Posts Tagged ‘Midwest Corridor trains’

Amtrak’s Michigan Trains are Invariably Late

February 26, 2020

Passengers board an Amtrak train bound for Chicago at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Chances are they will arrive late in the Windy City.

If you’re riding Amtrak in Michigan the chances are your trip is going to be late.

A report by the Detroit Free Press said the on-time rate last year in Michigan was 43 percent. On the Wolverine Service route between Chicago and Detroit it was just 33 percent.

That compared with a national average of between 60 and 70 percent.

Amtrak considers a train late if it is 30 minutes or more behind the published schedule.

Figures released by Amtrak show that the performance of the Michigan trains is getting worse.

On-time performance fell from 71 percent in 2016 and 2017 to 62 percent in 2018.

Amtrak is hoping that as part of a renewal of the federal surface transportation law that Congress will strengthen the law giving passenger trains preference over freight trains.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman based in Chicago, said such a law would give the passenger carrier legal leverage to better deal with its host railroads, which Amtrak blames for delaying its trains.

“It’s a very important issue to us because our reliability is suffering,” Magliari said.

The Free Press said it tracked the arrival times of six Amtrak trains in Troy, a Detroit suburb on the Wolverine Service line.

The trains from Chicago varied in lateness from 30 minutes to more than two hours.

Amtrak figures show that the afternoon Wolverine from Chicago to Pontiac, the Detroit suburb that is the terminus of the route, arrived in Troy an average of 42 minutes late.

Six times it was more than an hour late and once in mid-January it was two hours behind schedule.

The newspaper said passengers it spoke with who disembarked at Troy said that although they found the delays annoying they still liked train travel.

In its efforts to put pressure on Congress, Amtrak has created a YouTube video titled Your Right to be on Time that urges viewers to contract lawmakers to complain about late trains and urge them to support legislation “that puts people before freight.”

The video contends that Amtrak’s host railroads are giving their freight trains priority over Amtrak trains in dispatching decisions.

“Usually, it’s what we call freight train interference. That’s when our trains are delayed by slow freight trains ahead of them,” the narrator says in the video.

The video acknowledges that delays can also be caused by such things as weather, track maintenance, mechanical problems with trains, and obstructions on the track.

“You can be certain we’ll tell Congress that the original law setting up Amtrak in 1970 does not allow us to bring litigation over the poor handling of our trains by the freight railroads,” Magliari said. “Imagine paying for a service from someone who knows you can’t go after them in court.”

Magliari said one reason why Amtrak trains are getting delayed by freight trains is that the latter are getting longer and sometimes are too long to put into a siding to allow Amtrak to pass.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents the Class 1 railroads that host Amtrak trains, contends the federal government should fund construction of additional tracks and longer sidings

“It would be nice to see the public coming forward” — that is, with federal and state dollars — “where they have an interest in keeping passengers trains operating,” said AAR’s John Gray, senior vice president for policy and economics.

Much of the track Amtrak uses on the Chicago-Detroit corridor, though, is owned by Amtrak or the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Wolverine Service trains, though, use within the Detroit metropolitan area tracks owned by Conrail, Canadian National and Norfolk Southern.

Amtrak’s Michigan trains use the busy NS Chicago Line to reach Chicago from Northwest Indiana.

MDOT, which helps fund Amtrak service in Michigan, said most of the delays incurred by Amtrak’s Michigan trains occur on that 40-mile stretch of NS.

The agency owns 135 miles of the Wolverine Service route between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. Amtrak owns the track from Kalamazoo to Porter, Indiana.

MDOT spokesman Mike Frezell said Amtrak trains using track that it and MDOT own have largely unimpeded travel there.

“We’re hoping within two years to have speeds up to 110 m.p.h. on portions of that, and we’ll be raising all the speeds through that section,” Frezell said.

He said the objective in raising speeds in the Chicago-Detroit corridor is to make train travel competitive with driving and flying.

Are We on Time?

February 16, 2020

An Amtrak conductor checks his watch to see how close to schedule Train No. 391 is as it pulls into the station at Kankakee, Illinois.

The southbound Saluki was on-time early in its journey to Carbondale.

The image was made on Aug. 5, 2012.

Development Continues on New Illinois Routes

February 15, 2020

Illinois Department of Transportation officials are continuing planning work to launch Amtrak service from Chicago to Rockford and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa but much work remains to be completed.

IDOT is seeking to hire a consultant to help manage the projects.

Guy Tridgell, an IDOT spokesman, said planning for service to Rockford is in the early stages.

He said environmental studies need to be completed on the Rockford route along with preliminary engineering and final design before the route can be implemented.

