Archive for January, 2020

Panel Discusses Heartland Flyer Extension Into Kansas

January 25, 2020

What it would take to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer into Kansas was discussed during a Jan. 22 meeting of the Ways and Means Committee of the Kansas legislature.

What emerged from that meeting was an outline of how Amtrak hopes to implement the proposed new corridor routes that CEO Richard Anderson has been touting over the past year.

Spoiler alert: It will take the cooperation of Congress and various state legislatures.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, acknowledged that cost barriers to starting corridor service are high.

“We tend to find that they are higher than a state can afford,” Lang said.

He noted that host railroad BNSF is working with Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation to determine the cost of extending the Flyer from its northern terminus of Oklahoma City into Kansas.

The Heartland Flyer currently operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort, Worth, Texas, with funding from the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

The extension into Kansas would serve Wichita and end in Newton where it would connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Some proposals have been floated to have the Heartland Flyer run to Kansas City.

Lang indicated that whatever the numbers are in that report, they are likely to be more than what Kansas is willing to pay.

He said Amtrak is expected to propose that Congress establish a federal grant program of billions of dollars that would help states pay for capital costs of starting new routes.

Grant money would also be available for states to pay the operating losses of the new routes in the early years of service.

“The Heartland Flyer corridor is certainly one of the places that we think would be a perfect place to invest capital money from this billion-dollar grant program,” Lang said.

There are currently 17 states that pay Amtrak to provide intercity rail passenger service. Lang said half of Amtrak ridership is aboard state-funded trains.

KDOT Deputy Secretary Lindsey Douglas told the committee there is a path forward for the Heartland Flyer extension once the capital investment figures are released.

He offered to prepare a summary sheet of the costs after the BNSF-Amtrak-KDOT study is completed.

“The new federal grant program would open up a lot of doors to get this project funded,” Douglas said.

Lang demurred when asked by Senator Carolyn McGinn, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, about Amtrak’s efforts to replace the Southwest Chief in portions of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico with buses.

“We’re very proud of the long-distance trains,” Lang said. “The growth opportunities are in short-distance regional trains, which is why we’d love to extend the Heartland Flyer north of Oklahoma City to Wichita, Kansas, and connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton.”

In other words, there is no assurance the bus bridge idea will not resurface once the current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Amtrak IG Warns Carrier at Risk of Missing May 2021 Objective to Start Using New Alstom Acela Train Sets

January 25, 2020

Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General said this week the passenger carrier is in danger of missing its stated goal of putting into revenue service in May 2021 new equipment for its Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor.

That could mean lost revenue because the new train sets Amtrak has purchased and are still being built will have 82 more seats than the original equipment now used in Acela Express service.

“The Acela 21 program is entering a critical stage if it is to begin revenue service on time,” the report concluded.

Although the IG found the program has used “some sound program management practices” there are management and structural weaknesses that continue to pose significant risks.

“Foremost is that project delays have eliminated any cushion in the schedule, and multiple indicators point to further delays beyond the planned service launch in 2021,” the report said.

The report came on the heels of the Federal Railroad Administration giving approval to Amtrak to move one train set from the factory in Hornell, New York, where it was built, to an FRA test site in Colorado.

Amtrak also released a video showing the train set, which was built by Alstom, getting underway on its trip to the test track.

Alstom is building 28 train sets for Acela service. The train sets have cost $2.1 billion.

Amtrak assistant IG Jim Morrison wrote in his report that it is likely that Amtrak will not meet its 2021 target date for putting the new high-speed equipment into service.

The IG report said Amtrak has not upgraded maintenance facilities or information technology systems to handle the new train.

Training of the 1,000 maintenance and onboard personnel on the nuts and bolts operations of the new equipment has yet to get underway.

The original plan had been for Alstom to deliver to Amtrak as many as nine train sets in 2021, but that timetable is in doubt.

Amtrak plans to remove one existing Acela train set from service each time a new train set is ready to run.

