Archive for May, 2019

Long-Distance Trains Likely Safe Through FY2020

May 27, 2019

Amtrak has signaled to Congress that it may not support continuation of all current long-distance trains when it sends its proposed reauthorization proposal to Capitol Hill this fall.

In a letter to Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said the carrier plans to continue operating the existing long-distance network through fiscal year 2020.

However, Anderson said the carrier intends to have a conversation with Congress and its stakeholders regarding the future of its long-distance network.

Anderson said the carrier believes there is a future for “high-quality long-distance trains,” but it also believes that the size, nature and roles need to be reviewed.

He said Amtrak will include options and recommendations in its reauthorization proposal to improve the national network, including the long-distance routes.

Anderson was responding to a letter sent to him by eleven senators posing questions about the future of the national network.

Moran told the Kansas New Service that he expects Congress to use the annual appropriations process to mandate that Amtrak continue serving its existing long-distance routes.

But Moran cautioned that it will still need a fight.

“I need to make sure that Amtrak, its board of directors, its management has a commitment to long-term passenger services in places in the country in which it’s not probably ever going to be profitable,” he said,.

Moran said he will continue to hold all nominees to Amtrak’s board of directors until he gets assurances that the Southwest Chief will continue to operate over the length of its Chicago to Los Angeles route as is.

House Committee Favors Amtrak Funding Boost

May 27, 2019

A House committee has recommended a slight funding boost for Amtrak in federal fiscal year 2020.

The House Appropriations Committee on Transportation and Housing last week released its transportation budget for FY 2020, which calls for $146 million for passenger rail and $60 million for transit compared with the funding approved for fiscal year 2019.

Amtrak’s national network would receive $1.2 billion, the same as it received in the current fiscal year. The Trump administration had recommended $661 million.

Northeast Corridor funding would rise to $700 million compared to $650 million appropriated in FY2019. The administration had recommended $325 million.

The committee also attached some policy riders in its budget including a provision directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to case seeking to claw back funds already awarded for the California high-speed rail network that is under construction.

U.S. DOT was also directed to stop dragging its feet on certain rail and transit grant programs. A clause was inserted in the legislation directing that if funds for transit grant programs aren’t awarded to new project by the end of 2021 those funds should be channeled to projects already in the engineering phase.

Some Talgo Equipment to be Removed From Cascades

May 27, 2019

In the wake of a National Transportation Safety Board report on the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train, the Washington State Department of Transportation said it will remove Talgo Series 6 trainsets from service “as soon as possible.”

In a statement, WSDOT said it is working with Amtrak to determine the timing of the equipment removal and equipment replacement.

The NTSB recommended that the Talgo Series 6 equipment be removed from service due to safety issues.

WSDOT said it had planned to remove that equipment from service in the mid 2020s, but the NTSB report has advanced that timetable.

Talgo equipment is used in Cascades service between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. WSDOT and the Oregon Department of Transportation fund that service, which is operated by Amtrak.

In its report about the Dec. 18, 2017, derailment near DuPont, Washington, that left three dead, the NTSB determined that the wheels of the Spanish-built trains became detached during the derailment.

NTSB Investigators described them as “projectiles” that crushed passenger car compartments and highway vehicles.

“Had the rolling assembly not detached we may not have had fatal injuries,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

The derailment occurred on a 30-mph curve. Train 501 was en route to Portland, Oregon, from Seattle and entered the curve traveling 78 mph.

It was the first day of operation for Amtrak on the Point Defiance Bypass, which is owned in part by commuter agency Sound Transit.

The NTSB said the lightweight design of the Talgo trains was a factor in the severity of the crash.

Manufacturer Talgo has contended that its equipment is safe and performed as expected.

In announcing the conclusions of its accident investigation report, one NTSB member noted that the Talgo Series 6 equipment was “grandfathered” into safety standards of the Federal Railroad Administration because the equipment couldn’t meet updated crashworthiness standards.

The state of Washington owns two Series 6 trainsets and Amtrak owns two others. Oregon owns two Series 8 Talgo sets.

WSDOT spokeswoman Janet Matkin said the agency will be challenged to find funding to buy new equipment.

However, WSDOT is part of a multi-state compact that is acquiring new single-level cars for use on corridor routes operated by Amtrak.

Matkin noted that her agency is seeking federal funds to purchase new equipment and is awaiting a decision by the FRA on those grant applications.

WSDOT has thus far not taken Talgo up on an offer of 31 cars that would make up two or three trainsets depending on capacity, said Talgo spokeswoman Nora Friend.

Friend said the Series 8 cars were offered to WSDOT at less than that list price. The cars are new, but had originally been built for service in Wisconsin before Gov. Scott Walker canceled a planned rail expansion project.

Friend said Talgo 6 cars have a usable life of 30 years. The Series 6 cars owned by WSDOT and Amtrak are 21 years old and some Series 6 equipment is older and still in operation all over the world.

Sound Transit, which came in for criticism in the NTSB report, said it will hire an outside consultant to review the agency’s safety procedures.

