Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Hope for Heartland Flyer Expansion? Maybe, But it Will be a Long, Difficult and Expensive Road

June 19, 2017

Amtrak garnered a lot of positive publicity recently when it operated an inspection train from Oklahoma City to Kansas City.

The train stopped in several cities in Oklahoma and Kansas that are hungry to see Amtrak return after an absence of more than 37 years.

Probably more than a few people who turned out to see the train or heard about it through the news media came away thinking that it was a giant step toward extending the route of the Heartland Flyer.

But getting Amtrak to operate an inspection train is simple compared with the work of finding a way to make the service happen. And that wasn’t something that Amtrak talked about much during the stopovers.

Instead, Amtrak spokesman Joe McHugh talked up how there had been a “tremendous turnout” in communities that haven’t seen a passenger train since the Chicago-Houston Lone Star was discontinued during a massive Amtrak route restructuring in 1979.

McHugh said Amtrak will work with BNSF, which owns the track used by the inspection train, to establish the service.

He said the next step toward passenger rail service would be planning what that service will look like, how much it will cost and what investments are necessary to rebuild the BNSF tracks.

McHugh said that work will probably last through the summer and fall.

Actually, Amtrak already knows a lot about those things.

The idea of extending the Heartland Flyer has been around for a long time.

One idea is to run it all the way to Kansas City, where it could connect with Missouri Mule service to St. Louis and the Southwest Chief to Chicago.

Another idea is to extend the Flyer to Newton, Kansas, where it would connect with the Chief.

As it is, Amtrak began Thruway bus service to Newton from Oklahoma City last year for that purpose.

It is the nature of rail passenger advocates to spin studies and inspection trains in the best possible light.

Mark Corriston, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, carried a sign that he held up at the Topeka, Kansas, station – which is already served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief – that read, “If Amtrak runs it, we will ride it.”

He told a local news reporter that the sign was out of the movie Field of Dreams, in which an Iowa farmer hears a voice saying, “If you build it, they will come.” That was in reference to a baseball diamond.

But not all passenger advocates are as sanguine.

In two postings on the NARP website, Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma, Passenger Rail Kansas, sounded downright morose about the prospects for extending the Flyer.

His comments are illustrative of the sense of weariness that passenger advocates must feel.

As Stair sees it, the inspection train was part of a continuing dialogue rather than a means to an end.

He suspects that the inspection run “will likely become yet another symbol of dashed hopes as Amtrak’s national route system continues to stagnate.”

In 1998 Amtrak ran an inspection train to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but that has yet to materialize into scheduled intercity rail passenger service to a city that last had it on the day before Amtrak came to life in 1971.

Stair said the logical endpoints for the Heartland Flyer are Fort Worth and Kansas City.

For the past 18 years the Flyer has operated between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, connecting at the former city with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

BNSF and Amtrak had earlier said that to operate the train between Fort Worth and Kansas City would require $479 million in capital improvements.

That figure drops to between $126 million to $156 million if the extension goes no further north than Newton.

Stair questions whether that much needs to be spent on a line that has moderate freight traffic.

In recent years, the Heartland Flyer has been funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

Oklahoma nearly cut its funding by $1 million for fiscal year 2018, which would have ended or sharply curtailed operation of the train.

At the last minute, the legislature came up with the funds, but Stair noted that Oklahoma’s finances are strained due to declining revenue.

In such an environment, Stair wrote, there is little prospect for the state agreeing to meet the capital needs demanded by Amtrak and BNSF.

Heartland Flyer service expansion is essential to [its] preservation,” Stair wrote. “The train cannot survive for much longer as-is. Amtrak now recognizes this after 18 years. What took them so long? We were knocking on their doors 10 years ago!”

A more likely solution to the capital funding dilemma, Stair wrote, would be using federal grant money such as TIGER funding.

TIGER funds were used to rebuild the BNSF track in western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northern New Mexico used by the Southwest Chief.

Yet with the Trump administration seeking to end the TIGER program, it is not clear where that funding will come from.

