Wichita Still Wants Amtrak Back

October 14, 2017

Promoters of bringing Amtrak back to Wichita, Kansas, held a conference this week to discuss how to bring that about.

A Wichita City council member expressed optimism that service could be reinstated, but didn’t say when that would be.

“The market of the youth and even retired people, they’re driving these kind of decisions and say this is how we keep our city, it’s the 48th largest city, we need to be investing in that or we don’t keep up with the rest of the trends that are going on in the world today,” said Pete Meitzner.

The plan is to have Amtrak use the former Wichita Union Station.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star served Wichita until early October 1979 when the train was discontinued in a massive route restructuring.

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San Diego Amtrak Station Sold

October 14, 2017

The Amtrak station in San Diego has been sold to an unidentified investor who is considering developing it. Amtrak operations at the 102-year-old former Santa Fe depot are not expected to change.

Located at Broadway and Kettner Boulevard, no immediate changes are expected, but a San Diego architecture firm has been hired to complete an assessment report and recommend needed maintenance and restoration steps.

Officials said Amtrak will continue to lease space in the station and any changes likely are years away.

The buyer was identified as Santa Fe Depot LLC. The seller was Prologis Inc. The sale price was not disclosed.

“The sale is significant to the San Diego community and represents the seller’s deep commitment to preserving the landmark asset,” said real estate broker Kipp Gstettenbauer of Voit Real Estate Services, which represented the seller.

The San Diego station is located amid new development near the waterfront. The depot has 10,000 square feet of space and is zoned for retail use.

“By working closely with the buyer and Heritage Architecture, we will be able to restore parts of the building that have gone unused for more than 50 years, while providing additional services in the station, expanding ridership for Amtrak and increasing the building’s historic value,” Gstettenbauer said.

Santa Fe built the station, which features California mission and Spanish colonial style design, to serve the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park.

The railroad considered razing the station in the 1970s and building two-high rise office towers on the site.

But that plan was fought by the Save Our Heritage Organization as well as then-Mayor Pete Wilson. The depot was subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego later acquired the former baggage building and a master plan was written to oversee redevelopment of the land around the depot.

Bosa Development has built several condominium towers adjacent to the station.

Amtrak Manager Admits Steering $30,000 in Business to Wife’s Photo Company and Then Lying About it

October 13, 2017

A former Amtrak manager admitted in court that he steered $30,000 in business from Amtrak’s Polar Express train ride to his wife’s photo company.

Benjamin Sheets, 50, of Downers Grove, Illinois, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the government and faces 12 to 18 months in prison.

Sheets indicted during a court hearing that he was trying to make $25,000 in family debt disappear.

During his appearance in court, Sheets told told U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras that he was an Amtrak employee, but shortly after making that statement an Amtrak spokesman said that was no longer the case.

In court documents, Sheets was identified as “superintendent, transportation” at Chicago Union Station.

Prosecutors said he also served as the business manager for his wife’s photo company and failed to disclose that conflict of interest.

Last year, prosecutors said, Sheets awarded the Polar Express photography work to his wife’s company without following Amtrak’s procurement procedures.

Records show the photo company sold 3,679 photos at $10 each in Union Station’s Great Hall last December.

The deal came to light after a supervisor began asking questions about it and Amtrak’s inspector general launched an investigation.

Sheets allegedly told investigators that his wife’s business had been hired by the company that ran the Polar Express event.

He then arranged for that company to pay his wife’s business $30,535 after billing a subcontractor.

Investigators said Sheets had phony documents drawn up to back it all up and then lied to the Amtrak inspector general in a March 6 interview, he said in court.

This Was Once a Big Deal

October 13, 2017

The image above is a newspaper advertisement from 1971. Amtrak was a mere seven months old and just finding its footing.

Now it had something it felt was worth talking about. It was the era when the company’s slogan was “we’re making the trains worth traveling again.”

That, of course, suggests that until Amtrak came along train travel wasn’t something you  wanted to do. That was true in some places, particularly on Penn Central, but not everywhere. Nonetheless, Amtrak recognized the public perception of train travel at the time and that it had to overcome that.

Although not obvious, the timetable that the customer service representative is holding was a major milestone in Amtrak history.

The first two timetables that Amtrak issued were cut and paste jobs with a Spartan design. The Amtrak logo was featured on the covers and nothing else.

But the November 14, 1971, timetable was the first that Amtrak actually designed.

Among other things, the timetable featured airline style city listings. Airlines in the early 1970s were held in high esteem.

If you read the text of this advertisement carefully, you’ll note the effort of Amtrak to market itself like an airline.

Note how the schedule change for the Chicago-New Orleans train is pitched in airline marketing language, e.g., leave after the end of the business day, arrive in the morning in time for appointments.

The claim that some trains were receiving “new” equipment is borderline deceptive. There was nothing “new” about any equipment that Amtrak was using in November 1971.

It might have been refurbished and the type of equipment might have been “new” to that route or train, but the equipment itself was far from new.

