Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Sunset Limited’

Funding Quest Continues in Alabama

February 14, 2020

The fight for local funding in Alabama to help pay for a proposed new Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, is far from over.

Proponents of the service are now asking the Mobile County Commission to also commit to providing funding.

Two of the three commissioners told local reporters this week that they think it is too early for the commission to decide on providing funding.

Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson said there has been no “formal” presentation or request of the commission although a third commissioner, Jerry Carl, supports the service and said he expects the county will potentially spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to support the construction of a new train station or platform.

“Our original conversation was for the county to come up with $1 million a year for three years,” Carl said. “That would build a train station and would be the maximum we could put into it. But we are waiting on (passenger rail advocates) to figure out their numbers. We’ll have our legal team talking to the city to make sure they OK with it. Nothing is guaranteed on (the project) until we see final numbers.”

Wiley Blankenship, an Alabama member of the Southern Rail Commission said his group will be approaching the commission sooner rather than later.

The Commission has been leading the efforts to return Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast.

The region has been without rail passenger service since the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“We don’t want to ask (for county assistance) until they are fully educated (on the issue) and that we give them all the information so they can evaluate it and so they can make the best decision for the taxpayers,” Blankenship said. “We’re planning on doing that over the next few weeks.”

Last week the Mobile City County approved a resolution committing the city to spending $3 million over three years to help pay for the service, which is projected to get started in 2023.

However, that financial commitment is contingent on other governmental or private entities agreeing to spend up to $2.2 million on capital improvements for the route.

That might involve having to get state funding for capital improvements, which might be a uncertain proposition given that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last year declined to support state funding for the service.

The capital improvement needs are expected to be spelled out in a study now being undertaken of how Amtrak service would affect host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

That study is expected to be finished this summer.

“Depending on what comes out of the study, I think the state will step in and it will be determined what role the state and county will play in terms of infrastructure,” Hudson said.

The Ivey administration said last week it is waiting to see where the county commission stands on the project.

Capital improvements for the New Orleans-Mobile route have already been projected at $5.786 million of which $2.89 million will come from a $33 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, and $671,000 from Amtrak.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi along with the online Mississippi cities of Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis have agreed to providing funding for the route.

Mobile City Council Approved Funding for Amtrak

February 8, 2020

The Mobile City Council this week approved a funding package to help underwrite the operating expenses of a proposed Mobile-New Orleans Amtrak service.

The council voted in favor of spending $3 million over a three-year period for the service, whose inauguration is projected to be in 2023.

The vote was critical because terms of a federal grant to get the service started require the states served to providing matching funds.

Although cities in and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to provide matching funding, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has thus far refused to do so.

Mobile is the first Alabama government entity to agree to provide funding.

The Gulf Coast region has been without intercity rail passenger service since Amtrak’s tri-week Sunset Limited was suspended east of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Restoration of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast region has been a top priority of the Southern Rail Commission., which worked to obtain the federal grant.

Mobile must still conduct a study of how the proposed service might affect CSX freight operations at the Port of Mobile.

Potential interference with freight trains has been cited by Ivey and others for their reluctance to support state funding of the service.

Opposition Continues to Funding of New Amtrak Route

January 25, 2020

Opposition continues to surround a proposal in Mobile, Alabama, for city funding of a proposed new Amtrak route linking the city with New Orleans.

The Mobile City Council is expected to vote on Jan. 28 on a resolution to endorse committing financial support toward the restoration of a route that last saw passenger service in August 2005 when the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina.

A three-member council finance committee declined to recommend voting in favor of the funding with some members saying that ticket revenue would not cover the costs of operating the trains.

Five council members must vote to approve the funding resolution in order for it to pass.

Mobile has proposed spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to help underwrite the Mobile-New Orleans service, which is expected to be two roundtrips a day.

State and local governments in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are facing a Feb. 5 deadline to approve matching funds for a Federal Railroad Administration grant that was announced earlier.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have approved their share of the funding and Amtrak has agreed to provide $6 million for capital projects needed to get the route started.

