Archive for September, 2020

Ground Breaking Ceremony Held for Rebuilding of the Amtrak, Metra Homewood Station

September 30, 2020

A conductor picks up a step box after passengers have finished disembarking from the northbound Illini at Homewood, Illinois in September 1996

A groundbreaking ceremony was held this week to mark the launch of a $29 million project to renovate the Homewood, Illinois, Amtrak and Metra station.

The work, which began in July, will improve the accessibility of the facility located alongside Canadian National tracks and served by Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, Illini and Saluki.

Workers will replace the station stairway and install a ramp to allow passengers access to a tunnel under the tracks, which leads to the boarding platforms.

Other work planned for next year includes leveling the path between the station building, parking area and entrance to the tunnel.

Metra plans to replace its existing station structure on the east side of the tracks, renovate the existing tunnel and create accessible paths from both ends of the tunnel.

The tunnel, which is 109 years old, will be waterproofed, receive improved lighting, drainage and ventilation systems, and be coated in a graffiti resistant finish.

Amtrak is spending $15 million on the $29 million project, Metra is chipping in $14 million, the village of Homewood will contribute $585,000 and Cook County will provide $300,000.

The Homewood station was built by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1923.

Amtrak plans to build a ramp building to house the elevator and walkways. The work also includes renovating the waiting area and restrooms of the existing station.

“We’ll put down new tile and move some walls to make the restrooms accessible, but you should be able to distinguish what is new and what was original to this space without taking away any of the history or character of the building — it’s really a beautiful station,” Amtrak Project Manager Jamie Shindell said.

For now Amtrak passengers are unable to board or disembark from trains in Homewood due to the construction.

Instead, they are riding buses to and from the next Amtrak station to the south, Kankakee.

Amtrak expects trains to resume boarding and disembarking in Homewood from a temporary platform in late March 2021. The project is expected to be completed by October 2021.

Colo. Rail Projects Gets More Funding

September 30, 2020

A recent federal grant awarded to fund a study of intercity rail passenger along Colorado’s Front Range will be bolstered by $137,000 from state and local government agencies.

The Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, Pueblo County, city of Trinidad, and Colorado chapter of the Rail Passengers Association will provide that money to match the $548,000 received from a federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Grant.

“This funding will ensure that the Front Range Passenger Rail Project can move forward into detailed stages that will help determine specific engineering and operational challenges as well as give us a far better understanding of potential benefits and costs,” said Randy Grauberger, project director for the commission.

That study will examine the types of equipment, technology and infrastructure the corridor will require for passenger operations.

Also part of the review will be an assessment of revenue projections, suggested service frequencies and estimated benefits.

Planners are expected to recommend a governance structure for the rail operator.

House Pandemic Bill Has Amtrak, Transit Funding

September 30, 2020

A bill unveiled this week by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives this week contains emergency air for public transit, Amtrak and the airlines.

Although the bill, named the Heroes Act, is expected to get a vote this week, some political observers don’t expect the Senate to vote on it. Instead the Senate might consider its own COVID-19 relief bill.

The House bill contains $2.2 trillion in emergency spending, including $2.4 billion for Amtrak.

Amtrak would receive $1.4 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $1 billion for the national network.

The bill allocates $569 million to help states and commuter rail providers pay Amtrak for state-supported route and commuter rail use of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Public transit would receive $32 billion, which includes $28.5 billion for operating assistance grants.

The American Public Transportation Association said in a statement that under the terms of the House bill the funding for public transit is to be directed to payroll and transit operations.

APTA said the funding, if approved by Congress and President Trump, would when combined with earlier approved CARES Act aid equal 100 percent of agencies’ operating expenses.

Also allocated by the bill is $2.5 billion for Capital Investment Grants for transit project sponsors with non-federal financial commitments and $10 billion for emergency relief grants for public transit agencies that require additional assistance to maintain operations.

The bill also contains $25 billion for airlines to save jobs through next March.

