Archive for August, 2020

Look What We Found on the Pennsylvanian

August 19, 2020

Amtrak’s westbound Pennsylvanian passes Hunt Tower in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

On the rear of the Pennsylvania was a passenger car once used on the PRR’s Broadway Limited.

On returning from the East Broad Top’s 60th Anniversary we stopped at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, to catch the Amtrak’s westbound Pennsylvanian.

To my surprise former Pennsylvania Railroad sleeper lounge Catalpa Falls, which ran on the Broadway Limited in 1949 trailed the consist.

It was a nice way to finish the day.

Article and Photographs by Todd Dillon

Last Amtrak Dome Car Sold

August 19, 2020

Amtrak’s Ocean View is shown in Oakland, California, in the consist of a National Railway Historical Society excursion.

Amtrak’s last dome car has been acquired by a private operator who plans to return it to service in excursion service in 2021.

Paxrail said it bought full-length dome Ocean View, a 92-seat passenger car built by the Budd Company in 1955 for the Great Northern for use on its Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle.

In recent years the car ran sporadically, most recently assigned to the Adirondack and Downeaster during the fall.

Amtrak retired the car in 2018 and offered it for sale last year. At the time the intercity passenger carrier said the car had become too expensive to maintain.

“We’re excited to now be a chapter in this wonderful car’s history,” said Paxrail President James Evenson.

“The Ocean View is a beautiful art-deco car offering a spectacular panorama for over 70 passengers in the dome. We’re looking forward to welcoming guests back aboard in 2021.”

Paxrail maintains a fleet of more than 20 historic passenger cars and provides the cars for excursions, day trips and corporate events.

Full-length domes, also known as great domes, also operated on the Santa Fe and Milwaukee Road.

At one time Amtrak owned all six full-length domes once used by the Empire Builder. Those cars were replaced in 1979 by Superliner equipment.

A few of the cars operated on Amtrak’s Auto Train in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amtrak Execs Defend Move to Tri-Weekly Trains

August 18, 2020

Amtrak management is not counting on Congress to direct it to continue operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules this fall and winter but will maintain the status quo if so directed by lawmakers.

In an interview with Trains magazine, Amtrak President William Flynn and Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner said the carrier has not developed contingency plans to operate its long-distance trains daily after October when it will be implementing tri-weekly service on all routes except the Auto Train.

“I don’t envision a situation where Congress is giving us something above the $3.5 billion,” Gardner said, “And they are not being fairly clear about what they expect in terms of operating levels.”

He was referring in part to Amtrak’s request for $1.475 billion in supplemental funding on top of the carrier’s $2.04 billion budget request for federal fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The House has approved $10 billion in funding for Amtrak in FY2021 along with a mandate to continue daily service on all routes that have it now.

However, the Senate has yet to act on the FY2021 appropriations bills. The Rail Passengers Association reported last week that Congressional hearings on Amtrak funding may be held in September.

“If Congress directs us to operate a seven-day service we will,” Flynn said.

But he warned that if Congress doesn’t provide suitable funding Amtrak will “have to make additional cuts to the workforce, and it would certainly affect our capital plans and suggest reductions on the Northeast Corridor and perhaps elsewhere on the national network.”

Flynn said Amtrak has not developed contingency plans for operating a daily long-distance network past October.

During the interview, both Amtrak executives defended the move to tri-weekly service with Gardner saying the situation this year is quite different than it was in 1995 when Amtrak reduced the operation of several, but not all, long-distance trains to tri- and quad-weekly after a consulting firm recommended that as a way to save money during a budget crunch.

A Government Accounting Office report later noted that the projected savings largely failed to materialize as expected because some costs did not fall as much as expected.

“We feel good about being able to save significant dollars for a limited period, and that makes sense because demand is so low,” Gardner said.

Amtrak has projected that operating long-distance trains at tri-weekly levels will yield a savings of $150 million.

Gardner, who serves as Amtrak’s chief operating and commercial officer, acknowledged that tri-weekly operation of trains is not ideal.

“Three days per week is not a good solution in a normal revenue environment [but] we’ve done our homework,” he said.

Trains also reported on Monday that earlier versions of the metrics Amtrak said it will use to determine when to return long-distance trains to daily operation were rejected by Capitol Hill staffers.

The staffers apparently proposed using metrics including airport bookings along long-distance routes and system-wide percentage drops in ridership since April.

Those suggestions also sought to chart long-distance ridership from October to May, something the Trains report said would overlook the strength of holiday-period travel.

Amtrak revenue in July was down 82 percent when compared with July 2019.