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey balked last year at approving that state’s share of the funding.

Ivey and some connected with the Port of Mobile have expressed reservations about the passenger service for fear that it would interfere with CSX freight service to the port.

The Rail Passengers Association said that Mobile’s $3 million commitment is crucial to bringing the service to fruition.

RPA said if Mobile votes against the funding, it would endanger the project.

Mississippi City Seeks Grant to Renovate Train Station

December 14, 2019

The city council of a Mississippi city located on a proposed Amtrak Gulf Coast route is seeking funding to renovate its history passenger train station.

The council of Bay Saint Louis is seeking the help of State Senator Philip Moran to obtain $1.6 million from the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund that would be used to upgrade the facility.

The grant application notes that the station needs waterproofing, improved parking and changes to make it conform with ADA accessibility standards.

The depot is a registered landmark in Mississippi and houses the Hancock County Tourism, Bay Saint Louis Mardi Gras Museum, and Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.

The Southern Rail Commission has been working to revive Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The trains are expected to stop in Bay Saint Louis. The Gulf Coast region has been off the Amtrak map since August 2005 when Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans following widespread damage to the route caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

A Bloomberg News reporter has given another glimpse into the worldview of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

Anderson is not a sentimental man. For him everything is about business.

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

Still, consider this comment from Anderson in response to a question about how his father, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, used to take the family on train trips to Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I didn’t come away with some huge love for trains, just like I don’t have some huge love for airplanes,” Anderson said. “They’re machines that you build a business around.”

Just machines? If you think about it that’s the response you might expect from a chief executive officer who spends his day looking at financial reports and making financial decisions.

It’s just that his predecessor as Amtrak president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, did have a passion for trains and that’s something that makes railroad enthusiasts feel better.

The Bloomberg portrait of Anderson doesn’t contain much more of his thinking that hasn’t been reported in other articles or he hasn’t said during occasional speeches and congressional testimony.

My key takeaway from the article was a better understanding of how Anderson got to be president and CEO of Amtrak and why.

I’ve long argued Anderson is not a rogue operator or a Trojan Horse who has surprised those who hired him.

Anderson may get most of the criticism but one of the lesser discussed elements of the many changes that have been made at Amtrak in the past two years is that Anderson was hired by a board of directors who would have spent considerable time with him before offering him the job.

They would have asked questions about his vision for Amtrak and his philosophy about transportation generally.

They knew what they were getting: A former airline CEO, yes, but also a former prosecutor.

Leonard described Anderson as having the cerebral demeanor of a senior college professor.

The reporter quoted a former boss, Texas prosecutor Bert Graham, as saying Anderson was one of his office’s best trial lawyers. “He had a way of seeing through bullshit,” Graham said.

Amtrak board members might have thought Anderson’s no nonsense approach was exactly what the passenger carrier needed.

He had the personality to do what previous Amtrak presidents had been unable or unwilling to do.

In that sense, the Amtrak board might have been like the parent of a spoiled child who hopes a teacher will do what the parent failed to do in imposing discipline.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, indirectly touched on that point when he observed that Anderson was hired to operate Amtrak like a profit-making company such as Delta Air Lines, where Anderson served as CEO between 2007 and 2016.

“He looked everybody in the eye and said, ‘OK, are you guys ready for this? We’re going to break some stuff.’ And everyone said, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And then he started breaking stuff. And people were like, ‘Wait, hold up. Stop! What?’ ”

And that is the crux of why Anderson is so unpopular with many passenger train advocates. He broke too many of their favorite dishes and was unapolegetic about it. He didn’t even pretend to regret it.

Anderson knows that, telling Leonard, “Most of the critics are the people who yearn for the halcyon days of long-distance transportation.”

Leonard wrote that Anderson started to lose his cool when asked if he was trying to kill Amtrak’s long-distance routes as many of his detractors have contended.

