Archive for November, 2019

Trinidad Failed to Land BUILD Grant for SW Chief Work

November 23, 2019

A bid by Trinidad, Colorado, for a federal BUILD grant to continue the rehabilitation of the BNSF route used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has fallen short.

Trinidad had sought $16 million for the Southwest Chief Route Improvement Project but that application was not approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which recently announced its most recent round of BUILD grants.

Various government entities in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico in recent years have won federal funding to rebuild the route used by the Chief.

It is not clear what the failure of Trinidad to land the grant will mean for the efforts to rehabilitate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

Several years ago BNSF said it wouldn’t maintain the route in the three states to passenger train speeds because it seldom uses most of it for freight service.

That prompted the 2014 creation of a campaign to save the Chief by landing a series of grants to repair the tracks.

In a related development, Colorado officials are seeking another federal grant to pay for a study of creating a section of the Chief to serve Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

The Southwest Chief currently stops in Colorado in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.

Pueblo officials have in recent years sought to have the route of Nos. 3 and 4 changed to serve their city. The Chief currently does not pass through Pueblo.

Pueblo and Colorado Springs have been without intercity rail passenger service since the Santa Fe discontinued a Denver-La Junta connecting train on May 1, 1971.

That train connected with Santa Fe’s Super Chief/El Capitan, which is the ancestor of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

The plan to serve Colorado Springs would in effect reinstate that long ago discontinued connecting service.

That service is seen as part of a larger effort to restore intercity rail passenger along Colorado’s Front Range to as far north as Fort Collins.

The grant application indicates that Colorado section of the Southwest Chief would be designed to potentially connect to a Front Range passenger rail system in the future.

Macomb Creates Amtrak Tracking Website

November 23, 2019

Macomb, Illinois, has created a special website to track the progress of the Amtrak trains serving the city. It’s similar to the Amtrak status monitors at Chicago Union Station.

“We are proud to be an Amtrak community,” said Mayor Mike Inman. “[The city] will gladly continue to work with Amtrak on these initiatives to improve the service to Amtrak customers.”

The progress tracker is located on the city’s website.

“Amtrak was good to work with on this project and we are glad we could be the first community served by Amtrak to introduce this,” said Macomb City Administrator Scott Coker.

Macomb is served by the Chicago-Quincy Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg.

Durbin Introduces Bill to Allow Amtrak to Sue Railroads

November 23, 2019

A U.S. senator from Illinois has introduced legislation that would permit Amtrak to sue freight railroads to enforce its statutory preference.

Senator Richard Durbin said in news release that he introduced the bill because of chronic delays incurred by Amtrak’s trains operating on Canadian National-owned tracks between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

The news release did not provide details as to what standards would be used to justify a lawsuit by Amtrak against a host railroad.

“By empowering Amtrak to hold the freight railroads accountable when they don’t follow the law, we can improve Amtrak on-time performance and save taxpayer dollars,” Durbin said in a statement. “For too long, we’ve seen on-time performance decline as a result of freight interference. The people of Illinois — and Amtrak riders nationwide — deserve assurance that they can arrive at their destination in a safe and timely manner.”

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has recently increased his criticism of host railroads and is calling for a legally-binding enforcement mechanism.

Springfield Station Work to Be Completed Soon

November 23, 2019

A platform construction project at Springfield Union Station in Massachusetts is expected to be completed soon, perhaps in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel periods.

The Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which owns and manages the depot, said the last work to be completed includes installation of an elevator to take passengers to the boarding platforms and completion of work on a pedestrian tunnel to the platforms.

The $11 million state-funded project includes a new ADA compliant high-level platform.

Although the new Platform C has been ready to use for some time, but stairs and elevator have not.

Most of the work on the station was completed in June 2017, but Platform C and the rest of the $103 million refurbishment of the station was not.

An inspection found the original platform was too narrow to meet ADA standards and replacing it was a lengthy process involving coordination among the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the railroads and the redevelopment authority.

Amtrak moved its ticket office last summer to the main concourse where it is near Greyhound, Peter Pan Bus Lines, a Subway sandwich shop, Dunkin’ Donuts, an auto rental counter and a convenience store.

In an unrelated development, Amtrak released ridership figures showing an increase in patronage on routes serving Springfield.

The New Haven-Springfield route — which operates in tandem with the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s CTrail Hartford Line — had a 26.5 percent increase from 286,477 in fiscal 2018 to 362,442 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Ridership of the Vermonter up 1.4 percent from 97,909 to 99,280.

The Lake Shore Limited saw patronage rise 5.9 percent from 337,882 to 357,682.

NY Amtrak Routes Posted Ridership Gains in FY2019

November 23, 2019

Ridership numbers for various Amtrak routes are starting to be released in the wake of the passenger carrier releasing a summary of its fiscal year 2019 performance.