“There is some good news,” Stair wrote. “There are signs Amtrak managers who deal directly with the Heartland Flyer are listening. This only occurred when Passenger Rail Oklahoma encouraged, through a failed House Bill, to unbundle the Heartland Flyer contract. ODOT and TxDOT then threatened a request for proposal to unbundle the service.”

That would have meant having an operator other than Amtrak operate the train.

What Stair thinks could save the service would be the creation of an Oklahoma City section of the Texas Eagle or Southwest Chief in the same way that there is a Portland section of the Empire Builder.

That option, though, creates its own set of challenges.

For now, the Heartland Flyer continues to operate and some continue to hope that the “dialogue” will someday result in service where it does not now exist.

AAO Still Trying to Move the Passenger Needle

February 22, 2017

A message showed up in my email inbox the other day from All Aboard Ohio, a passenger advocacy group, that has released a report titled, “Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs.”

The report was timed to coincide with the Ohio legislature getting to work in hammering out the state’s budget for the next two years.

ohioAAO is trying to push legislators to “begin planning, constructing or completing $23.6 million worth of passenger rail improvements” over the next two years.

Much of that work involves upgrading stations served by the state’s three Amtrak trains, the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and Cardinal.

Some of the funding would also be used to plan potential future intercity rail routes, including a proposed Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus route that has never seen Amtrak service.

As AAO sees it, more than $80 million in state funding could be available under state law to be used for passenger rail development without paying for the operating costs of any actual trains.

An AAO news release about the report was written in the typical optimistic tone of rail passenger advocates and sought to put the best possible face on intercity rail.

It focused on such facts as how Amtrak covers 94 percent of its costs through revenues and set a ridership record in fiscal year 2016.

It also reiterated a tactic that AAO has used in the past of trying to shame Ohio policy makers into taking action by noting how neighboring states and the Canadian province of Ontario are investing millions in the development of intercity routes and services while Ohio spends zilch.

The state capital of Columbus is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere without passenger rail service.

Some folks in Phoenix might quibble with that although the Valley of the Sun does have a light rail system that is seeking to expand.

Rail passenger advocates tend to be an optimistic lot. They have to be. If they acknowledged the long and difficult road ahead they might throw up their hands in frustration. AAO is no exception.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue with Ohio’s policymakers in achieving realistic, near-term improvements to our state’s transportation system,” said AAO Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “We urge Ohioans to contact their state lawmakers in Columbus today and inform them with a short, polite message that they want better passenger rail service in Ohio.”

AAO has around 500 members and even if all of them contacted their legislators it is doubtful that it would have much effect on what the legislature is likely to do in terms of supporting intercity passenger rail.

Ohio has never spent a dime on funding intercity rail service, unlike neighboring Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

It received a federal grant to help develop the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor, but Gov. John Kasich killed the project shortly after winning election in 2010 and the federal government took back the grant and reallocated it elsewhere.

Ohio’s apathy, indifference or hostility – choose which word you think fits best – toward intercity rail development is not likely to change this year.

Kasich is still governor and is unlikely to change his views toward intercity rail service. Nor is the current legislature likely to be any more open to rail than is the governor. They are not going to be shamed or moved to action.

There may be some small victories, such as state funding of existing station improvements, but little to nothing else.

So AAO works to develop support for a rail a little at a time. Like I said, it’s going to be a long struggle.

Can NIMBYs Kill the Hiawatha Expansion?

February 10, 2017

If Amtrak had just put on the three additional Hiawatha Service roundtrips that Illinois and Wisconsin want, no one except passengers and rail passenger advocates would have been the wiser.

But the proposed expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service isn’t going to work that way and as a result there has been a NIMBY uprising in suburban Chicago that threatens to scuttle the expansion.

Hiawatha 2The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation, which fund the existing service, want to expand the number of Chicago-Milwaukee trains from seven to 10.

As part of that expansion, a holding track for Canadian Pacific freight trains would be built in suburban Chicago.

Because public money is involved an environmental assessment, which examines various facets of the proposed expansion, was conducted.

Once that became public last October, the NIMBY opposition began, citing the usual arguments that opponents of new or expanded rail passenger service make everywhere, e.g., noise, pollution, increased traffic congestion, vibration and diminished property values.

