Posts Tagged ‘Midwest passenger rail service’

Minnesota Rail Study Halted

January 9, 2018

Two Minnesota lawmakers have effectively ended an environmental study of the feasibility of high-speed passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

Rep. Paul Torkelson and Senator Scott Newman, both Republicans, and chairmen of the transportation committees in their respective chambers, objected to the Minnesota Department of Transportation accepting federal grant money for the study.

Calling it a waste of taxpayer money, the legislators said that the State of Wisconsin opposes high-speed rail.

“Minnesota should not be squandering precious tax dollars — whether local, state or federal — on a wasteful project actively opposed by other states whose support is necessary to proceed,” the legislators wrote in a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget.

Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office confirmed that the study has been halted even though $1 million in state and federal funding has already been spent on it.

The Minnesota lawmakers were objecting to MnDOT spending another $181,682 being provided by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Krom said the study would have created a “framework for the environmental process moving forward and start looking at some general issues. We didn’t get to any detail; this was just the initial money to get the project started.”

More detailed studies were expected to be conducted at a later date.

Funding for the study originated in 2009 during a economic stimulus program started by the Obama Administration.

Wisconsin was to have received $810 million for a Madison-to-Milwaukee service. However, Republican Scott Walker refused the money after being elected in 2010, saying the service would be too expensive to build and maintain.

Governors in Ohio and Florida also refused rail project stimulus money and the funds were re-directed to other states.

Although Wisconsin continues to fund conventional Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Chicago, Walker continues to oppose high-speed rail service.

“It would be rather inappropriate for us to spend federal funds when there’s no chance of it going forward,” Torkelson said.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said it was shortsighted for Minnesota to end its study, which he called “a basic assessment” to understand what’s needed.

“It’s really just fixing the existing track so you can run things faster and more frequently,” he said.

Janice Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner who is chair of the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, called ending the study regrettable.

Senator Scott Dibble, a member of the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, called the decision unfortunate.

“Do they only want people to have cars and drive? They have a complete disregard for other modes of transportation,” he said.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari  said that although faster and more-frequent trains help build ridership, reliability is the most-important attribute in luring more passengers.

MnDOT has been eying a second daily round-trip passenger train to supplement the existing Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee. With funding and political support, that service could begin operation in 2022.

Torkelson contended that he does not oppose “anything that is economically viable. You need to use resources in a fashion with projects that actually have a chance of getting done.”

Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder is the only rail service between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.

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IDOT Head Sees Top Speed of 90 mph for Trains by Summer 2018 in the Chicago-St. Louis Corridor

December 18, 2017

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Randy Blankenhorn said Amtrak trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor should be operating at 90 mph starting next summer.

The current top speed on the route is 79 miles per hour exception for a demonstration section between Pontiac and Dwight where 110 mph speeds began in fall 2012.

In an interview with the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Blankenhorn said a nearly $2 billion high-speed rail project to rebuild portions of the route for high-speed service is starting to wind down.

Although the route has an infrastructure for a 110 mph top speed, Blankenhorn said those speeds won’t come until 2019 after a positive train control system is put into operation.  “We are substantially complete,” said Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn expects the project to finish on time and on budget with federal funding accounting for $1.65 billion of the estimated $1.95 billion final project cost.

The state is paying about $300 million of the project cost. IDOT has said that once the project is completed, Amtrak trains will have an 85 percent on-time guarantee.

Union Pacific, which owns the most of the track in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor used by Amtrak will be subject to financial penalties if the 85-percent, on-time guarantee is missed.

Nearly 590,000 passengers rode Amtrak between St. Louis and Chicago during the Illinois fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Patronage has fallen below 600,000 the last three fiscal years as a result of service disruptions caused by the high-speed project work.

One final phase of the project that is still underway is finishing track work in the Third Street corridor in Springfield.

“There’s some crossing work that needs to be done in Springfield, and that’s well underway,” Blankenhorn said.

The work will also include six-foot safety fencing on each side of the tracks. Safety, technology and accessibility improvements are planned for the Springfield Amtrak station.