But this was where Amtrak was in 1971. It was trying to get attention, trying to build patronage and trying to reframe how the public thought about rail travel.

Sometimes it is helpful to see where you’ve been to understand where you are at today. When was the last time that Amtrak touted giving Chicago better train service? Yup, it’s been a while.

Hearings Begin on Washington-Richmond Corridor

October 12, 2017

Hearings are underway regarding the draft environmental report for a proposed higher-speed rail line between Washington and Richmond, Virginia.

Conducting the hearings are the Federal Railroad Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The first hearings were held this week with additional hearings set for Oct. 17, 18 and 19.
The report, issued, last month, calls for increasing maximum train speeds from 69 mph to 79 mph between Washington and Fredericksburg, Virginia, and to 90 mph between Fredericksburg and Richmond.

The 123-mile D.C.-to-Richmond corridor is part of the 500-mile Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor between Washington and Atlanta.

The report also recommends infrastructure improvements that would allow for nine additional daily passenger-rail trips between the two cities.

TIGER Grant Sought for SW Chief Route Upgrades

October 11, 2017

Officials in Colfax County in New Mexico are seeking a TIGER grant to upgrade the tracks used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

If awarded, it would be the third federal grant used to improve the tracks, which are owned by BNSF.

Four state departments of transportation have pledged $1 million each while Amtrak and BNSF have each pledged $3 million in matching funds. Some local governments have also pledged matching funds.

The $25 million project will rebuild tracks within New Mexico. Previous TIGER grants of $25 million and $12 million were used for track work in Kansas and Colorado.

Schenectady Station Bid to be Opened

October 11, 2017

Bids for a new Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York, will be opened on Oct. 19, the New York Department of Transportation said.

The bids to be opened are the second phase of the project, which involves construction of the station and parking lot.

That work is expected to occur in 2018 with the depot slated to open in October 2018.

The first phase of the project, demolition of the existing station, plus platform concrete work and new culverts was earlier awarded to Bette & Cring, which submitted the low bid of $5,409,091.

The new station, which is projected to cost $23.5 million, will replace an Amtrak-built facility that opened in 1979.

Transportation department officials have said the design of the new Amtrak station will have architectural features reminiscent of the Schenectady Union Station, which was built in 1908 and razed in 1971.

This will include a wraparound awning outside the building, a weather vane in the shape of New York state on top of a gold dome on the roof, and tall arched windows similar to those in the original Union Station.

Schenectady is served by Empire Corridor trains, including the Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York/Boston), Maple Leaf (New York-Toronto) and Adirondack (New York-Montreal).

Amtrak to Rename Philly 30th Street Station

October 11, 2017

After a delay of three years, Amtrak has told a Pennsylvania senator that it will move ahead on renaming 30th Street Station in Philadelphia as William H. Gray 30th Street Station.

Senator Bob Casey made the announcement after meeting with Amtrak co-CEO Richard H. Anderson.

“I was encouraged by my recent meeting with Amtrak leadership about Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station,” Casey said in a statement. “For the first time, Amtrak has committed to implementing the 2014 federal law renaming the station in honor of the late Congressman William H. Gray, III.”

The name change was mandated in legislation approved in August 2014.

Amtrak has never explained why it delayed renaming the station and it is still not saying when the renaming will occur.

Casey and a group of state and city officials held a news conference last week to pressure Amtrak into acting.

Gray died in 2013 and during his time in office helped to raise millions of dollars for SEPTA, a commuter rail agency that uses the station.

Gray also regularly commuted on Amtrak between Philadelphia and Washington.

He was the first African American to chair the House Budget Committee and the first to serve as minority whip, the third highest-ranking position in the U.S. House. Gray represented the 2nd Congressional District from 1979 to 1991.

New Rochester Station Opens

October 9, 2017

The new Amtrak station in Rochester, New York, opened last Friday at the same location as the previous Amtrak-built modular facility.

The new station is fully ADA-compliant and has a new high-level platform serving two dedicated boarding tracks.

Attending a ribbon cutting ceremony were Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. During the ceremony, the eastbound and westbound Maple Leaf’s met at the new station.

Aside from the Maple Leaf, Rochester is served by the Lake Shore Limited and four Empire Service trains between New York and Niagara Falls, New York.

NOLA Service Suspended Due to Hurricane Nate

October 9, 2017

Amtrak suspended service to New Orleans on all routes over the weekend due to the approach of Hurricane Nate.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said the Sunset Limited would terminate and originate in San Antonio with no alternate transportation available between San Antonio and New Orleans. Trains 1 & 2 normally operate three-days-weekly between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The Crescent terminated and originated in Birmingham, Alabama with no alternate transportation available between Birmingham and New Orleans.

The City of New Orleans originated and terminated in Jackson, Mississippi, with no alternate transportation available between Jackson and New Orleans.

As of Monday morning, Amtrak had not announced on its website when service to New Orleans and other affected intermediate stations would resume.