Posts Tagged ‘Chicago-Carbondale corridor’

Coming and Going

November 9, 2021

My objective was to get Amtrak’s Saluki amid some fall foliage on a sun slashed Sunday morning. I came across this colorful tree in Pesotum, Illinois, along the Champaign Subdivision of host railroad Canadian National.

Nos. 390 and 391 are scheduled to pass this location within an hour of each other although delays to No. 391 pushed the envelope to more than an hour.

As has been the case for more than a year, both trains continue to operate with Superliner equipment. It is interesting to note that due to a CN-mandated minimum axle requirement the Saluki operates with more Superliner cars than does the Capitol Limited.

Amtrak Daytrip to Carbondale Trip Report

October 3, 2021

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, on Sept. 12, 2021.

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, behind an SC-44 Charger locomotive.

Back in July Amtrak sent me an email warning that my Amtrak Guest Rewards account had been inactive for 24 months and my points would expire in mid September.

The email listed ways to keep my account active including buying an Amtrak ticket or redeeming points for travel or Amtrak-branded merchandise.

I filed all of this in my “to do” mental folder. As September dawned I needed to do something.

My account had 21,000 points, which isn’t enough for a spectacular trip, but I didn’t want to lose those points either.

I thought about using points for a day trip to Chicago on the Cardinal. I also considered making a short trip from Effingham to Mattoon, Illinois, on the Saluki, an Illinois Department of Transportation funded train between Chicago and Carbondale.

The distance between those two towns is 27 miles and the trip takes just 24 minutes. That wouldn’t be much of a train ride.

Instead I decided on something I hadn’t done since 1983.

The equipment for the southbound Saluki lays over in Carbondale for 2 hours, 20 minutes before returning to Chicago as the Illini.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had on occasion ridden Train 391 from Mattoon to Carbondale and returned that evening on Train 392. In those days they were named the Shawnee.

Since I was last in Carbondale, the Illinois Central passenger station has been renovated and received an IC equipment display of a GP11 and caboose. I could photograph that.

Amtrak opened a new Carbondale station three blocks south in October 1981. I have hundreds of photographs of Amtrak trains on the former Main Line of Mid-America but none in Carbondale.

However, instead of leaving from Mattoon, I would depart from Effingham.

I planned to use points for the trip but that changed when I discovered a one-way non-refundable fare of $8. Even if for some reason I couldn’t make the trip I would only be out $16.

I booked it for Sunday, Sept. 12, a mere three days before my points were to expire.

Booking travel on Amtrak is more involved than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must click a box agreeing to wear a mask in stations and aboard the train.

Amtrak also tried to get me to buy trip insurance. Did they really think I was going to do that for a $16 ticket?

The afternoon before my trip Amtrak sent me an email directing me to fill out a short form online. Aside from the standard COVID symptoms questions that I’ve become used to answering every time I visit a doctor I also had to agree – again – to wear a mask.

On the day of the trip I arrived at the Effingham station three hours before train time to get in some railfanning before No. 391 arrived.

Effingham back in the day had a station used by the IC and Pennsylvania Railroad. Flanking the passenger station were express depots for both railroads.

Today the passenger station is a cosmetology school and the ex-PRR express depot is used by a catering company as a kitchen.

Amtrak uses half of the ex-IC express depot with the other half used by a tattoo parlor.

I arrived to find work underway to rebuild the Amtrak boarding platform, which complicated my photography due to high construction zone fences and orange fabric barriers.

CSX sent one train through town, an eastbound grain train, while Canadian National sent two northbounds and a southbound past the station.

A CN train working the yard came north of the diamonds for headroom and to clear the block before going back into the yard.

Three of the four CN trains had IC SD70 locomotives wearing the pre-merger IC black “death star” livery.

One of the southbounds had a motive power consist of two IC “death stars” and a Grand Trunk Western geep in its original livery. Talk about a heritage consist.

I also observed the coming and going of the northbound Saluki.

For nearly a year Amtrak has assigned Superliner equipment to its Chicago-Carbondale trains. The Saluki and Illini are pulled by SC-44 Charger locomotives owned by IDOT and leased by Amtrak.

