Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Sunset Limited’

Palm Springs Station Temporarily Closed

May 21, 2021

Damage caused by sandstorms has led to the temporary closing of the Amtrak station in Palm Springs, California.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said the storms caused sand drifts near the station, which resulted in unsafe conditions.

The advisory said Amtrak is working with host railroad Union Pacific to repair the station area as soon as possible.

Palm Springs is served by the tri-weekly New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited.

CSX, NS Seek Dismissal of Amtrak STB Case Over Gulf Coast Service

April 30, 2021

CSX and Norfolk Southern have asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to dismiss Amtrak’s petition asking regulators to force the two Class 1 railroads to allow operation of new Gulf Coast passenger service next year.

The host railroads said Amtrak’s complaint is not “ripe” because they have not refused Amtrak’s proposed service.

In a filing, the two railroads said they want Amtrak to live up to the commitments it made to complete a joint rail traffic controller modeling study to determine the infrastructure that will be required to support the service Amtrak wants to implement.

Amtrak has proposed operating two daily roundtrips between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The filing by NS and CSX also contends that Amtrak has not submitted an environmental and historic report with its STB petition, and that Congress did not give Amtrak any cause of action that could support its demand for an “interim order” allowing it to enter other railroads’ lines to perform preparations for new service before the STB decides whether the new service will be allowed.

Furthermore, the host railroads argued that Amtrak lacks important state support to ensure success of the proposed service.

At the center of the dispute is Amtrak’s withdrawing from a traffic study the host railroads contend must be completed before they will discuss what infrastructure improvements are needed to accommodate passenger service.

For its part, Amtrak contends the railroads hindered completion of the study by changing its parameters as it was being conducted.

The passenger carrier at the time it filed its request with the STB in February said it was seeking to force NS and CSX to demonstrate why they cannot host the proposed service.

In statement released after the host railroads asked the STB to dismiss the case, Amtrak said the matter is being considered by regulators and the intercity passenger carrier “fully anticipate the STB’s process will be both transparent and data driven. We will respond to all filings through that docket.”

At the time that Amtrak went to the STB, an Amtrak spokesman indicated that discussions about instituting the service have been ongoing for five years with no sign of a conclusion in sight.

Amtrak contends that federal law gives it a right of access to the host railroads for the proposed Mobile service.

In the past week, the STB case has also drawn the attention of various Alabama political officials.

Gov. Kay Ivey called for completion of the traffic study, which she said it critical for protecting the economic interests of the Port of Mobile.

Ivey said she wants the STB to order Amtrak to complete the traffic study before considering Amtrak’s application.

The governor’s statement to the STB also said, “Alabama has withheld funding for new Gulf Coast passenger service because of our concern that any economic benefit from new passenger rail service will be outweighed by the potential harm to freight rail service based on the current infrastructure. I am particularly concerned about the impact to the Port of Mobile. . .”

Mobile Port Authority CEO John C. Driscoll also has asked the STB to order Amtrak to complete the traffic study.

Port Officials have long expressed concern that passenger operations will adversely affect CSX freight service to the port.

Driscoll said in his statement that the port authority “does not oppose passenger rail into the City of Mobile, but we do have deep concerns regarding Amtrak’s impact on servicing current freight rail as well as servicing future freight capacity demand in the CSX corridor.”

Until August 2005 Amtrak served Mobile with its tri-weekly Sunset Limited, which operated along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

Operation of Nos. 1 and 2 east of New Orleans was suspended after the route was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Amtrak to Pay for Gulf Coast Station Rehabilitation

March 13, 2021

Amtrak wants to pay to repair station platforms once used by its Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

The platforms would be used by a proposed new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, that Amtrak wants to begin in 2022.

The boarding sites were damaged in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after the storm stuck, Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

Amtrak is seeking approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to make the station repairs.

Amtrak Vice President of Stations and Accessibility, David Handera, said at a recently meeting of the Southern Rail Commission that the repairs are the first phase of a rehabilitation project Amtrak plans to undertake to ready the route for passenger service.

The stations are located in four Mississippi cities, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Pascagoula, and Biloxi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Handera said a temporary platform is needed in Pascagoula because CSX tracks has seen been related always from the site of the former platform.

“We are working with the FRA on assembling funding sources for the short-term and long-term repairs,” Handera said.

He said Amtrak would develop in a second phase of the project “new accessible, well-lit platforms.”

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains to Resume Daily Service

March 11, 2021

Amtrak said Wednesday it will reinstate daily service on 12 long-distance routes starting in late May.

Trains on those routes shifted last year to tri-weekly or quad-weekly service in the wake of steep ridership declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of expanded service came hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pandemic relief package that contains increased funding for Amtrak.

The legislation also contains a mandate that routes that had daily service until last year resume daily operation and that furloughed employees be recalled.

