Archive for July, 2020

Charging Through Arcola, Illinois

July 29, 2020

The massive grain elevator complex in Arcola, Illinois, has been a favorite backdrop that I’ve used over the years when photographing Amtrak trains on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans corridor.

The way the schedule works out, the complex best works as a backdrop for the northbound Saluki.

The southbound City of New Orleans would have to be really, really late to catch in daylight and the window for getting its northbound counterpart is very small.

The Illini in both directions passes through Arcola in daylight but by then the sun is behind the grain complex.

So that leaves the Saluki, which I’ve photographed here a few times.

My motivation for getting No. 390 this year has been to recreate an image I did years ago but with different motive power.

The P42DC units that were mainstays on the Chicago-Carbondale trains have given was to Siemens SC-44 Chargers.

Last Sunday No. 390 was about 10 to 15 minutes off its published schedule as it blasted through Arcola.

There is a restored Illinois Central depot here, but Arcola has never been a scheduled Amtrak stop.

This is the second time I’ve photographed No. 390 in Arcola this summer. Back in mid June the Saluki carried a Heritage baggage car.

That has since been replaced by a Viewliner baggage car. In both cases, the baggage car was in the consist to enable the train to meet a minimum axle count required by host railroad Canadian National.

Michigan City Wants to Connect Amtrak Routes

July 29, 2020

The city commission of St. Joseph, Michigan, wants to see a connection built that would enable all of Amtrak’s Michigan services to serve nearby New Buffalo.

Currently St. Joseph is a stop for Amtrak’s Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, but that train does not stop in New Buffalo even though it passes through it.

City officials said connecting the line used by the Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water and the Chicago-Detroit Wolverine Service with the Pere Marquette route would enable residents of St. Joseph to connect in New Buffalo to points in eastern Michigan.

The route used by the Blue Water and Wolverine Service, which is owned by Amtrak, passes through the northeast section of New Buffalo where it crosses the CSX route used by the Pere Marquette.

The city commission asks Mayor Mike Garey to discuss the connection idea with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. The vote on the resolution was unanimous.

The Michigan Department of Transportation funds all three Amtrak routes in Michigan.

The Pere Marquette route merges with the Blue Water and Wolverine Service route in Porter, Indiana, and all three services use Norfolk Southern track between Porter and Chicago.

Veteran Amtrak Ticket Agent Retires

July 29, 2020

A veteran Amtrak ticket agent has sold his last ticket.

Garland Harper, 67, retired on July 24 after working as an Amtrak ticket agent for 45 years, most recently in Lynchburg, Virginia.

He told a Virginia newspaper that working as a ticket agent was a dream job. He said that during his childhood he enjoyed watching trains pass by and dreamed of working for a railroad.

“I’ll miss it,” he told the newspaper. “Once railroad gets into your blood it’s hard to get out.”

Harper joined Amtrak in 1975, serving as the agent in Williamson, West Virginia, when the Chicago-Norfolk Mountaineer began service.

In Lynchburg he usually worked the evening shift. Aside from selling tickets and providing information about Amtrak’s trains, Harper also greeted passengers, made sure they had all of their luggage before leaving the station and directed them to nearby bus station and waiting taxis.

Sometimes he would help some individuals find safe shelter for the night.

“A lot of customer service, in my opinion, is just the golden rule,” Harper said. “Treat people like you want to be treated. No question is too dumb.”

1st Montana County Formally Joins Big Sky Agency

July 29, 2020

Gallatin County in Montana has formally agreed to the membership terms of the new Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

That makes it the first formal member of the agency with Missoula County expected to join later this week.

Nine other Montana counties have express interest in joining the authority, which was formed to work toward the resumption of Amtrak service to the southern tier of the state.

Currently the only Amtrak service in Montana is the Empire Builder in the northern part of the state.

The southern tier has been without intercity rail passenger service since the Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in early October 1979.

Reserved Acela Business Class Seating to Begin

July 29, 2020

Reserved seating in business class aboard Acela trains will begin Aug. 3, Amtrak said.

Until now the only reserved seating aboard Acela trains has been in first class.

The passenger carrier said instituting reserved seating in business class will enable passengers to preview the overall occupancy rate of a train.

Due to social distancing rules, Amtrak is only making available window seats while blocking from sale aisle and rear-facing table seats.

Passengers traveling together may still sit together but must designate reserved seats in other rows.

Amtrak said station and contact-center agents will have the capability to modify seat assignments.

Assigned seating in first class on Acela trains began in 2018.