My foray to Carbondale would be my first trip behind a Charger locomotive. Interestingly, my first trip aboard a Superliner coach was a day trip to Carbondale in June 1979 when the then-new cars were in break-service on Midwest corridor trains before being assigned to the Empire Builder that October.

No. 391 was about 15 minutes late. I stood alone on the platform, mask firmly in place, the only passenger to board on this day.

I wasn’t surprised. When I had bought my ticket Train 391 was shown as at 13 percent of capacity.

I presented my ticket to the conductor but he said he had already checked me off. About 10 passengers disembarked.

I was one of just two passengers in my coach. The conductor came to my seat and asked if I had ridden with Amtrak before.

Yes, I have – many times actually – but not since before the pandemic. The conductor noted there was a café car up ahead. I didn’t plan to patronize it but thanked the conductor for that information anyway.

I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching the countryside pass by. It had been more than three decades since I had seen Southern Illinois in daylight from the vantage point of an Amtrak coach window.

As we slowed for the Centralia station, a northbound BNSF coal train passed on an adjacent track. It had a distributed power unit on the rear.

Centralia was once the home of a large IC car shop. As best I could determine, most of that complex is gone.

It used to be that southbound passenger trains went around the Centralia yard complex on the west side. That wasn’t the case today although I could see that track still goes over that way.

We passed the yard on the east side.

The yard had a moderate number of freight cars and some motive power, including the two “death stars” and GTW geep I had seen earlier. A massive coaling tower still stands in the yard.

Our next stop was Du Quoin where Amtrak shares a small modern depot with the local chamber of commerce. It opened in August 1989.

Carbondale used to have a large yard, too, but most of it is gone. The former St. Louis division offices were razed years ago.

All that’s left are a few tracks and the twin coaling towers that stand near where the roundhouse used to be.

Due to schedule padding we arrived at the Carbondale station 15 minutes early and slightly less than two hours after leaving Effingham

It turns out most of the Carbondale passengers had been in other coaches.

Shortly after No. 391 arrived, the crew backed the equipment north to the yard and turned it on a wye track.

I made photographs of the ferry move in both directions passing the former IC station.

It was a warm day and I walked to a Circle K to get a large bottle of Gatorade. I walked around a bit, photographing the old IC station, which houses a small railroad museum that wasn’t open on this day, as well as offices of the chamber of commerce and a non-profit organization that promotes downtown Carbondale.

A statue of an IC conductor pays tribute to the railroad’s long history in Carbondale, which used to be where St. Louis cars were added or removed from trains bound to and from New Orleans and Florida.

A northbound CN tank car train came through during my layover.

I was dismayed to find the Carbondale Amtrak station is only open during the day on Wednesdays. But it’s open seven days a week at night to accommodate passengers for the City of New Orleans, which arrives in both directions in the dead of night.

There were around 50 of us waiting outside the station.

There would be just one conductor on tonight’s Train 392. He opened two doors of the train and stood on the platform.

I was expecting him to come up to the crowd and announce that boarding was ready to begin.

Instead he raised an arm and waved it a bit, which I interpreted as a signal to come out and get on board.

I started walking toward the train and the crowd followed me. Everyone was put in the same car.

We left on time and made the same stops as we had earlier. In Centralia I spotted a young man running from the parking lot toward the train, which was about done boarding.

If the conductor saw him, he ignored him because the train began moving. I expected the conductor to see the guy and order the engineer to stop. But we kept going.

CN and Amtrak have been at loggerheads for years over a number of operating issues including CN’s edict that Amtrak operate with a minimum number of axles to ensure that grade crossing signals are activated.

That is in part why I was riding a train with seven Superliner cars with far fewer passengers than the train’s capacity.

Amtrak and CN also have sparred over dispatching with Amtrak accusing CN of needlessly delaying Amtrak’s trains.

I know from years of experience in riding Amtrak between Mattoon and Chicago that delays due to freight train interference are not uncommon, particularly around Champaign.

But on this day we didn’t meet a single CN freight during on my trip.

I was the only passenger getting off at Effingham. Seven people were waiting on the platform to board.

A woman at the back of the line was not wearing a facial mask and the conductor refused to let her board.

I don’t know why she was maskless, but as I walked to my car I noticed the conductor had placed the step box aboard the train and stood in the doorway as the woman gestured while making her case – whatever that was – for not wearing a mask.

