Archive for September, 2019

One Day Schedule Change Planned for Keystone Train

September 20, 2019

A planned signal system outage on Sept. 27 will result in a one-day modification to the schedule of Keystone Service Train 619.

The train will operate five minutes later to Paoli and 15 minutes later from Exton to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


Flexible Dining is About Consistent, Less Costly Dining

September 20, 2019

Amtrak held a preview of “flexible dining” last week at Washington Union Station and at least one reporter who was there said that the food to be introduced on Oct. 1 is an improvement over what is now being served aboard two eastern overnight trains.

Bob Johnston, the passenger rail correspondent for Trains magazine, wrote that after tasting the planned entrees that they are an improvement over the boxed meals that have been served since June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited as part of Amtrak’s “fresh and contemporary model.”

Johnston said he agreed with Amtrak Executive Chef Gottlieb’s description of the new fare: “The pasta is al dente, the chicken is tender and the beef is really good and tasty.”

The press event was held aboard Viewliner II dining car Tallahassee and new meal offerings were presented buffet style.

The food is designed to be heated in a convection oven and mixed together.

That precludes offering individually served items such as steak, chicken, or fish with a separate side dish vegetable.

Johnston noted that Amtrak briefly tried “pre-plating” of individual meals as an economy move on the City of New Orleans in the mid-2000s but ended it after passengers complained about the lack of choice.

Once flexible dining begins sleeping car passengers will receive their meals on trays that will hold a bowl, a side salad and a brownie for dessert.

Flexible dining is Amtrak’s moniker for a more consist meal service model to be served to sleeper class passengers aboard the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent, Cardinal, Silver Meteor and City of New Orleans.

Amtrak officials said flexible dining will be extended to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star next year, but they have not given a date for that.

Sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star currently do not receive meals as part of their fare as do passengers on all other Amtrak overnight trains with sleeping cars.

It remains to be seen, though, how long flexible dining will last and whether Amtrak will tweak it.

In an appearance this week at the Skift Global 2019 Travel Industry Conference, Amtrak President Richard Anderson said the carrier plans “to simplify to a single food car.”

It is not clear if that means that Amtrak plans to drop meals for sleeper class passengers as part of their fare and thus force all passengers to rely on a café car for food and beverage service.

Anderson has also spoken about having some long-distance trains provide experiential service and cited the example of VIA Rail Canada’s The Canadian.

That train had two full-service dining cars as well as café car service for coach passengers.

In his appearance at the Shift conference, Anderson said Amtrak has simplified food service to achieve cost cuts mandated by Congress.

The roll out of flexible dining is an extension of that. On that date full-service dining will end on the Silver Meteor and Crescent.

Also ending will be the individual menus unique to the Cardinal and City of New Orleans.

Although on-board food preparation ended aboard those trains years ago in favor of heating meals prepared off the train, both offer passengers more variety and offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner than passengers have had aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in the past year.

During the press event last week, Amtrak officials described how the food to be offered under the flexible dining model was developed and how it differs from that offered under the fresh and contemporary model.

Gottlieb and Amtrak Vice President, Product Development and Customer Experience Peter Wilander said main dishes will be prepared by a new vendor, New Horizon Foods, and flash frozen.

“There was a lot of back and forth in a competition with three or four vendors, and we tested everything in our test kitchens,” Gottlieb said in reference to  Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operation Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

The trays on which the food will be presented is another change. In the fresh and contemporary model Amtrak used balsawood boxes and green bags.

“The box itself had an unanticipated consequence of service degradation,” Wilander said.

He described the trays as an off-the-shelf design “that will allow us to progress to the next iteration (creating) our own molds to do something different.”

The trays can be washed and reused. The boxes and bags Amtrak has been using are billed as recyclable, but in practice generated a lot of trash.

The flexible dining name is rooted in the practice of passengers being able to eat their meals within a wide serving window rather than limited to coming to the diner at set times.

It also will result in consistent equipment assignments with all single-level equipment trains using a Viewliner II dining car that only sleeper class passengers will be able to access.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said a shortage of Viewliner sleepers has prevented the carrier from assigning a second sleeper to the Cardinal.

Harris said during the press event that Amtrak expects to save enough money from the changes in food service to be able to return meals to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star.

When that happens, Silver Star sleeper passengers will pay higher fares because meals will be included.