Workers have made changes to 190 crossings in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor along 330 miles of track, closed nearly two dozen crossings and put up 90 miles of safety fencing meant to prevent trespassing.

The higher speeds are expected to reduce the 5.5 hour trip between St. Louis and Chicago by 11 minutes and by 20 minutes when a second set of tracks is competed near Joliet. Trains traveling 110 mph should cut the running time by 53 minutes.

However, the faster running times won’t address freight rail congestion in Chicago or St. Louis, which Blankenhorn said accounts for many of the delays now occurring.

Just over half of Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains ran late in the three years prior to high-speed rail work.

“It’s not so much about speed as it is reliability,” said Blankenhorn. “Passengers would use our trains a lot more if they knew they were going to be there when they need them and were not going to be an hour-and-a-half late.”

John Oimoen, chief of IDOT’s rail division said installation of the equipment needed for PTC in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor will be completed next spring.

“It’s the challenge of developing the software and getting that information back to (train) dispatcher,” he said.

Blankenhorn said the highest speeds initially will be allowed between Alton and Joliet while the state continues to work to fix the traffic bottlenecks in St. Louis and Chicago. He said those fixes will be “complicated and expensive.”

Chicago-St. Louis Ridership Up 9%

December 6, 2017

Amtrak said that ridership in its Chicago-St. Louis corridor is growing and is up about 9 percent when compared with last year.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said upgraded track conditions and the completion of various construction projects has resulted in an uptick in passengers.

“The construction disruptions we have been enduring since about 2010 are pretty well gone. We’ve been able to run trains in nearly all the slots, not substitute buses,” Magliari said.

“The track improvements are pretty much in place so the promised improvements here on this route are coming true and the passengers are coming back because of it,” he said.

“There are 59,000 more people riding these trains between Chicago and St. Louis largely because some of the work we have been doing is paying off.”

In addition to the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains, the corridor also hosts the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Extra Helping of Wolverines for Thanksgiving

November 28, 2017

Amtrak in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation operated 10 extra trains to handle Thanksgiving travelers this year.

That included an extra section of the Pere Marquette that ran on two days between Chicago and Holland, and an extra section of the Wolverine Service that operated on three days between Chicago and Ann Arbor.

I ventured up to Ann Arbor for the opportunity to catch three Amtrak trains in a single day during daylight hours.

Shown is eastbound No. 356, the extra section of the Wolverine, crossing the Huron River in Barton Park on the northwest side of Ann Arbor.

In the top photo, the head end of the train is crossing the river. In the middle is part of the consist, which was a mixture of Amfleet and Horizon equipment.

In the bottom photograph, P42DC No. 33 brings up the rear. Unlike the regularly scheduled Wolverines that operate between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac), the Wolverine Extras operated with locomotives on each end due to the lack of turning facilities in Ann Arbor and a turnaround time of 51 minutes.

No. 356 arrived into Ann Arbor about 12 minutes late on the day that I saw it.

Hiawatha Passengers Need Reservations for Thanksgiving Travel

October 31, 2017

Amtrak will require reservations for travel aboard its Hiawatha Service trains during the Thanksgiving holiday period

In a service advisory, Amtrak said reservations will be required on all Chicago-Milwaukee trains from Tuesday, Nov. 21 through Monday, Nov. 27.

During that period, a ticket will only be valid on the train for which a passenger holds a reservation.

Amtrak said it is adding cars to provide overflow seating on selected trains on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22.

Monthly and 10-ride ticket holders will not need reservations.

Hoosier State OT Performance Improving

October 23, 2017

The on-time performance of two Amtrak trains in Indiana has shown some improvement of late.

From a 37.1 percent rating in August the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State improved to 56 percent in September.

The Chicago-New York Cardinal, which uses the same route, had an on-time performance of 58 percent during the month

Brittany White, stakeholder and marketing manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said the on-time performance for the Hoosier State for the month of October thus far has been close to 80 percent.

Amtrak has said most of the delays to the trains have occurred on CSX tracks between Indianapolis and Dyer, Indiana.

