Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s California Zephyr’

Metra, BNSF Ripped at Public Hearing

December 12, 2018

A Chicago congressman has accused commuter rail agency Metra and host railroad BNSF of having “failed all to often” to provide reliable service.

The charge was made by U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Illinois, during a public hearing that he described as an effort to force Metra and BNSF to improve service.

“We all understand that problems can occur, but this year the Metra BNSF line has failed all too often. There have been repeated delays, cancellations, broken air conditioners, and other problems,” Lipinski said during the hearing in Western Springs. “I’ve told Metra and BNSF that this is unacceptable and the problems must end.”

Metra CEO James Derwinski and BNSF Vice President for passenger operations D.J. Mitchell told the audience of 80 that their organizations would do their best to address problems on the line.

The BNSF Line between Chicago Union Station and Aurora, Illinois, is the busiest of Metra’s 11 lines, carrying 64,000 riders a day.

The line is also used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains.

Metra operates 94 trains on weekdays while BNSF has up to 60 trains a day.

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Falling Ridership Doesn’t Deter Iowa Rail Advocates

November 26, 2018

Despite falling Amtrak ridership in the state, Iowa rail passenger advocates are pressing ahead with proposals for additional service.

The advocates have been pushing for intercity rail service to Iowa City and Des Moines, both cities that have never had rail passenger service in the Amtrak era.

The last trains to those cities were operated by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and had been discontinued before Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971.

The last train to Des Moines was the May 31, 1970, trip of the Corn Belt Rocket between Chicago and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Rock Island continued passenger trains through late 1978 between Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois.

The Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers wants to see new routes established between Chicago and Omaha via Des Moines and Iowa City; and a Minneapolis/St. Paul-Kansas City route via Des Moines.

Since 1981, Iowa’s only intercity passenger service has been to the southern third of the state where Amtrak stops at six stations.

Five of those stations are served by the Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr while a sixth station, Fort Madison, is a stop for the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Between 1974 and 1981, Amtrak’s Black Hawk originated and terminated in Dubuque, Iowa.

That service was largely paid for by the State of Illinois, which funded it to East Dubuque, Illinois.

But the lack of service facilities in East Dubuque resulted in the train crossing the Mississippi River to Dubuque.

Ridership figures provided by Amtrak show that 57,955 boarded its trains in Iowa during fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 20.

That’s a decline of more than 4 percent from FY 2017 and nearly 16 percent off Iowa’s record year for Amtrak ridership of 68,744 in 2010.

During FY 2018, Amtrak said ridership in Iowa by station was Burlington, 8,668; Mount Pleasant, 12,584; Ottumwa: 11,043; Osceola, 16,064; Creston, 3,745; and Fort Madison, 5,891.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Des Moines Register  that problems with on-time performance and stable gasoline prices at less than $3 a gallon have probably hurt Amtrak ridership in Iowa.

“Our competition, for the most part, is driving, and as people buy newer cars that get better mileage, part of me wonders if people aren’t finding themselves driving because their cars are higher performing than they were 10 years ago,” Magliari said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation said traffic volume on the state’s highways has risen in recent years as use of public transportation has fallen.

Christopher Krebill, interim president of the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers, argues that Amtrak also is to blame for falling ridership.

He said the passenger carrier has removed all of its ticket agents from Iowa.

“There are still people who come into the station wanting to buy a ticket and who maybe have never ridden Amtrak before,” Krebill said. “When there is no ticket agent, there is really no one there to answer questions and tell people how to get on a train and where to get on a train.”

Landing additional trains is likely to Iowa going to require state funding, which might be a hard sell.

Iowa policy makers have rebuffed previous proposals to fund service to the state from Chicago, including extending the Black Hawk west of Dubuque.

In the meantime, Illinois officials have resumed work toward creating new services that will come close to Iowa, including a Chicago-Quad Cities route and a resumption of service on the former Black Hawk route.

Krebill said there is interest in Iowa in passenger rail, especially in central Iowa, but that will require support from the state’s department of transportation and state legislators.

New Las Vegas Rail Service Plan Surfaces

November 26, 2018

A private company has revived an earlier idea to offer intercity rail passenger service between Southern California and Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Railway Express said it plans to acquire and rebuild Bombardier commuter rail passenger cars that it will operate between Las Vegas and San Bernardino, California, on Union Pacific and BNSF tracks.

The company had in 2013 proposed a similar service known as X Train.

The latest idea could get underway next year, the company said.

The route has been without intercity rail service since May 1997 when Amtrak discontinued is Desert Wind, which carried through cars between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The cars were conveyed between Chicago and Salt Lake City on the California Zephyr.

Michael Barron, who is leading Las Vegas Railway Express, told Trains magazine that he has yet to reach agreements with the Class 1 railroads involved as well as the Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel and Casino where Amtrak once had a station.

If the service materializes, Barron expects to operate a weekly round trip that would leave San Bernardino around noon on Friday and return late Sunday afternoon.

Connections are expected to be available in San Bernardino with Metrolink commuter trains.

Barron told Trains that Metrolink has 56 stations and 12 million existing riders and is looking for opportunities to promote weekend traffic.