“So we have the opportunity to have a [range] of fares from low to high according to demand, and we’re not going to have this orphan train,” Harris said in reference to the Silver Star.

Fares for Silver Star sleeper class passengers were lowered when the train’s dining car was removed in 2015.

Harris said assigning a sleeper class dining car to the Silver Star is in the works and Amtrak is working through the logistics to do it.

The implementation of flexible dining may be good news for passengers at lunch and dinner in that they will have more options to choose among compared with fresh and contemporary.

But breakfast is largely unchanged with just one hot entrée available.

Although Amtrak has yet to announce it, the carrier plans to add to café cars on long-distance trains some of the fresh sandwiches available for sale in café cars on corridor trains in the Midwest, Northeast, and California.

Anderson Repeats Familiar Themes at Conference

September 20, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson made a rare public appearance this week but didn’t say much that he hasn’t’ said before in appearance before Congress and in interviews with select media outlets.

Richard Anderson

Speaking to the Skift Global 2019 Travel Industry Conference, Anderson reiterated that Amtrak wants to emphasize service in corridors that airlines have all but abandoned.

Anderson also contended that Amtrak will break even in the next 12 months.

Amtrak needs to garner a greater share of the travel market in short-haul markets, Anderson said, naming Chicago-Milwaukee as one example.

Such markets are unprofitable for airlines said Anderson, who worked for 25 years in the airline industry including stints as CEO of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines.

Amtrak expects to increase its share of short-haul travel markets as millennials expand urban centers.

“As these urban corridors densify, and all the millennials move to cities and don’t own cars, we gradually take over more and more of the market share from airlines,” Anderson said. “By 2050, there’s not going to be a choice unless you want to sit in long car delays because you can’t put more lanes on I-95.”

Anderson said rail travel accounts for 75 percent of the air/rail travel market between Washington and New York.

Already, Anderson said, 95 percent of Amtrak’s ridership travel about 250 miles.

As for long-distance trains, Anderson continued to describe them as “experiential.”

He said Amtrak may in the future operate between five to 10 such experiential trains that will be similar in nature to VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, which operates on a less than daily schedule between Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Although some supporters of long-distance trains have cited their role in linking small communities, Anderson described that as a political concern and said the “$150 per passenger subsidy” per passengers of such trains as the Empire Builder is contrary to Amtrak’s current business model.

During his appearance Anderson also said compliance with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act is essential for passenger growth.

He said the design of the next-generation Acela Express equipment will have doorways that will help mobility-challenged travelers get from car to car.

Anderson continued to push for Amtrak receiving a greater share of transportation funding in order to meet its infrastructure needs.

Those needs include replacing the Portal Bridge on the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey and improving tunnels in New York and Baltimore on the NEC.

Noting that its Thruway bus network generates $100 million in revenue, Anderson said it will continue to play an important role in bringing underserved parts of the country with no train service into the Amtrak network.

Anderson said a yield management system has ensured more diverse fares and promotions to increase fare revenues.

Don’t look for Amtrak to be selling tickets anytime soon on online travel agencies.

Anderson said the struggles of the hotel sector in doing that offers a cautionary tale of what he doesn’t want Amtrak to do.

“We don’t need those distribution channels unless they make sense for us economically,” Anderson said. “We control 85 percent of our distribution, and we want to control that. The hotels gave their brands up, and now they want to claw them back, because you’re not controlling the brand and its display in the marketplace.”

Anderson also sees what is happening overseas with rail travel as a blueprint for Amtrak.

“If you think about how intercity travel works in Europe or Japan, we’ll have to evolve to meet that model,” he said. “The densification in urban areas is going to dictate that Amtrak play an important road in short-haul transportation.”

Private Car Owners Hear From Amtrak at Convention

September 20, 2019

Those attending a convention of private railroad car owners were urged to continue to work together to ensure that elected officials understand that Amtrak is a public service.

The convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners was held in Albuquerque, which is on the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

The Chief has been at the center of much controversy in recent years including a plan by Amtrak to replace rail service between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kansas, with buses.

That plan was thwarted by Congress.

Karl Ziebarth, chairman of the board, CEO, and general manager of the Santa Fe Southern Railway said one way to influence Amtrak’s future is to weigh in on an authorization bill Congress must approve that will authorize funding for Amtrak.

Amtrak has angered many private rail car owners by restricting the number of locations at which private rail cars can be added or removed from Amtrak trains.