N.J. Transit, Amtrak Agree on Portal Bridge Plan

July 29, 2020

An artist drawing of what the new Portal Bridge will look like upon completion

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit have reached an agreement to begin construction of a new Portal Bridge in early 2021.

The two will solicit bids from construction companies late this year or early next year.

The bridge spans the Hackensack River and is 110 years old. The swing span structure has been a frequent source of delay to trains on the Northeast Corridor due it malfunctioning.

The bridge opens to allow marine traffic to pass, which delays Amtrak and NJ Transit trains.

But delays also have occurred when the bridge became stuck in the open position because it fails to lock into place.

Amtrak owns the bridge, which is located between Kearny and Secaucus, New Jersey.

The U.S. Coast Guard has sought to minimize delays by imposing periods when the bridge may not be opened for marine traffic during heavy train travel periods.

Blasting Through Rantoul

July 28, 2020

It’s an early Sunday morning at the Amtrak station in Rantoul, Illinois.

I’m the only person around even through Amtrak’s northbound City of New Orleans will be come through here in a few minutes.

But Trains 58 and 59 don’t stop in Rantoul. Only the state-funded Saluki and Illini between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, stop here.

No. 58 is about 15 minutes off schedule as it roars through the Rantoul station. Note the engineer has his hand out the window to wave at the photographer.

It also has two P42DC locomotives up front. Normally, the City of New Orleans operates with a single locomotive.

UP Track Work Disrupts WB California Zephyr

July 28, 2020

Track work being performed by Union Pacific inside Moffat Tunnel in Colorado will disrupt operations of Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr over the next several weeks.

Between July 27 and Aug. 3, Train No. 5 will be canceled.

In its place, will be Train No. 1105, which will hold at Denver Union Station until 10:05 a.m.

It will operate two hours later than the normal schedule of No. 5 all the way to Emeryville, California.

This schedule will also be in effect between Aug. 10 to 18, Aug. 24 to 31, Sept. 7 to 13 and Sept. 21 to 24.

Train No. 1105 will not stop at the Salt Lake City station on July 28, Aug. 11, Aug. 25, Sept. 8 and Sept. 22.

Amtrak Eyeing Forced Furloughs

July 28, 2020

Amtrak is expected to furlough an unspecified number of employees after more than 500 workers agreed to accept a buyout offer.

Spokeswoman Christina Leeds told Trains magazine that the buyouts were “not enough to achieve the cost savings we are going to need in fiscal 2021.”

She said Amtrak management is evaluating which management positions it wants to eliminate and it is “very likely” that some union workers will be furloughed.

Amtrak said that 4,369 of its employees were eligible for a one-time payment if they agreed to leave the company.

The buyouts to 284 union workers and 227 managers will average about $33,000 apiece.

Leeds said that puts the total expenditure for buyouts at $16.83 million.

Trains said it obtained an internal company list that showed the breakdown by position of those taking buyouts.

It included 357 in the operations; 37 in administration; 22 in information technology; 17 in safety, health, and environmental; 15 in finance; 15 in human resources; seven in general counsel and corporate secretary; five in strategy and planning; and two in government affairs and corporate communications.

The degree of further furloughs could hinge on how much money Amtrak receives from Congress for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The House of Representatives has approved a budget bill appropriating $10.05 billion for Amtrak with the proviso that no workers be laid off and that long distance trains now operating daily would continue to do so.

The Senate has yet to act on that bill and given how past appropriations have played out Congress may pass one or more continuing resolutions to keep the federal government operating in the next fiscal year until it reaches agreement on appropriations.

It is unclear what a continuing resolution, which typically funds government programs at the level approved in the past fiscal year, would mean for Amtrak’s workforce and the operation of long distance trains.

Amtrak has said it expects revenue in fiscal year 2021 to be 50 percent of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

It cited that for planning to furlough 20 percent of its workforce and to reduce most long distance trains to tri-weekly operation.

Trains also reported that on July 14 Amtrak implemented a management restructuring whereby all operating, government affairs, and revenue-generating departments now report to CEO William Flynn through Stephen Gardner, executive vice president and chief operating and commercial officer.

Directly reporting to Flynn will be officers in charge of safety, finance, human resources, legal, and information.

Amtrak to Suspend Express Shipping

July 28, 2020

Amtrak recently posted a notice that it is suspending express shipping effective Oct. 1.

The notice said the suspension is “until further notice.”

The last date for accepting express shipments will be Sept. 15 in order to ensure that those shipments reach their destinations before Oct. 1.

In what it described as a “measure to ensure the health and safety” of customers and employees, Amtrak said it will temporarily be accepting only shipments under 250 pounds per customer.

It has suspended accepting the shipment of human remains.