No, he answers, Amtrak will continue to operate those routes as Congress has directed and will spend $75 million next year refurbishing passenger cars assigned to long-distance service and spend another $40 million on new locomotives.

But Anderson also reiterated a point he’s made numerous times. He wants to break up some long-distance routes into shorter corridors and transform other long distance trains – he specifically mentioned the Empire Builder and California Zephyr – into experiential trains.

Anderson said he planned to ask Congress next year to authorize an “experiment” of breaking up some long-distance routes, citing the tri-weekly Sunset Limited as one Amtrak would like to address.

He knows that won’t play well with many. “Part of the problem is that the people that are the big supporters of long distance are all emotional about it,” Anderson said. “This is not an emotionally based decision. They should be reading our financials.”

Anderson can be confrontational and doesn’t mind, as the Bloomberg piece noted, throwing an elbow or two against a critic or competitor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because at his level the competition can be cutthroat as companies and organizations look to further their own interests.

The article noted that in an effort to confront the host freight railroads that handle Amtrak trains in most of the country Amtrak instituted quarterly report cards that grade how well they dispatch Amtrak trains on time.

Confrontation may be a useful tactic but it also has a price.

Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, discussed that with reporter Leonard as they rode a two-hour tardy Crescent through Mississippi toward New Orleans.

Ross said he has talked with managers at Amtrak’s host railroads who hate those report cards.

Those host railroads may not be so keen about cooperating with Amtrak to implement Anderson’s vision of corridor service between urban centers that airlines no longer serve.

The SRC has been pushing for the creation of a corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Federal funding has been approved and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding. But Alabama thus far has balked.

And, Ross, said, CSX, which would host the trains, doesn’t want them.

No date has yet been announced for when the New Orleans-Mobile route will begin and Ross sees the obstacles to getting that corridor up and running as a preview of what Anderson and Amtrak will face if the passenger carrier seeks to create the type of corridor services it has talked about creating.

In the meantime, Anderson continues to look for ways to cut costs as he works toward his goal of making Amtrak reach the break-even point on its balance sheet from an operational standpoint as early as next year.

Then Amtrak can take the money it now spends underwriting operating losses and use it to buy new equipment and rebuild infrastructure.

If you want to read Leonard’s piece, you can find it here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-11-20/amtrak-ceo-has-no-love-lost-for-dining-cars-long-haul-routes

But be forewarned that he has bought into the conventional wisdom of how the Northeast Corridor is profitable and the long-distance routes and state-funded corridors are not.

The piece is also heavy on the nostalgia angle, particularly in regards to the recent changes in onboard dining services and the historic role of passenger trains in America.

Yet if you can adopt even a little bit of Anderson’s “just the facts mam” personality, you will see where he’s coming from and have a better understanding as to why he has been doing what he’s done.

Resolutions Seeking Expanded Amtrak Service

October 8, 2019

Public officials in states are pushing for an expansion of Amtrak service.

The Commissioners in Bexas County, Texas, approved a resolution asking Amtrak to seek funding to operate its New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited on a daily schedule.

Trains 1 and 2 now operate tri-weekly and Texas passenger train advocates contend that ridership would triple if the Sunset Limited operated daily.

In Montana, the Missoula County Commissions will launch a campaign to talk with other counties about supporting an effort to lobby to reinstate the North Coast Hiawatha from Seattle to at least Helena, Montana.

The campaign will seek to build support to create an entity within the state that can accept federal grants and other help to get the train launched.

“This is something I’ve been interested in and involved with for more than a decade,” said Commission Chairman David Strohmaier.

“There’s been several efforts to get this going through legislation on the state and federal level, but those efforts never made it too far. It became a dead issue. Rather than repeat what’s been tried in the past, I want to examine what the county can do to push this idea forward.”

A 2010 study of reviving the North Coast Hiawatha found that it would require $28 million in capital and $159 million to operate the service.

