Archive for August, 2019

Your Rental Car Awaits

August 31, 2019

During a stopover in Minot, North Dakota, a few years back I noticed this car with flat tires next to the station.

I don’t know the story behind this vehicle, but I joked at the time that someone might get a shock if this is their rental vehicle.

Of course it might also be the vehicle of a passenger who went on a trip and is going to have to do a lot of pumping or call AAA upon arriving back home.

Whatever the case, this car isn’t going anywhere for a while.

U.S. DOT Awards Grant for Gulf Coast Service

August 31, 2019

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday announced that it will award a $4.36 million grant to the Southern Rail Commission to help restore intercity rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The service, expected to be two round trips per day, will use tracks formerly served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until August 2005 when it was suspended in the wake of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The grant is being made through the federal Restoration and Enhancement program and is intended to help pay operating expenses for the first year of service.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have committed $1.4 million toward the service while another $33 million federal grant award to get the service started was awarded through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program for infrastructure and capital improvements.

However, Alabama officials have yet to agree to provide any funding for the service.

SRC officials said they hope Alabama state officials will support the passenger rail restoration by providing matching funds during the next grant cycle.

“I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners and Alabama state leadership to provide the necessary support to leverage additional federal operating funds to make Gulf Coast Rail a reality,” said Wiley Blankenship, an SRC member from Alabama.

Another stumbling block that must be overcome is reaching an agreement with host railroad CSX on the infrastructure work that is needed before passenger trains can resume using the route.

Likewise, an operating agreement with CSX also needs to be negotiated.

Brightline Service Suspended Ahead of Hurricane

August 31, 2019

Florida intercity rail operator Virgin Trains USA is tweaking its Brightline schedule and fares ahead the expected landfall of Hurricane Dorian.

Brighline said trains will adopt a modified schedule starting today (Aug. 31).

The final northbound and southbound departures from West Palm Beach and Miami will depart at noon and fares have been cut to $5 per passenger.

An alternate schedule of southbound trains include an 8 a.m., 9 a.m.,10 a.m. and noon departure from West Palm Beach and northbound train departing Virgin MiamiCentral at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon.

Service will be suspended after the last trips on Saturday.

Dorian will be the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Brightline began operation in early 2018.

House Committee Chair Holds Round Table Event to Reiterate His Support for Amtrak’s National Network

August 31, 2019

An Oregon congressman held a round table event in his home state this past week to drum up support for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, reiterated at the event in Eugene, Oregon, his commitment to oppose efforts by the Trump administration to end funding for Amtrak’s national network.

Participants in the event included representatives of Union Pacific, Amtrak, the University of Oregon, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the governor’s office, and two state representatives.

Eugene is served by the state-funded Cascades Service, but also is a stop for the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight.

“I now chair the transportation committee,” DeFrazio said. “I will have to OK that. I will not be OK’ing the president killing the Coast Starlight.”

SW Chief Mayors Coalition Being Formed

August 31, 2019

Two mayors who have been fighting to maintain operation of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief will deliver the opening session presentation to the annual meeting of the Association of Private Railroad Car Owners in Albuquerque on Sept. 17.

The mayors, John Pritchard of Galesburg, Illinois, and Tim Keller of Albuquerque, are expected to announce the creation of a Southwest Chief Mayors’ Coalition to coordinate advocacy efforts of elected officials and stakeholders.

Numerous public officials have become involved in the fight in recently years to save the Chief, which operates between Chicago and Los Angeles.

First there was a threat that the train would lose its route in parts of western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico after host railroad BNSF said it would no longer maintain the track to passenger train speeds.

That threat was turned back by using a combination of federal, state and local funds to rebuild the track.

The latest threat to the train played out this year when Amtrak indicated it would cease operating the Chief between Dodge City, Kansas, and Albuquerque and instead bus passengers over that segment.

Those plans for now have been thwarted by political opposition.

During the AAPRCO convention, the group will make a ceremonial check presentation to Colfax County, New Mexico, representing a $10,000 contribution to the 2018 Southwest Chief federal TIGER. Colfax County was the lead applicant for the grant.

Also scheduled for the meeting is a rare mileage excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe using Rail Runner Express and Santa Fe Southern equipment.

That trip will include lunch at the historic Legal Tender Saloon in Lamy.

Other highlights of the meeting include a tour of Albuquerque’s Alvarado Transportation Center, which is used by the Southwest Chief, and a gourmet dinner aboard railcar Northern Sky.

RPA Continues to Press Amtrak About Food Service

August 31, 2019

The Rail Passengers Association continues to press Amtrak to improve its dining service on eastern long-distance trains by laying out this week its list of changes it wants to see implemented.

RPA has been expressing concern about Amtrak’s apparent plans to expand its contemporary dining service program to all long-distance trains in October although it hasn’t formally announced those changes.

Contemporary dining was introduced in June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York/Boston) and the Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington).

Both trains lost their full-service dining cars in favor of a limited menu of offerings prepared off the train.

RPA said it has raised with Amtrak management several issues involving contemporary dining but thus far the carrier has only addressed one of them by adding a hot dining option.

