Archive for January, 2021

Amtrak Seeks Contractors for Station Work

January 25, 2021

Amtrak has put out word it is looking for contractors to do work at its New Carrollton Station in Maryland.

The project involves building a side platform to accommodate the new Acela fleet and is not expected to interrupt existing Amtrak service.

The new equipment is expected to begin revenue service later this year.

The New Carrolton station was built in 1983 and also serves MARC commuter trains and bus and Metrorail trains of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Boca Raton Station Work to Begin in March

January 25, 2021

Florida intercity rail operator Brightline expects to begin construction in March of a station in Boca Raton.

The $46 million project will get underway with construction of a temporary parking lot and garden and last for more than a year.

The station is expected to open in 2022. The Boca Raton City Council earlier approved the project, which is getting a $16.35 million federal grant.

Amtrak, Metra Lists Areas of Agreement in CUS Dispute

January 25, 2021

Chicago commuter rail operator Metra and Amtrak have filed documents with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board showing areas of agreement in a dispute over Chicago Union Station.

The terminal, which Amtrak owns and at which Metra is a tenant, has been the subject of a long-running dispute.

The joint filing said they’ve reached agreement on such issues as Metra’s right to change schedules and operate special or test trains; Amtrak’s right to review the interoperability of new or overhauled Metra equipment to be used at Union Station; and notification procedures by Amtrak when an event causes disruption or annulment of Metra service.

The document also stipulates that Amtrak will continue to dispatch Metra trains at the station and there will be monthly meetings to review on-time and dispatching performance, as well as service disruptions.

The two sides describe in the document a complex formula for future recalculations of Metra’s rent based on costs including maintenance of way, dispatching, station operations and policing

However, the document indicates that the initial rent figure is among the 16 issues that remain undecided.

The dispute over Union Station has been ongoing for more than two years with some issues having been resolved through mediation.

Amtrak at one point demanded that Metra pay more than $17 million in annual rent.

Metra has been paying substantially less than that, including $9.66 million in 2018.

Montana Passenger Group Names President

January 25, 2021

The newly formed Montana Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has named Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier as its first president.

Strohmaier has played a key role in getting the group organized. To date it has held two meetings.

At its most recent meeting, Authority members heard a report that two more counties may join the group, which would give it 14 members.

Also at that meeting, members heard from Amtrak’s director for governmental affairs for the West, Rob Eaton.

During his presentation, Eaton said Amtrak would help the Authority work with potential host railroads Montana Rail Link and BNSF.

The Authority is seeking to restore inercity rail passenger service in southern Montain over a route once served by Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha until early October 1979 when it was discontinued in a route restructuring.

3 Options Laid Out for Mass. East-West Service

January 25, 2021

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has listed three options for creating a rail passenger service between Boston and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The options have price tags of between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion.

MassDOT’s report concluded that all three alternatives face obstacles in qualifying for federal funding.

In an executive summary, the report said the project would likely require “a combination of many different funding sources and strategies, but that, under current federal methodology, the project would “likely not qualify for federal funding.”

Aside from cost, the variables among the three options are how much track work would be needed, the travel time of the service and projected ridership. The latter would be affected by the projected travel time.

The least expensive option of $2.4 billion would have a travel times of 1 hour, 57 minutes between Boston and Springfield, and 3 hours, nine minutes between Boston and Pittsfield.

Projected ridership would be 922 to 1,188 passengers on weekdays by 2040.

The $3.9 billion, would take 1:47 between Springfield and Boston and 2:59 between Pittsfield and Boston, with projected ridership of 1,157 to 1,379 passengers.

The $4.6 billion option would result in travel times of 1:37 between Springfield and Boston and 2:49 between Pittsfield and Boston, and would be used by 1,296 to 1,557 passengers per weekday.

Boston and Pittsfield are currently linked by the Boston section of Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited.

Test Trains Run on Point Defiance Route

January 25, 2021

Amtrak earlier this month operated test trains over the Point Defiance Bypass in Washington State.

It was the first Amtrak operation on the route since a December 2017 derailment of a Cascade Service train on the first day of service of the route left three dead and more than 70 injured.

The Point Defiance route between Tacoma and Nisqually Junction is designed to be a passenger-only line and divert Amtrak and commuter trains from a BNSF route closer to the Pacific coast.

The test trains on the 14-mile Point Defiance route were intended for familiarization and certification of train crews.

Amtrak has not set a date for when revenue service would resume on the route.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Cascades derailment concluded that the train was speeding on a curve.

Va. Officials Say Agreement Close With NS on New Train

January 25, 2021

Virginia officials say they are close to reaching an agreement with Norfolk Southern that would allow additional Amtrak service.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine told members of the House Appropriations Committee that the state has been talking with NS about new Amtrak service to the New River Valley.

“I will tell you that this has been a dream, really since the first train was launched in Lynchburg in 2009,” Valentine said. “And I can say to you we have never been as close as we are to getting this accomplished.”

Governor Ralph Northam has proposed a $50 million budget amendment to help pay for the new service.

Valentine noted that the Amtrak Northeast Regional service to Roanoke is the only Amtrak service in Virginia that covers all of its operating costs through ticket sales.

The extension of service to the New River Valley would add a second train.

The legislature is also considering a bill that would create a rail authority in the New River Valley. That legislation would help finance construction of a passenger rail station.

Generational Change Underway at Amtrak

January 25, 2021

Several weeks ago I conducted an online search to determine the age of Amtrak president Stephen J. Gardner.

Some believe you can find anything on the Internet. Well, almost anything.

Maybe I didn’t look hard enough but I never did find Gardner’s birth date.

