Archive for October, 2011

Midwest Amtrak Route Upgrades Underway

October 14, 2011

The U.S. Department recently announced funding of two projects that will affect Amtrak service in the Midwest. A groundbreaking was held in Chicago for construction of the $133 million Englewood flyover.

The project will separate tracks of the former Pennsylvania Railroad and former Rock Island Railroad that cross at grade in the Englewood neighborhood. The former PRR tracks, now owned by Norfolk Southern, are used by Amtrak’s Michigan trains as well as the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.

Englewood has long been a source of delay for Amtrak trains forced to wait until Metra commuter trains on the ex-Rock Island line clear the crossing.

The federal government granted $126 million to the project, which is part of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program to reduce rail congestion. The Englewood crossing handles 78 Metra trains on weekdays along with 60 Amtrak and freight trains.

U.S. DOT also announced that it has granted $196.5 million to the Michigan Department of Transportation for track and signal improvements between Detroit and Kalamazoo.  The improvements will allow for speeds up to 110 mph over portions of the routes of Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water services, resulting in a 30 minute reduction in travel time between endpoint destinations.

The Blue Water is a daily roundtrip between Chicago and Port Huron via Flint and East Lansing while the Wolverine service consists of three daily roundtrips between Chicago and Pontiac (Detroit) via Niles, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Jackson, Ann Arbor and Dearborn.

Work on the 135-mile segment between Detroit and Kalamazoo will involve preliminary engineering, final design and construction. The project includes new, continuously welded rail and ties, fiber optic lines and infrastructure to support a positive train control system, rebuilding 180 highway-rail grade crossings, and gates and flashers at 65 private highway-rail grade crossings.  Construction is expected to begin in late spring 2012.

In addition, MDOT expected to receive a $150 million U.S. DOT grant later this year to purchase the Detroit-Kalamazoo track after grant conditions are met. The track is now owned by Norfolk Southern. Amtrak owns the route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.

Amtrak Considering ‘Lake Shore Limited’ Changes

October 6, 2011

Earlier operation in both directions. A “no cash accepted” dining car. Upgraded meal choices in the lounge car. These are among the changes that Amtrak has in store for the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

The changes, some of which are at least a year away, were outlined in a performance improvement plan that Amtrak issued in September.

Amtrak has proposed rolling back the Chicago departure of eastbound Nos. 48/448 to 6 p.m. from its current 9:30 p.m. slot. The rational is that earlier arrivals in New York and Boston would improve ridership and revenue. Amtrak reasons that that would occur due to better connections with commuter and other Amtrak trains.

Amtrak also plans to change the westbound schedule, noting that many of the delays that No. 49 experiences occur in the middle of its route, particularly east of Cleveland. The report did not say what the revised schedule would be other than to note that Nos. 49/449 would need to arrive in Chicago an hour earlier to provide adequate time to service the equipment before it heads out later that day for the East Coast.

At the same time, Amtrak plans to have the Capitol Limited depart Chicago about an hour and a half later at 7:30 p.m. However, that change can’t be made until CSX finishes a clearance project on the Capitol’s route through West Virginia. That construction is not expected to end for another year.

For several years, the Lake Shore Limited departed Chicago at 7:30 p.m. That changed in 2007 when the departure time was moved to 10 p.m. on account of habitual tardy arrivals in the Windy City of Amtrak’s western long-distance trains. Rather than putting the “misconnects” up in hotels, Amtrak elected to operate Nos. 48/448 on a later schedule.

As for the on-board service changes, the Amtrak report said that coach passengers buy 47 percent of the meals served in the diner and many of them pay in cash. This slows service because the lead service attendant must spend “a great deal of time handling and accounting for cash transactions,” the report said.

Amtrak plans to address this in a two-pronged manner. It will institute a policy that all dining car purchases must be made with a credit or debit card. It also will begin offering moderately-priced fare in the lounge car to supplement the current menu of hot dogs, pizza and pre-packaged sandwiches.

The report said that coach passengers spend, on average, $10.30 per meal in the dining car, leading Amtrak to conclude “there may be an unmet demand for intermediate food options between the relatively high-priced meals sold in the dining car and the . . . [food] available in the lounge car.”

In a pilot program, Amtrak will convert the Lake Shore Limited dining car into a club-diner that will continue to offer full-service meals, but add at-table beverage service outside of normal meal hours. As for the lounge car, the new offerings will include freshly-prepared sandwiches and salads similar to those served in café cars aboard the Boston-Washington Acela Express. If the Lake Shore Limited club-diner concept is successful, it may be expanded to other long-distance trains.

In the meantime, plans to institute a third Chicago-New York service by operating through cars via the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanian have stalled due to an equipment shortage. The same shortage has also delayed plans to expand operation of the Chicago-New York Cardinal from tri-weekly to daily. The Capitol-Pennsylvanian cars would be interchanged at Pittsburgh.

