Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’

Lucky Me That I Picked the Wrong Day to Travel

July 17, 2019

Passengers get into position to board Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited in Cleveland as it arrives more than three hours late on the morning of June 26, 2019. (Photograph by Edward Ribinskas)

On the evening of June 25, 2019, Amtrak Train No. 48 departed Chicago Union Station on time at 9:30.

It would be the only time that No. 48 would arrive or depart from a station on schedule during its 959 mile journey to New York City.

What Amtrak said would be a seven hour trip to Cleveland ballooned to 10-and-a-half hours.

That wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I got to see Sandusky Bay in daylight and got some “bonus” time at no extra fare aboard a train I had not ridden since May 2014.

Yet when the Lake Shore Limited finally halted at the Cleveland station I was more than ready to get off. I had things to do and places to go and had expected to be well underway in doing them already.

Officially, No. 48 arrived in Cleveland at 9:07 a.m., 3 hours, 29 minutes late.

How does a train lose 3.5 hours? Darn if I know because the crew never told us how or why, not that I expected them to do that.

A detailed accounting of that lost time exists somewhere. Amtrak conductors keep logs of time lost en route and report that information to a superior who forwards it to Amtrak headquarters.

Amtrak aggregates that information into report cards that the carrier periodically issues to show how its host railroads are doing in keeping Amtrak trains on time.

Those reports, though, are not necessarily a complete accounting. I’ve heard Amtrak crew members agree in radio conversations with each other to not report a particular cause of delay.

I also once heard an Amtrak engineer refuse to cooperate with the conductor in explaining why No. 30 had lost time in Indiana.

Amtrak operating personnel do not have access to the communication that goes on in the dispatching offices of the host railroads.

If a dispatcher for Norfolk Southern decides to hold Amtrak at a control point to wait for two westbound freight trains to clear before switching Amtrak from Track 2 to Track 1 in order to go around a slow freight train ahead on Track 2, the Amtrak crew doesn’t know why the decision was made to hold them rather than holding one or both of the westbound freights further east until Amtrak could go around the slow eastbound freight.

Further, they don’t know whether that decision was made by the dispatcher, by the dispatcher’s supervisor or by a computer program that NS uses to dispatch its railroad. Nor do they know with certainty the logic behind the decision even if they have some idea.

In fact, the scenario outlined above happened in the darkness of northern Indiana west of South Bend during my trip.

My train was moving slowly and I got my scanner out and listened to the NS road channel for a while.

As best I could tell, most of the time that No. 48 lost on the night and morning of June 25-26 could be attributed to the host railroad.

Amtrak might see it as freight train interference while NS might call it traffic congestion.

In the days preceding my trip, Amtrak had posted a passenger advisory warning that NS track work in the Chicago area would cause delays of up to an hour because two main tracks would be out of service.

Perhaps NS freight traffic was heavier than usual on the night I was aboard No. 48 as the freight carrier was getting caught up from delays to its own trains stemming from the track work.

We can’t blame NS for two other delays due to bridges being open in Toledo and Cleveland for marine traffic.

I’ve made dozens of trips on Amtrak through Toledo over the past 25 years and it was the first time I’d ever been aboard a train delayed by the Maumee River Bridge being open.

Otherwise, nothing happened during that trip of June 25-26 that I had not experienced before between Cleveland and Chicago. Many times.

Much of the lost time was racked up between Elkhart, Indiana, and Toledo where Amtrak trains have been losing time for decades, going back into the Conrail era.

What had been 1 hour, 11 minutes late at Elkhart skyrocketed to 2 hours, 51 minutes by the time we stopped at the Bryan station.

By then it was daylight and I got my radio out again and listened to the engineer on No. 48 call a steady drum beat procession of approach signal indications from Bryan to the west side of Toledo.

We finally got around a long manifest freight in Toledo and I’m not sure if it was a case of that train having mechanical problems, being underpowered or some other reason.

Of course there was a steady stream of westbounds on Track 1, including Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.

Shortly after we moved around that manifest freight the dispatcher said we would have to wait for Amtrak 49 to depart the Toledo station, where there is just one track that Amtrak can use.

Once we got across the Maumee River we moved at a steady pace but we were even later at Sandusky than we had been at Toledo.

NS has been particularly outspoken about its disdain for Amtrak’s report cards and at one point threatened legal action if Amtrak didn’t stop issuing them.

Of course NS is upset because those report cards suggest it does a poor job of dispatching Amtrak trains.