The 226-mile trip to Las Vegas is expected to take 4½ hours even though UP and Amtrak passenger trains didn’t cover that distance in less than five hours.

PTC Operating on Capitol Corridor

November 15, 2018

Positive train control has been installed and tested on the route in California used by Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor trains.

The development was announced by the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad

The segment extends for 170 miles between San Jose and Auburn, California.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr and San Joaquin trains also use portions of the route.

In a news release, the CCJPA said it received Federal Railroad Administration approval on Oct. 24 to begin implementation of PTC.

Testing of the PTC system on the route had begun in July and PTC was enabled on a limited number of trains that were rotated throughout shared fleets of the Capital Corridor.

In early October, Amtrak deployed PTC on four weekday trains to test PTC on the Capitol Corridor route.

CZ Route Truncated Today

October 28, 2018

Track work being performed by Union Pacific today (Oct. 28, 2019), will affect operations of Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Train No. 5 will operate between Chicago and Reno, Nevada, only.

Amtrak said alternate bus transportation will be provided between Reno and Emeryville, operating on the normal schedule of train 5.

The buses will serve the missed stops of Truckee, Colfax, Roseville, Sacramento, Davis, Martinez and Richmond.

Train 6 will operate from Reno to Chicago only with alternate bus transportation provided on the schedule of No. 6 at Truckee, Colfax, Roseville, Sacramento, Davis, Martinez and Richmond.

Utah Wildfire Disrupts California Zephyr

September 17, 2018

A wildfire disrupted operations of Amtrak’s California Zephyr on Monday in Utah.

The fire temporarily closed Union Pacific’s former Denver & Rio Grande Western route east of Provo.

No. 5 that that left Chicago on Sept. 15 was halted at Grand Junction, Colorado, on late Sunday.

No. 6 that left Emeryville, California, on Sept. 16 was able to make it through the fire zone after the tracks briefly reopened, but railroad officials quickly closed them for safety reasons.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the CZ section that halted at Grand Junction later returned to Denver on Monday morning.

That equipment will remain in Denver and became No. 6 on Tuesday. The section that left  Emeryville on Monday will operate only as far east as Reno, Nevada.

The westbound Zephyr that departed Chicago on Sunday will take the Overland Route via the Borie Cutoff and operate via Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Ogden, Utah to Salt Lake City.

Passengers going to intermediate stops between Denver and Salt Lake City will be taken to their destination by bus.

Trains leaving Chicago on Monday and Emeryville on Tuesday will operate via the Overland detour if the normal route east of Provo remain closed.

“For the next few days, detours or service cancellations will affect Amtrak travel between Reno and Denver, including Salt Lake City. Customers can cancel and reschedule without penalties,” Magliari said.

Amtrak’s Transformation at Work in the Midwest

August 13, 2018

Last week Amtrak touted improvements it has made in its Midwest corridor network, including schedule adjustments to allow for more intra-Midwest connections and implementing student discount fares.

But in Amtrak’s statements was a hint that there might be another agenda at work.

It may be that Amtrak was doing nothing more than trying to get some marketing mileage from a series of relatively small steps. Yet if you view what was announced in a larger context you might see a transformation at work.

Throughout 2018, Amtrak has taken or talked about implementing actions that passenger advocates fear are designed or will weaken the carrier’s long-distance network.

In early June Amtrak yanked the full-service dining cars from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Last spring it sharply restricted the carriage of privately-owned passenger cars and all but eliminated special moves and charter trains.

Amtrak has talked about creating a bus bridge for its Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City, Kansas, rather than continue to operate over a BNSF segment in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico that lacks positive train control and over much of which Amtrak is the sole user and thus responsible for the maintenance costs of the rails.

The carrier also has changed its booking practices to make it more difficult for tour operators to book large blocks of sleeping car rooms.

A Trains magazine columnist wrote last week that he’s been told of Amtrak plans to remove chefs from the dining cars of the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

The columnist said he’s heard from passengers who’ve ridden long-distance trains lately that complimentary juice in sleeping cars is gone and coffee is being limited to one half-pot per day.

Fewer towels and bottles of water are being distributed to sleeping car passengers.

An amendment sponsored by Ohio senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown to force Amtrak to reopen ticket offices closed in a cost-cutting binge last spring was quietly removed from a transportation funding bill recently approved by the Senate.

Some passenger advocate see these and other moves as part of a larger plot to make long-distance trains unattractive so ridership will fall and management can make the case that the need for these trains isn’t there anymore.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has reportedly told state department of transportation officials that the carrier has studied chopping up long-distance routes into a series of corridors, each of them less than 750 miles in length.

That would force the states to fund those routes under the terms of a 2008 law that requires states to fund corridor routes that Amtrak had previously underwritten.

Those plans are not expected to be implemented immediately, but perhaps Amtrak management is just biding its time.

What does this have to do with the announcement about improvements to Midwest connectivity?

If Amtrak is seeking to re-invent itself as a provider of short- and medium-distance corridors it needs to show that it is developing a network of them.

Most people probably think of the Midwest corridors as ways to link cities in their state with Chicago.