In order for Amtrak to meet its 2021 objective, the testing of the first train set must be flawless and construction of remaining equipment must be without significant delays.

The IG report recommended Amtrak have managers working on the Acela 21 be given the property authority to focus on and finish the project.

This includes creating contingency plans for what the passenger carrier will do if it misses its target service and deliveries falls further behind schedule.

The report was based on interviews with Amtrak managers in late 2019 and early 2020.

It noted that many of the delays were beyond the control of Amtrak. These included delays that occurred during the manufacturing process.

Amtrak agreed with the five elements the IG identified, including employee training, development of IT services, and modifications to service and inspection facilities.

However, Amtrak said it believes it has a strong management structure in place to oversee execution and delivery of the project.

“There remains an extraordinary amount of work ahead and Amtrak management is confident that the proper resources are aligned to deliver this ambitious program on scope, schedule and budget,” Amtrak wrote in its response to the report.

The contract with Alstom was approved by Amtrak’s board of directors in 2016.

Amtrak said in the video of the first new Alstom train set that it will be moved to the test track near Pueblo, Colorado, in mid-February.

Opposition Continues to Funding of New Amtrak Route

January 25, 2020

Opposition continues to surround a proposal in Mobile, Alabama, for city funding of a proposed new Amtrak route linking the city with New Orleans.

The Mobile City Council is expected to vote on Jan. 28 on a resolution to endorse committing financial support toward the restoration of a route that last saw passenger service in August 2005 when the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina.

A three-member council finance committee declined to recommend voting in favor of the funding with some members saying that ticket revenue would not cover the costs of operating the trains.

Five council members must vote to approve the funding resolution in order for it to pass.

Mobile has proposed spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to help underwrite the Mobile-New Orleans service, which is expected to be two roundtrips a day.

State and local governments in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are facing a Feb. 5 deadline to approve matching funds for a Federal Railroad Administration grant that was announced earlier.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have approved their share of the funding and Amtrak has agreed to provide $6 million for capital projects needed to get the route started.

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey balked last year at approving that state’s share of the funding.

Ivey and some connected with the Port of Mobile have expressed reservations about the passenger service for fear that it would interfere with CSX freight service to the port.

The Rail Passengers Association said that Mobile’s $3 million commitment is crucial to bringing the service to fruition.

RPA said if Mobile votes against the funding, it would endanger the project.

Group Pushes to Reopen Point Definance Route

January 25, 2020

All Aboard Washington is trying to turn up the heat to get Amtrak, the Washington State Department of Transportation and Sound Transit to resume using the Point Defiance Bypass.

The route has been out of service since a December 2017 derailment of a Cascades train that left three dead and several others injured.

Two of those killed were members of the rail passenger advocacy group, Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite.

They were riding the first southbound revenue service Cascades to use the route.

In urging that the route be reopened as soon as possible AAW acknowledged that it was necessary to take safety measures on the route, including the installation of positive train control.

“The need for fast, frequent, and reliable passenger rail service has never been more urgent,” AAW said in a statement. “The traveling public wants a convenient, environmentally-friendly service that is safer than driving.

“With the right service improvements, the Cascades can meet this demand. But additional daily Cascades trains, with shorter running times between Seattle and Portland, cannot be implemented until the Bypass is in use.”

The statement contends that the installation of PTC plus other safety measures that have been undertaken made the route safe enough for scheduled passenger service.

“We believe that further postponing Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass — for which we have already paid $181 million — is detrimental to the interests of the Puget Sound region, the Pacific Northwest, and the traveling public as a whole,” AAW said.

“The taxpayers of Washington state have invested a significant sum of money to improve a useful service along a busy corridor. Let’s make that improved service a reality without delay.”

Neither Amtrak or WSDOT has indicated when the Point Defiance Bypass might reopen.

A consultant is conducting a study to be completed by Jan. 6, 2021, of “rail safety governance best practices and recommendations for the implementation of these best practices in Washington.”

