Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’

Chicago-Twin Cities Expansion Hearings Planned for September

July 21, 2017

The Minnesota Department of Transportation said this week that it has completed a “purpose and need” statement for a proposed expansion of rail passenger service between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

MnDOT is studying the addition of a second roundtrip Amtrak train between the two metropolitan regions to supplement the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The next step in the review will be a series of public hearings on Sept. 6 at St. Paul Union Depot in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and on Sept. 7 at the La Crosse County Administrative Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Those hearings are part of a process of evaluating alternatives for the project and the needed infrastructure upgrades.

The Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation are working with the Federal Railroad Administration, Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission and La Crosse Area Planning Committee on the initial planning effort for the proposed TCMC project.

Roanoke Studying Parking Near Amtrak Station

July 21, 2017

Although Roanoke, Virginia, officials say there is ample parking in the vicinity of the new Amtrak station in town, much of it isn’t free.

Officials say some parking at or near the station will be free, but it is expected to fill up quickly just before the train leaves town early in the morning for Washington.

Two parking garages within walking distance of the station charge between $6 to $8 for each 24 hours used. However, those and some other municipally owned lots are unattended late at night, during which time it is possible to exit without paying.

Amtrak plans to begin serving Roanoke on Oct. 31. The station platform it will use is currently under construction.

A consultant hired by the city found two years ago that there are 1,755 parking spaces within a block or two of Norfolk Avenue between Jefferson and Second streets, where the Amtrak platform is located.

On a typical day, 877 of those spaces are taken by 11 a.m. Brian Townsend, an assistant city manager, said the parking situation is again under review.

“We understand the need to direct rail patrons to where parking is available,” Townsend said by email. “We are not certain, at this point, that it will be free parking as ownership, management, and availability at the various locations will be determining factors.”

Amtrak to Skip Buffalo Exchange Street on July 23-24

July 21, 2017

Amtrak’s New York-Toronto Maple Leaf and New York-Niagara Falls Empire Service trains will not stop at Buffalo Exchange Street Station on July 23 and 24 due to track work being performed by CSX.

Alternative transportation will be provided between the Exchange Street station and Buffalo-Depew station.

Affected are Trains 63, 64, 281, 283, 284 and 288 on July 23, and trains Trains 63, 64, 280, 281, 283 and 284 on July 24.

Roanoke Service to Begin Oct. 31

July 19, 2017

Roanoke, Virginia, will rejoin the Amtrak network on Oct. 31.

Tickets are not yet being sold and the schedule has not yet been announced, but Roanoke will be served by an existing Northeast Regional train that will travel to and from Washington with continuing service to New York.

There is expected to be one roundtrip a day, leaving Roanoke at approximately 6:20 a.m. and returning before 10 p.m.

On Oct. 30, a publicity special will arrive at the Roanoke station, which is still under construction, at about noon for a ribbon cutting-type event.

Amtrak previously served Roanoke with The Hilltopper, which operated between Washington and Catlettsburg, Kentucky. That train made its last trips on Sept. 30, 1979.

Workers are constructing a boarding platform along Norfolk Avenue near the city bus station.

The finished station will feature a canopied boarding platform about 800 feet long. It will be a high-level platform.

Station Agent Removed at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa

July 19, 2017

Amtrak removed it ticket agent from the station in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, earlier this year.

The station, which is served by the Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr, will have a caretaker who will be available at the station an hour before and after train arrivals and departures to answer questions about Amtrak service.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said passengers will continue to have access to the station waiting area one hour before all train arrivals and one hour after train departure.

Amtrak personnel on the train will assist customers in boarding and detraining. They also will provide trainside checked baggage and bike service.

Baggage tags are available inside the station. Customers will check and retrieve their baggage and bikes with an employee at the baggage car.

The closest station to Mount Pleasant that still has an agent is 60 miles to the southeast in Fort Madison, Iowa.

New Thruway Links Cardinal with W.Va. Cities

July 18, 2017

Amtrak has launched a Thruway bus route to link its Chicago-New York Cardinal with cities in north central West Virginia.

The bus will connect the eastbound Cardinal with Morgantown, Fairmount, Clarksburg/Bridgeport, Weston, Sutton/Flatwoods, and Clendenin.

The bus route will serve the Amtrak station in Charleston, where No 50 stops on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

The bus will depart from Morgantown at 4:50 a.m. on the days that the Cardinal operates to Charleston.