Trains to Rockford are expected to use Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line to Elgin and use a Union Pacific route to Rockford via Huntley and Belvidere.

As for the Quad City route, IDOT has been negotiating with the Iowa Interstate Railroad over infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate two daily round trip passenger trains.

IDOT has reportedly decided to name the service the Quad Cities Rocket.

That name was used by a former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific passenger train between Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois, that operated until late 1978.

The Quad Cities service would use 50 miles of IAIS track to Moline, Illinois. The rest of the route would use BNSF tracks with a connection to IAIS at Wyanet.

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

A $45 billion capital bill approved last year by the Illinois General Assembly earmarked

$225 million for service to the Quad Cities and $275 million for service to Rockford.

The proposed services have been discussed for several years but were given much lower priority during the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Minnesota Proponents Seeking State Funding

February 14, 2020

Supporters of a proposed Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota, are seeking $40 million from the state legislature.

The funding would be used to fund improvements needed to launch the Northern Lights Express.

Much of that money would be used to pay for an additional track between Duluth and St. Paul, and to repair a bridge between Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin.

“We’re now in the year 2020, the support is there because the people of the country want to connect, and also because Amtrak is the way to go,” said Representative Mary Murphy, who is leading the project in the legislature.

Proponents of the Northern Lights Express said they do not plan to seek this year any funding for the project from the Wisconsin legislature.

The Minnesota legislature began its 2020 session this week.

CN Increases Speed Limit for Amtrak in Illinois

February 8, 2020

It might look like the City of New Orleans but this is actually the southbound Saluki racing through Pesotum, Illinois, on Feb. 2, 2020, with Superliner equipment.

Canadian National is allowing Amtrak trains to operate at higher speeds in some locations between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

An online report said CN increased the speed limit for passenger trains between Homewood (MP 23.5) to MP 3 from 65 mph to 79 mph.

The speed was increased on Main Tracks 3 and 4 south of Homewood to Stuenkel from 40 mph to 79 mph.

The report said this has reduced the delays incurred by the northbound Illini meeting the southbound City of New Orleans south of Homewood, which it sometimes does when the Illini is running late.

Nos. 59 and 392 should pass each other north of Homewood if both trains are on time.

On many occasions the trains have met near Kankakee or farther south.

Amtrak also has assigned a set of Superliner equipment to the train set that makes up the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini.

One report is that the set has four coaches and three sleepers although the latter are unoccupied and designed to enable Amtrak trains to meet a CN-mandated minimum axle count.

In the meantime, the train set covering the northbound Saluki and southbound Illini continues to use single-level equipment that CN requires to slow for grade crossings.

Superliner equipment reportedly has no such speed restrictions at crossings.

Debt to Amtrak Could Endanger Missouri Service

January 28, 2020

Missouri is in arrears in paying its bills to Amtrak and that might threaten the of the state-funded Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Speaking at a hearing of the House Budget Committee, Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna said the state owes Amtrak $6.5 million in unpaid bills plus $11.65 million to pay for a contract to run the service this year.

McKenna said that although Amtrak has not yet threatened to stop operating the trains, it has begun charging 12 percent interest on what the state owes.

He said the interest charges are part of the passenger carrier’s efforts to break even or turn a profit.

McKenna said that the legislature has since 2010 appropriated less than what Amtrak’s contract with MoDOT calls for the state to pay.

He described the situation as an embarrassment that eventually will put the River Runners in danger of being discontinued.

Legislators have approved $9.1 million to pay the contract since 2017 and MoDOT is seeking the same amount this year.

However, the contract’s cost has risen along with operating costs and inflation from $10.6 million in 2017 to $12 million.

McKenna said MoDOT payments to Amtrak are currently being applied against unpaid debt with the remainder going toward the current contract.

He said that has been enough to cover three months of service this year.

MoDOT wants lawmakers to approve an additional $12.2 million on top of the core funding of $9.1 million in order to pay off debts to Amtrak and cover the gaps in 2020 and 2021.

MoDOT’s contract with Amtrak calls for twice daily service between St. Louis and Kansas City with eight intermediate stops.

Missouri is also served by the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief at Kansas City and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle at St. Louis.

One Missouri legislature has suggested that rather than increase the appropriation to pay Amtrak the state should consider ending paying for the service altogether.

Rep. Dirk Deaton said he recognized the River Runners serve several communities that support them, but instead of the state paying the full cost of the trains those communities should look chipping in funding as well.

Deaton said money the state is paying Amtrak comes from the General Fund, which is also used to pay for schools, roads and bridges.

He described the budget process as the setting of priorities and suggested Amtrak might not be as high a priority to the state.