Rome Station Elevator Out of Service

January 25, 2020

The elevator at the Amtrak station in Rome, New York, is out of service.

In a service advisory Amtrak did not provide an estimated date as to when it would be repaired and back in operation.

Amtrak said passengers unable to navigate the stairways from the station to the boarding platform should travel to the station in Utica, New York, located 20 minutes east of Rome.

The advisory also suggested that passengers allow extra time to reach the boarding platform.

Rome is served by two pairs of New York-Niagara Falls, New York, Empire Service trains and the New York-Toronto Maple Leaf.

6 Hurt When Amtrak Train Hits Truck Near Hartford

January 25, 2020

Six passengers were hurt on Friday after Amtrak Train 470 struck a truck five miles south of Hartford, Connecticut.

Two workers in the truck fled the truck before the impact of the collision and were not harmed.

The train was terminated and the passengers transferred to another train.

The train had originated in New Haven, Connecticut and was bound for Springfield, Massachusetts.

An Amtrak service alert said a later Amtrak train in the corridor was forced to use CTrail equipment.

The cause of the accident remains under investigation.

Cascades 501 Engineer Sues Amtrak for Negligence

January 25, 2020

The Amtrak locomotive engineer who was involved in a December 2017 derailment in Washington State has sued his employer, claiming that he was not properly trained.

Steven Brown filed the lawsuit in Pierce County District Court seeking compensation for physical and mental injuries suffered in the derailment of Cascades No. 501 near DuPont, Washington.

“As a consequence of the Defendant’s negligence and carelessness in violation of laws and regulations, the Plaintiff has suffered hearing impairment, hearing loss, pain, anxiety, general and special damages, diminishment of earning capacity, loss of enjoyment of life, and general damages yet to be determined,” the lawsuit says.

Brown alleges that Amtrak acted negligently when it failed to properly train locomotive engineer on a new route and that he and others were not given a sufficient number of familiarization runs on the Port Defiance Bypass.

Fifty other unnamed individuals are also named in the suit and Brown’s attorneys said they would file amended complaints as those individuals are identified.

Cascades 501 was determined by the National Transportation Safety Board to be traveling 78 miles per hour as it entered a 30-mph curve on the Point Defiance Bypass.

The resulting derailment resulted in the deaths of three people with dozens more injured. Some wreckage fell from a bridge onto Interstate 5.

The incident occurred on the first day of revenue service on the route.

Amtrak immediately suspended service on the Point Defiance route and has yet to say when it will be restored.

Public Hearings Held on Atlanta-Charlotte Corridor

January 25, 2020

Public hearings were recently held on a proposed high-speed rail route that would link Atlanta and Charlotte.

The transportation departments of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina conducted the hearings on a Tier 1 draft environmental impact statement.

The draft compared three alternatives two of which the Federal Railroad Administration would consider to be high speed.

The FRA defines a high-speed rail route as one over which trains travel at between 90 mph and 150 mph or higher.

If built, the 280-mile Atlanta-Charlotte route would be part of a larger Southeast High Speed Rail network that has been proposed between Washington and Atlanta through Richmond, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The draft environmental statement reviewed the area connecting Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the proposed Charlotte Gateway Station.

The study noted that existing public transportation is provided by Amtrak’s Crescent; commercial airline service to airports in Atlanta, Charlotte and Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina; and intercity bus service.

Amtrak Backs Down on $25,000 Fee for a $16 Ticket

January 22, 2020

What was quoted as a $25,000 fee for a trip that ordinarily costs $16 landed Amtrak a lot of unflattering headlines recently.

And when the dust had settled the passengers got tickets for the regular price while Amtrak wound up with a black eye.

The story involved a group of 10, five of whom use wheelchairs, who wanted to book a trip from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

When the passengers, one of them the CEO of Access Living, which news reports described as a Chicago disability service and advocacy center, contacted Amtrak they were told their tickets would incur a $25,000 fee to cover the expense of removing coach seats to accommodate the group.

