying on bikes to arrive 45 minutes before  train departure to allow sufficient time to obtain their ticket and baggage tag, and to get their bike onto the train.

Only one standard size bicycle will be permitted per passenger. Large seat/saddle bags must be removed from the bikes. These items can be carried on the train and will count as a carry-on item.

Passengers must be physically capable of lifting their bicycle up to shoulder height to an employee standing in the vestibule of a passenger car.

Passengers may stow their bicycle in open spaces at the ends of the car. They may not be stored in the vestibule.

Upon reaching their destination, passengers will be responsible for preparing their bicycle prior to detraining. A bike should be positioned in the doorway, so the passenger can lift it off the car with the chain facing away.

NTSB Looking at Talgo Safety

July 24, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board probe into the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train that killed three and injured more than 60 is focusing on the safety of the Talgo equipment involved in the incident.

“Now that we have evidence of how the Talgo trainset performs in a crash, does the [Federal Railroad Administration] have any concerns that would cause you to re-examine your decision to grandfather this equipment?” NTSB investigator Michael Hiller asked an FRA during a recent hearing.

In response, the FRA’s Gary Fairbanks said, “I didn’t see anything as the way the cars performed that would cause us to go back and reconsider the grandfathering petition because the items that were covered in the grandfathering petition performed adequately.”

The Talgo equipment involved in the derailment had been operating under a FRA waiver.

During the hearings, the NTSB also zeroed in on the training of Amtrak locomotive engineers.

The derailment occurred on the first day of revenue service on the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually, Washington.

NTSB investigators are also questioning if Amtrak did enough to identify a potentially dangerous curve at DuPont, Washington, where Cascades No. 501 derailed.

At issue was whether Amtrak operating personnel received a sufficient number of familiarization trips over the route before revenue service began.

Most of the training runs were made at night to avoid interfering with Sounder commuter trains during the day.

Testimony at the NTSB hearing showed that one training run had seven people in the cab, exceeding the number considered safe by Amtrak standards.

Locomotive engineers were not only learning a new route, but a new locomotive, the SC-44 Charger.

In interviews with NTSB investigators, the engineer of Cascades No. 501 said the curve at milepost 19.8 was on his mind, but that his limited familiarity with the lines of sight from the Charger locomotive may have hindered his ability to see the wayside warning signs until it was too late.

As Cascades No. 501 entered a 30 mph curve, it was traveling at 78 mph.

Mike DeCataldo, Amtrak’s senior director for system safety and customer satisfaction, said  Amtrak will only begin a new service or route “once all safety precautions and mitigations are in place.”

DeCataldo said Amtrak will require a minimum of four round-trips over the entirety of the new route, up from the previous minimum of one, before an engineer or conductor is qualified to operate over it.

Amtrak has said it will not use the Point Defiance Bypass until positive train control train is installed, which is not expected until the end of this year.

In a related development, an Amtrak mechanic has filed a federal whistleblower complaint in connection with the Cascades derailment, saying carrier ignored his safety concerns on the day of the accident.

Michael McClure said in the complaint that he told his superiors that there was a mechanical failure in the trainset that later derailed.

“They were more primarily concerned about getting it out in time for the inaugural run than looking at the safety aspect of it,” McClure said.

He contends that the fault dealt with the train’s braking system. However, it has not been formally established if that played a part in the derailment.

McClure’s complaint alleges that Amtrak has “an ongoing pattern and practice of violating the Federal Railroad Safety Act.”

CSX, Silver Star Changed Operating Procedures Following February Silver Star Crash

July 24, 2018

CSX and Amtrak said at a recent National Transportation Board hearing that they have begun new operating procedures in the wake of a February collision that killed two.

Among the changes are having a CSX signaling department employee be involved with every mainline switch move in territory where the signals are out of service.

A signal department worker will be present to lock, unlock, or move any mainline switch during a signal suspension, and at least two employees from at least two departments will work together to verify switch positions.

Amtrak engineers are to slow their trains to restricted speed of generally not more than 15 mph, when approaching facing-point switches in “dark” territory.

This will allow engineers sufficient time to stop if they observe a switch that is not properly lined, an action that exceeds the requirement of host-railroad rulebooks.

CSX officials said that additional safety measures will be undertaken during periods when signals are out of service in order to cut-in positive train control systems.

These changes include enhanced job briefings for crews and dispatchers and reduced train traffic. Amtrak said it has instructed its operating employees to stop a train when an unsafe condition exists.

“Each mitigation [Amtrak has] applied has been more restrictive than host railroad practice,” said Justin Meko, Amtrak vice president for safety compliance and training. “We can no longer simply rely on the host railroad’s rulebook and must augment host practices in ways that meaningfully enhance safety.”

The operating changes were made following a Feb. 4 head-on collision between the southbound Silver Star and a CSX train parked in a siding at Cayce, South Carolina.