This includes routes serving the Empire Corridor of New York where the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf posted a 6.5 percent increase to 390,355 passengers.

The Lake Shore Limited, which links Chicago with Boston and New York, saw a 5.9 percent gain to 357,682 passengers, while the Empire Corridor south of Albany posted a 5.5 percent gain to 1,214,206 passengers.

The Adirondack between New York and Montreal was up 5.5 percent, while the Ethan Allen Express between New York and Rutland was up 1.7 percent.

Texas Central Chooses Equipment Design Contractor

November 23, 2019

Texas Central has chosen Mass. Electric Company to design a construction contract to build the equipment that will be used in its high-speed train between Houston and Dallas.

In a news release, Texas Central said ECI will define the scope, execution plan, schedule and price for the future construction contract, which is expected to be signed later this year.

TC said construction of the high-speed line is expected to begin in 2020.

The news release said that Kiewit Corporation, a subsidiary of ECI will focus on installing the core system and critical safety elements including necessary power, signaling and communications equipment.

The core system that will be installed by Mass. Electric is a key component of the Central Japan Railway’s N700S Shinkansen technology that will be used by Texas Central.

Under a core systems installation agreement, ECI would install the systems that supply and distribute electrical power for running the train and related equipment, signaling and control of the trains, and communications, to ensure the trains, the track and operators all communicate with one another and with network operations.

One Day Sked Change Set for Pacific Surfliners

November 21, 2019

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

A Bloomberg News reporter has given another glimpse into the worldview of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

Anderson is not a sentimental man. For him everything is about business.

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

Still, consider this comment from Anderson in response to a question about how his father, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, used to take the family on train trips to Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I didn’t come away with some huge love for trains, just like I don’t have some huge love for airplanes,” Anderson said. “They’re machines that you build a business around.”

Just machines? If you think about it that’s the response you might expect from a chief executive officer who spends his day looking at financial reports and making financial decisions.

It’s just that his predecessor as Amtrak president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, did have a passion for trains and that’s something that makes railroad enthusiasts feel better.

The Bloomberg portrait of Anderson doesn’t contain much more of his thinking that hasn’t been reported in other articles or he hasn’t said during occasional speeches and congressional testimony.

My key takeaway from the article was a better understanding of how Anderson got to be president and CEO of Amtrak and why.

I’ve long argued Anderson is not a rogue operator or a Trojan Horse who has surprised those who hired him.

Anderson may get most of the criticism but one of the lesser discussed elements of the many changes that have been made at Amtrak in the past two years is that Anderson was hired by a board of directors who would have spent considerable time with him before offering him the job.

They would have asked questions about his vision for Amtrak and his philosophy about transportation generally.

They knew what they were getting: A former airline CEO, yes, but also a former prosecutor.

Leonard described Anderson as having the cerebral demeanor of a senior college professor.

The reporter quoted a former boss, Texas prosecutor Bert Graham, as saying Anderson was one of his office’s best trial lawyers. “He had a way of seeing through bullshit,” Graham said.

Amtrak board members might have thought Anderson’s no nonsense approach was exactly what the passenger carrier needed.

He had the personality to do what previous Amtrak presidents had been unable or unwilling to do.

In that sense, the Amtrak board might have been like the parent of a spoiled child who hopes a teacher will do what the parent failed to do in imposing discipline.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, indirectly touched on that point when he observed that Anderson was hired to operate Amtrak like a profit-making company such as Delta Air Lines, where Anderson served as CEO between 2007 and 2016.

“He looked everybody in the eye and said, ‘OK, are you guys ready for this? We’re going to break some stuff.’ And everyone said, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And then he started breaking stuff. And people were like, ‘Wait, hold up. Stop! What?’ ”

And that is the crux of why Anderson is so unpopular with many passenger train advocates. He broke too many of their favorite dishes and was unapolegetic about it. He didn’t even pretend to regret it.

Anderson knows that, telling Leonard, “Most of the critics are the people who yearn for the halcyon days of long-distance transportation.”

Leonard wrote that Anderson started to lose his cool when asked if he was trying to kill Amtrak’s long-distance routes as many of his detractors have contended.

No, he answers, Amtrak will continue to operate those routes as Congress has directed and will spend $75 million next year refurbishing passenger cars assigned to long-distance service and spend another $40 million on new locomotives.

But Anderson also reiterated a point he’s made numerous times. He wants to break up some long-distance routes into shorter corridors and transform other long distance trains – he specifically mentioned the Empire Builder and California Zephyr – into experiential trains.

Anderson said he planned to ask Congress next year to authorize an “experiment” of breaking up some long-distance routes, citing the tri-weekly Sunset Limited as one Amtrak would like to address.