These run the gamut between malfunctioning signals to freight train interference.

CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said the delays have resulted from issues stemming from implementation of a new operating model known as precision scheduled railroading.

He said changes in how freight cars are sorted at the railroad’s Avon Yard west of Indianapolis resulted in unanticipated congestion that contributed to service issues for Amtrak.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier has seen a slow but steady increase in on-time performance.

INDOT has hired a consultant to identify areas for improvement in Amtrak, CSX and INDOT operations. That report is expected to be completed in early 2018.

Chargers to Sport Amtrak Midwest Logo

August 30, 2017

The new Charger locomotives that are entering service on Amtrak’s Midwest corridor route will sport an Amtrak Midwest logo on their noses.

Amtrak showed off the new locomotives earlier this week at a press conference in Chicago.

The passenger carrier in a news release touted the SC-44 locomotives built by Siemens for their enhanced smoothness, speed capability and safety features.

The locomotives are owned by the state departments of transportation that pay for the corridor trains that will use the new units.

Thirty-three Chargers will be based in Chicago to serve trains that carried more than 2.6 million Amtrak passengers last year.

Chargers will also be assigned to the Missouri River Runner trains between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The locomotives were built in Sacramento, California, and are being promoted for their lower maintenance costs, reduced fuel consumption and quieter operation.

The SC-44 is powered by a Midwest-made 4,400 horsepower Cummins QSK95 diesel engine.

The locomotives came operate at speeds up to 125 mph, with faster acceleration and braking for better on-time reliability.

They are the first higher-speed passenger locomotives to meet the EPA Tier 4 standards, meaning a 90 percent reduction in emissions and a reduction in fuel consumption of up to 16 percent compared to the previous locomotives.
The locomotives were purchased with $216.5 million in federal funds.

Statehouse at Joliet

August 11, 2017

The southbound  St. Louis-bound Statehouse rolls into Joliet Union Station on June 19, 1998. Aside from the Phase III livery on the P42DC locomotive, the scene is similar in appearance to today in that some Chicago-St. Louis passenger trains feature a mix of Horizon coaches and Anfleet food service cars.

The Statehouse was funded in part by the State of Illinois and at the time operated on a mid-day schedule.

Columbus to Help Fund Passenger Rail Study

June 12, 2017

The city of Columbus has agreed to contribute $250,000 toward the planning efforts to establish intercity rail service between Ohio’s capital city and Chicago.

That amount will be added to the $350,000 already committed by other cities, businesses and others.

All Aboard Ohio, a rail passenger advocacy group, reported in its June newsletter that some central Ohio entities that it didn’t name might contribute another $100,000.

Work on the proposed Chicago-Columbus route is being conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration and the engineering firm HNTB.

Their planning efforts are currently focused on the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline between Lima, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, that was once used by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Broadway Limited and Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.

The preferred route from Columbus is the CSX Toledo Terminal and Scottslawn subdivisions, which cross the ex-PRR mainline at Dunkirk, Ohio.

In a related move, the FRA is reported to be well along in creating a Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study.

That document will create a 40-year vision that builds on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative that was proposed more than a decade ago but has never been implemented.

The Midwest Midwest rail concept would cost an estimated $2.5 billion for new locomotives, passenger cars, upgraded tracks, modernized stations, increased train frequencies and faster travel times.

The Ohio Rail Development Commission is participating in the plan, which will establish the priorities, and studies and investments needed to implement projects in the coming decades.

Hoosier State Ridership Up 11.6% in April

May 11, 2017

The Indiana Department of Transportation reported this week that ridership of the state-funded Hoosier State increased by 11.6 percent in April to 2,034 passengers when compared with the same month last year.

Revenue rose 11.6 percent to $62,099 and the on-time performance since October was 85 percent, including more than 90 percent in March.

The Chicago-Indianapolis route was taken over by Amtrak in March from Iowa Pacific Holdings.

The Hoosier State operates quad-weekly on days that Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal does not run between Indianapolis and Chicago.