The conductor was having none of it and No. 392 left with the woman standing on the platform.

It had been an enjoyable outing and not all that much different from other trips I’ve made on Amtrak. The number of passengers aboard was less than I expected given that it was a Sunday, which normally is a heavy travel day on this route.

Sometime within the next year new Siemens Venture cars are expected to be assigned to Midwest corridor trains and maybe I’ll do another Carbondale roundtrip to experience them.

Two IC SD70s and a Grant Trunk geep pass the under construction new boarding platform in Effingham.
The DPU on a northbound BNSF coal train in Centralia
Disembarking at the Carbondale Amtrak station.
The equipment for the Illini backs past the former IC station in Carbondale.
A northbound CN tank car train passes the Carbondale Amtrak station where the Illini awaits its 4:05 p.m. departure.

CN Pledges Better Handling of Amtrak Trains

July 21, 2021

Canadian National pledged on Monday to do a better job hosting Amtrak trains on its network.

During an investor’s call to discuss second quarter earnings, CN CEO J.J. Ruest said his company knows hosting Amtrak service is part of CN’s social license to operate in the United States.

Ruest acknowledged there’s always room for improvement in how CN handles Amtrak trains.

Amtrak and CN have been at odds for years over dispatching and other matters, particularly how Amtrak trains are dispatched between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

CN has imposed a minimum axle count on Amtrak trains, forcing them to run with deadhead cars to meet that standard. The two railroads have also clashed over track safety performance issues.

CN managers said during the earnings call that the Montreal-based carrier has an open mind about how to be a better partner with passenger service as well as Amtrak.

That comment might have been aimed in part at criticism of CN’s handling of VIA Rail Canada trains.

CN is seeking regulatory approval in the United States to acquire Kansas City Southern.

The comments made by CN executives were aimed, at least in part, at Amtrak’s opposition to CN plans to place KCS stock into a voting trust while the merger is reviewed.

Opponents of the CN-KCS combination have pointed out that KCS owns a route between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that might be used for future Amtrak service.

During the earnings call, CN executives said it will work with Amtrak to launch that service if funding can obtained for the service.

CN executives said that in the latest Amtrak report car of its host railroads CN was rated as one of the top railroads in terms of service and this is evidence it will continue to work with the U.S. intercity passenger carrier.

New Venture Cars Tested in Illinois

April 15, 2021

Amtrak made test runs this week of three Siemens Venture coaches pulled by Charger locomotives between Edgewood and Kinmundy, Illinois, on Canadian National tracks.

The test trains evaluated the ability of the new equipment to shunt electric current between rails on CN’s former Illinois Central mainline.

Scheduled Amtrak operations on the CN line between Chicago and New Orleans are required by the host railroad to have a minimum of 30 axles.

Studies conducted by CN, Amtrak, and the Federal Railroad Administration have yet to conclude what track, wheel, or rolling stock issues might cause an interruption of a shunt, which is necessary to activiate signals and highway warning devices.

The test train had three Viewliner II baggage cars, but those were reported to be excluded from the tests, which were to use various locomotive and passenger car combinations.

On Time at Pesotum

March 5, 2021

Amtrak’s daily Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, combination is still running these days with Superliner equipment. The northbound train, which operates as the Saluki, is on time as it barrels through Pesotum, Illinois, en route to its next station at Champaign-Urbana.

This equipment will turn later in the day to return to Carbondale as the Illini.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year about this time, the Illinois Department of Transportation paid for a pair of Chicago-Carbondale roundtrips. For now it is only sponsoring one roundtrip.

This image was made on Feb. 27.

CN Track Work to Disrupt Illinois Service

January 13, 2021

Track work being conducted by host railroad Canadian National will result in the cancellation of Amtrak’s northbound Saluki and southbound Illini between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, on Jan. 15.

In a service advisory Amtrak said no alternative transportation is being provided to any of the stations on the affected day.

Instead, it recommended that passengers choose an alternative date for travel.

The advisory said passengers traveling to or from Champaign or Carbondale would be able to use Amtrak Thruway buses or vans as an alternative.