NS management would argue that dispatching decision making takes into account a myriad of factors and seeks to strike a balance in serving the interest of freight trains and passenger trains.

NS managers would say dispatchers seek to give Amtrak preference when they can but that is not always possible because things happen.

It isn’t the railroad’s fault that someone parked a car on the tracks that was struck by a container train that subsequently derailed and blocked both main tracks as happened in early June in Swanton, Ohio.

Nor can railroads predict when equipment failures will occur or acts of nature will strike.

These things also delay the transport of the freight of NS customers.

All of this is true as far as it goes, but overlooks that managers are people who make decisions based on their beliefs, biases and prejudices as to what is most important when conflicts occur in moving trains.

It also overlooks that these beliefs, biases and prejudices are built into the overall operating plan and tend to be viewed as sacrosanct.

It starts with the reality that we the host railroad own this railroad and not Amtrak. In our view the needs of the owner are just as important if not more so than those of the tenant.

I’ve ridden enough Amtrak trains to know that there is an element of luck involved in whether you will get to your destination on time or close to on time.

Had I departed Chicago on No. 48 on June 23 I would have arrived in Cleveland the next morning 27 minutes early. Had I left Chicago the day before I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I traveled the day after I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I left Chicago on June 27 I would have arrived in Cleveland one hour and 13 minutes late. That’s not good, but far better than 3.5 hours late.

So of five trains that operated the week I traveled I had the good fortune – yes, I’m being sarcastic – of choosing the travel day with the really late train.

But that was the date that worked best for me that week. It just didn’t work well for keeping the train even reasonably within range of being on time.

As for my fellow passengers who remained aboard No. 48 on June 26 after I disembarked, No. 48 would lose additional time on CSX, reaching its nadir of 4 hours, 19 minutes late at Schenectady, New York.

By the time it reached the end of the line at New York’s Penn Station, the lateness had been trimmed to 3 hours, 42 minutes, about what it had been in Toledo.

Whether it’s a plane, a train, or a bus, when you take public transportation you are rolling the dice that the carrier will get you to your destination when it says it will.

You know no carrier has a 100 percent on-time record, but always hope the aberration will occur on another day and affect someone else. Some people are naive enough to think it will not happen to them.

As you are loping along at restricted speed, waiting at a control point for opposing traffic or stopped because a heavy Great Lakes freighter has priority at a water crossing, there is a feeling of injustice that someone else’s priorities are more important than yours and there is nothing you can do about it.

If you are a writer you might dash off an indignant piece saying this ought to be done or that ought to have been done.

But if you know anything at all about transportation you should know better. Lengthy delays while traveling do occur and sooner or later they will occur to you.

It’s just that they can mess up your plans and, at times, spoil or dampen an experience you had long looked forward to having.

NOLA-Mobile Service Outlined at Presentation

July 17, 2019

Members of the Southern Rail Commission last week told public officials in Mobile, Alabama, that the proposed new Amtrak Gulf Coast service they want to see happen will not be the same as the service they once had.

Gulf Coast cities east of New Orleans have been without intercity rail passenger service since Hurricane Katrina damaged the route in August 2005 and Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited there.

The proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile will not disrupt operations of the ports in Mobile, they said during an information session.

The SRC officials said the route could become a passenger rail success story similar to that of how Maine’s Downeaster, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawathas, or Northeast Regional service sponsored by Virginia.

In all three of those corridors, SRC officials said, fares are reasonably priced.

The proposed 160-mile New Orleans-Mobile corridor would have morning and evening service.

It won’t be the Sunset Limited, a long-distance train that ran between Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, just three days a week and often operated behind schedule.

Also appearing at the information session were representatives of Transportation for America, Amtrak, and the Rail Passengers Association.

The sticking point in launching the service is money. The proposal won a $33 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to fund their shares of the cost of the service.

But earlier this year Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey rejected committing funding. She cited concerns about passenger trains interfering with port operations.

The latter concerns have also been expressed by some Mobile officials.

Alabama would need to pay $2.2 million for infrastructure improvements and $3.04 million for operating support.

Proponents of the proposed service contend that the service would generate more than $40 million in economic benefits.

Another hurdle facing the service is the need for Amtrak and CSX to negotiate an operating contract.

Infrastructure needs include construction of a 600-foot platform at the Mobile station, and a 1,325-foot storage track for trains to sit between runs.

