Archive for August, 2018

Amtrak PTC Stance Endangers 8 Trains

August 28, 2018

An Amtrak official last week reiterated the carrier’s stance that it will not operate on rail lines lacking positive train control after Dec. 31.

The declaration was made by Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner during a meeting in Raton, New Mexico, to discuss the future of the Southwest Chief.

Garnder also said the Amtrak board of directors has decreed that the policy will stand even in cases where a host railroad has been granted a PTC exemption by the Federal Railroad Administration.

That stance, if not reversed, would endanger eight Amtrak routes. Trains magazine reported on its website that those trains are:

  • Southwest Chief: Between La Junta, Colorado, and Dailies, New Mexico, and through Topeka, Kansas.
  • Cardinal:  Buckingham Branch Railroad between Orange and Clifton Forge, Virginia.
  • California Zephyr: On 152 miles of Union Pacific’s Green River subdivision west of Grand Junction, Colorado.
  • Texas Eagle: On 110 miles of UP’s Desoto subdivision south of St. Louis.
  • Downeaster: North of Haverhill, Massachusetts, to Brunswick, Maine., on Pan Am Railways
  • Vermonter: On the New England Central north of Springfield, Massachusetts.
  • Ethan Allen: On Vermont Railway east of Whitehall, New York.
  • City of New Orleans: On 18 miles of Canadian National in Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans

All Aboard Ohio reported that the Lake Shore Limited might also be in danger because it uses eight miles of CSX track between downtown Cleveland and Collinwood Yard that do not have PTC.

Amtrak and elected officials in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have been locked in a battle over the Southwest Chief.

The elected officials are angry because Amtrak refuses to release its share of matching funds for a federal TIGER grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico, to rebuild the route used by the Chief in New Mexico.

Earlier TIGER grants have been used to rebuild the route of Nos. 3 and 4 in Colorado and Kansas.

Steve Cottrell, the assistant city manager of Garden City, Kansas, attended the meeting and said Gardner insisted that Amtrak “had no preconceived end game in mind.”

However , Gardner’s presentation included the proposed bus bridge between either Dodge City, Kansas, or La Junta, Colorado, and Albuquerque.

A draft schedule shows Nos. 3 and 4 originating and terminating in Dodge City, with the bus service connecting there.

The bus service in turn would connect with a Los Angeles-Albuquerque train.

Amtrak envisions the Chicago-Dodge City, and Albuquerque-Los Angeles trains each having two locomotives, two coaches, one coach-baggage car and a café car.

The passenger carrier estimates it will need to spend between $4 million and more than $13 million to establish layover and turning facilities in Dodge City and Albuquerque.

“I made the statement to him that it would have been a much more pleasant meeting had Amtrak sat down with the [Southwest Chief] Coalition, and state DOT’s prior to making such statements because we want to work out how to get the TIGER 9 [grant, the latest providing funding to maintain the Chief route] off the ground and get a commitment for their share of the money,” Cottrell told Trains.

“If it’s going to take working out another three- to five-year plan for the improvements, either to the railroad or start some phased installation of PTC, so be it, but to get blindsided by this bus bridge thing and then come in and say they have no preconceived idea just kind of set a negative tone to the meeting that shouldn’t have had to be that way,” he said.

Still No Word on Cardinal’s Return to New York City

August 27, 2018

The return of Amtrak’s Cardinal to New York remains murky.

The Chicago-New York train was curtained to a Chicago-Washington operation last March due to construction work at New York Penn Station.

That work is set to wrap up in early September, but Amtrak has not said when Nos. 50 and 51 will resume operating in the Big Apple.

Members of the Charleston West-Virginia-based Friends of the Cardinal are worried that the “temporary” route of the tri-weekly Cardinal could turn out to be permanent.

Chuck Riecks of the group believes the Cardinal might become part of Amtrak’s efforts to “sectionalize” long-distance trains by dividing them into shorter segments of 750 miles or less.

