Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Midwest corridor trains’

Riding Amtrak Still an Enjoyable Experience

October 3, 2021

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, behind an SC-44 Charger locomotive.

Back in July Amtrak sent me an email warning that my Amtrak Guest Rewards account had been inactive for 24 months and my points would expire in mid September.

The email listed ways to keep my account active including buying an Amtrak ticket or redeeming points for travel or Amtrak-branded merchandise.

I filed all of this in my “to do” mental folder. As September dawned I needed to do something.

My account had 21,000 points, which isn’t enough for a spectacular trip, but I didn’t want to lose those points either.

I thought about using points for a day trip to Chicago on the Cardinal. I also considered making a short trip from Effingham to Mattoon, Illinois, on the Saluki, an Illinois Department of Transportation funded train between Chicago and Carbondale.

The distance between those two towns is 27 miles and the trip takes just 24 minutes. That wouldn’t be much of a train ride.

Instead I decided on something I hadn’t done since 1983.

The equipment for the southbound Saluki lays over in Carbondale for 2 hours, 20 minutes before returning to Chicago as the Illini.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had on occasion ridden Train 391 from Mattoon to Carbondale and returned that evening on Train 392. In those days they were named the Shawnee.

Since I was last in Carbondale, the Illinois Central passenger station has been renovated and received an IC equipment display of a GP11 and caboose. I could photograph that.

Amtrak opened a new Carbondale station three blocks south in October 1981. I have hundreds of photographs of Amtrak trains on the former Main Line of Mid-America but none in Carbondale.

However, instead of leaving from Mattoon, I would depart from Effingham.

I planned to use points for the trip but that changed when I discovered a one-way non-refundable fare of $8. Even if for some reason I couldn’t make the trip I would only be out $16.

I booked it for Sunday, Sept. 12, a mere three days before my points were to expire.

Booking travel on Amtrak is more involved than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must click a box agreeing to wear a mask in stations and aboard the train.

Amtrak also tried to get me to buy trip insurance. Did they really think I was going to do that for a $16 ticket?

The afternoon before my trip Amtrak sent me an email directing me to fill out a short form online. Aside from the standard COVID symptoms questions that I’ve become used to answering every time I visit a doctor I also had to agree – again – to wear a mask.

On the day of the trip I arrived at the Effingham station three hours before train time to get in some railfanning before No. 391 arrived.

Effingham back in the day had a station used by the IC and Pennsylvania Railroad. Flanking the passenger station were express depots for both railroads.

Today the passenger station is a cosmetology school and the ex-PRR express depot is used by a catering company as a kitchen.

Amtrak uses half of the ex-IC express depot with the other half used by a tattoo parlor.

I arrived to find work underway to rebuild the Amtrak boarding platform, which complicated my photography due to high construction zone fences and orange fabric barriers.

CSX sent one train through town, an eastbound grain train, while Canadian National sent two northbounds and a southbound past the station.

A CN train working the yard came north of the diamonds for headroom and to clear the block before going back into the yard.

Three of the four CN trains had IC SD70 locomotives wearing the pre-merger IC black “death star” livery.

One of the southbounds had a motive power consist of two IC “death stars” and a Grand Trunk Western geep in its original livery. Talk about a heritage consist.

I also observed the coming and going of the northbound Saluki.

For nearly a year Amtrak has assigned Superliner equipment to its Chicago-Carbondale trains. The Saluki and Illini are pulled by SC-44 Charger locomotives owned by IDOT and leased by Amtrak.

My foray to Carbondale would be my first trip behind a Charger locomotive. Interestingly, my first trip aboard a Superliner coach was a day trip to Carbondale in June 1979 when the then-new cars were in break-service on Midwest corridor trains before being assigned to the Empire Builder that October.

No. 391 was about 15 minutes late. I stood alone on the platform, mask firmly in place, the only passenger to board on this day.

I wasn’t surprised. When I had bought my ticket Train 391 was shown as at 13 percent of capacity.

I presented my ticket to the conductor but he said he had already checked me off. About 10 passengers disembarked.

I was one of just two passengers in my coach. The conductor came to my seat and asked if I had ridden with Amtrak before.

Yes, I have – many times actually – but not since before the pandemic. The conductor noted there was a café car up ahead. I didn’t plan to patronize it but thanked the conductor for that information anyway.