What makes the suburban Chicago dispute different is that it involves a rail line that already has a high level of passenger service.

It is likely that many of the NIMBYs are regular or occasional Metra users. The property owners along the Chicago-Milwaukee route are accustomed to train traffic passing their neighborhoods. They may not like it, but they know they can’t stop it.

The news media coverage largely has failed to explain the particulars of why the holding track is part of the expansion plan. It is the result of operating constraints affecting three railroads and ordinary people don’t have much interest in such matters.

Freight trains bound for CP’s Bensenville Yard near Chicago O’Hare International Airport sometimes hold on the mainline north of Rondout in Lake Forest as they wait for permission to enter in Northbrook a Union Pacific route that CP trains use to access Bensenville Yard.

As early as 2007, WisDOT began studying traffic patterns on the Chicago-Milwaukee Route in preparation for expanded Hiawatha Service.

Computer modeling exercises and meetings of operating officials of the three railroads using the corridor – Amtrak, CP and Metra – identified choke points and operating challenges.

The proposed capital improvements that came out of those meetings – including the holding track – were designed to minimize the need for trains of all three railroads to wait on the mainline for other traffic to clear.

The holding track was a way of shifting where CP freights would sit as they waited for the UP to give permission to enter its territory.

Had the railroads agreed to host the expanded Hiawatha Service within the existing infrastructure, the NIMBY opposition would never have materialized because they would not have noticed the increase in Amtrak traffic.

The NIMBYs want the FRA to order that a full environmental impact statement be conducted, probably in the hope that it will confirm their point of view. They also are playing for time, hoping that the holding track idea will go away or that the railroads will build it somewhere else.

Some of the public officials who have jumped on the NIMBY train might be playing for federal and state money to make infrastructure improvements their cities could not afford otherwise.

In the end the Hiawatha expansion may never come about, but not necessarily because of the NIMBYs.

Additional passenger equipment is needed and it is unclear when that will become available. The new locomotives expected to be used on Amtrak Midwest corridor routes are being built, but new passenger cars have been delayed and there is a looming September deadline to spend the federal grant awarded to pay for those cars.

It also is unclear if Illinois and Wisconsin are committed to paying the operating costs of the additional Hiawathas. Keeping the funding level high enough to afford the existing corridor service of the two states is a challenge as it is.

Many of the arguments being made by the NIMBYs are unsubstantiated and emotionally overwrought. The FRA won’t take those seriously.

And some of the opposition by public officials is opportunistic. It doesn’t cost them to side with the NIMBYs and might gain them a few political brownie points. The FRA knows that, too.

What remains to be seen is whether this political posturing eventually will result in the political clout that could be brought to bear to kill the public funding needed to pay for the expanded service. This risk is just one of the prices today, of intercity passenger service.

Divorcing Amtrak is Hard to Do

February 3, 2017

The great Hoosier State privatization experiment is about to end. It started in July 2015 when Iowa Pacific Holdings began “operating” the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

amtrak-2I put the word “operating” in quotation marks because in one sense IP did not “operate” the Hoosier State.

It had a partnership with Amtrak. IP provided the equipment and marketing support and was in charge of on-board service.

But the operating crews were Amtrak employees and the nation’s passenger carrier handled the relationships with the host railroads, primarily CSX.

As it turned out, Amtrak has received most of the money paid by INDOT and its partner communities that fund the service.

For awhile, Iowa Pacific received many kudos because of what it wasn’t, which is Amtrak.

Under Amtrak auspices, the Hoosier State was a bare-bone operation that shuttled equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove Shops in suburban Indianapolis.

By comparison, the IP operation of the Hoosier State was a luxury train, with business class, meals freshly prepared on board and a full-length dome car for those willing to pay extra fare.

IP head Ed Ellis – who once worked at Amtrak – talked about expanding service and the need to cut the travel time.

He said IP would aggressively market the service, seeking to build markets that Amtrak had ignored.

One marketing gambit IP talked about was running a bus between the Crawfordsville station and Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

IP correctly recognized the college market is a good source of passengers, but apparently the Bloomington shuttle never got on the road.