President Joseph Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion bill on Friday.

Two routes, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will be unaffected by the changes because those routes have operated on tri-weekly schedules for years.

Amtrak has already resumed selling tickets for the expanded days of operation on the 12 routes.

Trains returning to daily service on May 24 include the Chicago-Emeryville, California, California Zephyr; Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight; Chicago-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, and the Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles Texas Eagle.

Daily operation returns May 31 for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans, Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Resuming daily operation on June 7 will be the New York-New Orleans Crescent, New York-Savannah Palmetto, and the New York-Miami Silver Meteor (via Savannah) and Silver Star (via Raleigh).

In a news release, Amtrak said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be making their debut on the Silver Service trains.

The Auto Train had continued to operate daily and its operations will remain unchanged.

Amtrak will receive $1.7 billion in emergency pandemic aid, which will help fund restoration of daily service on long-distance routes.

Amtrak Trying to Pressure Host Railroads on Gulf Coast Service

March 2, 2021

Amtrak is trying to pressure two host railroads by announcing its plans to begin service in 2022 on the New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama, route.

In a statement, Amtrak said it continues to discuss with CSX and Norfolk Southern what infrastructure improvements are needed before the service can begin.

The service is expected to operate twice daily over a portion of the route once used by the Sunset Limited until August 2005.

Most funding for the service is already approved and includes state and federal money.

News reports indicate that Amtrak made the announcement even though a traffic study of the route is incomplete.

That study, which Amtrak is paying for, will use a computer simulation program to study how passengers operations might affect freight operations on the route.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the study should have taken just seven months but remains far from complete more than a year after it began.

He told Trains magazine that discussions between Amtrak and the host railroads have been going on for five years with no agreement near.

Amtrak’s announcement said the passenger carrier has “again asked the freight railroads where they believe there are more issues. We safely and successfully operate together elsewhere in the United States, with dependable freight service coexisting with reliable and relevant Amtrak service. That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves, too.”

The Southern Rail Commission has been pushing for a resumption of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, for several years.

CSX has said that the traffic study needs to be completed before it will have any further discussion about hosting the Amtrak service.

One sticking point is how Amtrak operations might affect rail traffic at the Port of Mobile.

In its own statement, CSX said it has “prioritized this Amtrak Gulf Coast study, treating each step as expeditiously as possible.”

The statement said CSX wants to ensure that the model is compliant with federal law.

“Not only are we committed to seeing its completion, but the STB [U.S. Surface Transportation Board] has a statutory obligation to determine if a new passenger service unreasonably interferes with freight operations. It is critical that this study and the full infrastructure impact assessment is completed.”

An analysis posted on the Trains website concludes that the CSX statement illustrates why the development of the route has taken so long and why Amtrak has lost patience with the process: The host railroads, particularly CSX, keep changing the parameters.

Trains said none of the three parties was willing to reveal any details of the capacity study, including preliminary findings, specific infrastructure change requests, or the timeline of negotiations.

Nonetheless, a 2017 Federal Railroad Administration report by the Gulf Coast Working Group set forth a list of $66 million of improvements that were needed to resume service between New Orleans and Mobile.

These included a house track at the Mobile station that would enable trains to get off the mainline; a signaled passing track around CSX’s Gentilly Yard in New Orleans; a second main track extension to accommodate long freight trains at Bay St. Louis, Mississppi; an automated junction in Gulfport, Mississippi; and yard capacity expansion at Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have set aside capital funds and Mississippi has agreed to help provide operating support.

But Alabama has not committed any funding and Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed opposition to the service, citing how it might disrupt freight access to the Port of Mobile.

The Mobile City County has agreed to spend more than $3 million over three years toward infrastructure improvements to get the Amtrak service started.

Amtrak has tentatively named the New Orleans-Mobile trains Gulf Coast Service and said they would serve four intermediate stations, all in Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

The trains would use NS tracks for a short distance within New Orleans.

Magliari said that Amtrak safely and successfully coexists on other rail lines. “That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves, too,” he said.

A story posted on the Railway Age website speculated that the Port of Mobile may have leaked information to local news media over concerns that the new passenger service might hinder CSX freight service.

The Railway Age article said the Gulf Coast service may end up becoming a test case for how the STB will handles future intercity passenger rail proposals involving Amtrak, state entities and host freight railroads when the parties are unable to reach an agreement to allow new or expanded service.

For its part, an NS spokesman said his company’s position is similar to that of CSX.

“There is an established process for introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries,” said Jeff DeGraff.

“It involves identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers.”

DeGraff said NS welcomes the prospect that this process will be revived and completed in the proposed Mobile-New Orleans service.

Wiley Blankenship, chairman of the SRC, told Railway Age his agency remains “cautiously optimistic about Amtrak’s intention to start running trains again.”

