Archive for May, 2020

Draft Environmental Report Issued for Proposed Segment of California High-Speed Network

May 29, 2020

A draft environmental impact report was to be released this week by the California High-Speed Rail Authority regarding a 14-mile high-speed section between Burbank and Los Angeles.

The report evaluates the effects and benefits of CHSRA’s plan to realign existing rail tracks in the corridor to allow for two additional tracks.

The added tracks would be electrified for high-speed rail and could be shared with Amtrak and Los Angeles commuter railroad Metrolink.

The project section would connect Burbank Airport Station and Los Angeles Union Station.

CHSRA will host an online community open house and hearing for the public to submit oral and written comments.

The draft will be available for review from May 29 through July 16.

A final environmental report is expected to be issued in 2021.

In a unrelated development, the Sacramento Bee reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom will remove 88 positions for private-sector consultants from the state’s high speed project.

Instead, the state will create 70 new jobs for public employees.

The change is designed to address criticism that there are too many consultants with insufficient oversight overseeing the project.

A 2018 audit found the project relied on high-priced consultants “for whom the state’s best interests may not be the highest priority.”

 

Empire Builder at Glenview

May 27, 2020

Glenview, Illinois, is the first stop for Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder.

Depending on which timetable you want to believe, it is either 17 miles (the Empire Builder timetable) or 18 miles (Hiawatha Service timetable) out of Chicago Union Station.

No. 7 is allocated 24 minutes to travel from Union Station to Glenview.

In the photo above, No. 7 has completed its station work in Glenview and is underway toward its next stop in Milwaukee.

This photograph was made in May 1997 when Nos. 7 and 8 carried some head end revenue on the rear.

Service Cuts Likely for Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

May 27, 2020

Thus far during the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic Amtrak’s long-distance trains have been spared service cuts.

But that will soon change.

In a letter to Congress dated May 25 Amtrak said it is seeking $1.475 billion in “supplemental funding” to maintain “minimum service levels across the rail network” and continue capital projects.

This will be on top of the $2.04 billion that it requested for its regular federal fiscal year 2021 appropriation.

Even if it gets the additional funding, Amtrak said it plans to reduce the frequency of service on most long distance routes to less than daily service.

The passenger carrier also said it may cut its workforce by as much as 20 percent.

Amtrak said during the pandemic its routes are at best handling 10 percent of the ridership that they had as recently as February and that for FY2021 the passenger carrier expects ridership to be 50 percent of what it would have been otherwise.

The letter, written by Amtrak President William Flynn, acknowledged that projecting future ridership and revenue is difficult given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and all the unknowns surrounding its trajectory.

However, most projections anticipate a second wave of infections in the fall and Amtrak expects that to depress ridership between September and February.

Recent polling data shows half of the respondents saying they would be reluctant to ride a train in the next six months and more than a third said they it could be a year or more before they would ride a train.

“Furthermore, when demand returns, we anticipate that changed behaviors, such as increased telework and reduced discretionary income, will likely impact ridership, along with capacity limits that may be needed to achieve social distancing on our trains,” Flynn wrote.

Aside from cutting long-distance service to less-than-daily service, Amtrak said it will sharply cut Northeast Corridor service to match demand.

Flynn said Amtrak expects reduced services in state-funded corridor service and is working with the states to determine what they will be able to fund in FY2021, which begins on Oct. 1.

“While our state partners will ultimately make these decisions in coordination with us, many of them have been clear that they will not be able to maintain currently reduced service or resume suspended service without supplemental funding,” Flynn wrote.

Amtrak said it would restore service levels to what they had been once ridership recovers sufficiently to support it if adequate funding is available.

Flynn’s letter contained few details as to how much reduction in frequency of service would occur in the next fiscal year unless Amtrak receives supplemental funding.

An appendix mentions consolidation of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Palmetto and hints that without additional federal funding some corridor services might be suspended or discontinued.

All long-distance trains except for the Auto Train are expected to operate at a lower level of service even if Amtrak receives the supplemental appropriation.