CSX Track Work to Disrupt Amtrak Southeast Trains

July 16, 2019

CSX track work will cause widespread service disruptions, particularly in North Carolina, starting on July 22 and extending to Sept. 19.

The New York-Charlotte Carolinian will operate only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday over the length of its route.

On Monday through Thursday Nos. 79 and 80 will operate only between Raleigh and Charlotte.

No alternative transportation is being provided to missed stations.

Starting July 21, the northbound Silver Star will depart Miami at 3:40 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and operate as No. 1092.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said No. 1092 will operate two hours later than its published schedule from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida; three hours later from Jacksonville to Savannah, Georgia; and four hours later north of Savannah.

The northbound Star will operate on its regular schedule from Miami to New York on Thursday through Saturday. No. 1092 will stop at Wilson, North

The southbound Palmetto will operate on its normal schedule from New York to Richmond, Virginia , but starting July 22 will depart Richmond an hour later than the current schedule Monday through Thursday and continue that schedule to Savannah.

The Palmetto will operate normally Friday through Sunday.

The southbound Silver Star and northbound Palmetto will operate normally throughout the period that track work is being conducted.

More Amtrak Full-Service Dining Expected to End

July 16, 2019

Amtrak is expected to end full-service dining on all eastern long-distance trains the Rail Passengers Association reported last week.

That means that sleeping car passengers traveling on the New York-Miami Silver Meteor and New York-New Orleans Crescent will be served the same fare that passengers receive on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In early 2020, Amtrak will also end the practice of providing complimentary dinner to coach passengers aboard the Auto Train between Virginia and Florida.

Instead, coach passengers will be given the option of buying café car fare onboard or purchasing meals from food trucks at terminals in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

An Amtrak news release said all Auto Train passengers will receive a continental breakfast before their arrival.

Sleeping car passengers will continue to be served in their own dining car with “a new menu and the addition of complementary wine to the dinner service,” the news release said.

A spokesperson told Trains magazine that menus for Auto Train sleeping car passengers are still being worked out.

The Amtrak news release said other enhancements will be made to the Auto Train’s sleeping cars including “upgraded towels and bed linens and other pleasantries in each room.”

Amtrak also said it will expand sleeping-car accommodation availability to meet demand.

It is not clear how the food service changes will affect sleeping car passengers on the Chicago-New York Cardinal.

That train has not had meals prepared on board for several years, but offers a much more expansive menu for sleeping car passengers than is available on the Lake Shore Limited or Capitol Limited.

Since June 2018 sleeping car passengers aboard the Lake Shore and Capitol have received box meals with just one offering being served hot.

One complimentary alcoholic beverage is also provided per passenger per meal.

The meals are served in dedicated cars open only to sleeping car passengers. Passengers also have the option of having the meal delivered to their room.

The range of food items available, though, is limited.

RPA said the changes to food service on eastern trains other than the Auto Train will become effective on Oct. 1, the first day of the 2020 federal budget year. The Auto Train changes take effect on Jan. 15.

Food service provided on western long-distance trains will not be affected by the changes.

The New York-Miami Silver Star has not provided meals to sleeping car passengers since July 1, 2015.

Auto Train coach passengers would no longer have separate dining and lounge/cafe cars and given that Amtrak prohibits passengers from consuming in dining and café cars any food brought board the train that means anything purchased from a food truck will need to be consumed at the passenger’s coach seat.

In its news release, Amtrak said Auto Train coach passengers would be able to buy food and beverages from a cross country café car.

The coming changes drew criticism from RPA President Jim Mathews.
“The problem isn’t the food itself, it’s the way the whole experience is handled,” he said on RPA’s website. “We understand the need to make lighter fare available to match the tastes of many modern travelers. But as it’s currently executed on the Capitol and the Lake Shore, too often food items run short, there aren’t enough hot options, and the presentation is perfunctory and off-putting.”

RPA said that the food service changes are part of a strategy to “improve the financials on these routes.”

Buses to Replace Select Wolverines July 16, 17

July 16, 2019

Certain Amtrak Wolverine Service trains will be replaced by chartered buses on July 16 and 17.

Workers are conducting track work and replacing a bridge in Michigan.

On July 16, Train No. 354 from Chicago to Pontiac (Detroit) will terminate at Albion, Michigan, with bus service provided to passengers traveling to Jackson, Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Royal Oak, Troy and Pontiac via Bus 3354.