The passenger carrier has also implemented more stringent operating practices governing private rail cars and increased the tariffs charged to handle and haul those cars.

Stephan Robusto of Amtrak’s Commercial Development Group conceded that the new rules have displeased some private rail car owners.

But he said that with those rules now in place car owners will now have a better idea of what moves are possible and what trips they can sell.

Robusto said the approval process for private cars moves will be quicker and more straight forward.

“The good news is that we’re still running private cars,” Robusto said. “Obviously there are a lot of limitations, huge price increases that came out, but at least we’re still running private cars. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been totally thrown out.”

Amtrak views handling private cars as a business proposition, Robusto said, and is not operating as it did in the past just because that was the way that it was always done.

Robusto said Amtrak was losing money on a full allocated cost basis in the handling of private rail cars.

The carrier doesn’t view the handling of private rail cars as an incremental business.

In response to a question about the prospects of Amtrak agreeing to again allow private rail cars to be added to trains at stations with short dwell times, Robusto reiterated Amtrak policy that no delays, even a delay of one minute, will be tolerated.

“We are trying to eliminate any delays we can control,” says Robusto.

When asked if Amtrak intended to fulfill its public mission to provide service to private cars, Robusto said he didn’t believe Amtrak has an obligation to do tthat.

“I believe that we should provide service to private cars because it’s good for Amtrak’s business under the new guidelines,” he said.

Michael DeAngelo, Amtrak’s manager of charter and special movements, said the passenger carrier is no longer handling as many charter and excursion trains in part because of the lack of positive train control systems on some routes.

“If it [route] doesn’t have PTC it doesn’t get past box number one. We will not operate another [excursion train] without PTC,” Robusto said.

Rob Mangels Sr., a mechanical associate for R.L. Banks & Associates said the limited number of terminals at which private cars can be maintained is becoming a problem for private car owners.

“Another thing that’s happening is that Beech Grove has sold off the excess equipment that Amtrak had,” Mangels said.

“That means they don’t have parts, they don’t have drawings, they don’t have the people who know how to deal with it, they don’t have the skill sets to deal with it and within three or four years, there’s going to be a really big brain drain at Amtrak when it comes to handling [heritage passenger] equipment.”

Beech Grove is an Amtrak heavy maintenance shop located in an Indianapolis suburb.

Amtrak Opens Locomotive Shop in Seattle

September 20, 2019

Amtrak has opened a $32 million locomotive repair and maintenance facility south of King Street Station in Seattle.

The facility will care for locomotives assigned to Amtrak Cascade trains as well as the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight, both of which originate and terminate in Seattle.

The shop, which has 31,000 square feet of space, will also serve locomotives used by Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter service.

A shop is located in the King Street Coach Yard. A warehouse at the site was razed to make way for the shop.

The area where the shop and coach yard are located is known as Sodo, which is a reference to the former Kingdome stadium.

The locomotive shop is buildt on filled-in tidal flats so it was constructed on top of 178 steel-pipe piles driven to a depth of 180 feet below-grade.

Reinforced structural concrete-grade beams were used to tie the pile foundations together, supporting a pre-engineered metal building.

During construction of the shop, workers removed 12,000 feet of yard track and installed an underground storm water detention system.

Inside the shop is a a 55-ton overhead bridge crane and a 125-ton drop table located in a concrete pit 25 feet deep.

Maintenance crews are able to move locomotive traction motors and trucks with the crane or lower them into the pit with the drop table.

There are two shifts of 12 employees working in the shop.

“In the past, trains would have to be sent to a facility in Oakland, California, for complex repairs,” said Cody Glasgow, project manager for PCL Construction Services, a news release release.

“This added efficiency of being able to work on the trains locally is a vast improvement and saves both time and money for Amtrak.” PCL was the general contractor for the project.

Northern California Preferred Routes Decided

September 20, 2019

The California High-Speed Rail Authority had adopted a preferred route for its planned high-speed rail routes in Northern California.

In a news release, the authority said the action by its board of directors means it can move that portion of the project into the development phase.

The San Jose-to-Merced section will use a blended configuration between San Jose and Gilroy in the existing Caltrain and Union Pacific Railroad corridors before continuing to a dedicated high-speed rail alignment through Pacheco Pass.

The San Francisco-to-San Jose section will use a blended configuration between San Francisco and San Jose within the existing Caltrain corridor.