Without the supplemental appropriation, all long-distance trains except the Auto Train are said to be “at risk.”

In a message to Amtrak employees on Tuesday, Flynn conceded that Amtrak’s planned spending cuts “will cause stress in the organization.”

He said the carrier will seek to “minimize the negative impact” by offering incentives for employees to leave the company or retire before resorting to layoffs.

Flynn said Amtrak management is still figuring out how much it plans to reduce its workforce and how to assign those who remain on the payroll.

Amtrak expects to cut $500 million in expenses as a result of reducing frequency of operation and capacity ($150 million) and workforce reductions ($350 million).

FRA Awards Funding to Replace Portal Bridge

May 27, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration will provide $91.5 million to help replace the Portal Bridge in New Jersey on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

The bridge is used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains and crosses the Hackensack River at a long-time corridor choke point.

The current structure is a swing bridge that has often failed to lock into place when closed after being opened to allow passage of marine traffic.

The U.S. Coast Guard has mitigated some of the problem by limiting the times when the bridge is permitted to open.

The new bridge is expected to be high enough above the river so that it will not need to be opened.

The bridge is located between Kearny and Secaucus, New Jersey.

Second Life of an F40

May 26, 2020

Strictly speaking, this is not an Amtrak locomotive.

It may look like an F40 and it even has the same cab controls that an F40 has. But as far as Amtrak is concerned it is a now-powered control unit.

It can be used to run a train, but the motive power comes from the locomotive on the other end of the train.

In the cast of this train, that would be a P42DC on the north end of Hiawatha Service No. 334 shown in Glenview, Illinois, in May 1999.

No. 90222 began life as F40PH No. 222 in April 1976. It was converted to an NPCU in May 1998.

It may no longer be capable of pulling a train but it still cuts an impressive looking figure.

Hiawatha Service Restoration to Begin June 1

May 26, 2020

Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee was will be gradually restored starting June 1 with one roundtrip.

Additional weekday service will return on June 29. Amtrak suspended Hiawatha Service in favor of a Thruway bus on April 24.

Starting June 1, Train No. 332, which departs Milwaukee at 8:05 a.m. will resume along with No. 339, which departs Chicago at 5:08 p.m.

On June 29 Amtrak will restores Nos. 330, 332, 338 and 342 southbound, and Nos. 329, 331, 337 and 339. Nos. 330 and 329 will operate Monday through Friday only.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which uses the same route as the Hiawathas, will continue to stop at all stations served by Hiwathas through June 29.

Effective with that date Nos. 7/27 and 8/28 will cease stopping at Sturtevant and the Milwaukee Airport stations.

Hiawatha tickets will no longer be honored aboard the Empire Builder effective June 29.

Reservations will be required for travel on all trains and passengers must weak a fabric mask.

Amtrak Buys Office Building in Delaware

May 26, 2020

Amtrak will house 200 workers in an eight-story office building that it has acquired in Wilmington, Delaware.

The building, known as the Renaissance Centre, will also be used to by the Delaware Supreme Court and Delaware State Bar Association.

Amtrak spokesperson Beth Toll said the passenger carrier bought the building as part of a move toward owning rather than renting facilities used by its workers.

Toll said owning property will lead long-term to lower costs.

The terms of the purchase were not disclosed.

Florida County to Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court

May 26, 2020

A Florida County that has long opposed the efforts of Brightline to build an extension to Orlando is making a last ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Indian River County contends that Virgin Trains USA, which operates the Brightline service, should not be eligible for $2.7 billion of tax-exempt private activity bonds.

The bonds are being used to finance construction of the Orlando extension.

The Florida county argues that there is an open question about whether a federal agency can interpret the law and whether courts should defer to that interpretation.

In a legal brief, the county said the matter is “critical to the separation of powers” between agencies and the courts.

Indiana River County has been fighting and losing in the courts for years in its efforts to thwart Brightline.

It’s most recent setback was a federal appeals court ruling that Virgin can use the bonds as intended for expansion.