Iowa Pacific had a lot of people rooting for it to succeed with the Hoosier State, many of whom believe that a private operator can provide better service than Amtrak.

Ellis always knew that increased daily service and faster trains hinged upon the willingness of government entities within Indiana to provide the capital funding needed to upgrade the slow meandering route used by the Hoosier State and Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

If IP could demonstrate that the Hoosier State was a success despite its route limitations, then perhaps Indiana officials would be amendable to funding track work in the same manner that the departments of transportation in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have.

But that has always been a long shot. Indiana has never been as supportive of intercity passenger rail as its neighbors.

Amtrak will take back the Hoosier State in Toto on March 1. Although INDOT said it has a verbal agreement that some of IP’s services will be retained, that is not a sure thing. It is unlikely that the food service will be freshly-prepared meals if there is any food service at all.

It remains to be seen if INDOT will seek an operator other than Amtrak and, for that, matter, how much longer the state and on-line communities are willing to pony up money to underwrite the operating losses.

One key take away from the IP Hoosier State experiment is that divorcing Amtrak is more difficult than it might seem or that some people might wish.

Detroit-Ann Arbor Commuter Service Idea Revived

May 23, 2016

A Detroit-based public transportation agency is trying to jump start the long dormant idea of instituting commuter rail service between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority is proposing linking the Detroit-Ann Arbor service with the currently under construction Detroit streetcar network.

SE Michigan RTAThe RTA board is proposing to include the Ann Arbor service as well as bus rapid transit in its Michigan Avenue corridor study.

Lack of funding has stalled development of the 38-mile Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter service, which would use the same tracks used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains.

Those rails are now mostly owned by the state of Michigan, which several years ago leased passenger cars for use in the service.

To fund the Ann Arbor commuter service, RTA is proposing to include that cost into its November millage request.

If the millage request is approved, RTA officials say the service could begin around 2022 and have an operating cost of $11 million to $19 million.

The service would required $130 million in capital costs to get started, which would include building a maintenance facility.

“It’s a significant connector between Ann Arbor and Detroit,” said Paul Hillegonds, the RTA’s board chairman. “One of the criticisms of rail always is it’s much more expensive than bus rapid transit, but in this case, the existing infrastructure is in place. It makes sense from a cost-effective standpoint, and I think will be very attractive to riders, and I think a very significant economic development tool for the region.”

RTA will present its commuter rail line proposal on May 31 as part of its master plan

The Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter service would operate eight times a day with trips spread out to include morning and afternoon rush hour service as well as afternoon and evening trains.

Intermediate stops would include Ypsilanti, Wayne and Dearborn. Trains would terminate in Detroit in the New Center area.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has spent $7.6 million to overhaul 23 former Chicago Metra bi-level commuter cars, but stopped paying the lease payments on them last year.

RTA estimates it would cost $4,000 per month per car to lease them from current owner Great Lakes Central Railroad. The agency has proposed leasing nine of the cars, which are currently sitting in Owosso, Michigan.

Saying that development of rail, bus rapid transit and other transit options is needed to create an “integrated system” to help people get where they want to go, RTA CEO Michael Ford said that Ann Arbor and Detroit are major hubs for jobs.

“People being able to get back and forth conveniently and quickly,” Ford said. “I think it’s a game-changer in a lot of ways. I know it’s been tried many times before, but having that kind of frequency of service, it’s very important to the region and getting people where they want to go.”

Another Railroad Tradition Bites the Dust

April 25, 2016

Perhaps it was inevitable. Airlines haven’t issued timetables for years so it was a matter of time before Amtrak followed suit because there was money to be saved.

Last week Amtrak said it would no longer print its system timetable. It will continue to create a system timetable as a PDF file that you can download from the rail passenger carrier’s website.

It also will continue to print route-specific folders that will be available at some stations and aboard trains.

You could summarize the reason for ending printing of the national timetable in two words: changing times.

But what, exactly, changed?

In a statement Amtrak said it was its patrons. “Surveys have revealed that few customers want or use the printed System Timetable and expressed a preference to access information on-line,” Amtrak said in a statement.