On July 17 Train 353 will originate in Battle Creek, Michigan, with Bus 3353 picking up passengers at Pontiac, Troy, Royal Oak, Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Jackson.

Bus 3353 will not connect to Train 353 and will not stop at Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Dowagiac, Niles, New Buffalo and Hammond-Whiting.

Bus schedules will follow train schedules. All other Wolverine Service trains will operate as scheduled.

That Early 80s Look

July 12, 2019

Amtrak was in the midst of rebuilding its Chicago infrastructure when I made this image in the early 1980s.

My recollection is that I was part of a group making a tour of Amtrak facilities at the time, but I don’t remember much about. it.

Amtrak was well into its transition from steam heated equipment to head end power and its general of P30CH and F40PH locomotives were rapidly overtaking EMD E and F units inherited from the freight railroads and the ill-fated SDP40F locomotives that Amtrak itself ordered.

Not also that this motive power set of a P30 and two F40s is wearing the then new Phase III livery.

These units had helped to introduce Phase II, but it didn’t last long.

NOLA Service Suspensions Extended

July 12, 2019

In an updated service advisory, Amtrak has extended the service suspensions for trains serving New Orleans as tropical storm Barry heads for the Crescent City this weekend.

The New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will terminate and originate in San Antonio through July 16.

The New York-New Orleans Crescent will terminate and originate in Atlanta through July 14.

The New Orleans-Chicago City of New Orleans will terminate and originate in Jackson, Mississippi, today. On July 13 and 14 Nos. 58 and 59  will originate and terminate in Memphis, Tennessee.

No substitute transportation is available between New Orleans and the points where these routes will temporarily originate and terminate.

Ridership Up in May on Virginia Trains

July 12, 2019

Ridership of Amtrak Northeast Regional trains serving Virginia increased by 10 percent in May 2019 when compared with the same month a year ago.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which funds the service, said the ridership numbers also mark a year-to-date increase of more than 5 percent over the same travel period last year.

In a news release, DRPT officials attributed the ridership increase to discounted ticket prices for last-minute trips to Virginia destinations, a promotion for Lyft riders to receive a discount to Amtrak stations, improved communications, cleaner trains and the offering of Virginia-based food options.

“Passenger rail is a critical component of Virginia’s multimodal transportation network,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine in a statement. “More affordable tickets, improved on-board amenities and better ground transportation connections are making travel by rail more reliable and enjoyable.”

The agency said upgrades are coming to the onboard Wi-Fi service.

Virginia-funded trains link Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor with the Virginia cities of Newport News, Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke.

Mobile Council Calls for More Study on Amtrak Service

July 11, 2019

The city council in Mobile, Alabama, has approved a resolution seeking a study of the return of Amtrak service to the city.

The resolution was approved four days ahead of a Southern Rail Commission briefing on the proposed service to Mobile.

However, the resolution that the council approved was a scaled back version of what had been originally introduced on June 25.

That resolution requested that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey “commit and insure” the allocation of funds necessary to bring Amtrak back to Mobile.

This week the council simply asked “responsible state, county and city officials” to “examine the feasibility of a return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.”

The vote in favor of the resolution was 6-0 with one council member absent.

“I view this as a positive,” said Wiley Blankenship, president/CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, and member of the SRC.

“It’s good to see that everyone is clicking in harmony and is on the same page,” he said.

A council member who has raised concerns about the service said he supported the resolution because more information is needed.

“The consensus of the council as a whole is that it’s a very interesting idea with some positive aspects to it,” said councilman Joel Daves. “But we need to gather more information about it before we can come out with an iron clad endorsement.”

Two council members, though, have expressed support for the return of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

Blankenship said one purpose of the July 12 briefing will be to dispel some myths and misinformation about the proposed service between Mobile and New Orleans.

Amtrak served the route with the tri-weekly Sunset Limited until August 2005 when the train was suspended east of New Orleans due to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

One example of that would be the fares Amtrak would charge.

Daves has said a ticket could cost $180 roundtrip, but the SRC said the fares are more likely be to between $25 to $45 one way.

The site of the station in Mobile might also be addressed in the briefing after Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson expressed concern that trains could block access to the city-owned cruise terminal.

“They can take the train station and keep on rolling it to Brookley Field,” he said, referring to a business park and Downtown Mobile Airport located about three miles southeast of downtown Mobile. “You don’t have to stop it downtown and disrupt anything. Just build it at Brookley.”

Service Suspended Ahead of Severe Storm

July 11, 2019