Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’

Rare Late Morning Appearance

August 5, 2021

Amtrak’s northbound City of New Orleans is shown accelerating away from the station in Mattoon, Illinois, on Aug. 1. on the Champaign Subdivision of Canadian National.

Under normal circumstances, No. 58 would be leaving Mattoon just before 5:30 a.m. But this image was made at 11:17 a.m. with Amtrak reporting it arriving in Mattoon five hours and 44 minutes late.

The station and its platform are partly visible behind the train on the left.

I was unable to determine the reason for the late running but whatever delayed the train apparently occurred south of Carbondale, Illinois.

No. 58 has a clear signal at North Mattoon and will meet the southbound Saluki at Humboldt nearly 10 miles ahead.

It is noteworthy that all of Amtrak’s trains running in the Chicago-Carbondale corridor in summer 2021 have Superliner equipment.

California Zephyr to Resume Running in Colorado

August 5, 2021

Amtrak’s California Zephyr will resume operating over its full route after host railroad Union Pacific reopened tracks in Colorado that had been blocked by mudslides.

The mudslides had halted the Zephyr between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado, since July 30.

No. 5 leaving Chicago today (Aug. 5) and No. 6 leaving Emeryville, California, today will be the first to travel through Colorado.

Those trains are expected to pick up passengers who have been stranded since the mudslides disrupted service.

Both will travel through the affected areas on Friday (Aug. 6). The route through the Colorado Rockies is a former Denver & Rio Grande Western line.

The mudslides were triggered by heavy rains and were most pronounced in areas in which wildfires last year had burned.

Also affected was nearby Interstate 70, which was closed by mudslides as well.

No Date Yet for Coast Starlight Resumption Over Full Route

August 5, 2021

No date has been set yet to restore service to the full length of the Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and Seattle.

The service was disrupted June 28 when fire damaged the Dry Canyon Bridge bridge in Northern California.

Amtrak said it is “actively working” with host railroad Union Pacific on a plan to restore service. The bridge has since been repaired and reopened to freight traffic since Aug. 1.

A bus bridge is operating between Sacramento, California, and Klamath Falls, Oregon, to connect trains operating on the northern and southern portions of the Coast Starlight route.

The bus bridge was cancelled on July 1 but resumed on July 16, Trains magazine reported that booking travel on the Coast Starlight has been difficult because Amtrak has only placed tickets on sale a few days in advance.

Phoenix-Tucson Service Gets Mayoral Support

August 5, 2021

Amtrak is proposing to operate service between Phoenix and Tucson, a proposal that has gained the support of 11 Arizona mayors.

Phoenix has been off the Amtrak map since the mid 1990s when the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited was rerouted away from the state’s largest city due to track rationalization west of Phoenix.

Trains 1 and 2 continue to serve Tucson on a tri-weekly schedule.

Amtrak has proposed operating three roundtrips per day over Union Pacific rails with the western terminus in Buckeye.

Intermediate stations would include Marana, Coolidge, Queen Creek, Tempe, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix Downtown and Goodyear-Avondale.

Connections would be available in Phoenix with the Valley Metro light rail system. Tucson’s SunLink streetcar system already connects to the city’s Amtrak station.

Amtrak said the service could link with the Sunset Limited to enable passengers to continue on to other points on the Amtrak network.

In a joint letter, the 11 Arizona mayors asked the state’s congressional delegation to “support Amtrak’s reauthorization proposal as Congress considers the future of surface transportation programs.”

Infrastructure Bill Would Make Amtrak Policy Changes

August 4, 2021

The text of the proposed nearly $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill was revealed this week in the U.S. Senate.

As reported earlier by various sources, the bill would provide $66 billion to Amtrak with most of that money being used to address maintenance backlogs and upgrade the Northeast Corridor.

However, the text also showed the legislation would make changes to Amtrak’s legal mission.

Those include making the goal of Amtrak to “meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States” rather than achieving “a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.”

There is also language that places Amtrak service to rural areas as well as urban areas.

The funding for Amtrak in the bill would allocate $1.5 billion per year for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants program with a 50 percent match required.

Also included in the bill is $15 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation to analyze the restoration of long-distance trains that have been terminated by Amtrak; money to fund the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program ($1 billion per year), and the Restoration and Enhancement Program ($50 million per year); and $500 million per year for rail grade crossing separation projects.

The Amtrak funding is part of an overall $102 billion package for commuter rail and other high-performance rail services.

Public transit would receive $107 billion for public transit. Some of that funding can be used for multimodal investments that include transit and passenger rail.

The legislation also contains the Senate’s version of a new surface transportation reauthorization  bill that authorizes funding for railroads, water infrastructure, public transit, highway, bridges and roads.

Track Work to Send Texas Eagle Detouring

August 3, 2021

Track work being performed by host railroad Union Pacific will disrupt operations of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle on Aug. 8.

Trains 22/422 will detour in Texas between Big Sandy and Texarkana. Passengers who would have boarded Train 22 at Longview and Marshall will ride Amtrak Thruway Bus 6122 to Mineola, where they will board Train 22/422.

Passengers scheduled to connect with the train in Longview from Bus 6022, will make their connection in Mineola.