Yes, some travelers connect in Chicago to other Amtrak trains, including the long-distance trains, but how many people think about getting on in Milwaukee and going to Detroit or St. Louis?

Well they might think about it and some do it every day, but Amtrak hasn’t always made such connections convenient. Some layovers last for hours.

The schedule changes made this summer are designed to address that, at least on paper, or in Amtrak’s case on pixels given that paper timetables are a thing of the past.

Amtrak touted its “new” schedules, noting that you can travel between Milwaukee and Detroit twice daily, and Milwaukee and St. Louis three times daily. Of course that means changing trains in Chicago.

To be sure, Amtrak gave a nod to the long-distance trains, noting that in making the departure of northbound Hiawatha train No. 333 from Chicago to Milwaukee later, it enabled connections from long-distance trains from the East Coast.

As for the student discount, it is 15 percent and designed for Midwest travel. Amtrak also plans to soon allow bicycles aboard the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

When the new Siemens Charger locomotives went into service on Midwest corridor trains, they came with the tagline “Amtrak Midwest.”

Those locomotives were purchased by the states underwriting Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes. Those same states are also underwriting development of new passenger cars to be assigned to the Midwest corridor routes.

It is getting to the point where Amtrak is becoming a middleman of Midwest corridor routes, offering a station and maintenance facility in Chicago; operating, service and marketing support; and a brand.

For now, the state-funded corridors combined with the long-distance trains provide intercity rail passenger service to many regions of the Midwest, including to such states as Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio that do not currently fund Amtrak service.

That might well change if Amtrak follows through on its proposals to chop up the long-distance routes into state-funded corridors. Would Ohio step up to help pay for, say, a Chicago-Toledo, Chicago-Cleveland or Chicago-Pittsburgh  route in lieu of the Capitol Limited?

Would Iowa agree to fund a Chicago-Omaha train in lieu of the California Zephyr?

Would Minnesota agree to fund a Chicago-Minneapolis/St. Paul train in lieu of the Empire Builder? What about Chicago-Fargo, North Dakota, with funding from Minnesota and North Dakota?

I’m not optimistic about that.

Man Pleads Guilty in CZ Incident

July 14, 2018

The man charged in connection with an October 2017 incident in which the emergency brakes of the eastbound California Zephyr were activated in Nebraska has pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge.

Taylor Wilson, 26, of St. Charles, Missouri, also pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered weapon, a charge stemming from an FBI search of his home.

Wilson was said to have entered the trailing locomotive  of Train No. 6 and activated the braking system. He was then confronted by the Amtrak operating crew and later arrested by Nebraska authorities.

When the judge presiding in the case asked Wilson why he stopped the train, he responded, “I was high.”

News accounts said Wilson reportedly told investigators he had dropped acid before the incident.

A written plea agreement also noted that Wilson told a sheriff’s deputy that he [Wilson] said he was “going to save the train from the black people.”

Greyhound May Use Amtrak Station in Reno

June 14, 2018

Greyhound Bus Lines may be moving into the Amtrak station in Reno, Nevada, next year.

The bus carrier’s lease on its current station expires at the end of this year and the building was recently sold to a new owner.

A Greyhound official said his company is talking with Amtrak about using its station, which is a stop for Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

The Greyhound official said the bus carrier might use a vacant side of the train station.

Some Reno City Council members had express concern that Greyhound using the Amtrak station would prompt issues with traffic, pedestrian safety and the historic value of the station.

If the Amtrak station doesn’t work out, Greyhound might investigate use of the 4th Street transit station.

Amtrak, BNSF to Implement PTC on Select Routes

June 12, 2018

Amtrak expected to implement positive control operations this week on trains using BNSF tracks, including the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr

It will be the first activation on host-owned territory used by Amtrak. BNSF and Amtrak expect full activation of PTC operations on BNSF routes that host these two trains to be completed by the end of August.

“This is a great step for Amtrak,” said BNSF Assistant Vice President Network Control Systems Chris Matthews. “We have the infrastructure in place that allows Amtrak to operate on our network. We have partnered with them on the federal mandate and in some cases beyond the federal mandate to install PTC on subdivisions not required of BNSF. We look forward to continuing that partnership as they roll-out PTC along our routes.”

As for its own physical plant, Amtrak said it is making progress toward installing and activating PTC.

To date Amtrak said it has installed PTC on 380 of 444 Amtrak-owned locomotives and that 86 percent of the motive power fleet is PTC operable.

Amtrak said 607 of its 900 routes miles has PTC in operation, 95 percent of employees who require training have completed it, and 104 of 120 radio towers have PTC full installed and equipped.

The passenger carrier said it is working with its host railroads on PTC implementation and expects nearly all of them to qualify for an alternative PTC implementation schedule as allowed under federal law.

A risk analysis study is being undertaken for operating on routes under an extension or under an FRA-approved exemption.

That study is expected to result in developing strategies for enhancing safety on a route-by-route basis.

Reiterating a position that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson stated earlier, Amtrak said that on a very limited number of routes where a host railroad has not met the federal PTC deadline that Amtrak “will suspend service and may seek alternative modes of service until such routes come into compliance.”