I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching the countryside pass by. It had been more than three decades since I had seen Southern Illinois in daylight from the vantage point of an Amtrak coach window.

As we slowed for the Centralia station, a northbound BNSF coal train passed on an adjacent track. It had a distributed power unit on the rear.

Centralia was once the home of a large IC car shop. As best I could determine, most of that complex is gone.

It used to be that southbound passenger trains went around the Centralia yard complex on the west side. That wasn’t the case today although I could see that track still goes over that way.

We passed the yard on the east side.

The yard had a moderate number of freight cars and some motive power, including the two “death stars” and GTW geep I had seen earlier. A massive coaling tower still stands in the yard.

Our next stop was Du Quoin where Amtrak shares a small modern depot with the local chamber of commerce. It opened in August 1989.

Carbondale used to have a large yard, too, but most of it is gone. The former St. Louis division offices were razed years ago.

All that’s left are a few tracks and the twin coaling towers that stand near where the roundhouse used to be.

Due to schedule padding we arrived at the Carbondale station 15 minutes early and slightly less than two hours after leaving Effingham

It turns out most of the Carbondale passengers had been in other coaches.

Shortly after No. 391 arrived, the crew backed the equipment north to the yard and turned it on a wye track.

I made photographs of the ferry move in both directions passing the former IC station.

It was a warm day and I walked to a Circle K to get a large bottle of Gatorade. I walked around a bit, photographing the old IC station, which houses a small railroad museum that wasn’t open on this day, as well as offices of the chamber of commerce and a non-profit organization that promotes downtown Carbondale.

A statue of an IC conductor pays tribute to the railroad’s long history in Carbondale, which used to be where St. Louis cars were added or removed from trains bound to and from New Orleans and Florida.

A northbound CN tank car train came through during my layover.

I was dismayed to find the Carbondale Amtrak station is only open during the day on Wednesdays. But it’s open seven days a week at night to accommodate passengers for the City of New Orleans, which arrives in both directions in the dead of night.

There were around 50 of us waiting outside the station.

There would be just one conductor on tonight’s Train 392. He opened two doors of the train and stood on the platform.

I was expecting him to come up to the crowd and announce that boarding was ready to begin.

Instead he raised an arm and waved it a bit, which I interpreted as a signal to come out and get on board.

I started walking toward the train and the crowd followed me. Everyone was put in the same car.

We left on time and made the same stops as we had earlier. In Centralia I spotted a young man running from the parking lot toward the train, which was about done boarding.

If the conductor saw him, he ignored him because the train began moving. I expected the conductor to see the guy and order the engineer to stop. But we kept going.

CN and Amtrak have been at loggerheads for years over a number of operating issues including CN’s edict that Amtrak operate with a minimum number of axles to ensure that grade crossing signals are activated.

That is in part why I was riding a train with seven Superliner cars with far fewer passengers than the train’s capacity.

Amtrak and CN also have sparred over dispatching with Amtrak accusing CN of needlessly delaying Amtrak’s trains.

I know from years of experience in riding Amtrak between Mattoon and Chicago that delays due to freight train interference are not uncommon, particularly around Champaign.

But on this day we didn’t meet a single CN freight during on my trip.

I was the only passenger getting off at Effingham. Seven people were waiting on the platform to board.

A woman at the back of the line was not wearing a facial mask and the conductor refused to let her board.

I don’t know why she was maskless, but as I walked to my car I noticed the conductor had placed the step box aboard the train and stood in the doorway as the woman gestured while making her case – whatever that was – for not wearing a mask.

The conductor was having none of it and No. 392 left with the woman standing on the platform.

It had been an enjoyable outing and not all that much different from other trips I’ve made on Amtrak. The number of passengers aboard was less than I expected given that it was a Sunday, which normally is a heavy travel day on this route.

Sometime within the next year new Siemens Venture cars are expected to be assigned to Midwest corridor trains and maybe I’ll do another Carbondale roundtrip to experience them.