He knows that won’t play well with many. “Part of the problem is that the people that are the big supporters of long distance are all emotional about it,” Anderson said. “This is not an emotionally based decision. They should be reading our financials.”

Anderson can be confrontational and doesn’t mind, as the Bloomberg piece noted, throwing an elbow or two against a critic or competitor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because at his level the competition can be cutthroat as companies and organizations look to further their own interests.

The article noted that in an effort to confront the host freight railroads that handle Amtrak trains in most of the country Amtrak instituted quarterly report cards that grade how well they dispatch Amtrak trains on time.

Confrontation may be a useful tactic but it also has a price.

Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, discussed that with reporter Leonard as they rode a two-hour tardy Crescent through Mississippi toward New Orleans.

Ross said he has talked with managers at Amtrak’s host railroads who hate those report cards.

Those host railroads may not be so keen about cooperating with Amtrak to implement Anderson’s vision of corridor service between urban centers that airlines no longer serve.

The SRC has been pushing for the creation of a corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Federal funding has been approved and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding. But Alabama thus far has balked.

And, Ross, said, CSX, which would host the trains, doesn’t want them.

No date has yet been announced for when the New Orleans-Mobile route will begin and Ross sees the obstacles to getting that corridor up and running as a preview of what Anderson and Amtrak will face if the passenger carrier seeks to create the type of corridor services it has talked about creating.

In the meantime, Anderson continues to look for ways to cut costs as he works toward his goal of making Amtrak reach the break-even point on its balance sheet from an operational standpoint as early as next year.

Then Amtrak can take the money it now spends underwriting operating losses and use it to buy new equipment and rebuild infrastructure.

If you want to read Leonard’s piece, you can find it here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-11-20/amtrak-ceo-has-no-love-lost-for-dining-cars-long-haul-routes

But be forewarned that he has bought into the conventional wisdom of how the Northeast Corridor is profitable and the long-distance routes and state-funded corridors are not.

The piece is also heavy on the nostalgia angle, particularly in regards to the recent changes in onboard dining services and the historic role of passenger trains in America.

Yet if you can adopt even a little bit of Anderson’s “just the facts mam” personality, you will see where he’s coming from and have a better understanding as to why he has been doing what he’s done.

Toys for Tots Train Won’t Operate This Year

November 21, 2019

The Toys for Tots train in New York State has been scrapped after Norfolk Southern declined to agree to host it again.

Sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps, the train distributes toys to children in the Capital Region of the state.

Last year Amtrak declined to cooperate in the running of the train, but NS and private car owners stepped in and rescued it.

In a statement, NS said that it had told Capital Region Toys for Tots last year that it would not participate in the train excursion in the future.

The Toys for Tots train has operated for the past 20 years and in 2018 it operated between Binghamton and Delanson, New York.

Marine Staff Sgt. Patrick Lurenz, who helps coordinate the train, told Trains magazine that the death of former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman last March appeared to have played a role in the train’s demise.

Lurenz said Boardman was a vocal supporter of the train and helped smooth the way for it to run every year.

Bennett Levin, who owns locomotives and passenger cars that operated on last year’s train, said the discussions about this year’s operation never got to the point where a consist was being planned.

He also noted that NS only committed to operate the train last year.

Lurenz said he had discussions with NS about hosting the train this year. “My impression is not that they don’t want to do it, I just don’t think right now they can do it, or it just didn’t happen in time this year,” he said.

“It’s not that we took it for granted. We didn’t know there was that much logistical work to do,” Lurenz told Trains.

In 2018 the Toys for Tots train delivered 18,000 of the 250,000 toys the group distributed to local organizations.

He said most of those organizations cannot afford to send trucks to the distribution centers in the immediate Capital Region.

Therefore, Toys for Tots is working on assembling teams of trucks to handle the deliveries to the localities the train would have served.

Although the toys will get distributed, Lurenz said what will be lost is showing donors a sense of what their gifts mean.

He also said the train served as a publicity tool for the project.

BNSF Derailment Disrupts Illinois Zephyr

November 20, 2019

A BNSF derailment on Tuesday prevented the eastbound Illinois Zephyr from leaving Quincy, Illinois.

The derailment in West Quincy, Missouri, blocked the route the train takes when ferrying from the BNSF yard where the equipment spends the night to the Quincy Amtrak station.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said passengers who had been ticketed to ride Train No. 380 were instead put aboard chartered buses.

He said the buses could not make the same time as the train and passengers would experience delays.

The derailment occurred about 5:30 a.m. and involved 12 cars leaving the tracks, five of them turning over onto their sides.

No hazardous material was involved in the derailment.

The Illinois Zephyr returned to normal operations Tuesday evening.