The 15 long-distance trains contributed 54 percent of the ticket revenue and long-distance trains income was down 61 percent when compared to July 2019.

Northeast Corridor revenue was down 93 percent and state-supported revenue was off 83 percent.

In the meantime, Amtrak has ceased selling sleeping car space starting Oct. 5 on the days that long-distance trains will not operate.

A statement issued by Amtrak on Monday said the carrier hopes to restore some or all long-distance service to daily operation in 2021, but that will hinge on adequate federal funding in FY2021 and at this point it is unclear how much money Amtrak will receive.

Amtrak Announces Tri-Weekly Service Schedules

August 18, 2020

Amtrak on Monday announced that it will be implementing tri-weekly service on all long-distance trains except the Auto Train starting the week of Oct. 5.

Amtrak said operations have been planned to preserve connections between long-distance trains in Chicago by having most trains originate and terminate there on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

However, there will be no same-day connections in Chicago from the eastern long-distance trains and the westbound Texas Eagle.

In a service advisory posted on its website the intercity rail passenger carrier attributed the decreased service to depressed travel demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The advisory made no reference to saving money although that point was made in a white paper that Amtrak posted to its website more than a week ago.

No scheduled departure or arrival times at any station will change. Amtrak said all stations on all routes will continue to have service on the days that the trains operate past those stations.

The Auto Train will continue to operate daily between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, and the Cardinal (Chicago-New York) and Sunset Limited (New Orleans-Los Angeles) already operate on tri-weekly schedules and are thus not affected by the changes.

The Silver Meteor and Silver Star (New York-Miami) moved to less than daily service on July 6.

The carrier also said sleeping cars will continue to operate on all trains that have them now and business class service will continue to be offered on the Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles), Lake Shore Limited (New York-Chicago) and Palmetto (New York-Savannah, Georgia).

Passengers who had reservations for travel on days when long-distance trains will not be operating will be re-accommodated or given a refund.

Schedule changes that will be implemented the week of Oct. 5 include:

California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville, California), depart Chicago on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday; depart Emeryville on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday

Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington), depart Washington on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday; depart Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans), depart New Orleans on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday; depart Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

Crescent (New York-New Orleans, depart New York on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday; depart New Orleans on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Schedule changes that will be implemented the Week of Oct. 12 include:

Coast Starlight, depart Seattle on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday; depart Los Angeles on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York/Boston), depart Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, depart New York/Boston on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), depart Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, depart Los Angeles on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio (Los Angeles), depart Chicago on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday; depart San Antonio on Tuesday, Friday, Sunday.

Schedule changes that will be implemented the week of Oct. 19:

Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland), depart Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday; depart Seattle/Portland on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Palmetto, depart New York on Monday, Thursday and Saturday; depart Savannah on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Amtrak Service Cuts Seem to be Fait Accompli

August 18, 2020

Amtrak’s announcement on Monday that all but one of its 15 long-distance trains will transition to less-than-daily service in October had a sense of finality to it.

The company had informed its employees of the move in early summer but held off announcing it to the public, presumably while it planned which trains would operate on what days.

Now that planning is complete.

Of course much can happen between now and Oct. 1 when the federal fiscal year 2021 begins. Or maybe not.

The Senate has taken little action on appropriations bills for FY 2021. This is hardly surprising given that 2020 is a presidential election year and appropriations are highly political.

The failure of Congress to reach agreement on the next year’s budget before that budget year begins is not new.

In the past, the government has been kept operating through a series of continuing resolutions that generally maintain funding at the same level as the previous fiscal year.

Although the House has approved an additional $10 million for Amtrak with a directive to maintain daily service on all routes that have it now, Amtrak management has apparently concluded that that mandate is unlikely to be adopted by the Senate and/or adopted before the start of FY2021 on Oct. 1.

It may be that the House in approving the additional $10 million was merely making a political statement.

The House members who pushed that additional funding through may have done so knowing that it was likely to be negotiated away in talks with the Senate over the FY2021 budget.

Funding for intercity rail passenger service is a mere spec in the federal budget and can easily be overshadowed by higher profile spending priorities.

This is not to say that in the end negotiators might agree to the additional money because of political pressure. Passenger rail spending has some friends in the Senate.

But none of this is guaranteed no matter how many letters rail passenger advocates write or how many phone calls they make.

The passenger train advocacy community has largely and roundly criticized the move to tri-weekly service on most long-distance trains.

Some believe it is merely the first step toward abolishing the long-distance network altogether by depressing ridership.

Yet there are scenarios in which passenger train advocates might wish they had tri-weekly trains.