He acknowledged that additional work needs to be done to address the concerns of the Port of Mobile before service can start.

SRC has worked for years to land public funding for Gulf Coast service including federal and state grants.

One federal grant will help pay for the operating costs of the service in its first three years.

Magliari told an Alabama news outlet that “instead of postponing the publicly sought and desired new Amtrak service for an indefinite period, we have notified the railroads that we believe we can start the service. There is money set aside for the capital improvements. There is money granted for the operating costs.”

Amtrak will provide more details about the proposed Gulf Coast service during a March 5 SRC meeting.

Winter Conditions Cause More Service Disruptions

February 18, 2021

Harsh winter weather continued to lead to delays and cancellations for Amtrak on Wednesday, including in the Midwest.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said a week of temperatures near zero caused a series of “weather-related equipment issues.”

A Chicago-Port Huron, Michigan Blue Water round trip was cancelled on Wednesday as a result.

Reportedly, the problem involved the train’s two Charger locomotives and Amtrak maintenance was unable to fix the issue.

The same day the Chicago-bound Pere Marquette, which originates in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was terminated at its first intermediate stop in Hollard, Michigan, due to equipment problems.

Passengers were transferred to a bus to complete their journey to their destination.

Several corridor and long-distance trains that did operate on Tuesday and Wednesday encountered lengthy departure delays from Chicago.

After a late Tuesday arrival in Chicago from Carbondale, Illinois, the Saluki was canceled on Wednesday and its counterpart to Carbondale, the Illini, was cancelled that day.

Both trains were cancelled on Wednesday. Reportedly the problem that led to the cancellation of the Illini was a computer issue on the locomotive that locked up the brakes so that they would not release.

Elsewhere, Amtrak canceled trains in Virginia and the Carolinas ahead of a winter storm expected to bring ice and snow to the region.

The Auto Train was cancelled in both directions on today. Also cancelled were trains that terminate at Norfolk, Newport News, and Roanoke in Virginia, and the Palmetto to Savannah, Georgia.

The northbound counterparts to these trains have been cancelled for Thursday and Friday.

In the West the Coast Starlight has resumed operating over its entire route.

However, Wednesday departures of the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles and New Orleans were cancelled.

The Texas Eagle will originate in San Antonio, Texas, on Friday as scheduled. The westbound Texas Eagle will resume departing from Chicago on Friday.

The Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, Heartland Flyer remains suspended until Feb. 20.

2 Hurt When Sunset Limited Hits Truck

November 7, 2020

Three people were taken to a hospital after Amtrak’s eastbound Sunset Limited struck a dump trunk earlier this week in Duson, Louisiana.

One those treated was an Amtrak passengers. News reports indicated that Train 2 had 27 passengers and eight crew members on board the accident occurred at a grade crossing in and unincorporated area near Lafayette.

The train partially derailed. The driver of the truck was in serious condition at the hospital.

Zeta Prompts Service Cancellations to New Orleans

October 28, 2020

Amtrak has canceled all service to New Orleans due to Tropical Storm Zeta with no alternative transportation being provided.

Affected are the Sunset Limited, Crescent and City of New Orleans.

The Sunset Limited will operate only between Los Angeles and San Antonio, a move that began with the train that departed Los Angeles on Tuesday (Oct. 27).

Train No. 2 will originate in San Antonio on Thursday (Oct. 29).

The Crescent will operate between New York and Atlanta starting with the train that originated in New York on Tuesday.

The next train from Atlanta to New York was to depart on Thursday.

The City of New Orleans has been canceled for the length of its route.

Amtrak said alternative service is being provided between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, by the northbound Saluki and southbound Illini.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said passengers whose travel has been disrupted should contact it at 800-USA-RAIL.There will be no change or cancellation fees imposed.

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 16, 2020

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

Hurricane Delta Leads to Amtrak Service Cancellations to and from New Orleans

October 10, 2020

Amtrak has canceled service due to Hurricane Delta, which made landfall on the Louisiana coast on Saturday morning and is expected to affect New Orleans.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said the Sunset Limited that left Los Angeles on Friday will terminate in San Antonio, Texas on Sunday.

The westbound Sunset Limited will originate in San Antonio on Oct. 13 and operate to Los Angeles as scheduled.

No substitute transportation is available between New Orleans and San Antonio.

The Crescent that left New York on Oct. 9 will terminate today in Atlanta with no substitute service being offered between there and New Orleans.

The northbound Crescent will originate in Atlanta through Sunday.

The City of New Orleans was canceled on Friday and Saturday with no substitute service south of Carbondale, Illinois.

Passengers planning to ride Nos. 58 and 59 between Chicago and Carbondale were being accommodated on the northbound Saluki or southbound Illini.