Arriving in Charleston at 8 a.m., the bus is scheduled to return to Morgantown and all intermediate cities at 8:45 a.m. The Cardinal is scheduled to stop in Charleston at 8:21 a.m.

Baron’s Bus lines is operating the service and uses motor coaches equipped with Wi-Fi and electrical outlets.

Moorman Upbeat About Future of Rail Passenger Service

July 17, 2017

Amtrak President Charles “Wick” Moorman gave an upbeat assessment of passenger rail even as he acknowledged that the passenger carrier faces challenges fixing decaying infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, Moorman said Amtrak’s need for federal funding was no excuse for not operating “like a great company.”

Moorman

Nonetheless, Moorman said that getting pressure from government officials and tight budgetary resources have taken their toll.

He said that in the 1990s and 2000s Amtrak lost sight of its customers as a result. As an example he cited carpet cleaning.

Amtrak saved $1 million by not shampooing the carpets in its passenger cars as often, but passengers noticed the dirty carpets.

“That’s not the experience we want to create for our customers,” he said.
Providing a better customer experience has been one of four focuses that Moorman has brought to Amtrak after becoming its president last year.

“The customer experience is ticketing, the station, our employee interactions, and our equipment,” he said.

The equipment used by Amtrak is, in Moorman’s words, starting to look “stale,” but the carrier has taken steps to improve it.

“It’s old, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good,” he said.
Moorman said rail passenger transportation in general is a particularly good business model.

The creators of Amtrak chartered it as a for-profit corporation even though they knew it was not a good business model.

However, Moorman said, they sold at the time to President Richard Nixon and the Congress at the time as a concept of “Create this and [it] will become profitable.”

In essence, Moorman said Amtrak is a government contractor that unlike other contractors can’t always present to government officials a bill that factors in the costs of doing business plus a profit to benefit shareholders.

“We rely on what are in effect user fees – passenger fares,” he said. “And because the marketplace doesn’t sustain the passenger fares we need to make that profit, we ask the government to make up the difference.”

Among Amtrak’s many challenges Moorman said the one that worries him the most is the aging Northeast Corridor infrastructure.

He said the NEC has eight major bridges and only is younger than 100 years old. The B&P Tunnel in Baltimore is 127 years old and well past its “sell-by date.”

Moorman express confidence that the idea of having a national rail passenger network is taking hold and predicted the development of more corridors offering rail passenger service between urban areas.

He also circled back to the need to provide good customer service.

“For 46 years, a lot of people [at Amtrak] were there trying to keep the flame alive, understanding that someday the world would come to the point where people started to say, ‘We really need to have passenger rail as an option.’ I think that day has come,” Moorman said.

“The better we run Amtrak, the better we deliver on projects, the more people understand how good our company is, the easier every funding conversation is,” he said.

In a related note, Moorman said disruptions at New York’s Penn Station may extend in the fall.

He told the New York Post that Amtrak has the ability to finish the remaining work at Penn Station with subsequent weekend outages extending beyond the planned July to early September work curfew.

“We’ve done an exceptional and extraordinary amount of planning on the material side and we know it all fits, and we have a lot of skilled people,” he says.

After those repairs are concluded, Moorman said Amtrak will need to to schedule signal and power system repairs at a later date.

Senators Express Dismay Over Proposed DOT Budget Cuts

July 17, 2017

Although members of a Senate committee are displeased with the Trump administration proposed cuts of the U.S. Department of Transportation for fiscal year 2018, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao was unmoved during a hearing held last week.

Trump has proposed slashing the DOT budget by $2.4 million. If Congress adopts the administration’s budget proposal, the DOT budget would fall from $18.6 billion to $16.2 billion with major cuts made from the hide of Amtrak and various transportation grant programs.

The budget proposal received a hearing from the Senate Appropriations Committee where some members spoke out in favor of keeping Amtrak as it is now.

“With regard to Amtrak, I am concerned about the impact that elimination of long-distance service would have on shared infrastructure with state-supported routes, such as the Downeaster in Maine,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the subcommittee on transportation.