It also said that “schedules, policies, and programs are ever-changing, and it’s impossible to keep the printed document up-to-date.”

The latter assertion is blowing smoke. Routes rarely change and the vast majority of schedule changes are temporary adjustments made when a host railroad is undergoing major track work.

Amtrak also cited being “environmentally friendly,” which has become a catch-all excuse used by every company in America when it is trying to cut and/or shift the costs of printing to its customers.

Saving itself some money is, I suspect, a primary reason for ending the printed system timetable. Amtrak of late has seen its patronage drop and has been looking for ways to cut expenses.

Ending the printing of the system timetable will save some money, although it probably won’t be a substantial amount.

But it will be one more thing that Amtrak can put on a list when it goes before Congress to show that it has been fiscally responsible.

If the surveys – the results of which we will likely never see – really do reveal that few passengers want or use the national timetable, it is not difficult to understand why.

Aside from the trend toward using smart phones as a primary way of accessing the Internet, the system timetable is bulky and inconvenient to use on the go.

It won’t easily fit in a pocket and the typical traveler probably doesn’t care about schedules for any route other than the one he or she is traveling.

Much of the time if you wanted a system timetable you had to ask for it because they seldom were placed in a rack for distribution.

The system timetable hasn’t always been as large or even as attractive as it has been in recent years.

Although Amtrak timetables have always had a color cover, the interiors were often bare bones offerings of page after page of schedules printed on newsprint paper.

Today’s Amtrak system timetable features color printing and photographs along with numerous display advertisements.

I had always presumed that the revenue from those advertisements paid for the expense of printing the timetable. If so, they didn’t pay for it enough, apparently.

I’ve always been a fan of timetables and I have a near complete collection of Amtrak system timetables dating to the first one issued on May 1, 1971.

I enjoy leafing through the timetable as a way of vicariously traveling by train to countless places in America.

I could still do that, but it won’t be as convenient. I would have to collect all of the route folders and that won’t be easy to do.

In my experience, Amtrak tends to distribute route folders by region, so the Cleveland Amtrak station is not likely to have folders for routes on the West Coast.

Ending the printed system timetable might draw a few letters or emails of protest, but that isn’t likely to have any effect. In the end, Amtrak is probably correct that few passengers care or use the system timetable.

And so another railroad tradition falls by the wayside and I’m going to miss it.

If You Want to be Ontime Aboard Amtrak, Then You Need to Get on or Off at an Endpoint City

March 9, 2016

Only once have I lived in an Amtrak endpoint city. Otherwise, I’ve lived in places at or near an intermediate station.

I mention that because in my experience your best chance for an on-time arrival or departure is at an endpoint city.

For 20 years I rode Amtrak twice a year to visit my dad when he lived in downstate Illinois.

The westbound Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited typically arrived late into Cleveland, but on several occasions No. 29 or Nol 49 were on-time or even early arriving into Chicago Union Station, where both terminate.

My connecting train, the Illini, almost always departed Chicago on time, but more often than not arrived late at my destination of Mattoon, Illinois.

I’ve observed this phenomenon on other routes, too. In May 2014, I rode the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle.

On TransportationWe left Chicago 1 hour, 12 minutes late due to being held for a more than four-hour late arriving Lake Shore Limited.

During the 2,200-mile journey we were upwards of two hours late at times, but arrived into Seattle 15 minutes early.

How was that possible?

The short answer is what Amtrak euphemistically calls “recovery time.”

It is built into the schedule to enable a late Amtrak train to make up time before arriving at an endpoint city.

You often find recovery time by examining the running time between an endpoint city and the next station.

The running time of the Capitol Limited from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago is 1 hour, 54 minutes. The running time from Chicago to South Bend is 1 hour, 29 minutes.

For the Lake Shore Limited, the running time from South Bend to Chicago is two minutes longer, but exactly the same from Chicago as the Capitol Limited.

The City of New Orleans has a running time of 49 minutes from Chicago to Homewood, Illinois, a distance of 24 miles. Yet its inbound counterpart “needs” 1 hour, 16 minutes to travel the same distance.