Amtrak coaches used on Lincoln Service trains have spaces for one wheel chair, which meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lincoln Service trains typically have three coaches.

Access Chicago member Adam Ballard told National Public Radio that in the past Amtrak had with advance notice removed seats in a coach or put the group in a café car and charged them a few hundred dollars extra.

The $25,000 price was given to the group by an Amtrak group sales agent.

Amtrak said said the alternate would be for the group to travel on separate trains scheduled three hours apart.

The group said doing that would mean some of its members would arrive at the conference late or would incur the cost of overnight lodging if they had to travel the day before the conference was to begin.

Amtrak initially told NPR that the $25,000 charge reflected a new policy of “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our railcars.”

After NPR broadcast the story it got picked up by other news outlets and also drew the attention of U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois who lost both of her legs while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq after the Blackhawk helicopter who was co-piloting was shot down.

Duckworth called the fee outrageous and demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

She also Tweeted that it was “disappointing that Amtrak leadership appears to have failed to offer a public apology for its initial mistake.”

Duckworth is the ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation.

She said on Twitter that she wanted to discuss with Anderson “eliminating Amtrak’s nationwide policy of refusing to absorb any costs associated with reconfiguring a railcar to accommodate a group of wheelchair users.”

Two senior Amtrak executives later contacted an attorney for Access Chicago and offered to find extra space aboard a train to accommodate the group.

Amtrak also offered to allow two passengers to ride for the regular price of one ticket.

Although Access Living accepted the offer another complication arose when Amtrak learned that another disability group was sending staff to the same conference and had two wheelchair users who wanted to take the same Lincoln Service train.

Amtrak agreed to find space for all of them, apparently by taking one coach out of service and removing some of its seats.

Access Living had contacted Amtrak last month to request accommodations for its group.

When it protested the $25,000 charge, the agent wrote back and said the fee was in line with Amtrak policy about reconfiguring a rail car.

“With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” the agent wrote.

The agent acknowledged that in previous years Amtrak had removed seats and absorbed the cost of doing so.

“We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak,” the agent said. “Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These policies have changed nationwide as of 2019.”

Bridget Hayman, a spokeswoman at Access Living said that although her organization appreciates that its members will all be able to ride Amtrak at no additional cost, what is needed is a long-term solution so that Amtrak won’t charge those high fees in the future.

In a statement, Amtrak said it would review its policy and meet with Duckworth.

Amtrak Apologizes to NAACP Attorney Asked to Move

January 22, 2020

A high profile civil rights attorney received an apology from Amtrak after she was told by a conductor to move to another seat.

The incident involving Sherrilyn Ifill, of Baltimore, began as she was riding from Washington last Friday.

An assistant conductor told Ifill that she wanted to keep the seating area where Ifill was seated open for other passengers who would be boarding later.

In Tweeting about the incident, Ifill suggested that the incident was racially motivated and said the car in which she was sitting was sparsely filled.

“When I was laying her [assistant conductor] out to the [lead] conductor, at one point, I said, ‘I can sit where I want,’ and I thought, ‘This isn’t 1950,’ ” Ifill, who is African American, wrote on Twitter.

Ifill said she had approached the lead conductor to complain and he apologized but that the assistant conductor told her, “Follow me; I’ve found a seat for you.”

Amtrak spokesman John Abrams said in an email to the Baltimore Sun that Amtrak sought to contact Ifill numerous times on Friday to apologize for the incident, but did not make contact with her until Saturday morning.

“We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response,” Abrams told the Sun. “Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”

Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and cousin of the late PBS political analyst Gwen Ifill.

“I am colossally disappointed in @Amtrak for both this incident & the way it was handled,’” Ifill tweeted on Saturday.

“What really disturbs me is how someone with this authority can just entirely make up something so ridiculous and approach a customer in this way,” Ifill tweeted. “I did wonder when she was carrying on — how far will I take this? And the immediate answer in my mind was ‘all the way.’ ”