“Long distance routes contribute in part to the capital expenditures for the Northeast Corridor,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member on the subcommittee. “That’s something of concern to many of us on the committee”

In response to a question asked by Reed as to whether DOT would be able to focus additional resources on the capital infrastructure needs of the Northeast Corridor, Chao said the Northeast Corridor is the only Amtrak route able to sustain itself and that DOT is working closely with Amtrak and local and state authorities in that region.

However, Chao said there is no money available for the Northeast Corridor except what’s in the president’s budget.

In response to a question asked by another senator, Chao suggested that finding more funding for Northeast Corridor repairs is Amtrak’s problem, not DOT’s

“These are repairs which have been delayed and the maintenance requirements are immense,” she said. “There has to be some way of looking at all these repairs, strategically figuring out [how] best to prioritize these repairs, have a program, and then execute [it].

“Amtrak has a new president, and I am very hopeful the president and the board will be able to address some of these issues.”

The Trump administration has proposed diverting money used to pay for Amtrak’s long-distance routes into funding NEC infrastructure work.

Some funding for Northeast Corridor capital projects would come from transit and commuter rail projects under the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program.

Amtrak is relying on a Capital Investment Program grant to finance some costs of building a new tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York Penn Station.

At the same time, the administration has proposed ending the TIGER grant program, which is used to help fund rail capital projects nationwide.

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., expressed concern that cuts in funding for Amtrak intercity service would increase congestion on the highways.

As Chao sees it, ending funding of long-distance passenger trains would enable Amtrak to focus its resources on what she termed its most vibrant component.

Appeals Court Strikes down STB On-time Standards

July 17, 2017

Another federal court has struck a blow at the efforts of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time standards for Amtrak trains.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the STB standards to be unconstitutional, saying that the STB had “exceeded its authority” in creating the standards.

The appeal court ruling came in the wake of a similar U.S. Supreme Court ruling that development of on-time metrics by the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak as directed by Section 207 of 2008’s Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act was unconstitutional.

In the Eighth Circuit ruling, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith acknowledged that the absence of such on-time standards would make it impossible for the STB to investigate or adjudicate disputes brought by Amtrak against host railroads in the event that punctuality fell below 80 percent for two consecutive quarters.

However, the court in essence decided that the STB’s inability to measure on time performance is not a problem for the judiciary to solve.

There are two cases pending before the STB in which Amtrak alleges that host railroads needlessly delayed Amtrak trains.

One case involve the handling by Canadian National of the Saluki and Illini between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, while the other regards Norfolk Southern’s handling of the Capitol Limited west of Pittsburgh.

In both cases, Amtrak contends that dispatching decisions made by the host railroads are delaying its trains.

The STB had contended that it had the legal right to establish on-time standards “by virtue of its authority to adjudicate complaints brought by Amtrak. Any other result would gut the remedial scheme, a result Congress clearly did not intend.”

Supporting the STB’s position were 13 intervenors, including the National Association of Railroad Passengers and its state affiliates along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Challenging the STB were Union Pacific, CSX, CN and the Association of American Railroads.

They argued that the “gap-filling rationale does not allow one agency to assume the authority expressly delegated to another.”

The court found that the only place in federal law where the 80 percent standard was spelled out was in section 207, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional because Amtrak had a hand in developing it.

Although the court let stand Congress’ setting a statutory right of passenger train “priority” over freight trains, the practical effect of the court decision is that Amtrak has no way to challenge a host railroad’s systematic denial of that right.

Instead, the only motivation for railroads to keep Amtrak trains on time are the proprietary and confidential incentive contracts Amtrak has been able to negotiate with its host railroads pertaining to on-time handling.

The only action Amtrak can take against a host railroad would be to refuse to make incentive payments due to non-performance under the terms of its operating contracts with a host railroad.

The court rulings do suggest that Congress could give the FRA a mandate to establish on-time standards provided that Amtrak was not a participant in the writing of those standards.

Downeaster Service Beat FY2017 Ridership Goal

July 17, 2017

Amtrak’s Downeaster service carried more than 511,000 passengers during fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30. That was an increase over 2016 ridership and 2017 ridership goals by 9 percent.

The route between Boston North Station and Brunswick, Maine, saw its heaviest ridership during July and September 2016 and during January, February, April, and June 2017.

The record for patronage was posted in 2014 when the Downeasters hosted 518,000 passenger trips.

The service began in December 2001 between Portland, Maine, and Boston and was extended to Brunswick in November 2012.