As this is written, Amtrak and its host railroads are sparring in a rule-making proceeding by the Surface Transportation Board over on-time standards.

A 1973 federal law gives preference to passenger trains over freight trains and Amtrak is arguing for an absolute interpretation of that standard. The Association of American Railroads sees it differently.

The STB is not going to get involved in every instance in which an Amtrak train is late.

Rather, the issue is a repeated pattern of a host railroad favoring freight trains over passenger trains and/or the host railroad’s repeated failure to dispatch Amtrak trains in a manner that results in on-time performance.

Amtrak argues that when a train arrives or departs at intermediate stations should be taken into account when considering if a host railroad has engaged in a pattern of preferring its freight trains over passenger trains.

The ARR counters that Amtrak schedules are unrealistic given the operating and physical characteristics of today’s railroads.

Both parties want to have it both ways. It’s a bit cheeky for Amtrak to talk about on-time performance at intermediate stations when its own schedules are skewed in favor of endpoint cities.

When Amtrak and the State of Illinois were negotiating a contract a few years ago for the state to fund certain corridor trains, Amtrak refused to agree to an on-time standard for intermediate cities, insisting that only arrival and departure times from originating cities and terminus cities be included in the standard.

In short, if the Illini is late arriving in Mattoon, tough luck. Illinois only can reduce its payments to Amtrak if the Illini is late arriving in Carbondale or Chicago.

The AAR brief might have you believe that Amtrak imposes its schedules upon its host railroads.

The same brief mentions that individual railroads have negotiated agreements with Amtrak pertaining to on-time performance.

I find it hard to believe that any host railroad that has an “incentive” contract for Amtrak on-time performance would not have a major say in Amtrak schedules over its line.

Recovery time exists in part to benefit the host railroad so that it has a better chance of earning incentive payments.

The STB proceeding is about rules that may or may not have mean much in the daily performance of any given train on any given day.

Like any legal rules, the on-time standards the STB is considering would only come into play if Amtrak initiates a proceeding against a host railroad as it has done with Canadian National over its handling of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale.

Obviously, each party wants the rules slanted in favor of its own interests and positions of strength.

Amtrak hopes that if the rules favor it that will encourage host railroads to give Amtrak the benefit of the doubt more often than not when passenger trains and freight trains are in conflict.

From a passenger perspective, Amtrak’s position has appeal. The eastbound Capitol Limited is scheduled to arrive in Cleveland at 1:45 a.m. If it arrives at 2:15 a.m., it is a half-hour late as far as passengers getting off are concerned. It doesn’t matter that it arrived in Washington on time.

The interests of passengers might seem to be central to the STB proceedings but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Amtrak has already decided that although all passengers have an interest in arriving and departing on time, the interests of some passengers outweigh those of others.

That is why it is advantageous to get on at an originating city and get off at the end of the line. You’re more likely to leave and arrive when the schedules says that you will.

Tale of 2 Stations in Michigan City

August 10, 2015
The former Michigan Central station in Michigan City, Indiana, sits next to a route that sees eight Amtrak trains a day.

The former Michigan Central station in Michigan City, Indiana, sits next to a route that sees eight Amtrak trains a day.

This is the about the extent of the Amtrak station in Michigan City. At least the parking is free and plentiful.

This is about the extent of the Amtrak station in Michigan City. At least the parking is free and plentiful.

Amtrak stations across America are a mixed bag. In some places, the station was built decades ago by a railroad that doesn’t exist anymore.

In a few communities, the station is a modern multi-purpose facility created to serve trains, buses and local transit operations.

And in some unfortunate towns the station is a glorified shelter that offers little protection from inclement weather.

It must amaze some Amtrak passengers that they have to wait in a bus-stop shelter when a train station sits nearby.

Such is the case in Michigan City, Indiana, where the Amtrak stop is right in front of a former Michigan Central station.

The latter was until recently a restaurant. There is still a sign for it and I even found a website for it online.

Although eight Amtrak trains a day pass through Michigan City, only three of them stop there. Most people who want to travel to and from Chicago ride the South Shore Line, which offers a far higher level of service than does Amtrak.