Airlines have been grabbing headlines in the past couple months by announcing massive layoffs and service cancellations once their CARES Act funding expires today (Sept. 30).

The House bill would extend $3 billion in payroll support for airline contractors as originally approved in March and $300 million to cargo airlines.

It also includes $13.5 billion in economic relief to airports and $75 million to preserve passenger air service for smaller communities.

An earlier House approved COVID-19 emergency aid bill failed to get a Senate vote and talks between the two chambers have broken down over partisan differences, including over the size of another relief bill and who would receive funding.

The latest House emergency relief bill is $1 trillion less than the earlier proposal approved last May.

There is some support among Senate Republicans who control that chamber for granting emergency aid to the airline industry, which in recent days has ramped up its lobbying campaign for more emergency funding as air travel remains in a severe slump.

A Senate bill introduced last week would provide $25.5 billion for passenger air carriers, $300 million for cargo air carriers and $3 billion for contractors.

Political observers have noted that airline aid has gained traction because many lawmakers of both parties and key administration officials fear that the layoffs airlines have signaled will occur in October could rattle an economy that remains in the doldrums.

Amtrak Memories From a July 1993 East Coast Trip

September 29, 2020

In July 1993, the photographer and a friend ventured East from their homes in Northeast Ohio on a photography expedition.

Among their stops were Princeton Junction, New Jersey, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. They also stopped on their way home at Horseshoe Curve and caught Amtrak’s Broadway Limited.

Much has changed with Amtrak’s motive power since then. In the early 1990s Northeast Corridor trains were still pulled by AEM-7 locomotives and long-distance trains outside the corridor were handled by F40PH locomotives.

In the top photograph the Silver Meteor comes thundering by Princeton Junction, led by a GE E60 electric engine.

Next up the Pennsylvanian makes an appearance hauling a deadheading slumbercoach.

The last image from Princeton Junction shows the Silver Star.

Photographs by Edward Ribinskas

Track Work to Disrupt California Zephyr

September 29, 2020

Track work by host railroad Union Pacific on the Moffat Tunnel in Colorado will result in changes to operations of Amtrak’s California Zephyr between Oct. 5 and 12.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said Train 5 will be cancelled during that period with Train 1105 operating in its place between Chicago and Denver.

That train will hold at Denver until 10:05 a.m., 2 hours later than Train 5’s normal schedule and operate on that later schedule at all stations from Denver to Emeryville, California.

Amtrak said that due to the schedule change, on Oct. 6 and 13, there will be no westbound service at Salt Lake City.

IDOT Hires Manger for Rockford Project

September 29, 2020

The Illinois Department of Transportation has hired a project manager for its efforts to restore rail passenger service between Chicago and Rockford.

Engineering services firm WSP USA was hired to oversee the project, which could involve contracting with Amtrak or Chicago rail commuter rail provider Metra.

IDOT has been talking with host railroad Union Pacific about infrastructure work needed for the service.

Trains would use an existing Metra route between Chicago and Elgin and then travel what are now freight-only tracks to Rockford.

Rockford lost rail service in late September 1981 due to a state budget cut for intercity rail passenger funding.

At the time Rockford was on a route between Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa, that used former Illinois Central Gulf tracks.

Man Sentenced in Amtrak Fraud Scheme

September 29, 2020

A Michigan man has received a six-year prison sentence in connection with a scheme to defraud Amtrak of more than $540,000.

Christian Newby, 32, of Milan, Michigan, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges.

Prosecutors said he obtained credit card information for more than 1,100 people, used that information to buy Amtrak tickets, then cancelled the tickets and received vouchers for the amount of the ticket from Amtrak.

He later sold vouchers at a discount on eBay. Police also found during a search of his residence improvised explosive devises, firearms, and narcotics.