“I completely agree with the NTSB that we have a confusing and troubling regulatory regime here where four different agencies plus BNSF have a very convoluted distribution of roles and responsibilities,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.

The NTSB had recommended that Sounder Transit undertake a review of its safety certification process “top to bottom, when it comes to our role as a track owner.”

Although Sound owns the track where the Cascades 501 derailment occurred, it doesn’t plan to operate rail service there.

“It was our responsibility to not only determine safety protocols but to oversee that Amtrak implemented all of them,” Rogoff said. “That clearly didn’t happen when it comes to whether Amtrak included curve safety protocols in the general orders to its crews, or verifying the level of training Amtrak provided to its train crews.

Amtrak has yet to resume using the Point Defiance Bypass, which it sought as an alternative to the BNSF route it now uses between Tacoma, Washington, and Portland.

Neither Amtrak, WSDOT, nor Sound Transit have said when Amtrak’s Cascades and Coast Starlight might begin using the Point Defiance route.

WSDOT spokeswoman Matkin said her agency needs time to review the NTSB report in detail.

The agency has said previously it would not permit passenger service to resume on the Point Defiance Bypass until the NTSB report is released and installation of a positive train control system is completed.

The NTSB report said the engineer on Amtrak Cascades 501 said he missed the first trackside sign that a curve was ahead. The report said the engineer’s lack of familiarity with the route played a role in the derailment.

NTSB Releases Cascades 501 Accident Report

May 27, 2019

The National Transportation Safety Board last week released it long-awaited report on the derailment of Amtrak Cascades Service No. 501 in December 2017 and zeroed in the failure of Central Puget Sound Transit Authority to mitigate the hazards of a curve on the Point Defiance Bypass.

No. 501 entered the 30 mph curve traveling 78 mph. The resulting derailment killed three passengers aboard the train and injured 57 others. Eight people were injured after some cars fell on motor vehicles on Interstate 5 near DuPont, Washington.

The derailment occurred on the first day of operation for Amtrak on the Point Defiance Bypass.

By law, the NTSB is required to issue a single “probable cause” at the conclusion of its investigations, but the agency made 53 specific findings and listed 26 recommendations.

The NTSB recommendations were addressed to numerous agencies, including the U.S. departments of transportation and defense, Amtrak, Washington State and Sound Transit.

The report also singled out the safety of the Talgo Series 6 equipment used by Cascades Service trains.

It also noted that the locomotive engineer was distracted by the overspeed alerts due to his confusion about the bells and alarms and screens since he hadn’t seen those alerts during regular training.

The NTSB recommended that locomotive engineers receive more simulator training.

The report also noted that the conductor sitting in the cab was too passive, acting more like an observer than an active member of the crew.

During a five-hour hearing to announce the findings of the report NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt emphasized the need to focus on preventing wrecks rather than surviving them.

In particular, he spoke about repeated delays to implementing positive train control systems on routes used by passenger trains.

“Today’s new and reiterated and reclassified recommendations, if acted upon, will make rail transportation safer for passengers and train crews,” Sumwalt said “But they will require action by several parties, including the Federal Railroad Administration. The repeated postponement of Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 270, ‘System Safety Program,’ has delayed needed safety improvements for passenger rail.”

After saying there have been six delays of the PTC deadline, Sumwalt called on the Federal Railroad Administration to act.

“It’s time. It’s time to move forward on it,” he said. “We want the FRA to move. They’re saying it will be done by September. It’s time. It’s past time, to get it done. There’s no other way to put it. It’s time, it’s past time, for the FRA to act. As we’ve seen, lives depend on the issuance of that rule.”

Among the key recommendations made by the NTSB, it called for U.S. DOT to require to require inward-facing image and audio recordings in locomotive cabs.

It wants the FRA to act more forcefully on PTC and hinted that all passenger service should operate in PTC territory.

The FRA should also study how better signage and wayside plaques might improve situational awareness for train crews, to compel better compliance with emergency lighting rules, to look into child safety-seat use and research how the compartmentalization approach to interior safety can be affected by the range of passenger sizes.

WSDOT was urged to stop using Talgo Series VI trainsets. Amtrak was told to work harder at training crew members and ensure that they can show knowledge of their territories.

Central Puget Sound Transit was asked to conduct an immediate review of all operating documents, coordinate to develop operating documents with current and prospective tenant on railroads where it is the host, and immediately review its safety program, analyze any gaps, and develop an action plan to address deficiencies.

Restoration Work Underway at Iconic Detroit Depot

May 27, 2019

Ford Motor Company said the second phase of rehabilitating the Michigan Central Station in Detroit has gotten underway.

Workers have begun restoring eight acres of masonry and repairing the steel structure of the historic Beaux-Arts building, Ford said in a news release.

Next month scaffolding will be erected around the 15-floor tower with work in the Grand Lobby getting underway in the fall.

Workers are expected to spend the next two to three years removing bricks to fix the steel framework that sits behind, then cleaning, repointing and replacing the damaged terracotta, limestone, and brick that make up the station’s exterior.