When I was in Michigan City last spring, the ex-MC station was vacant. The depot appeared to be in good condition.

It would make a nice multi-purpose facility serving Amtrak and buses. Rail passengers could continue to use the existing platform.

Will that happen? Probably not, but it would be a viable option. In the meantime, Amtrak passengers will continue to wait outside in the snow and the rain, the heat and the cold and wonder why they can’t use the nearby train station.

When the ‘Late Shore’ Wasn’t Late Enough

August 5, 2015

Amtrak at Painesville1-x

Amtrak at Painesville 2-x

Amtrak at Painesville3-x

Amtrak at Painesville4-x

Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited has been jokingly called the “Late Shore Limited” by many wags. It is not an entirely undeserved reputation given how the train often runs late.

But this is a story about a day when it wasn’t running late enough.

Peter Bowler and I were making plans to go to Painesville to catch the ferry move of the Nickel Plate Road 765.

We didn’t know when it would pass through so we wanted to get there early. We may as well get there in time to catch the eastbound Lake Shore Limited.

Our objective was to get No. 48 passing the former New York Central station, which sits on the south side of the tracks. A local group is restoring the depot, yet it still has a derelict appearance about it.

No. 48 was about 18 minutes late. Fine. That would allow more time for the sun to climb over the trees and illuminate the tracks and depot.

The light kept getting better, but shadows covered the station and the tracks.

I heard the engineer of No. 48 call a clear signal over the radio. An approaching train had that distinctive pattern of headlights and ditch lights of an Amtrak P42 locomotive.

If Amtrak had just been a little later.

The track speed for passenger trains here is 79 mph and No. 48 was doing every bit of that.

There were small pockets of sunlight on Track No. 2 and I managed to get the nose of P42 No. 193 in one of those.

The trailing P42 was No. 822, which wears the Phase III livery. How I wish the order of the locomotives had been reversed. How I wish the sun had been higher in the sky.

Every photographer has had those feelings of when conditions don’t work out the way you had hoped.

There is nothing wrong with making images of objects, moving or static, in shadows. It is just not ideal from a lighting standpoint and so much of photography is about light.

Nonetheless, the inconsistent lighting pattern in the first two images produced some intriguing images.

The sunlight filtering through the trees made the locomotive nose stand out in the top photo and highlighted the trailing unit and Viewliner baggage car in the second photo.

Note how the vegetation and a structure along the right third of the image are illuminated well in contrast with the left third that is in shadows. The front of the train has just enough direct light to create a spotlight effect.

Perhaps images such as these can be planned, but I suspect more often than not they just happen.

The third image is the one that I wished had the full effect of the rising sunlight. But that had yet to occur when the train passed by.

There were still pockets of shadows on the rails 21 minutes later when a CSX freight followed Amtrak eastward on this same track.

Such is life for photographers in Northeast Ohio. We have a lot of trees and they block the rising and setting sun.

The final image in the sequence is the going away shot and it has some of the same effect that I achieved in the first two images, although it is not quite as pronounced.

Look at the track just ahead of the nose of the lead locomotive. The tracks curve here and the the sunlight is already shining on the rails.

There is a streak of sunlight along the lower sections of the Viewliner sleepers and the first three Amfleet cars. The effect is less visible on the side of the heritage diner. It is not quite the classic glint effect, but it is close.

We often think of results in terms of success or failure. Yet many endeavors have elements of both.

This image failed in the sense that the scene with the train passing the depot was not lighted as well as I desired.

Yet I succeeded in photographing the train in this location with enough light to create a recognizable image. Could it have been better? Of course, yet I can’t make the sun rise faster or the train run later. I had to photograph the train when it was here.

I got the train I wanted where I wanted it even if not when I wanted it. Some of these images have interesting lighting that produced images that I’ve enjoyed viewing.

Overall, I would call that a success, some of it in unexpected ways.

Playing for Time in the Hoosier State Saga

October 14, 2014

One of the more useful pieces of wisdom that I learned in graduate school is that when evaluating a given situation look for what it not there. Researchers get so focused on what they observe that they forget to consider what they are not seeing.

