Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak in Memphis’

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.

Amtrak Trying to Talk Tennessee Into Funding Service

January 17, 2020

Amtrak officials were in Tennessee recently to talk up the prospect of establishing new intercity rail passenger service there.

That would include a route between Atlanta and Nashville via Chattanooga and possibly daylight service between Chicago and Memphis.

The latter could involve extending operations of the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, Illini and Saluki to Memphis.

Those trains are currently funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Chattanooga has never had Amtrak service and Nashville has been off the Amtrak map since the Chicago-Miami/St. Petersburg Floridian was discontinued in October 1979.

Tennessee House Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Howell said the state is interested in the proposed services but said at this point they are just proposals.

“Amtrak came to us so there’s interest there,” he said. “But there’s a lot of moving parts. It’s like putting a puzzle together.”

Howell said he discussed the proposal with Gov. Bill Lee and has met with Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright and TDOT staff as well as Senate Transportation Committee Chair Becky Massey.

Amtrak is seeking to talk Tennessee into funding the service, which might also include cross-state service between Memphis and Nashville.

In his presentation to the House Transportation Committee, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, Ray Lang, said if a train costs $100 to operate and makes $75 in revenue the state pays the difference.

Lang said the expected deficit for Nashville-Atlanta service would be $3 million annually.

Rep. Jason Powell said he will introduce a bill to study the feasibility of Amtrak service in Tennessee.

“While discussions are still very much in the preliminary stages, the potential of a possible Nashville to Atlanta train is obvious,” Powell said. “Easing the way to get back and forth between these two major cities could be a game-changer for both and all of the potential stops in between.

Powell said the study he has proposed would examine feasibility, costs and infrastructure.

“I do feel this plan has promise, but I recognize it is a long-range goal and greatly depends upon Congressional approval of the upcoming [federal] surface transportation bill,” Howell said.

Even if Tennessee were to agree to provide funding, the proposed service is four to five years away.

Intercity rail passenger service in Chattanooga ended on May 1, 1971, when Louisville & Nashville Nos. 3 and 4, the former Georgian, between Atlanta and Evansville, Indiana, were discontinued with the coming of Amtrak.

This train operated between Evansville and St. Louis as Nos. 5 and 10 but was shown in timetables separately. At one time the Georgian also operated to Chicago.

Nor was there any discussion about what demands the host railroads would make to agree to handle the trains.

One news story referenced high capital costs to restart passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta but didn’t give any cost figures.

Memphis is the only major Tennessee city with intercity rail service. It lies on the route of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.

Nos. 58 and 59 are currently scheduled for overnight operation between Chicago and Memphis.

The Tennessean of Nashville polled its readers about which cities they would want to travel to by train.

Chicago received 25 percent of the votes with Atlanta getting nearly 18 percent.

A story published by the Tennessean indicated that Amtrak is eyeing the Nashville-Atlanta route because the carrier is seeking to serve metropolitan areas that are growing.

“Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all,” said Lang during the meeting with Tennessee lawmakers. “We have to do something to change the Amtrak network. Otherwise we’ll just wither away.”

Lang said Amtrak is proposing twice-daily service between Nashville and Atlanta that would have a six-and-a-half hour schedule.

Intermediate stops would include Nashville International Airport, Murfreesboro, Tullahoma and Chattanooga.

Lang also floated the prospect of starting a route between Nashville and Memphis.

Amtrak’s current five year plan makes providing service to Nashville a priority.

“The Nashville, TN metropolitan area is ranked the seventh fastest growing city yet Nashville is only served by Thruway bus, generally in the middle of the night,” the plan states.

One Morning in Memphis

January 9, 2020

We were en route to New Orleans aboard the City of New Orleans in March 2011 when No. 59 halted in Memphis for its scheduled stop.

Memphis is a crew change point and 23 minutes is allotted for the stop.

It was pleasant spring morning and trees at the station were blooming.

That was quite a contrast with what we had seen as the Capitol Limited had left Cleveland the previous morning during a snowstorm.

There was enough time to disembark, stretch our legs and snap a few photographs, including the head end with a few of those flowering trees.

No. 59 had a consist on this day that as a little out of the ordinary. There were two P42DC locomotives pulling the train rather than the usual one.

