Archive for the ‘Railroad News’ Category

New River Gorge Excursions Canceled

September 24, 2021

COVID-19 pandemic concerns have led to the cancellation of the 2021 Autumn Colors Express excursion trips through the New River Gorge of West Virginia.

Rail Excursion Management, which is sponsoring the excursions, said the trips have been rescheduled for 2022.

 “An overwhelming number of customers have expressed concern about this year’s event,” said Railexco CEO Adam Auxier.

He noted that a surge in COVID-19 cases in West Virginia has local hospitals operating at emergency levels,” making postponement our best and only option this year.

Ticket holders will automatically be transferred to equivalent dates in October 2022. Questions about tickets, credits, or refunds can be directed to info@railexco.com.

The excursions were to be run in cooperation with Amtrak and the cities Huntington, Charleston and Hinton.

Passengers were to board in Huntington or Charleston and travel to Hinton for that city’s Railroad Days festival.

The Autumn Colors Express uses the same route as Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal.

OmniTRAX to Serve Indiana Port

September 24, 2021

The River Ridge Development Authority of Jeffersonville, Indiana, will terminate its lease with Mid-America Rail Storage and Leasing on Oct. 31.

The action is a result of the settlement of a lawsuit that Mid-America filed in July regarding the appraisal of rail assets at River Ridge Commerce Center.

The lease was due to expire in 2027 but the settlement will allow an earlier termination. Mid-America is currently leasing the rail assets of the River Ridge facility.

River Ridge is poised to enter into a new partnership with short line operator OmniTRAX.

OmniTRAX will assume operation of the assets at River Ridge next month. It has agreed to further develop the rail infrastructure at the commerce center.

Officials said 4,000 acres of River Ridge are still available for development with the facility able to accommodate projects ranging from 1 acre to 1,400 acres.

Expanding Capacity and Dining Car Service Moving at Slow Pace, Amtrak Officials Say

September 24, 2021

Top Amtrak executives gave a glimpse of Amtrak’s near-term future this week during a meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and many rail advocates are likely to frustrated and encouraged at the same time by what they heard.

On the positive side, Amtrak is moving to make dining car meals available to passengers other than just those holding sleeper class tickets. It is even working toward upgrading dining car meals on eastern long distance trains.

Yet it will take some time before coach passengers anywhere will be able to buy dining car meals.

Also expected to take time will be increasing capacity on long-distance trains because the cars needed to do that are in storage and Amtrak needs to bolster its mechanical work force before those cars can be put back into revenue service.

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, said the passenger carrier is still seeking “to get the service right” before opening dining car meals to coach passengers.

A first step in that direction will be taken in October when business passengers aboard the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will be able to buy dining car meals.

Harris cited a litany of factors for moving slowly to open up dining car meals to more passengers.

He said many on-board crew members have returned from furloughs imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and Amtrak doesn’t want to overwhelm them with such tasks as collecting cash and overseeing COVID restrictions.

“Our intention all along was to get to a point where we could offer it to coach customers,” Harris said.

He described the Coast Starlight move as a trial run to see how it plays out.

“The idea is to start small and work through the issues that we inevitably will encounter by opening up the dining car to more customers,” Harris said. “Then if the test is successful, we will roll it out to additional markets.”

As for the eastern trains, Harris said Amtrak is consulting with a food vendor who has worked with the passenger carrier to enhance meals served on Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor.

The vender is working with Amtrak “with a lot of menu items to find out what will work well within the constraints of single-level dining cars.” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that many passengers riding eastern long-distance trains have complained about repetitive food offerings.

Starting in June 2018 Amtrak began moving away from full-service dining cars on eastern long-distance trains in favor of food prepared off the trains and reheated onboard.

That service eventually evolved to one bowl entrees with a few side items.

“By trying to offer different types of foods that are more appealing we think we can substantially upgrade the food offerings on the East Coast,” Harris said.

“We’re also looking at putting on new types of ovens and other kitchen equipment to be more creative in the types of food offerings we have.”

Amtrak initially chose its western long-distance trains for upgraded dining car service because it had the ability to restore employees on those trains and dining is such a critical part of the experience,” Harris said. “We wanted to live up to the expectations of our customers there.”

However, the return of full-service dining has yet to come to the Texas Eagle, in part because of equipment shortages that also have limited capacity of long distance trains.

Harris acknowledged that equipment shortages stem from decisions made last year about how much equipment to put in storage and how many mechanical jobs to cut.

At present, the Coast Starlight is the only Superliner-equipped long-distance trains with a coach devoted to business class.

Those passengers receive a free bottle of water and an “onboard credit for food and beverage purchases.”

Both the Eagle and the Capitol Limited have been operating for the past several months without a Sightseer Lounge car.

“Eighteen months ago we had to decide how much fleet we were going to be able to run and how much money we were going to spend on overhauls and how many employees we thought would be able to work on the equipment because we didn’t have enough demand to justify keeping the system running at historical levels and we didn’t think we would have enough money from Congress at that point,” Harris said.

“So what you see running on the system is all the equipment we have available,” he said.

He said some employees took early retirement, resulting in a reduced mechanical staff.