A light maintenance facility will be established on the east side of the tracks in Brisbane and does not include additional passing tracks.

CHSRA staff are working to complete a draft environmental impact report and environmental impact statement for both the San Francisco-to-San Jose and San Jose-to-Merced sections.

That report is expected in 2020 for the San Jose-to-Merced project section and in spring 2020 for the San Francisco-to-San Jose project section.

A Look Back at the Rainbow Era

September 17, 2019

The first couple years of Amtrak operations are known as the rainbow era because liveries of various railroads and common on trains.

Locomotives and passenger cars carried their original colors and markings until painted into Amtrak colors.

Amtrak 1427 and 1371 (Both ex-Union Pacific units) are ready to leave Joliet, Illinois on Aug 6, 1972, on a train operating in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

Photograph by Robert Farkas

Some Keystone Schedules Modified Through Nov. 3

September 17, 2019

The schedules of some Keystone Service trains have been adjusted through Nov. 3 due to track work.

On weekdays Train 600 will operate five minutes later from Elizabethtown to Philadelphia.

Train 648 will operate five minutes earlier from Harrisburg to Paoli and will arrive on time into Philadelphia.

Train 650 will operate five minutes earlier from Harrisburg to Paoli and one minute earlier into Philadelphia.

On weekends Train 612 will operate 10 minutes later from Harrisburg to Philadelphia while Train 670 will operate 15 minutes later from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.

On weekdays Train 641 will operate five minutes later from Elizabethtown to Middletown and three minutes later into Harrisburg.

Train 643 will operate four minutes later from Elizabethtown to Harrisburg and Train 651 will operate four minutes later from Elizabethtown to Middletown and will arrive on time into Harrisburg.

On weekends Train 611 will operate five minutes later from Elizabethtown to Harrisburg while Train 661 will operate three minutes later from Elizabethtown to Harrisburg.

At the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, station, Track 2.

Passengers traveling to Harrisburg will need to board on Track 1.


Jury Awards $16.75M in Cascade Derailment Civil Trial

September 17, 2019

A jury has awarded $16.75 million in damages to two victims and the spouse of one of them stemming from the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train.

The eight-member jury in a federal court in Tacoma, Washington, awarded Dale Skyllingstad $7.75 million, $7 million to Blaine Wilmotte and $2 million to Madison Wilmotte.

A case involving plaintiff Aaron Harris will be heard later.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle had declared a mistrial in the case involving Aaron Harris due to a dispute over testimony by an expert witness about injuries that Harris sustained in the derailment.

At the onset of the trial, Amtrak attorney Mark Landman conceded the passenger carrier had acted negligently and accepted responsibility.

The trial therefore focused on the severity of the injuries that the plaintiffs suffered and the extent of their recovery.

An attorney for Skyllingstad described him as a railroad enthusiast who suffered a traumatic brain injury that has left him with lasting emotional effects.

Testimony showed that he suffered a broken pelvis, a spinal fracture, a cranial fracture and lacerations on his liver and kidney after his was ejected from a Talgo coach during the derailment.

Blaine Wilmotte was in a pickup truck on Interstate 5 when the train derailed on a bridged and landed on his truck, trapping him there for 90 minutes.

Attorneys said he suffered multiple broken bones, personality and behavior changes, anxiety, and a diminished capacity to work.

Madison Wilmotte, who was pregnant at the time of the derailment, sought damages because of the impact of her husband’ injuries and the emotional toll on their marriage.

The train was southbound on the Point Defiance Bypass on the first day of revenue service on the route.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the train was speeding as it entered a 30 mph speed zone on curve.

More than 30 other plaintiffs have also sued in the wake of the derailment and those cases are set to be heard by Judge Settle.

Texas Central Signs Contract for Design, Building Work

September 17, 2019

Texas Central has signed a contract with the Salini-Impreglio joint venture and its U.S. subsidiary Lane Construction Co. for the design and construction of a proposed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.

In a news release, Texas Central said Salini-Lane will supply the civil infrastructure work, including design and construction of the viaduct and embankment sections along the entire route, the installation of the track system and construction of related buildings and services along the route that will house maintenance and other rail system equipment

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Texas Central said it had signed a limited notice to proceed agreement with Salini-Lane last year.

Since then Salini-Lane has focused on front-end engineering, design and planning of the train’s civil infrastructure.

That work helped to develop this design-build contract, Texas Central officials said.