The North Coast Hiawatha operated between Chicago and Seattle through early October 1979, generally following the former Northern Pacific mainline west of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Access to Maricopa Station Changed

September 20, 2019

A highway construction project has resulted in the blocking of the normal access route to the Amtrak station in Maricopa, Arizona.

In a service advisory Amtrak said the opening of a new Arizona Route 347 overpass joining John Wayne Parkway and North Maricopa Road has resulted in the closing of the railroad crossing next to the Maricopa station is now closed.

Access roads to and from the station, as well as surrounding roads, are under construction and have significantly changed.

Electronic mapping apps do not reflect the changes and may show incorrect directions to the station, which is served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited.

Northbound vehicles are being advised to make a U-turn at Edison Road to access businesses and the station on Hathaway Avenue and the new Maricopa Road.

Southbound vehicles should stay in the right lane to merge on to the new Maricopa Road to access businesses.

Drivers can now access businesses south of the railroad tracks on the new Maricopa Road.

The former Route 347 alignment between Hathaway Avenue and just south of Honeycutt Avenue is being renamed Maricopa Road as a result of the overpass project. New street signs will be installed when the project is complete.

For more information on this project visit: https://azdot.gov/projects/central-district-projects/state-route-347-union-pacific-railroad.

Ceremony Marks Start of NOLA Station Project

September 10, 2019

A ceremony held recently marked the ceremonial start of platform rebuilding at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

The $6.643 million project will bring the boarding platforms in the terminal to ADA standards as well as expand the canopy covering the platform.

Other work will upgrade the air, water and other systems, place fences and gates to improve security, and create facilities to permit trains to be used for evacuation.

Funding for the project is split among a $3.7 million federal grant, $2 million in matching funds from the City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Building Commission, and $943,000 from Amtrak.

New Orleans is terminus of three Amtrak long-distance routes linking Chicago (City of New Orleans), Los Angeles (Sunset Limited) and New York (Crescent).

19 Hurt When Sunset Limited Hits Truck in Texas

September 2, 2019

Eighteen people aboard Amtrak’s eastbound Sunset Limited suffered minor injuries when No. 2 struck a truck in Texas on Friday.

The front wheels of lead P42DC No. 20 derailed but the rest of the train remained on the tracks.

The accident occurred in Liberty County, near Dayton, Texas, about 40 miles northeast of Houston.

Also injured was the truck driver. The truck had a tractor and trailer.

Workers uncoupled the lead locomotive from the rest of the train, which continued on to New Orleans.

The consist of No. 2 was reported to be P42DC Nos. 20 and 183, Viewliner baggage car 61047 and Superline cars 39003, 32042, 38055, 33027, 31026 and 34049.

No. 20 was railed and set aisde. Upon reaching New Orleans, the equipment was turned to become westbound No. 1, which departed 3 hours, 17 minutes late.

U.S. DOT Awards Grant for Gulf Coast Service

August 31, 2019

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday announced that it will award a $4.36 million grant to the Southern Rail Commission to help restore intercity rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The service, expected to be two round trips per day, will use tracks formerly served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until August 2005 when it was suspended in the wake of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The grant is being made through the federal Restoration and Enhancement program and is intended to help pay operating expenses for the first year of service.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have committed $1.4 million toward the service while another $33 million federal grant award to get the service started was awarded through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program for infrastructure and capital improvements.

However, Alabama officials have yet to agree to provide any funding for the service.

SRC officials said they hope Alabama state officials will support the passenger rail restoration by providing matching funds during the next grant cycle.

“I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners and Alabama state leadership to provide the necessary support to leverage additional federal operating funds to make Gulf Coast Rail a reality,” said Wiley Blankenship, an SRC member from Alabama.

Another stumbling block that must be overcome is reaching an agreement with host railroad CSX on the infrastructure work that is needed before passenger trains can resume using the route.

Likewise, an operating agreement with CSX also needs to be negotiated.