Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Midwest Corridor trains’

That ’70s Look

December 22, 2017

It is the summer of 1978. Amfleet equipment and F40PH locomotives have been operating on Amtrak’s Midwest corridor trains for nearly two years so the equipment can’t be said to be brand new anymore.

Still it is relatively new enough to be the look of the future having come to pass.

Steam-heated passengers cars are a thing of the past on the corridor routes, but still see service on some long-distance trains in the region.

But on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route head-end power is the rule. Steam-heated equipment is not coming back.

Shown is the northbound Shawnee, train No. 392, arriving in Mattoon, Illinois, in early evening. The equipment is state of the art for its time with an F40, two Amfleet coaches and an Amcafe. The train will halt at Chicago Union Station in more than three hours.

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IDOT Head Sees Top Speed of 90 mph for Trains by Summer 2018 in the Chicago-St. Louis Corridor

December 18, 2017

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Randy Blankenhorn said Amtrak trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor should be operating at 90 mph starting next summer.

The current top speed on the route is 79 miles per hour exception for a demonstration section between Pontiac and Dwight where 110 mph speeds began in fall 2012.

In an interview with the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Blankenhorn said a nearly $2 billion high-speed rail project to rebuild portions of the route for high-speed service is starting to wind down.

Although the route has an infrastructure for a 110 mph top speed, Blankenhorn said those speeds won’t come until 2019 after a positive train control system is put into operation.  “We are substantially complete,” said Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn expects the project to finish on time and on budget with federal funding accounting for $1.65 billion of the estimated $1.95 billion final project cost.

The state is paying about $300 million of the project cost. IDOT has said that once the project is completed, Amtrak trains will have an 85 percent on-time guarantee.

Union Pacific, which owns the most of the track in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor used by Amtrak will be subject to financial penalties if the 85-percent, on-time guarantee is missed.

Nearly 590,000 passengers rode Amtrak between St. Louis and Chicago during the Illinois fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Patronage has fallen below 600,000 the last three fiscal years as a result of service disruptions caused by the high-speed project work.

One final phase of the project that is still underway is finishing track work in the Third Street corridor in Springfield.

“There’s some crossing work that needs to be done in Springfield, and that’s well underway,” Blankenhorn said.

The work will also include six-foot safety fencing on each side of the tracks. Safety, technology and accessibility improvements are planned for the Springfield Amtrak station.

Workers have made changes to 190 crossings in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor along 330 miles of track, closed nearly two dozen crossings and put up 90 miles of safety fencing meant to prevent trespassing.

The higher speeds are expected to reduce the 5.5 hour trip between St. Louis and Chicago by 11 minutes and by 20 minutes when a second set of tracks is competed near Joliet. Trains traveling 110 mph should cut the running time by 53 minutes.

However, the faster running times won’t address freight rail congestion in Chicago or St. Louis, which Blankenhorn said accounts for many of the delays now occurring.

Just over half of Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains ran late in the three years prior to high-speed rail work.

“It’s not so much about speed as it is reliability,” said Blankenhorn. “Passengers would use our trains a lot more if they knew they were going to be there when they need them and were not going to be an hour-and-a-half late.”

John Oimoen, chief of IDOT’s rail division said installation of the equipment needed for PTC in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor will be completed next spring.

“It’s the challenge of developing the software and getting that information back to (train) dispatcher,” he said.

Blankenhorn said the highest speeds initially will be allowed between Alton and Joliet while the state continues to work to fix the traffic bottlenecks in St. Louis and Chicago. He said those fixes will be “complicated and expensive.”

Lake Forest City Manager Spend Money Lobbying for Amtrak Without City Council’s Knowledge, Approval

December 18, 2017

The city manager of Lake Forest, Illinois, has acknowledged approving payments to a Washington lobbying firm to seek Amtrak service without getting approval of the city council

Bob Kiely said he approved spending nearly $200,000 in city funds in an effort to get Amtrak to make Lake Forest a stop for its Chicago-Milwaukee trains.

The payments were made between March 2016 and October 2017 to the lobbying firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell.

“It should not have happened, and it won’t happen going forward,” said Kiely, who has been city manager for 27 years.

At a recent council meeting, current Lake Forest Mayor Rob Lansing said that Amtrak is supportive of the city’s efforts to become a stop for its Hiawatha Service trains.