And so it is in the ongoing soap opera known as Saving the Hoosier State.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman insisted last week that there has been a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings surrounding the Hoosier State saga.

He’s right about that, although some of that has come from Amtrak and Boardman himself.

Of late, the focus has shifted to whether Corridor Capital, the Chicago-based firm that the Indiana Department of Transportation had designated to operate the Hoosier State is up to the task.

Corridor Capital was supposed to take over the Hoosier State on Oct. 1, but it didn’t have contracts signed to do that. So Amtrak agreed to continue operating the train through Jan. 31.

Boardman then traveled through Indiana aboard a special train to remind everyone of that and to profess that Amtrak really, really wants to operate the Hoosier State.

He even said that Amtrak would upgrade service on the train by providing Wi-Fi and business class service.

That, though, amounts to nothing more than adding an unstaffed café car and placing complimentary coffee, water bottles and pastries on the counter. Amtrak could have done that at any time, but chose not to do so. What does that say about how Amtrak views the Hoosier State?

A week later, Boardman was at it again, hinting that Corridor Capital might not be able to meet all of the various federal regulations pertaining to public health and safety matters.

Those may be legitimate issues, but are red herrings. Corridor Capital may find that adhering to federal regulations may be more complicated than it expected, but in the end they will likely get it done.

Whether Corridor Capital would be able to successfully operate a passenger train remains to be seen.

They’ve been suggesting a number of changes that will not necessarily be easy to implement, such as a faster schedule and more frequent service.

We’ll never know for sure until it gets a chance to show if it can do it. But will it? Not if Joe Boardman has his way.

After reading Boardman’s op-ed piece in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, I couldn’t help but think that what we are really seeing is the first round of a public relations campaign designed to deflect blame away from Amtrak if the Hoosier State folds early next year.

Boardman wants Corridor Capital to fail in order to forestall the possibility of other states signing on with private companies that say they can operate intercity rail passenger service.

In short, Boardman wants to maintain the status quo because that protects Amtrak’s interests.

It is not a sure thing that the Hoosier State will continue operating past Jan. 31, 2015, regardless of whether the operator is Amtrak or Corridor Capital.

Who will fund the Hoosier State next year and how much that will cost remains an open question.

If the city of Indianapolis really means it that it no longer wishes to fund the Hoosier State then will the other funding partners pick up the slack?

Even if all of the funding parties agree to continue funding the Hoosier State, for how long will that continue?

What the cities along the Hoosier State route probably really want is for INDOT to pick up funding the Hoosier State. Good luck with that.

INDOT probably really wants to hand the Hoosier State over to Corridor Capital and be done with it other than writing the checks. INDOT probably fantasizes that Corridor Capital will be so successful that neither it nor any of its local government partners will have to underwrite the train’s losses.

Indiana is a politically conservative state and INDOT has, historically, shown little interest in funding and overseeing passenger trains.

It has neither the experience nor the appetite to oversee rail passenger service that its brethren in nearby Illinois and Michigan have.

The Hoosier State might have died a long time ago had it not been for the fact that Amtrak uses it to ferry equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis.

Sure, Amtrak could move equipment on the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal. But it is more convenient to do it on the Hoosier State because that train originates at the Grove.

Compared with the other Midwest corridor trains, the Hoosier State is an ugly step child, lacking the amenities found on those trains.

It doesn’t help that the Hoosier State is forced to endure a slow, circuitous route into Chicago that involves six railroads. That alone presents major challenges to anyone serious about developing the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor.

Neither Amtrak nor Corridor Capital will be able to do much about the Chicago-Indianapolis route.

Everyone seems to agree the route has, in theory, good potential for growth, but no one wants to spend the millions needed to develop it, particularly when it comes to finding a faster way in and out of Chicago.

You have to wonder if the Hoosier State saga is simply a game of all parties playing for time in the hopes that someone else will step forward to take control of the train, including the funding. It is the classical case of, to use a baseball expression, “I got it, you take it.”

Ideally, that would be INDOT and it still might do that. But I wouldn’t bet a business class ticket on the Hoosier State on it.