There also was a baggage car, which is not always assigned to Nos. 58 and 59. Instead, checked luggage typically rides in a baggage compartment of a Superliner coach.

Soon it was time to get back on board and continue on to the Crescent City for a spring vacation.

Boarding in Memphis

November 17, 2019

Passengers getting onto the northbound City of New Orleans board in Memphis, Tennessee.

It is 10:30 p.m. and Train No. 58 is running on time. It will depart in 10 minutes for Chicago and all scheduled intermediate stops.

Gotta Go to Work

September 18, 2018

An Amtrak locomotive engineer climbs the steps to a P42DC locomotive in Memphis to go to work aboard the northbound City of New Orleans.

He will take No. 58 to Carbondale, Illinois, where another engineer will go on duty to finish the journey into Chicago.

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans

May 3, 2018

If you are familiar with lyrics of the Steve Goodman song City of New Orleans, then after you read the headline of this post you know what comes next.

Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.

I once thought Goodman meant moving from one car to another, but that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why would a passenger en route to New Orleans want to get up and move to another car?

It was later that I realized he probably was referring to the process of switching cars in Memphis.

This included removing head-end cars that came in from Chicago and adding cars that operate from Memphis to New Orleans.

Railroads used to do a lot of switching of cars in and out at major intermediate stations. Diners, sleepers, coaches, lounges, RPOs, and mail and express cars were added and subtracted.

It has been decades since the Illinois Central or even Amtrak has “changed” cars in Memphis.

Today Nos. 58 and 59 change operating crews in Memphis, but that is the extent of it.

In the photo above, the northbound City of New Orleans is shown making its Memphis station stop in March 2012.

Tunnel Being Built at Memphis Station

September 6, 2017

Work has begun to develop an underground walkway beneath the platforms at Memphis Central Station.

The pedestrian tunnel will link Main Street with a farmers market on Front Street. It is expected to open in summer 2018.

Alex Turley, vice president of real estate for developer Henry Turley Company, said the tunnel is part of a Central Station redevelopment project that includes a 124-room boutique hotel, a seven-screen Malco cinema, 182 residential units, the Memphis Farmers Market, and retail and restaurants.

Amtrak will continue to use the depot, which was built 113 years ago by the Illinois Central Railroad and serves the City of New Orleans.

The station project is being funded by a $3 million grant. “The idea is that this becomes a transit hub to a larger neighborhood, not just South Main and the South End but also South City,” Turley said. “We want this to be a demonstration of how transit can work in Memphis.”

Further up the line of the City of New Orleans the city of Newbern, Tennessee, will celebrate its 25th Newbern Depot Days on Sept. 16.

The festival will feature music, food, prizes and operating model train layouts.

Proceeds from the event are used for maintenance of the Newbern depot, which was built in 1920 saved from destruction 27 years ago.

Among the prizes are Amtrak tickets for two aboard the City of New Orleans to Chicago or New Orleans (winner’s choice).

Memphis Wants More Amtrak Service

August 22, 2014
Passengers board the City of New Orleans in March 2012.

Passengers board the City of New Orleans in March 2012.

Memphis wants more Amtrak service and it recently met with Amtrak officials to talk about how to make that a reality. One option would be to extend one of the Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., trains to Memphis.

Conducting a feasibility study to show the costs, benefits, and possible ridership for such an expansion would be the first step in doing that. With that data, Amtrak could work out the details with the Tennessee and Illinois departments of transportation.

“This is the most likely venue for expanding and adding new service to Memphis,” said Charlie Monte Verde, a government affairs official with Amtrak. “So, the future of expanding rail service in Memphis would be having a train in and out of here to Chicago every single day in each direction.”

Memphis is currently served by Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, which operates daily between Chicago and New Orleans. Memphis is located about 200 miles south of Carbondale.

“Our long-term goal would be to get another train coming through Memphis at Central Station,” said Memphis Councilmember Myron Lowery. “The markets between Chicago and Memphis and Memphis and New Orleans are very productive markets and are increasing on an annualized basis.”

The City of New Orleans is scheduled to stop in Memphis at about 6:30 a.m. southbound and 10 p.m. northbound. Amtrak traffic through Memphis has increased about 46 percent since 1997.