But it is unclear if Lansing knew all the details about the city paying a lobbying firm to push for the Amtrak service.

Some council members were miffed to learn the city had been paying a lobbyist with their knowledge or approval.

“This isn’t the way I want to learn things, and this isn’t the way I think information should be disseminated,” council member Prue Beidler said at the meeting during which Lansing revealed without detail that the city had hired a lobbying firm.

Member Jack Reisenberg said he was aware of an October trip Kiely and Lansing made to Washington, though he didn’t know why they were going.

“I didn’t like it,” Reisenberg said of the expenditures being made without council approval. “It should have been handled like other expenditures are handled, via city staff and approved by the council. But I wasn’t terribly upset because I believe the mayor and the city manager were well-intentioned. However, they did not follow longstanding practices of bringing this type of expenditure before the City Council for approval.”

Kiely noted he has authority to spend as much as $20,000 without council approval, although he said he should have brought the matter to the city council in May 2016.

“That was my error, and I did not bring it back to the council as it should have been brought,” he said, adding, “at that point in time, it was part of our regular payments and I quite frankly, I didn’t even think of it.”

Former Mayor Donald Schoenheider began the lobbying effort in March 2016.

Kiely said he and Lansing made the Washington trip to meet with federal agencies and elected officials about the Amtrak stop and to seek funding for a pedestrian underpass at the station.

Amtrak has said that it won’t begin serving Lake Forest until the underpass beneath tracks owned by Metra is installed.

NIMBYs Still Protesting Hiawatha Changes

December 8, 2017

NIMBY opposition continues to plague an effort to establish an Amtrak stop on the Hiawatha Service line in the north Chicago suburbs.

Much of the opposition has focused on a proposal to add a two-mile third track to the line used by Canadian Pacific, Amtrak and Metra trains.

The third track would hold CP freight trains waiting to get onto Union Pacific rails.

However, some residents of Lake Forest have criticized their city for spending $192,000 to hire a Washington lobbying firm to advocate for the Amtrak stop at the city’s Metra station.

The third track has been tied to a proposal to expand the number of Hiawatha Service trains running between Chicago and Milwaukee. That expansion is not imminent.

In the meantime, Amtrak’s vice president of state supported services, Joe McHugh, has notified Lake Forest that the Hiawatha stop has been been approved by the Departments of Transportation of both Wisconsin and Illinois.

“At this point, the only obstacle preventing us from beginning service is the lack of a pedestrian underpass at the Lake Forest station that would allow passengers to move safely from one side of the tracks to the other,” McHugh wrote.

New Midwest Passenger Cars 2-3 Years Away

December 6, 2017

New passenger cars for Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes are at least two to three years away.

“The order is in but I don’t expect to see the cars out here for two to three years  . . . it’s a big order,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. “So we are not going to be able to re-equip all four of the Lincoln Service roundtrips with new cars I don’t think certainly in 2018, maybe in 2019, pretty confidently in 2020.”

The cars had been expected to go into service earlier, but the delays have been caused by a change in vendors.

A consortium of states, including Illinois and California, had awarded a contract to Nippon Sharyo to build the cars in Rochelle, Illinois.

But a prototype car failed to pass federal safety rule tests. That prompted the consortium to instead contract with Siemens to build the cars at its plant in Sacramento, California.

Chicago-St. Louis Ridership Up 9%

December 6, 2017

Amtrak said that ridership in its Chicago-St. Louis corridor is growing and is up about 9 percent when compared with last year.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said upgraded track conditions and the completion of various construction projects has resulted in an uptick in passengers.

“The construction disruptions we have been enduring since about 2010 are pretty well gone. We’ve been able to run trains in nearly all the slots, not substitute buses,” Magliari said.

“The track improvements are pretty much in place so the promised improvements here on this route are coming true and the passengers are coming back because of it,” he said.

“There are 59,000 more people riding these trains between Chicago and St. Louis largely because some of the work we have been doing is paying off.”

In addition to the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains, the corridor also hosts the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Lincoln Amtrak Station Renovated

December 5, 2017

A ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the renovation of the Amtrak station in Lincoln, Illinois, will held today.

The depot, built in 1911, has been renovated to retain its historic character and details. Amtrak passengers use a former freight house, which was transformed into a passenger station.