County officials have approved $200,000 to make one appeal to the Supreme Court.

Your Seat in an Amtrak Viewliner Roomette

May 23, 2020

Here is your seat in your Viewliner roomette aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited.

You’ve just boarded and are looking forward to a relaxing trip to the East Coast.

But right now you’re just getting settled in your room as No. 48 sits in Chicago Union Station.

As a sleeper class passenger you were able to board ahead of most passengers so it will be several minutes before the Lake Shore leaves Union Station behind.

One downside to your seat is that it doesn’t recline as much as a coach seat does. But your seat does fold down into a bed, which is a benefit those in coach doesn’t have.

So have a seat and welcome aboard. Your train travel journey is about to begin.

Amtrak’s April Ridership Was Bad, But Bookings for Long-Distance Trains is Looking Promising

May 23, 2020

Amtrak ridership data for April was released this past week and it showed a sharp plunge compared with a year ago.

In April 2020 Amtrak handled 120,000 passengers compared to 2.7 million who rode in April 2019.

The ridership drop is attributed largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northeast Corridor handled 19,000 passengers, a drop of 97.5 percent from a year earlier. It was the steepest ridership plunge system wide on a percentage basis.

Amtrak lost 87 percent of its passengers on the San Joaquin route in California.

Ridership of state-funded corridors fell 96 percent while the long-distance trains saw ridership fall 86.8 percent.

Year-to-date ridership is down 21 percent and revenues has fallen by 19 percent.

Amtrak expects those figures to grow and they might have been larger than they were but for strong ridership and revenue performances earlier in the year before social distancing measures were imposed.

In a related matter, the Amtrak vice president who oversees long-distance trains said the use of prepackaged meals for sleeper class passengers on Western trains will continue for at least another month.

Larry Chestler told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak has begun to see some early signs of recovery on many routes.

However, he cited safety and continued lagging ridership for waiting to restore traditional dining car service to the Western trains.

Chestler said the carrier will evaluate ridership data in late June and determine at that time whether to restore traditional dining car service.

The prepackaged meals have been served to sleeper class passengers on Eastern long-distance trains since June 2019 and were extended to all of those trains last October.

Although the long-distance trains have seen steep ridership drops, Chestler said those declines have been smaller than on other routes.

A recent rise in bookings for long-distance trains have given Amtrak some hope that higher demand is coming, Chestler said.

“Whether that means there’s more demand for summer it’s too soon to say,” he said.

In particular, bookings are trending upward for Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief with some growth also starting to show for the California Zephyr and Empire Builder.

Chestler said bookings are coming back “from the bottom of the bottom,” which Amtrak reached during the period of mid April to early May when it averaged 3,000 passengers a day nationwide.

Since then Amtrak ridership has doubled that, but it’s still well below what it would otherwise be at this time of year.

Some of the ridership of long-distance trains has occurred in regions where corridor trains have been suspended or reduced in frequency.

An example would be the Empire Builder between Chicago and Milwaukee where Hiawatha Service was suspended in favor of a once a day Thruway bus.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak operated seven daily roundtrips between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Chestler said Amtrak management considered continuing into the summer the reduced consists that began operating during the pandemic.

But management elected to move from what he termed “a kind of quasi-minimum” to restoring capacity for the summer.

“Had we reduced to the May levels [for the summer] we would have had a number of trains where we would have been essentially sold out already” in coach, Chestler said.

That doesn’t mean all of the seats would have been occupied because Amtrak for now is selling only half of the capacity of each coach assigned to a train in order to maintain social distancing.

“On the [Southwest] Chief and the [California] Zephyr and the [Empire] Builder there’s more sleepers [and] typically one more coach,” he said.

“We’ve balanced the use of baggage coaches and other kinds of cars to put an appropriate amount of capacity” in place “to capture demand signals from customers,” Chestler said.

Amtrak management is mindful that reducing capacity also could dampen the return of demand because the seats aren’t available.