VIA Extends Long-Distance Train Suspensions

September 29, 2020

VIA Rail Canada has indefinitely extended the suspension of two long-distance trains due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Toronto-Vancouver Canadian and Montreal-Halifax Ocean had been set to resume operation on Nov. 1.

But in an announcement made last week VIA said the suspensions have been extended to an unspecified date due to due to a rise of COVID-19 cases in some regions of Canada and recommendations of health authorities.

The carrier also said sleeping car service on its Winnipeg-Churchill route also will remain suspended.

In a news release, VIA said it is working on a safe resumption of service plan.

“The authorities indicate that this situation is worrisome as we are heading into autumn and winter, which are seasons presenting a high risk for respiratory diseases,” VIA said in a statement.

“Current sanitary conditions would thus not allow for a safe service offering, especially given the duration of these trips and the close proximity between employees and passengers.”

VIA is continuing to operate some corridor service between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario, via Toronto and Montreal.

A VIA spokesperson told Trains magazine in mid September that the passenger carrier is reviewing “ventilation systems, classes of service, schedules, and food and beverage, in order to offer a safe travel experience.”

He said the close proximity between employees and passengers and the duration of long-distance trips made it difficult to offer a safe environment.
The VIA news release cites “recent bulletins by authorities show that a second wave of the pandemic has begun in some regions of the country.”

In some regions of Canada travel restrictions limit travel to residents of the same or an adjacent province.

Rail Advocates Got Steamrolled by Congress

September 29, 2020

Back in early summer when Amtrak President William Flynn told Congress that the carrier was eyeing operating all of its long-distance trains but one on less than daily schedules the reaction of the rail passenger advocacy community was nearly unanimous that that was a bad idea.

Opposition quickly formed and Amtrak’s plans were widely panned on social media and in articles in national magazines serving the railroad and railfan communities.

I remember thinking, though, that more than likely those advocates were going to get steamrolled by the very political process they were banking on to bail out their beloved long-distance trains.

But I didn’t write that because it also seemed there was a fighting chance that maybe, as Trains magazine correspondent Bill Stephens wrote, Amtrak would find a way to avoid pulling the trigger, perhaps citing Congressional action.

But this past week it became apparent the fix is in and less-than-daily service long-distance service seems a foregone conclusion.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved by a wide margin legislation extending the surface transportation law – known as Fixing America’s Surface Transportation – that authorizes spending money on Amtrak and other transportation programs for a year.

That legislation also continues federal funding through December at fiscal year 2020 levels.

This means, in essence, that Amtrak will not receive additional funding to maintain daily operation of all but two long-distance trains.

It’s still possible Amtrak might get emergency funding in another COVID-19 pandemic relief package, but such legislation is mired in partisan bickering and pre-election posturing.

In any event there is no assurance that extra money for Amtrak would be part of that package.

So, those rail passenger advocates who vociferously opposed Amtrak’s tri-weekly service for all but the Auto Train are getting steamrolled.

All of their emails, letters and phone calls to Congress have netted little to nothing.

This didn’t happen because Congress decided tri-weekly long-distance passenger trains are a good business practice.

It happened because Amtrak funding got swamped in larger political tides.

The rail passenger advocates had their say but in the end their arguments proved to be just so much more noise in an already noisy environment.

There are powerful political forces in Congress that do not believe as rail passengers advocates do that public funding for rail passenger service is money well spent.

That has kept Amtrak’s federal funding constrained and at times led to the discontinuance of some trains due to lack of adequate funding.

At the same time there are political forces in Congress who have been willing to continue funding Amtrak just enough to keep the existing network going more or less.

A political scientist would say Amtrak is a typical example of a government program that was created to address a specific need at a given moment but then developed a vocal constituency that is able to apply just enough political pressure to keep it funded under the guise that it provides an essential public service.

In Amtrak’s case, the public service is often expressed as public transportation to largely rural regions and less populated areas.

Senators and House members have often cited the paucity of public transportation to rural regions for supporting continued federal funding of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

But when it came time to commit to making federal funding decisions for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1, Congress punted that job into the post-election period.