“We have to re-recruit for some of those [positions]; there is this unintended effect, but at this point unavoidable where we have to work through this backlog to get back to what was once our historic fleet availability, and that will take some time.”

He indicated that Amtrak is likely to be working through the winter to get transition sleepers back in service so that rooms now being taken by crew members can be sold to the public.

Also speaking to the RPA conference was Executive Vice President-Major Program Delivery Laura Mason.

She said the Amtrak would be able to step up replacement of aging equipment now used in the national network if Congress approves an infrastructure bill now pending in the House.

The bill has also received Senate approval. Of late, the infrastructure bill has been hindered by political wrangling in the House.

Even without the infusion of capital funding Amtrak hopes to get from the infrastructure bill, Harris said the carrier has been slowly replacing its fleet over the past five years with new Acela trainsets, new Viewliner cars and Venture cars being built by Siemens for use in state-funded corridor services.

Amtrak also has chosen Siemens to build replacement cars for Amfleet equipment used in the Northeast Corridor.

“This is not something Amtrak really has a deep bench on, in terms of doing procurements, so we really need to tackle these sequentially. So, there’s some elements of the Amfleet replacements that we need to wrap up still from that procurement, and then we will begin to have the capacity to work on the long-distance procurement,” Harris said.

Mason said Amtrak is “laying the groundwork to receive the substantial infusion of federal funding” contained in the infrastructure bill.

 “With the state of our infrastructure today and the funding that we have hopefully coming towards us with the infrastructure bill, we need to be able to build up the capacity to do multiple billion dollar programs, to have just not one focus but many,” she said.

 “We have $40 billion of planned critical infrastructure, facility and fleet investments that we need to turn into a reality.”

Mason also said Amtrak faces the challenge of recruiting future workers.

 “One of the big challenges to the industry is how do we get people excited and involved?” she said. “We need to recruit at all levels; I think entry-level is very important, but also mid-level.

“We need to bring in people from different industries and help them see the rewards that come from working in rail. That you can do well by doing good, and also that you can have a tremendous positive impact.

“I talk about this when I go out recruiting, about the impact. Do you want to affect tens of thousands of people a day? Hundreds of thousands? Millions of people a year? You can do that in transportation.”

She said Amtrak might need to appeal to younger would-be employees by tying the transportation industry to climate change.

“I say: Make it your day job; come work in rail. If you want to combat climate change, help be part of the solution of making rail and carbon neutral transportation an option for everybody,” Mason said.

CSX Seeks to Improve Freight Tracking

September 24, 2021

CSX is working to improve its online freight tracking system to make it easier for shippers to do business with the railroad.

Kevin Boone, executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the goal is to bring the carrier’s online tools up to the same level as those used by UPS and FedEx.

 “Today it’s not real easy to do business with railroads. We don’t provide the insights, the visibility that we should,” Boone said during a presentation to the North East Association of Rail Shippers.

To attract shippers CSX is upgrading its ShipCSX portal to provide tracking and tracing capability.

However, Boone acknowledged the system needs further development.

The carrier also is aware of Rail Pulse, a GPS-based tracking system being developed by Norfolk Southern, short line holding companies Genesee & Wyoming and Watco, freight car leasing company GATX, and railcar manufacturer and leasing company Trinity Rail.

“We’re looking at everything. Certainly we’re aware of Rail Pulse. I think it’s an interesting concept,” Boone said.

Boone called Rail Puse the future, saying the ability to track and trace freight is something shippers have indicated they would be willing to pay extra to be able to do.

Once fully developed, Rail Pulse is expected to provide shippers a single online portal to track shipments that move on cars equipped with the GPS tracing system.

Rail Pulse, unlike current tools railroads have, will provide precise real-time location data, even on short lines. It will enable shippers to track shipment not covered by the Automatic Equipment Identification system.

Other information provided by Rail Pulse will include whether a car is loaded or empty, whether doors or hatches are open or closed, and if the car has been involved in a collision that could damage cargo.

Other companies also are seeking to develop rail car tracking systems using GPS technology.

Railinc subsidiary TransmetriQ is developing an advanced estimated time of arrival system that can help rail customers better plan their operations based on accurate car arrival times.

Rising Gas Prices Prove to be Boost to Coal

September 24, 2021

If you’ve been paying attention to the weekly rail traffic reports put out by the Association of American Railroads you may have noticed that in recent weeks and months coal traffic has been on the upswing.

In part that has followed in the wake of higher natural gas prices that have prompted some utilities to resume using coal to generate electricity.

Thus far this year, coal traffic has increased by 11.7 percent compared with the same period in 2020.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal will be used to create 24 percent of electricity generation in 2021 and 2022, up from 20 percent in 2020.

It is not, though, that utilities are giving up on natural gas, whose price has increased by 95 percent over the past six months. Natural-gas futures have risen to $5.10 per million British thermal units in recent days compared with $2.61 per million BTUs six months ago.

Instead, utilities are using coal as a supplement to natural gas for power generation as a hedge against higher gas prices.

And to be sure, coal loadings remain below 2019 levels. However, the evidence points toward greater use of coal at least in the short term.