“Since last year, we’ve been meeting informally with Amtrak leaders and executives to try to work out something better,” RPA wrote this week on its blog. “It appears Amtrak is simply barreling ahead with an offering that remains flawed and potentially threatens the attractiveness of the trains without substantively addressing the shortcomings we identified.”

Among the suggestions that RPA has made are more hot meal choices; more consideration for dietary needs such as kosher requirements, vegetarian, low-sodium/healthy, and common allergies; better presentation, which would eliminate the dinner-in-a-box concept; better provisioning so that diners should not run out of food in the first few hours of an overnight journey; and allowing coach passengers to buy meals in the diner.

Amtrak has suggested to RPA that new equipment is coming that would make it easier to address these concerns.

This includes new convection ovens in place of microwave ovens that will mean that more food could be cooked simultaneously and would have a better taste.

The carrier has also told the rail advocacy group that a new food-service vendor competition was supposed to improve the food choices while helping Amtrak meet its legal mandate to break-even on food and beverage.

RPA acknowledged that Amtrak is correct in saying that many passengers, particularly those who are new to Amtrak and are younger in age, want lighter fare and the ability to eat during other than fixed mealtimes.

Some have told RPA that they believe the food being offered by the contemporary dining program tastes better than what it replaced.

That led RPA to comment on its blog that it is unlikely that there will be wide agreement on individual food items because food is too personal.

“But we can agree that tossing largely cold, processed food wrapped in plastic into a box and handing it over in a plastic bag is not exactly a welcoming message to passengers,” RPA wrote. “Nor is the lack of place settings at dining-car tables, which is designed — subtly, of course — to discourage passengers from staying in the dining car with their boxed lunch.”

RPA said it has formally asked Amtrak to answer a number of specific questions about the planning food service changes that are in the works for implementation on Oct. 1.

The group wants to know if any aspects of the planned changes are open to refinement before they are launched in October.

It also asked about plans to address shortfalls in items aboard the trains, options for passengers with special diet needs, and the status of food-service equipment upgrades that are supposed to improve the taste and appearance of dining-car food.

Looking ahead, RPA has asked Amtrak about any changes that may be in the works for dining services aboard western long-distance trains.

Governors Seeking Boston-Providence Express Trains

August 31, 2019

Two New England governors are pressing for express rail service between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said they have talked with Amtrak about the service as a way of alleviating traffic congestion in Greater Boston.

The governors spoke about their efforts during the National Governors Association’s Infrastructure Stakeholder Summit in Boston.

“We need more [rail service] and it has to be faster,” Raimondo said. “Having Just driven up here this morning, I can tell you the traffic is brutal.”

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is seeking to lease equipment from Amtrak to use in a pilot program of the express service.

Among the other challenges that need to be addressed before the service could begin are capacity and scheduling issues.

Amtrak Takes Delivery of 2 More Viewliners

August 31, 2019

Amtrak took delivery this week of two more Viewliner II baggage-dorm cars from CAF USA this week, the Rail Passengers Association reported.

The delivery of Viewliner II sleeping cars is expected to get underway this fall.

Viewliner equipment is used on eastern long-distance trains, including the Lake Shore Limited, Cardinal, Crescent, Silver Meteor and Silver Star.

Delivery of the new equipment has been a long time coming and been delayed by production issues at CAF’s New York plant.

Will the Lansing Ever Play in Lansing?

August 30, 2019

The Viewliner diners that Amtrak has taken delivery of in recent years and continues to receive from CAF USA are named after state capital cities.

In many instances those cities are not on the Amtrak map. Some haven’t been for years, i.e., Columbus; and some have never been served by Amtrak, i.e., Dover, Delaware.

Lansing is an interesting case. Amtrak passes through the capital of Michigan but the station is located in East Lansing.

The city is served by the Blue Water, which has either an Amfleet or Horizon food service car.

Given that, it seems unlikely that diner Lansing will ever see its namesake city unless . . .

The Lansing could pass through Lansing if it ever gets assigned to the Blue Water to help meet a Canadian National-mandated minimum axle count.

For now, though, the Lansing is assigned to eastern long-distance trains. It is shown in Cleveland on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited where it was serving as the lounge for sleeping car passengers.

Photograph by Edward Ribinskas

Hurricane Prompts Florida Service Suspensions

August 30, 2019

Amtrak is suspending service in Florida starting today (Aug. 30) in advance of Hurricane Dorian, which is projected to strike the state on Sunday or Monday.

The suspensions will be in effect through Sept. 2 or 3 depending on the train and route.

Canceled between Jacksonville and Miami will be the Silver Star, Auto Train and

Silver Meteor.

A service advisory issued by Amtrak on Thursday said that service will be reinstated pending improved conditions.

The advisory projects that Nos. 91, 97, 52 and 53 will be suspended through Sept. 2 while Nos. 92 and 98 will be suspended through Sept. 3.

Alternative transportation will not be provided for the suspended trains.

Amtrak said passengers affected by the service cancellations will be accommodated on trains with similar departure times or another day.

The carrier will waive additional charges for customers looking to change their reservation during the modified schedule by calling our reservation center at 800-USA-RAIL.