The project also included new parking lots, sidewalks, lighting and landscaping.

Funding for the project came from a federal High Speed Rail Initiative grant.

Lincoln is served by the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Extra Helping of Wolverines for Thanksgiving

November 28, 2017

Amtrak in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation operated 10 extra trains to handle Thanksgiving travelers this year.

That included an extra section of the Pere Marquette that ran on two days between Chicago and Holland, and an extra section of the Wolverine Service that operated on three days between Chicago and Ann Arbor.

I ventured up to Ann Arbor for the opportunity to catch three Amtrak trains in a single day during daylight hours.

Shown is eastbound No. 356, the extra section of the Wolverine, crossing the Huron River in Barton Park on the northwest side of Ann Arbor.

In the top photo, the head end of the train is crossing the river. In the middle is part of the consist, which was a mixture of Amfleet and Horizon equipment.

In the bottom photograph, P42DC No. 33 brings up the rear. Unlike the regularly scheduled Wolverines that operate between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac), the Wolverine Extras operated with locomotives on each end due to the lack of turning facilities in Ann Arbor and a turnaround time of 51 minutes.

No. 356 arrived into Ann Arbor about 12 minutes late on the day that I saw it.

Study Supports Lake Forest Hiawatha Stop

November 16, 2017

A new Amtrak station in north suburban Chicago on the Hiawatha Service route is feasible, the Lake Forest City Council was told at a recent meeting.

The study concluded that strong demand exists for an Amtrak stop at the west Lake Forest train station currently used by Metra.

“The numbers in this study just blew me away,” said Lake Forest City Manager Rob Lansing.

The study was conducted by Joseph Schwieterman, president of the Chicago chapter of the Transportation Research Forum and a professor at DePaul University.

It shows a Lake Forest stop would board more passengers than Glenview, which handled 55,340 passengers in fiscal year 2016.

The study said several challenges must be resolved before Amtrak can begin service at Lake Forest, including construction of a a pedestrian underpass, which Amtrak would require. Lake Forest plans to seek a grant to fund the $8 million to $9 million underpass project.

Lansing expects it will take two to four years to obtain a grant. “These usually involve federal funds,” he said. “It’s at least two years out. We have received support from the state and federal agencies we need.”

The Lake Forest station has ample room for people to wait and park, including an average of 135 parking spaces unused and available on weekdays and more on the weekends.

The Glenview station does not have dedicated parking for Amtrak passengers.

Canceled Car Contract Not Good News for Rochelle

November 16, 2017

The news that Nippon Sharyo has lost the contract to build new passenger cars for Midwest and California corridor trains operated by Amtrak is not good news for  Rochelle, Illinois.

Nippon Sharyo established a factory in the northern Illinois city that does not see any scheduled passenger trains to build the bi-level cars.

But a prototype car built at the plant failed to pass safety tests and many employees at the Rochelle plant had already been laid off before the California Department of Transportation announced that Siemens will instead complete the cars at a factory in Sacramento, California.

The contract with Nippon Sharyo had been announced in November 2012 by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and was valued at $550 million.

The Illinois Department of Transportation had banded together with its California counterpart to oversee the car orders, which also involves the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

The original contract had called for 130 passenger rail cars of which California agreed to buy 42. The remaining 88 cars were earmarked for Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes.

Some saw the new cars as a first-step toward creating 125-mph passenger service in the Midwest.

With more than $10 million in state and local financial incentives, Nippon Sharyo opened a new U.S. headquarters and the $35 million passenger rail car facility in Rochelle in July 2012.

As recently as 2015, the Rochelle plant employed 694. Last month employment there was 54.

Illinois officials had said when announcing the contract to build cars in Rochelle that Nippon Sharyo had agreed to create 250 jobs and retain 15 at its office in Arlington Heights. A report in the Chicago Tribune said it is unclear if this agreement has changed.

Nippon Sharyo said it “will continue its business operations going forward with a reduced number of employees to meet the needs of existing customers and contractual responsibilities.”

Caltrans recently said it has awarded a $352 million contract to Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Siemens to complete the car order that Nippon Sharyo once had.

The new contract calls for 137 single-level rail cars of which 88 will be used in the Midwest.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association says that single-level cars are safer and better able to protect passengers in the event of a crash.