Amtrak has said it needs approximately $3 billion in FY2021 to support even tri-weekly levels of service for long-distance trains.

If Congress gives Amtrak its original $2 billion budget request, Amtrak has warned that all long-distance trains will be “at risk.”

Although the carrier hasn’t spelled out what that means, it probably would lead to some trains running less frequently than tri-weekly or not operating at all.

Amtrak President William Flynn has repeatedly said Amtrak is “committed” to its national network.

He has not said, though, that Amtrak is “committed” to operating the national network in the same manner that it operated pre-pandemic.

There are a number of issues that have yet to get much discussion in the conversation about tri-weekly service.

Why will there be no same-day connections in Chicago from the eastern long-distance trains and the westbound Texas Eagle? That seems rather odd considering that connections will be available on most days to all other western long-distance trains out of Chicago.

There also has been little discussion about whether some long-distance trains might be restored to daily service late next spring or in early summer but others will not be because they failed to meet the metrics that Amtrak has published.

Trains magazine passenger writer Bob Johnston raised the question in article in the September issue the magazine of host railroads demanding expensive capital investments before agreeing to reinstate daily service on routes that have it now.

Is that a serious concern? It could be but no one at Amtrak has addressed that.

The Rail Passengers Association has raised concerns about Amtrak lacking enough personnel to reinstate daily service after several months of tri-weekly service.

A byproduct of the tri-weekly service plan is cutting Amtrak’s workforce. Engineers, conductors and on-board staff will be furloughed.

Is this a serious concern or just rail passenger advocacy talking points?

There are many scenarios that could come to pass. That doesn’t mean all of them will. But increasingly tri-weekly trains are looking to be a fait accompli.

Wildfire Continues to Hinder Calif. Zephyr

August 18, 2020

The route used by Amtrak’s California Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City remained closed on Monday due to a wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Although Amtrak last week detoured Nos. 5 and 6 via Wyoming it canceled the past fours days service between Denver and Salt Lake City without any alternative service.

News reports indicate that more than 500 firefighters have been battling the blaze, which had burned more than 25,600 acres. Four fires in the state have affected 130,000 acres.

Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon remains closed for 24 miles.

Amtrak Wants Lift Bridge Closed

August 18, 2020

Amtrak a lift bridge near Newark Penn Station to be permanently closed.

The 85-year old bridge sometimes fails to close and thus delays Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and PATH trains.

The intercity rail passenger carrier has asked the U.S. Coast Guard to permanently close the six-track, twin-span bridge built in 1935.

The Amtrak petition cited a limited number of requests to open the bridge over the past five years.

The bridge, Amtrak said, is rarely opened for marine traffic, malfunctions during required tests have caused more than 37 hours of Amtrak delays during that five-year period.

The Coast Guard has indicated it will take up to six months to determine whether to grant the permit.

Track Work to Affect Station Acess

August 18, 2020

Track track will affect access to Amtrak’s Route 128 station in Westwood, Massachusetts, starting today (Aug. 18).

In a service advisory, Amtrak said a new railroad crossing being installed means University Avenue will be temporarily closed between Harvard and Yale Streets.

The project is scheduled to be completed on Aug. 20 at 8 p.m.

Passengers are advised to follow detour signs to access the station via Route 128.

The station is located on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Mission Accomplished

August 15, 2020

I had had my eye on photographing Amtrak’s westbound Cardinal from this bridge carrying U.S. Route 231 over the CSX Monon Subdivision for several weeks.

But a road construction project had reduced traffic over the bridge to one lane.

The work was completed in early August and that gave me an opportunity.

No. 51 had left Crawfordsville, Indiana, on time but lost about 12 minutes in a CSX work zone before it reached my position.

Broken Rail Blamed in VIA Derailment

August 15, 2020

A December 2019 derailment of a VIA Rail Canada train in Manitoba was caused by a broken rail investigators have concluded.

A fracture caused a 34½-inch gap that led to the derailment that resulted in injuries five people.

The Transportation Safety Board said the fracture occurred at a joint bar where a section of rail had been replaced in March 2019.

The rail had down signs of fatigue fractures for some time.

An October inspection by a track car had shown flaws below the level requiring immediate action.

Truck-mounted track inspection equipment failed to note defects during a passage in November.

The fracture is believed to have occurred when an empty Canadian National crude-oil unit train passed over the rail three hours before the VIA No. 692 operating between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba at 6:45 a.m. west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

The two VIA locomotives overturned and baggage car left the rails.

Two crew members in the locomotive, a passenger crew member, and two passengers were injured in the derailment.

CN has since changed its track maintenance procedures regarding maintenance in the vicinity of a rail joint.