That would require the states served by the trains to underwrite the costs of the service.

Riecks said Amtrak might be eyeing making the Cardinal a Washington-Huntington, West Virginia, service and a Chicago-Cincinnati service. The carrier might also propose a train between Cincinnati and Huntington.

“Making this change would probably negate such services as sleeping cars and full diners,” Riecks said. “To say nothing of causing a passenger from Huntington who wishes to go to Chicago to change trains at least twice. This is not a new idea. It was proposed in the [President Ronald] Reagan years and then abandoned. But, current Amtrak managers seem to believe this is the way to go.”

Friends of the Cardinal is asking rail passenger advocates to tell their elected officials that the Cardinal should be preserved and expanded to daily service.

N.M. Agency Gets PTC Grant From FRA

August 27, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded a $30 million grant to the Rio Metro Regional Transit District to be used to install positive train control.

The agency operates the New Mexico Rail Runner Express over 96 miles that line the cities of Belen, Albuquerque, Los Lunas and Santa Fe.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief uses a portion of this route network.

Officials said without the funding, rail passenger service would likely have ended because the agency lacks the money to final installing PTC equipment.

Lack of PTC has been one of the reasons given by Amtrak for its idea to operate a bus service between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kansas, in lieu of a train.

The U.S. Senate has approved $2.5 billion for intercity passenger rail service in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2019, and directed Amtrak to preserve service on the Southwest Chief corridor.

Rome Amtrak Station Closed Temporarily

August 27, 2018

Due to construction, Amtrak has closed its station at Rome, New York. A service advisory did not provide a timeline for when it will reopen.

During the construction, Amtrak said in a service advisory that the public will not have access to the station and trains will not stop there.

Amtrak said passengers should board Empire Service trains at stations in either Utica or Syracuse, New York.

BWI Station Waiting Room Relocated

August 27, 2018

The waiting room for Amtrak’s BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Station has been relocated due to renovations that began on Aug. 27.

During the project work, the station will be closed and passengers will use a temporary station located on the north side of the facility.

The temporary station will include staffed ticket offices and an ADA accessible seated waiting room and restrooms. Signage on the platforms will direct customers to the temporary station.

The taxi pick up location will be outside the temporary station and service to MARC and Amtrak trains will remain unchanged.

Station renovations will include new customer amenities such as a new canopy, three new larger restrooms, an updated waiting area and entrance space as well as additional improvements to the roof, HVAC, plumbing and station exterior, Amtrak said in a service advisory.

Track Work Affects Keystone Corridor

August 27, 2018

Track work on Sept. 8 and 9 will result in minor schedule changes to Keystone Service line trains in Pennsylvania.

In a service advisory Amtrak said all trains will operate 25 minutes earlier from Harrisburg to Coatesville, 15 minutes earlier at Downingtown and back to current schedule at Exton.

STB Issues ‘Guidance’ in Metra-Amtrak Dispute

August 27, 2018

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has rule that Amtrak must refrain from discriminating against other railroads that share Chicago Union Station.

The STB responded in a case brought by Chicago commuter rail operator Metra, which used the Amtrak-owned depot.

Metra sought a declaratory order that STB oversight extends to CUS, notwithstanding Amtrak’s statutory immunity from federal economic regulation.

The case stems in part from Amtrak’s move in May 2017 to merge CUS into itself without seeking STB approval.

This resulted in Metra fearing that it and other non-Amtrak users of CUS would not no redress in disputes involving Amtrak should it negotiating leverage by restricting access to the terminal.

At the time, Metra and Amtrak were in negotiations over access terms and fees.

In its decision, the STB didn’t rule wholly in Metra’s favor. Instead the Board said Metra could renew its petition at a late date and perhaps prevail.

Because the STB did not issue a declarative order, neither Metra or Amtrak can now seek judicial review.

The STB said it decided to issue guidance to both parties rather than make a ruling because there is no current ripe dispute.