Those services link Carbondale with St. Louis and Champaign with Normal, Illinois, where passengers would be able to transfer to another Amtrak train.

However, the advisory said travel times via those options will be longer than the normal Amtrak service.

Although service suspensions in the Chicago-Carbondale corridor due to CN track work have occurred before, Amtrak usually provided bus transportation to accommodate displayed passengers.

Charging Past Some Late Fall Color

November 24, 2020

There was still some good fall foliage to be had in Pesotum, Illinois, in early November when I caught Amtrak’s northbound Saluki.

On the point is a Siemens Charger leading a consist of Superliner cars that likely have been bumped from long-distance train service when most of those trains shifted to tri-weekly operation this past October.

SB Illini to Run 30 Minutes Later Due to CN Track Work

October 30, 2020

Canadian National track work will result in temporary schedule changes for Amtrak’s Chicago to Carbondale, Illini, between Nov. 2 and 20.

Train 393 during that period will depart Chicago at 4:35 p.m., 30 minutes later than normally scheduled, on Monday through Friday.

Train arrival times will be 30 minutes later than scheduled at all stations to Carbondale.

The normal schedule will be in effect on Saturdays and Sundays.

Ground Breaking Ceremony Held for Rebuilding of the Amtrak, Metra Homewood Station

September 30, 2020

A conductor picks up a step box after passengers have finished disembarking from the northbound Illini at Homewood, Illinois in September 1996

A groundbreaking ceremony was held this week to mark the launch of a $29 million project to renovate the Homewood, Illinois, Amtrak and Metra station.

The work, which began in July, will improve the accessibility of the facility located alongside Canadian National tracks and served by Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, Illini and Saluki.

Workers will replace the station stairway and install a ramp to allow passengers access to a tunnel under the tracks, which leads to the boarding platforms.

Other work planned for next year includes leveling the path between the station building, parking area and entrance to the tunnel.

Metra plans to replace its existing station structure on the east side of the tracks, renovate the existing tunnel and create accessible paths from both ends of the tunnel.

The tunnel, which is 109 years old, will be waterproofed, receive improved lighting, drainage and ventilation systems, and be coated in a graffiti resistant finish.

Amtrak is spending $15 million on the $29 million project, Metra is chipping in $14 million, the village of Homewood will contribute $585,000 and Cook County will provide $300,000.

The Homewood station was built by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1923.

Amtrak plans to build a ramp building to house the elevator and walkways. The work also includes renovating the waiting area and restrooms of the existing station.

“We’ll put down new tile and move some walls to make the restrooms accessible, but you should be able to distinguish what is new and what was original to this space without taking away any of the history or character of the building — it’s really a beautiful station,” Amtrak Project Manager Jamie Shindell said.

For now Amtrak passengers are unable to board or disembark from trains in Homewood due to the construction.

Instead, they are riding buses to and from the next Amtrak station to the south, Kankakee.

Amtrak expects trains to resume boarding and disembarking in Homewood from a temporary platform in late March 2021. The project is expected to be completed by October 2021.

Charging Through Arcola, Illinois

July 29, 2020

The massive grain elevator complex in Arcola, Illinois, has been a favorite backdrop that I’ve used over the years when photographing Amtrak trains on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans corridor.

The way the schedule works out, the complex best works as a backdrop for the northbound Saluki.

The southbound City of New Orleans would have to be really, really late to catch in daylight and the window for getting its northbound counterpart is very small.

The Illini in both directions passes through Arcola in daylight but by then the sun is behind the grain complex.

So that leaves the Saluki, which I’ve photographed here a few times.

My motivation for getting No. 390 this year has been to recreate an image I did years ago but with different motive power.

The P42DC units that were mainstays on the Chicago-Carbondale trains have given was to Siemens SC-44 Chargers.

Last Sunday No. 390 was about 10 to 15 minutes off its published schedule as it blasted through Arcola.

There is a restored Illinois Central depot here, but Arcola has never been a scheduled Amtrak stop.

This is the second time I’ve photographed No. 390 in Arcola this summer. Back in mid June the Saluki carried a Heritage baggage car.

That has since been replaced by a Viewliner baggage car. In both cases, the baggage car was in the consist to enable the train to meet a minimum axle count required by host railroad Canadian National.