Those scheduled to make the normal connection to Thruway Service at Longview will also connect at Mineola. Thruway Buses 6022 and 6422 will board at Mineola instead of Longview.

Passengers scheduled to disembark at Marshall will instead do so at Mineola and connect with Bus 6422 to Marshall.

New Coalition Pushes Old Idea

August 3, 2021

Although the coalition is new, the idea is not.

Seven rail passenger advocacy groups announced last week the formation of the Lakeshore Rail Alliance which has proposed expanding Amtrak’s Chicago-New York service via Cleveland, Buffalo and Toledo from one daily roundtrip to four.

Amtrak currently links Chicago and New York with two trains, the daily Lake Shore Limited via Cleveland and the Cardinal, which operates tri-weekly via Indianapolis, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

In past years Amtrak operated a third Chicago-New York train, the Broadway Limited. The Broadway was discontinued in September 1995 and for a few years another Chicago-New York train, the Three Rivers, ran between the two cities between November 1996 and March 2005.

Neither the Three Rivers nor the Broadway Limited operated over the Lakeshore Corridor.

The proposed four Chicago-New York trains concept was initially proposed in 2011 by Richard Harnish, the executive director of the High-Speed Rail Alliance, a Chicago-based group that is one of the seven members of the Lakeshore Alliance.

His original idea was to upgrade the route to enable trains to cover the distance on schedules several hours shorter than today’s Lake Shore Limited.

No. 48 is scheduled at 19 hours eastbound while No. 49 is scheduled at more than 20 hours.

The Harnish proposal has failed to gain any traction since it was proposed.

A draft plan released by the alliance shows that there would remain other trains in the Lakeshore Corridor, including existing Amtrak Empire Corridor service between New York and Buffalo, and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, which operates in the corridor between Chicago and Cleveland.

In a statement, the alliance described the Lakeshore Corridor as a series of overlapping short corridors.

“As a result, maximizing volume would require treating this as a single route—even if no one rode the train more than 400 miles,” the alliance said.

Michael Fuhrman, the executive director of the Lakeshore Alliance, said the Lakeshore Corridor is the second-most-important transportation corridor east of the Mississippi.

“It connects the Great Lakes megaregion of 55 million people with the Northeast Megaregion of 52 million people—the two largest of the 11 megaregions of the U.S. No other corridor between those two areas is better suited for development of passenger rail.”

By combining forces the alliance members hope to generate a wider swath of local political support for the public funding that would be needed to upgrade the Lakeshore Corridor, which largely involves host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Bill Hutchison, a former officer of alliance member All Aboard Ohio, believes that pushing for four trains might improve the likelihood of getting a second train on the route someday, or even a third.

“Local governments are on board, but we need an organizing force,” All Aboard Ohio member Ed D’Amato said. “We need to bring in new voices—we’re trying to build a choir here.”

Other groups in the coalition include the Empire State Passengers Association, Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance, Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, All Aboard Erie, and the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association. 

Some rail passenger advocates see the goal of the Lakeshore Alliance as noble but not necessarily realistic.

“Four trains would be great, but is it realistic?” said Richard Rudolph, chair of the Rail Users’ Network.

Rudolph agrees the lakeshore corridor should have at least two trains, but one of them could be a Chicago-Boston train that would not need to do any switching at the Albany-Rensselaer, New York, station as the current Lake Shore Limited does in combining and separating its New York and Boston sections.

He noted that Amtrak could add service to its national network without violating the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which limits the national network to routes operating when the law was adopted.

A Michigan rail passenger advocacy group reportedly wants to become involved in the lakeshore alliance, which currently lacks involvement with a group representing Massachusetts.

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 3, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Coalition Seeks 4 Chicago-NY Roundtrips

July 29, 2021

A newly formed intercity rail passenger advocacy coalition is pushing for increased service in the Chicago-New York corridor.

The Lakeshore Rail Alliance is calling for at least four daily Amtrak roundtrips between the two cities. The coalition said this would be an interim service level until a high-speed service can be created.

The new coalition is based in Erie, Pennsylvania, and is made up of existing rail advocacy groups

All Aboard Erie, All Aboard Ohio, the Empire State Passenger Association, the Chicago-based High-Speed Rail Alliance, the Indiana Passenger Rail Association, the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, and the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association make up the coalition .

Michael Fuhrman of All Aboard Erie will serve as executive director. He previously was director of economic and regional issue agency Destination Erie. The coalition has a website that shows sample timetables of the expanded service.

Track Works Leads to Wolverine Sked Changes

July 21, 2021

Schedules of Amtrak’s Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) will be temporarily change between July 20 and Oct. 31 due to track work being performed by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.

Train 350 will depart Chicago 15 minutes earlier at 7:05 a.m. and will be scheduled to arrive in Pontiac at 2:46 p.m.

Train 351 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:43 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:47 a.m.

Train 354 will depart Chicago at its scheduled time of 5:50 p.m, but be rescheduled to arrive in Pontiac 15 minutes later at 1:17 a.m.

Train 355 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:28 a.m and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:55 p.m.

An Amtrak service advisory said Trains 352 and 353 remain suspended but are expected to resume operation on Sept. 7.

Wolverine Service during the COVID-19 pandemic fell to one pair of trains between Chicago and Pontiac. Service increased to two pairs of trains on July 19.