Amtrak was told by the STB to show that the statutory language exempting it from economic regulation “specifically enables it to take actions that cause another regulated carrier’s facilities [CUS] to be removed” from STB jurisdiction without STB review or approval.

Metra for its part has argued that that Amtrak’s motivation when it absorbed CUS, which historically has been considered a common carrier subject to regulatory oversight.

The STB told Metra it must show that prior to its merger with Amtrak that CUS was a rail carrier subject to STB jurisdiction.

RPA Hits Amtrak Accounting Practices

August 27, 2018

A rail passenger advocacy group is trying to put Amtrak’s accounting practices back into the spotlight.

The Rail Passengers Association released a white paper last week that concludes that how Amtrak measures and allocates its revenues and costs is “catastrophically flawed” and does the American public a disservice.

RPA is hardly the first critic of Amtrak’s accounting, which has come under fire for years by critics and policy makers.

In the RPA white paper, Amtrak’s bookkeeping practices are said to have four major flaws.

Amtrak is described as allocating costs in a way that inaccurately portrays the economics affecting each part of the system without reporting avoidable costs, as required by law.

It also omits all costs of capital consumption and uses imprecise or inadequate data.

“The upshot is that APT exaggerates the cost of operating the national passenger train system, overstates the costs of expanding it, and trivializes the effects of killing it, because it fails to consider the benefits accruing to the communities it serves,” the report concludes. “In short, it radically undercuts the ability of Congress and Amtrak to plan wisely.”

One practice singled out is allocation of track maintenance costs to routes that do not use the given tracks.

The report also said that some Acela equipment maintenance costs are allocated to non-Acela routes.

Amtrak is said to fail to determine each route’s fuel cost and to report reliable station cost data for stations that the carrier owns or maintains.

The carrier fails to accurately count commuter rail passengers using Amtrak-owned stations, thus overcharging the Amtrak trains that use them.

RPA said Amtrak’s accounting practices make the Northeast Corridor system appear less costly than it is while making long-distance trains appear to cost more than they do.

The funding needs of the Northeast Corridor greatly overshadow those of the rest of the system, where the majority of infrastructure costs are underwritten by Amtrak’s host railroads

This results in the false assumption that eliminating long-distance routes would substantially cut Amtrak’s public funding needs.

N.M. Senators Vows to Continue Fight for S.W. Chief

August 23, 2018

A New Mexico U.S. senator has vowed to continue to fight Amtrak’s purported plans to sever the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Although Amtrak says it has not yet made a decision on the future of the Southwest Chief,  Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) said he will continue to keep the Chief intact.

“I’m proud to stand with the community and continue the fight to save the Southwest Chief,”  Heinrich said at a political rally. “The Southwest Chief isn’t just a railroad route in New Mexico, it is a vital part of who we are and connects places like Raton and Las Vegas to the rest of the nation. The route transports thousands of Boy Scouts from across the country to Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron every summer, generating economic activity for businesses in rural areas along the way. Any effort to undermine the route will go against the will of the people who rely on the Southwest Chief.

Heinrich and senators from New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas have been critical of a review of the trains performance that Amtrak said is losing more than $50 million a year.

They supported and the Senate adopted a $50 million appropriation directing Amtrak to maintain the route.

Texas Eagle P42 Catches Fire After Crash

August 23, 2018

The Texas Eagle caught fire this week after being involved in a grade crossing accident near Longview, Texas. No injuries were reported aboard the train.

The westbound Eagle struck a pick-up truck that was being towed. News reports indicated that a towing strap broke and No. 21 hit the pick-up at about 15 to 20 mph.

The head-end crew saw the truck stalled on the rails and had slowed the train from 60 mph when the crash occurred.

After the collision, the pick-up was dragged about 200 yards. It and the locomotive caught fire, prompting the crew to evacuate the train.

A Harrison County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the fire was intense enough that it “melted the front of the train.”

Amtrak said the 145 passengers and crew members on board were taken by school buses to an area church to wait for chartered buses that took them to their destination.