Posts Tagged ‘Midwest 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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That ’70s Look

December 22, 2017

It is the summer of 1978. Amfleet equipment and F40PH locomotives have been operating on Amtrak’s Midwest corridor trains for nearly two years so the equipment can’t be said to be brand new anymore.

Still it is relatively new enough to be the look of the future having come to pass.

Steam-heated passengers cars are a thing of the past on the corridor routes, but still see service on some long-distance trains in the region.

But on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route head-end power is the rule. Steam-heated equipment is not coming back.

Shown is the northbound Shawnee, train No. 392, arriving in Mattoon, Illinois, in early evening. The equipment is state of the art for its time with an F40, two Amfleet coaches and an Amcafe. The train will halt at Chicago Union Station in more than three hours.

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.”

NIMBYs Still Protesting Hiawatha Changes

December 8, 2017

NIMBY opposition continues to plague an effort to establish an Amtrak stop on the Hiawatha Service line in the north Chicago suburbs.

Much of the opposition has focused on a proposal to add a two-mile third track to the line used by Canadian Pacific, Amtrak and Metra trains.

The third track would hold CP freight trains waiting to get onto Union Pacific rails.

However, some residents of Lake Forest have criticized their city for spending $192,000 to hire a Washington lobbying firm to advocate for the Amtrak stop at the city’s Metra station.

The third track has been tied to a proposal to expand the number of Hiawatha Service trains running between Chicago and Milwaukee. That expansion is not imminent.

In the meantime, Amtrak’s vice president of state supported services, Joe McHugh, has notified Lake Forest that the Hiawatha stop has been been approved by the Departments of Transportation of both Wisconsin and Illinois.

“At this point, the only obstacle preventing us from beginning service is the lack of a pedestrian underpass at the Lake Forest station that would allow passengers to move safely from one side of the tracks to the other,” McHugh wrote.

New Midwest Passenger Cars 2-3 Years Away

December 6, 2017

New passenger cars for Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes are at least two to three years away.

“The order is in but I don’t expect to see the cars out here for two to three years  . . . it’s a big order,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. “So we are not going to be able to re-equip all four of the Lincoln Service roundtrips with new cars I don’t think certainly in 2018, maybe in 2019, pretty confidently in 2020.”

The cars had been expected to go into service earlier, but the delays have been caused by a change in vendors.

A consortium of states, including Illinois and California, had awarded a contract to Nippon Sharyo to build the cars in Rochelle, Illinois.

But a prototype car failed to pass federal safety rule tests. That prompted the consortium to instead contract with Siemens to build the cars at its plant in Sacramento, California.

Lincoln Amtrak Station Renovated

December 5, 2017

A ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the renovation of the Amtrak station in Lincoln, Illinois, will held today.

The depot, built in 1911, has been renovated to retain its historic character and details. Amtrak passengers use a former freight house, which was transformed into a passenger station.

The project also included new parking lots, sidewalks, lighting and landscaping.

Funding for the project came from a federal High Speed Rail Initiative grant.

Lincoln is served by the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service and 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.