The freight train crew had left a switch aligned from the main into the siding. The resulting collision left two Amtrak operating employees dead and 92 passengers injured.

The crash occurred as the signal system on CSX’s Columbia Subdivision was suspended to allow for the installation of positive train control.

Amtrak Workers Demand Meeting With Anderson

July 24, 2018

Members of Amtrak’s labor unions are demanding a meeting with CEO Richard Anderson to discuss changes being made at the carrier.

The workers are members of the Amtrak Service Workers Council, a coalition of unions representing Amtrak’s on board service employees who are unhappy about onboard service changes the carrier has made, in particular the ending of full-service dining on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

Some union members who are represented by Transport Workers Union of America, UNITE-HERE, and the Transportation Communications Union/International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, staged a protest rally recently at Amtrak headquarters in Washington.

The unions are planning similar protests in New York and Chicago.

Anderson briefly spoke to union officials on July 18 and what was said at that time in dispute.

The unions contend that Anderson told the workers to set up a meeting with other Amtrak executives.

But in a statement, Amtrak contends that Anderson intends to meet with the workers to discuss the railroad’s plans to “upgrade the quality of our food and create a more contemporary style of service on some of our long distance trains.”

The unions and Amtrak are also at odds as to the effect of the food service changes.

Amtrak contended in its statement that employees affected by the change have been able to find new positions within the company.

But union officials counter that in reality jobs have been lost and the Amtrak statement fails to present a full picture of how employees have been affected.

John Feltz, a vice president for the TWU, said one Amtrak chef who previously worked on the East Coast now has is working out of New Orleans and being forced to spend more time away from his family getting to and from his assignment.

“Anderson says that no one is going to lose their jobs but he’s 100 percent wrong about that,” Feltz says.

Starting on June 1, Amtrak replaced full-service dining with boxed meals in a program it billed as “contemporary and fresh dining choices” that cater to the needs of a new generation of travelers and improve efficiency and costs.

Union members are also angry about how Amtrak management gave its members little warning of the change.

Feltz says Amtrak told the union in mid-April that it was considering a change to on board service and it wanted to get the views of union members before it announced the changes.

But hours later Amtrak went ahead with its plan to replace hot meals with cold boxed-meals.

Union officials are concerned that ending traditional dining service on two East Coast long distance train is the first step in an effort to eliminate more amenities aboard Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

“They’re trying to run this railroad like an airline,” Feltz said in a reference to Anderson’s previous job as CEO of Delta Airlines.

Penn Station Work Moving on Schedule

July 24, 2018

Amtrak expects the renovation of New York Penn Station and its Empire Connection to be completed on time and without major surprises.

In a briefing last week, Amtrak Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek said rebuilding of the Empire Connection from the west end of Penn Station to the connection west of the Spuyten Duyvil Metro-North Station is on schedule.

The project involves the Empire Tunnel, the rails between the tunnel and the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge.

The Spuyten Duyvil Bridge swing span is expected to be back in place by the week of July 30, with tweaking of the electrical and mechanical systems to take place during August.

Workers are replacing 2,500 track fasteners inside the tunnel as well as lowering the track to accommodate clearances of the new Hudson River Tunnels.

A new switch is being installed at 72nd Street and workers are replacing 15 miles of welded rail and 15,000 ties.

Surfacing of 19 miles of ballasted track will be done before the Labor Day Weekend on the largely double-track line.

The Empire Connection is used by the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited as well as other Empire Service trains.

At Penn Station a new upper-level handbag kiosk is being installed along with a Starbucks and a wine store kiosk.

Platform 6, which serves Tracks 11 and 12, will be taken out of service for Moynihan Station work, and will be restored next year. Other platforms are getting better lighting and new signs.

Redemption of Amtrak Guest Reward Points Being Allowed Online

July 20, 2018

Starting July 15 Amtrak began allowing members of its Amtrak Guest Rewards program to redeem their points online for a one-class upgrade and free companion coupons.

Previously members had to call the Guest Rewards Customer Service or a visit to the ticket counter at a staffed station.

To redeem their points, Guest Rewards members must be logged into their account at Amtrak.com and click on “Traveler” and then on the “Coupon/Promo Code” field.

Any unused, unexpired free companion coupons in the member’s account will appear in the drop-down menu and can be applied to a reservation that meets the criteria for their use. Members can also click on “My Account” at the top of the page and then on “My Trips.”

If a program member has an unused, unexpired one-class upgrade coupon that is still valid, the memer can click “View/Edit” on the applicable reservation, then “Apply Upgrade.”

The program allows members to receive two upgrade coupons by earning at least 5,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, four upgrades and two companion coupons for reaching 10,000 points, and an additional upgrade coupon for every 3,000 points after reaching the 20,000-point level.