Deaton noted that Missouri is taking on $300 million in debt by selling bonds to fund bridge repairs, something he said is a critical need.

Reps. Aaron Griesheimer and Deb Lavender, who represent cities served by the trains, said Amtrak service is important for tourism in the area.

Lavender said a cottage industry has arisen around people traveling from Kirkwood to Washington and Hermann to drink wine.

Griesheimer said his constituents have a passion for the service and expressed hope the legislature would approve money to pay off the debt.

If Missouri stops funding Amtrak service it might be on the hook for paying back part of the $50 million in federal funding for station improvements it has received since 2014.

McKenna said the state would have to pay back $36 million, the prorated portion of those funds.

Ridership of the Missouri River Runners was 154,417 in fiscal year 2019, which ended last September.

Although that was a decline of 8.9 percent compared with FY 2018, much of that was due to the service being suspended in May and June 2019 when Union Pacific freight traffic on the line increased due to flooding that shut down UP routes elsewhere in the Midwest.

Deaton pointed out that the state’s per-rider cost of operating the service has increased from $48 in 2014 to $53 this year.

That would increase to $124 if MoDOT pays off its debut in one year and $70 if the state paid its full contract.

He said fares between Kansas City to St. Louis range from $36 to $87 so the state is paying more for each ride than many passengers paid for their tickets.

McKenna acknowledged that Missouri subsidizes the service and that will be a central issue as legislators ponder how much state money to spend on Amtrak.

Although Amtrak sets ticket prices, McKenna said MoDOT has input on it.

He said Amtrak has increased fares in recent years but tries to balance making as much money per ride as possible while not pricing out so many people the service becomes less useful.

Panel Discusses Heartland Flyer Extension Into Kansas

January 25, 2020

What it would take to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer into Kansas was discussed during a Jan. 22 meeting of the Ways and Means Committee of the Kansas legislature.

What emerged from that meeting was an outline of how Amtrak hopes to implement the proposed new corridor routes that CEO Richard Anderson has been touting over the past year.

Spoiler alert: It will take the cooperation of Congress and various state legislatures.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, acknowledged that cost barriers to starting corridor service are high.

“We tend to find that they are higher than a state can afford,” Lang said.

He noted that host railroad BNSF is working with Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation to determine the cost of extending the Flyer from its northern terminus of Oklahoma City into Kansas.

The Heartland Flyer currently operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort, Worth, Texas, with funding from the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

The extension into Kansas would serve Wichita and end in Newton where it would connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Some proposals have been floated to have the Heartland Flyer run to Kansas City.

Lang indicated that whatever the numbers are in that report, they are likely to be more than what Kansas is willing to pay.

He said Amtrak is expected to propose that Congress establish a federal grant program of billions of dollars that would help states pay for capital costs of starting new routes.

Grant money would also be available for states to pay the operating losses of the new routes in the early years of service.

“The Heartland Flyer corridor is certainly one of the places that we think would be a perfect place to invest capital money from this billion-dollar grant program,” Lang said.

There are currently 17 states that pay Amtrak to provide intercity rail passenger service. Lang said half of Amtrak ridership is aboard state-funded trains.

KDOT Deputy Secretary Lindsey Douglas told the committee there is a path forward for the Heartland Flyer extension once the capital investment figures are released.

He offered to prepare a summary sheet of the costs after the BNSF-Amtrak-KDOT study is completed.

“The new federal grant program would open up a lot of doors to get this project funded,” Douglas said.

Lang demurred when asked by Senator Carolyn McGinn, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, about Amtrak’s efforts to replace the Southwest Chief in portions of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico with buses.

“We’re very proud of the long-distance trains,” Lang said. “The growth opportunities are in short-distance regional trains, which is why we’d love to extend the Heartland Flyer north of Oklahoma City to Wichita, Kansas, and connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton.”

In other words, there is no assurance the bus bridge idea will not resurface once the current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Amtrak Backs Down on $25,000 Fee for a $16 Ticket

January 22, 2020

What was quoted as a $25,000 fee for a trip that ordinarily costs $16 landed Amtrak a lot of unflattering headlines recently.

And when the dust had settled the passengers got tickets for the regular price while Amtrak wound up with a black eye.

The story involved a group of 10, five of whom use wheelchairs, who wanted to book a trip from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

When the passengers, one of them the CEO of Access Living, which news reports described as a Chicago disability service and advocacy center, contacted Amtrak they were told their tickets would incur a $25,000 fee to cover the expense of removing coach seats to accommodate the group.

Amtrak coaches used on Lincoln Service trains have spaces for one wheel chair, which meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lincoln Service trains typically have three coaches.