Ford purchased the Detroit landmark in June 2018 and said it will become the centerpiece of a new innovation hub in the city’s Corktown neighborhood.

Amtrak used the station between 1971 and May 1994 when it moved to a new modular station in the New Central area of Detroit.

It is unclear if a renovated Michigan Central Station will be available for Amtrak to use.

The station, which opened in 1913, said vacant for 30 years and became an icon for urban blight.

At one point the Detroit City Council ordered the structure to be razed, but it managed to escape the wrecking ball.

Ford said that station has suffered extensive water damage with workers having removed 227,000 gallons of water and installing a temporary roof and plumbing system.

Temporary heating will be installed in the fall to enable the building to continue to dry out naturally.

Other work planned includes restoring 1,184 windows, inspecting the band of steel around the top of the 240-foot-tall structure and removing 1,200 feet of cornice, a decorative molding around the top edge of the building, to examine the steel behind it and make repairs.

Terracotta cornices will be replaced and 106,000 square feet of roof structure repairs will be completed in this second phase of construction.

Ford said masonry repairs inside the building will focus on the Guastavino tile vaulted ceiling in the former waiting room. These clay tiles cover 22,000 square feet of three self-supporting arches.

The tiles will be restored or replaced, with an order of 5,000 tiles having been placed with one of the few manufacturers capable of replicating them.

Other artisan work in the former waiting room, concourse and arcade will be removed to be restored or replicated.

Ford expects the work to be completed and the station ready for tenants in 2022.

Rail2Rail Suspended for Weekend in California

May 25, 2019

Expected heavy ridership has prompted Amtrak to suspend for the Memorial Day weekend its Rail2Rail program on its Pacific Surfliner route.

The suspension will last between May 24 and 28 with the program resuming on May 29.

In a service advisory Amtrak said it will not accept Coaster and Metrolink tickets on any Pacific Surfliner trains.

Flooding Disrupts Amtrak Service in Missouri

May 25, 2019

Flooding has again disrupted Amtrak operations in Missouri.

The Missouri River Runner trains between St. Louis and Kansas City, and the Southwest Chief between Kansas City and Hutchinson, Kansas, were suspended as a result.

A service advisory posted on the Amtrak website on Friday said that Missouri River Runner passengers would be placed on chartered buses through today (May 25) because host railroad Union Pacific has diverted freight train traffic on the route used by Amtrak Nos. 311, 313, 314 and 316.

Amtrak said the buses will stop at all stations as close to the train schedules as possible, but delays are to be expected.

The suspensions are in effect through Thursday, May 23.

The Missouri River Runner service has been suspended because of increased freight traffic caused by diversion of Union Pacific traffic. The Southwest Chief suspension reflects a temporary track closure on the train’s BNSF Railway route. Chartered buses will substitute for rail service on both routes during the suspension.

The Southwest Chief has been restored to its normal operation in eastern Kansas and the Kansas City region.

Today’s No. 4 arrived in Kansas City 35 minutes late while No. 3 arrived in KC 2 hours, 15 minutes late. The lateness of No. 3 has ballooned to more than three hours by the time it reached Topeka, Kansas.

New River Train May Run This Year Afterall

May 25, 2019

A U.S. senator from West Virginia said this week that the New River Train will operate this October after all.

Senator Joe Manchin tweeted this week that he has been working to Amtrak to keep the famed excursion train operating and said he’ll have more details soon.

The train, which operates between Huntington and Hinton, West Virginia, is sponsored by the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

The group said last February it was ending the excursion’s 52-year run due to high costs and financial losses that it attributed in part to increased fees imposed by Amtrak.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that Manchin’s office would not elaborate on the tweet other than to say more information would be released next week.

UP Big Boy to Pull Public Excursion in July

May 25, 2019

Union Pacific has announced that it will operate a one-way excursion to Iowa of its famed Big Boy steam locomotive in July.

Passengers will ride behind the 4-8-8-4 from Omaha, Nebraska, to Boone, Iowa, and return to Omaha aboard chartered buses.

The excursion is a fundraising event for the Union Pacific Museum.

Tickets range from $400 to $750 and go on sale on May 28.

Upon arrival in Boone, passengers will have the opportunity to attend the city’s Railroad Days festival free of charge.

Additional information is available on the Union Pacific Museum’s website at www.uprrmuseum.org while ticket information is available at www.uptraintix.com

Virgin Chooses Contractors for Orlando Extension

May 25, 2019

Virgin Trains USA has selected contractors to build its extension in Florida from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport.

The company formerly known as Brightline has divided the work into four zones covering the 168 mile route.

The zones include a maintenance facility, right of way work at the airport, 35 miles of a sealed corridor east of the airport extending to the Florida East Coast mainline, and upgrading 129 miles of FEC mainline to allow 79 mph running for passenger trains.

In a news release, Virgin said that work on the sealed corridor and upgrading FEC tracks is imminent.

“For a project of this scope and magnitude, a world-class construction team has been assembled to undertake this tremendous assignment and we congratulate them on helping us make history,” Virgin Trains USA President Patrick Goddard said in a statement.