Natural gas still accounts for a higher percentage of power generation, a projected average of 35 percent this year and 34 percent in 2022. In 2020, 39 percent of power generation came from natural gas.

Aside from higher gas prices, the supply of natural gas has been adversely affected by infrastructure issues.

Severe weather, including ice storms in Texas, hot and dry conditions in the West and damage caused by Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast last month has reduced natural gas production.

In mid September more than a third of the gas production in the Gulf region remained offline.

That comes at a time of year when utilities are  stockpiling the natural gas supplies.

The federal energy administration said in mid September that U.S. storage gas supplies are 3,006 billion cubic feet, which is 231 BCF below the five-year average and 595 BCF lower than last year at this time.

That could drive natural gas prices even higher as utilities approach winter peak demand periods.

However, the coal industry has its own issues, including tight supplies and transportation constraints. The pandemic has caused delays in coal deliveries.

Industry observers don’t expect the number of unit coal trains to significantly increase nor do they expect many closed coal mines to reopen.

What they expect is for coal traffic to remain at a consistent above-average volume over the next several months. They don’t foresee an unprecedented rise in rail coal volume.

Railroads have stored some of the equipment once used to move coal and management may be reluctant to spend to put it back in service to handle what they view as a short-term opportunity.

Still the demand for coal is expected to rise next year by 100 million short tons and export coal is expected to increase by 21 million short tons.

Unions Report Little Progress in Contract Talks

September 24, 2021

Although no agreement is imminent railroad labor unions continue to talk with the nation’s railroads about a new contract although progress has been slow to achieve.

The Coordinated Bargaining Coalition, which represents the unions, said in-person bargaining sessions resumed in August. The two sides have been meeting since early 2020.

The protracted nature of the talks is not unexpected as it typically has taken years for unions and railroads to hammer out an agreement.

The CBC said this week that it has not received any carrier proposals since January 2021 that  it considers “worthy of consideration.

In a statement, the CBC said its position is that the unions are not going to accept a concessionary agreement on a voluntary basis.

A CBC statement said union workers believe they have been treated like expendable workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our members are infuriated that they have worked through these conditions without a wage increase in over two years and it is unacceptable that the nation’s rail carriers continue to stonewall CBC unions in our effort to settle our contract negotiations on a voluntary basis,” the statement said.

Virginia Short Line to Buy part of Cardinal Route

September 24, 2021

A Virginia short line railroad that hosts Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal is seeking to buy track it now leases from CSX.

The Buckingham Branch Railroad wants to buy 164 miles of former Chesapeake & Ohio track in Virginia between Clifton Forge and Doswell.

BBR has leased the track since 2005. It was formed in 1988 and today operates 280 route miles.

In a filing with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, CSX and BBR said they have agreed to convert the lease into an exclusive rail freight operating easement and terminate the existing agreement.

CVSR to Offer Friday Night Train Rides

September 23, 2021

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad will offer two-hour rides this fall on Friday nights.

Trains will depart Rockside Road station in Independence at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person.

The first night trip is this Friday (Sept. 24) and had tickets available in dome car Silver Bronco.

Trains will operate every Friday evening during October.

Carload Up, Intermodal Down Last Week

September 23, 2021

U.S. Railroads posted a 3.5 percent gain in carload traffic for the week ending Sept. 18.

The Association of American Railroads said Class 1 railroads handled 234,790 carloads.

Intermodal traffic did not fare as well falling 8.3 percent at 270,832 containers and trailers.

The comparisons are to the same week in 2020 and marked the seventh consecutive week of intermodal losses. 

Total rail traffic was 505,622 carloads and intermodal units, a decline of 3.1 percent when compared with the same week last year.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups tracked by AAR saw gains. They included coal, up 7,232 carloads, to 68,820; metallic ores and metals, up 5,203 carloads, to 24,798; and nonmetallic minerals, up 2,054 carloads, to 32,676.

Losing ground were were motor vehicles and parts, down 5,896 carloads, to 11,709; grain, down 2,609 carloads, to 19,432; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 388 carloads, to 10,494.

For the first 37 weeks of 2021, U.S. railroads handled a cumulative volume of 8,528,660 carloads, an 8 percent increase, with 10,265,525 intermodal units, increasing 10.9 percent from last year.

Total combined traffic for the first 37 weeks of 2021 has been 18,794,185 carloads and intermodal units, up 9.6 percent compared with last year.

Amtrak to Require Worker Vaccinations by Nov. 22

September 23, 2021

Amtrak said this week it will require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22 with all new hires facing an Oct. 4 vaccination deadline.

The passenger carrier said the rule changes are consistent with a recent executive order for federal employees.

That order does not allow for a voluntary testing alternative except for those who have obtained an exemption for medical or religious accommodation reasons.

Amtrak said the vaccination mandate also will apply to “red badge” contractors and others who regularly work at an Amtrak worksite.

The company has rescheduled its “Return to Worksites” date to Jan. 10, 2022.

“Given that our vaccination mandate is now late November, we feel it makes sense to postpone this return until after the holidays,” Amtrak officials said in the news release. “[Our] worksites remain open for anyone who wants to return sooner.”