Access Chicago member Adam Ballard told National Public Radio that in the past Amtrak had with advance notice removed seats in a coach or put the group in a café car and charged them a few hundred dollars extra.

The $25,000 price was given to the group by an Amtrak group sales agent.

Amtrak said said the alternate would be for the group to travel on separate trains scheduled three hours apart.

The group said doing that would mean some of its members would arrive at the conference late or would incur the cost of overnight lodging if they had to travel the day before the conference was to begin.

Amtrak initially told NPR that the $25,000 charge reflected a new policy of “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our railcars.”

After NPR broadcast the story it got picked up by other news outlets and also drew the attention of U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois who lost both of her legs while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq after the Blackhawk helicopter who was co-piloting was shot down.

Duckworth called the fee outrageous and demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

She also Tweeted that it was “disappointing that Amtrak leadership appears to have failed to offer a public apology for its initial mistake.”

Duckworth is the ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation.

She said on Twitter that she wanted to discuss with Anderson “eliminating Amtrak’s nationwide policy of refusing to absorb any costs associated with reconfiguring a railcar to accommodate a group of wheelchair users.”

Two senior Amtrak executives later contacted an attorney for Access Chicago and offered to find extra space aboard a train to accommodate the group.

Amtrak also offered to allow two passengers to ride for the regular price of one ticket.

Although Access Living accepted the offer another complication arose when Amtrak learned that another disability group was sending staff to the same conference and had two wheelchair users who wanted to take the same Lincoln Service train.

Amtrak agreed to find space for all of them, apparently by taking one coach out of service and removing some of its seats.

Access Living had contacted Amtrak last month to request accommodations for its group.

When it protested the $25,000 charge, the agent wrote back and said the fee was in line with Amtrak policy about reconfiguring a rail car.

“With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” the agent wrote.

The agent acknowledged that in previous years Amtrak had removed seats and absorbed the cost of doing so.

“We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak,” the agent said. “Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These policies have changed nationwide as of 2019.”

Bridget Hayman, a spokeswoman at Access Living said that although her organization appreciates that its members will all be able to ride Amtrak at no additional cost, what is needed is a long-term solution so that Amtrak won’t charge those high fees in the future.

In a statement, Amtrak said it would review its policy and meet with Duckworth.

Boulder Strikes Missouri River Runner Train

January 22, 2020

A boulder struck a Missouri River Runner train between Washington and Hermann, Missouri, last Friday, forcing the train to return to St. Louis.

No serious injuries were reported in the incident involving Train 313 en route to Kansas City with 145 passengers aboard.

Amtrak said one passenger was treated for smoke inhalation.

The boulder hit a passenger car on the roof right above a restroom and electrical cabinet.

“It shook the car,” said Rita Holmes-Bobo, a passenger from Kansas City who was sitting nearby. “It hit very hard.

The train stopped in Hermann where it was inspected and soon departed,

But after the electrical cabinet began smoking the train halted in Morrison, Missouri, east of the regularly scheduled stop in Jefferson City. The train later wastowed back to St. Louis.

Passengers were returned to their original boarding station. An Amtrak spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that those asking for accommodations and alternative transportation received them.

Holmes-Bobo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there was much confusion about alternative transportation.

At one point she said passengers were told the buses would meet them in Jefferson City. That was later changed to Hermann.

She said many passengers in the damaged car wound up standing all the way back to St. Louis in a different car.

“Every mode of transportation is going to have issues, but how you treat the passengers and communicate with them was lacking with Amtrak,” Holmes-Bobo said.

Another news report said the train sat in Morrison for three hours with one passenger Tweeting that there was no heat and one car was filled with smoke.

By the time the train reached St. Louis is was 12:30 a.m.

End of the Line in Carbondale

January 11, 2020

It is a Saturday in June 1979 and just for the fun of it I bought a round-trip ticket to ride Nos. 391 and 392 between Mattoon and Carbondale, Illinois.

Carbondale was the southern terminus for Amtrak’s Shawnee.

I’ve just disembarked from No. 391 in Carbondale. An Illinois Central Gulf locomotive will attach to the rear of the Amtrak train and pull it north to turn on a wye in preparation for its return to Chicago at 4 p.m.

In retrospect I wish I had made this photograph on the other side of the grade crossing.

But then again I can appreciate now the view of the wooden arms that railroads once used on crossing gates and how they were painted black and white. Note that this set of crossing arms is partly painted red and white.

Also note in the photograph a passing northbound ICG freight train and the approaching ICG locomotive that will attach to the rear of No. 391.

Also on this day the Shawnee had a baggage car, which it typically did not except during peak travel periods.