The House passed a budget that contained additional funding for Amtrak to maintain daily service on its long-distance routes, but the Senate engaged very little in the budget-writing process.

Even if it had, there is no guarantee the Senate would have agreed to more than double Amtrak’s federal grant for FY2021 or that such funding would have survived a conference committee formed to reconcile differences between the House and Senate.

It’s still possible that once the elections are past that additional funding for Amtrak will be slipped into a spending bill and the less-than-daily service will be short lived.

But it’s also possible less-than-daily service will be around for a long time.

In the 1990s, some long-distance trains operated three or four times a week for two years before reverting back to daily operation.

Rail passenger advocates have seized upon the lessons of the 1990s in support of their assertion that less-than-daily service is a bad idea.

They’ve noted that ridership fell precipitously and the hoped for savings never materialized because of high overhead expenses, lack of management will, and unexpected costs.

What the advocates have glossed over, though, is that when the less-than-daily service was reversed there were two fewer long-distance trains with the Pioneer to Seattle and the Desert Wind to Los Angeles being discontinued.

At a time when thousands of small businesses have closed or are barely hanging on in a down economic climate triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of whether the Capitol Limited operates seven or three times a week might not seem all that important to those who are not passenger train advocates.

At least all of the long-distance trains are still operating, but Joe’s Diner is closed permanently and the local orchestra hasn’t played a live concert at its home venue since March.

It might seem to many Americans that less-than-daily service is a prudent move given that patronage of all public transportation has fallen off a cliff.

Rail passenger advocates have tried to play up the fact that long-distance patronage has only fallen by 65 percent compared to the 88 percent reduction in patronage of Northeast Corridor trains.

But losing 65 percent of your ridership is still a substantial loss.

The larger picture is the market for public transportation of all types has plunged and there remains much uncertainty as to when or even if demand for rail transportation will return to previous levels.

It therefore might seem reasonable that Amtrak reduce service levels until ridership recovers to more normal levels.

It may be that operating long-distance trains three days a week will result, as advocates say, in even more ridership losses and not save as much money as Amtrak claims it will.

It also may be that that might result in irreversible damage to the long-distance network. It also might be that Amtrak management is using the COVID-19 crisis to transform itself into a more corridor-oriented operation despite its insistence of being committed to the national network.

Even if these things are true, does that justify more than doubling spending federal spending on Amtrak? That is a fair question to ask.

It might be that on social media sites and in the pages of Trains or Railway Age authors are not required to choose between funding rail passenger service versus funding other wants and needs.

But members of Congress are required to make those choices even if of late they’ve done it largely through indecision.

Of course rail passenger advocates think spending $5 billion for Amtrak in FY2021 is worthwhile. Some might even argue that the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic justifies opening the federal checkbook to bolster the economy. There is a case to be made for that. There is also a case to be made for being fiscally constrained.

Bond Sales Expected for Las Vegas Project

September 29, 2020

An investment group said that Brightline expects to offer $3.2 billion of tax-exempt private equity bonds to help finance construction of a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California.

“The real goal is to have a single seat from (Los Angeles) Union Station to Las Vegas. That’s the service we want,” said Fortress Investment Group co-founder Wes Edens in an interview with Forbes magazine.

Brightline has proposed building 169 miles of track that would be good for 200-mph operation by electric trains built by Siemens.

The route would terminate near Victorville, California, and use Metrolink’s right of way to reach Los Angeles.

In California, much of the route would run parallel to Interstate 15.

Five banks have reportedly agreed to underwrite the bonds although no date has been announced for the sale of the bonds.

The magazine article noted that the interest rate and expected yield won’t be known until marketing of the bonds has begun.

During the Forbes interview, Edens said the cost of the high-speed corridor from Las Vegas to downtown Los Angeles could cost $8 billion, with debt financing providing $6 billion of that amount.