But extrapolating from the years that he attended Hampshire College as an undergraduate, which are listed in the resume posted on his Linked In page, I concluded Gardner probably was born in 1976. That makes him fortyish.

He wasn’t around when the original California Zephyr made its last trips in March 1970, when South Dakota lost its last passenger train in September 1969 or when the Twentieth Century Limited succumbed in December 1967.

If his parents took him on a trip by train during his childhood, it likely would have been aboard Amtrak.

By the time Gardner was old enough to begin remember much about the world around him Amtrak was well into the transition from streamliner era equipment to Amfleet and Superliners.

He is not old enough to remember a time when the intercity rail passenger service network was far broader than it is today.

As far as Gardner is concerned there always have been between 15 plus long-distance trains in America, not dozens of them.

Likewise, Gardner’s conception of intercity rail passenger service is that it has always been funded with public money, most of it coming from the federal government.

In many ways, Gardner’s career arc seems ideally suited for working at Amtrak because much of his career has been in the public policy making arena.

He worked for a short time in his early adult years for two railroads, but much of his time has been spent working on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer.

That gives him insights into the politics of Amtrak funding that many rail passenger advocates don’t understand or don’t want to understand.

Gardner’s vision of the future of intercity rail passenger service is something more akin to Brightline, the privately-owned Florida service that developed in a public-private partnership in a densely populated urban corridor.

Until it suspended operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brightlight offered frequent, fast service between Miami and West Palm Beach with modernistic equipment that looks like it has been transplanted from Europe.

In his public comments, Gardner has paid lip service to long-distance passenger trains, saying they will always be a key part of Amtrak’s business.

But he also describes a world of corridor services focused on short-distance travel.

In Gardner’s mind the market for long-distance trains is shrinking and those trains create a mismatch among population density, transportation demand and Amtrak’s existing network.

“We are trading route miles for passenger trips by serving a lot of route miles but not a lot of people,” he said in one presentation.

This doesn’t sound like someone who expects today’s long-distance trains to be around in perpetuity as many baby boomer rail passenger advocates would like.

Top executives at Amtrak come and go. Gardner is the fourth person to sit in the Amtrak president’s chair in the past five years.

How long he will continue at the helm of the intercity passenger carrier remains to be seen.

However, Gardner is part of a wave of younger managers overseeing the passenger carrier who do not have the memories of past generations who lived through the last years of the streamliner era.

When Gardner says long-distance trains will continue to be a key part of Amtrak’s business he is making a political statement.

He knows senators and congressmen from largely rural states look out for those trains and so long as that is the case they will continue to operate at some level.

But that doesn’t mean those running Amtrak are fully vested in those trains or believe they should bear a resemblance of the great streamliners of the past other than their names.

One common theme I see in the writings of some rail passenger advocates is a disenchantment with Amtrak behaving as a sort of generic transportation provider rather than acting like a railroad.

This type of change seems inevitable as those who oversaw Amtrak in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s leave.

What we have seen in the past couple years in regards to Amtrak’s national network is reflective of this transformation.

Whether you like him or not, agree with him or not, the life experiences and vision of rail transportation of people such as Stephen Gardner are the future of Amtrak.

Buttigieg Pledges to be 2nd Biggest Rail Enthusiast

January 24, 2021

Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing this week before a Senate committee that he will be the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast in the Biden administration.

Pete Buttigieg

The biggest passenger rail enthusiast would be President Joseph Biden, who is well known for having commuted to Washington on Amtrak during his time in the Senate.

“As a mayor from the industrial Midwest, I will bring a bottom-up perspective on transportation programs and funding,” Buttigieg said.

“If confirmed, I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial, and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

During the hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, some committee members pressed Buttigieg to favor their pet rail projects.

Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker invited Buttigieg to visit his state to talk about restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak has been absent from that region of the country since 2005 when the Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited was suspended following Hurricane Katrina.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal pressed Buttigieg to commit to providing federal funding to complete the Gateway Program to replace and rebuild tunnels under the Hudson River that link New York City and New Jersey.

The 111-year-old tunnels were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Buttigieg lacks a transportation industry background but as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he offered support for a project about to get underway to add double track to the South Shore Commuter line that links that South Bend and Chicago.

As mayor he also supported proposals to extend the South Shore to downtown South Bend and to establish quiet zones on Norfolk Southern and Canadian National routes in the city.

Buttigieg, who is expected to win Senate confirmation, spoke of the economic power of transportation investment, and signaled his intent to make the DOT less auto-centric.

“There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we’ve had an auto-centric view that has forgotten, historically, about all of the other different modes,” he said.

“We want to make sure anytime we’re doing a street design that it enables cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians and any other modes—and businesses—to co-exist in a positive way, and we should be putting funding behind that.”

One of Buttigieg’s signature transportation efforts as mayor was to push for South Bend to adopt a “Smart Streets” initiative to bolster development of downtown.

This involved redesigning streets to add bike lanes and reduce vehicle lanes as well as working with the private sector to create economic development partnerships.

Buttigieg spoke about his love of Amtrak travel, including trips aboard the Lake Shore Limited during his college years.

 “I enjoy long train trips as well as short ones, and I think Americans ought to be able to enjoy the highest standard of passenger rail service,” he said.

Fire Prompts Train Evacuation in Michigan

January 23, 2021

A fire aboard Amtrak’s westbound Blue Water on Friday resulted in the evacuation of 49 passengers and crew members.

The first in the train’s Charger locomotive was reported as the train was passing through Decatur Township in Michigan.  The fire was reported to be small in nature.

The passengers were removed from the train because the head end power had to be switched off and that left the train without any heat.

Amtrak terminated the train at Niles, Michigan, and provided alternative transportation for the displaced passengers to Chicago.