The equipment shortages may begin easing in October 2012 when the first of the 130 Viewliner II cars that Amtrak ordered from CAF USA are expected to enter service.

The Lake Shore Limited report also showed that the average age of passengers aboard the train is 54, that 62 percent of the riders are women, 53 percent are employed, 65 percent have a college degree, 41 percent have a household income between $50,000 and $100,000, and that 88 percent were traveling for non-business reasons, with 56 percent saying it was to visit family or friends.

Although the report did not provide any numbers, it indicated that passengers connecting with other Amtrak trains in Chicago accounted for a “significant portion of the Lake Shore Limited’s ridership and revenues.” Ridership in fiscal year 2010 was 364,460 and continues to trend upward. The report said riderhip in FY2011 – which ended Sept. 30 – was up by 7.1 percent over FY2010 for the period Oct. 1 to Aug. 31.

The average coach passenger travels 483 miles while the average sleeping car passenger on the Lake Shore Limited travels 764 miles.

Ten city pairs accounted for 44 percent of the FY2010 patronage with the largest of those being Chicago-New York (11 percent). The other top city pairs were Buffalo-Chicago and Chicago-Syracuse, with 5 percent each; Albany-Chicago and Chicago-Rochester, with 4 percent each; and Boston-Chicago, New York-Syracuse, Chicago-Toledo, New York-Rochester and Albany-Boston, all accounting for 3 percent each.

The effects of the proposed changes for Northeast Ohio residents boarding and detraining at Cleveland will be relatively minor.  Passengers coming from Chicago will be able to have dinner in the diner. But Cleveland’s “middle of the route” status means that Amtrak operations here will continue to be a nocturnal operation and, in fact, will become darker as the Lake Shore Limited schedule gravitates more toward the dead of night hours.

Depending on how the Capitol Limited is rescheduled, Amtrak may find itself placing four of its six Chicago-East Coast trains through Cleveland in relatively close proximity. With Cleveland having a single-track platform, Amtrak passengers can expect to bear the brunt of the operating challenges that may occur if one or more trains is operating substantially late.

Article by Craig Sanders

Rain Couldn’t Stop ARRC Saturday RTA Tour

October 1, 2011

Things didn’t get off to a great start on the Akron Railroad Club’s Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority tour on Saturday, Oct. 1. It was raining. It was windy. And we learned trackside that Car No. 109 that we had planned to ride wasn’t available because it was blocked in at Tower City due to construction.

But those were about the only things that went wrong during the five-hour excursion. We decided to stay on the Breda light rail car for the entire day, thus giving us a rare chance to photograph a light-rail car on the heavy rail Red Line.

We also learned that light rail is a misnomer because the Breda cars assigned to the Green, Blue and Waterfront lines — the so-called light rail routes — are heavier than the Tokyu cars assigned to the Red Line. The latter were built under license from Budd Company by a Japanese company.  Breda is an Italian company.

After leaving Green Road, we made photo stops in the rain at the Coventry and Woodhill stations. Our car, No. 829, did a roll by of sorts at Coventry. The car had stopped short of the grade crossing to left off passengers and we lined the platform to see it come into the station.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was the tour of the RTA shops at 55th Street. Few of us had ever been inside that building and the more than 30 ARRC members and guests who turned out for the tour were impressed with what they saw.

We ended up staying at the shops longer than scheduled, but everyone seemed to be enjoying that part of the tour. ARRC member Alex Bruchac, who had arranged the charter and mapped out the tour, had to change the schedule on the fly because we spent more time at the shops than expected. As a result, a planned trip to Windermere on the Red Line was scrubbed.

RTA’s Tim O’Donnell, a supervisor at the shop, led the tour and explained how RTA rail cars are maintained.

After visiting the shops, we reboarded our chartered car for a trip over the Red Line to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with a photo stop at West Boulevard. A few of our group got off at Brookpark station and remained there until we returned. They were rewarded with four Norfolk Southern trains passing on the nearby tracks at CP Max.

Those who stayed with the car were able to photograph inside the airport station, including capturing a rare nose-to-nose shot of a Breda car and a Tokyu car.

After a photo stop at West Park, we continued to Tower City, where we reversed direction and traveled the Waterfront Line. We made stops on the Waterfront Line at Settlers Landing, the Amtrak station and South Harbor. While at the latter, we saw two NS trains passing on the adjacent Cleveland Line. A fence obstructed the view, but Peter Bowler and Dennis Taksar climbed atop a concrete retaining wall to get unobstructed photographs.

After a second stop at Settlers Landing for a group photo, it was back to Green Road, although we did a photo stop at Shaker Square. By now the rain had stopped, but it was still overcast.

Alex deserves a big thank you for all of the legwork that he did to arrange the trip and to oversee it. It was the first charter on RTA in a few years.

The weather could have been better, but we couldn’t have enjoyed our outing any more.

Article by Craig Sanders