A pair of IC SD70s and a Grand Trunk geep pass the under construction Effingham Amtrak boarding area.
The DPU on a northbound BNSF coal train in Centralia.
Disembarking at the Carbondale Amtrak station.
The equipment for Amtrak’s northbound Illini passes the former IC passenger station at it backs down to the Amtrak depot in Carbondale.
A northbound CN tank train passes the Carbondale Amtrak station where the Illini awaits its 4:05 p.m. departure.

Track Works Leads to Wolverine Sked Changes

July 22, 2021

Schedules of Amtrak’s Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) will be temporarily changed between July 20 and Oct. 31 due to track work being performed by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.

Train 350 will depart Chicago 15 minutes earlier at 7:05 a.m. and will be scheduled to arrive in Pontiac at 2:46 p.m.

Train 351 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:43 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:47 a.m.

Train 354 will depart Chicago at its scheduled time of 5:50 p.m, but be rescheduled to arrive in Pontiac 15 minutes later at 1:17 a.m.

Train 355 will depart Pontiac 7 minutes earlier at 5:28 a.m and is scheduled to arrive in Chicago 15 minutes later at 10:55 p.m.

An Amtrak service advisory said Trains 352 and 353 remain suspended but are expected to resume operation on Sept. 7.

Wolverine Service during the COVID-19 pandemic fell to one pair of trains between Chicago and Pontiac. Service increased to two pairs of trains on July 19.

Wolverine Service Frequency to Rise July 19

May 19, 2021

The Michigan Department of Transportation and Amtrak have agreed to add back an additional daily roundtrip to the Chicago-Detroit corridor that was suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chicago-Pontiac Wolverine Service train will begin operating July 19, going westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening.

The two parties also said that effective May 25 speed limits on 45 miles of the corridor will ncrease to 110 miles per hour.

The faster speeds were authorized between Kalamazoo and Albion, Michigan, on track owned by MDOT

The higher speeds are being allowed following completion of Federal Railroad Administration certification of the signal system.

Officials said additional track infrastructure work is needed before the top speed can be increased between Albion and Dearborn in the Detroit suburbs.

The faster speeds will not reduce the scheduled travel time in the corridor but MDOT and Amtrak officials contended in a statement that improved on-time performance can be expected because the higher speeds will enable trains to make up time lost elsewhere.

This includes segments shared with freight railroads in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and in the Detroit region.

Speeds of up to 110 mph have been in place since 2012 in the corridor on the Amtrak-owned segment between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.

That segment uses an Incremental Train Control System signaling system.

That system has since been placed into operation east of Kalamazoo as an overlay to the interoperable I-ETMS positive train control system.

The schedule effective July 19 will have Wolverine Service trains 350 and 354 departing Chicago at 7:20 a.m. and 5:50 p.m., respectively.

Westbound trains 351 and 355 will depart Pontiac at 5:43 a.m. and 5:35 p.m., respectively.

The new schedule will restore connections from western long-distance trains to Michigan points that were lost during the pandemic.

Currently, the lone Wolverine Service on the corridor departs Pontiac at 5:43 a.m. and arrives in Chicago in late morning.

The return trip, though leaves Chicago at 1:25 p.m., which is too late to make connections from inbound Western long distance trains.

An MDOT official said the agency will consider adding back the third roundtrip to the corridor “as travel demands increase and COVID-19 vaccination rates rise in Michigan.”

Before the pandemic, trains departed Pontiac in early morning, mid morning and late afternoon. Trains departed Chicago in early morning, early afternoon and early evening.

Stimulus Money Conveyed to Amtrak

April 28, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation said this week that it has conveyed to Amtrak $1.69 billion in economic stimulus funds authorized by the American Rescue Act of 2021.

The funding includes $728.6 million for Amtrak’s long distance and regional trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak was directed by Congress to allocate $174 million of that total to offset what the carrier charges states for corridor services.

However, the law does not require states to restore their Amtrak corridor services to pre-pandemic levels.

Most states reduced their corridor services during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a plunge in ridership.

Several states have begun restoring suspended services but others have yet to announce their plans.

Among the routes yet to be fully restored is the Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac).

The route had three roundtrips pre-pandemic, but since March 2020 the level of service has been a single daily roundtrip.

Some Illinois and Missouri routes also continued to operate below pre-pandemic levels.

The directive also mandated that Amtrak return long-distance service to daily operation if they operated as such before last year.

Amtrak has said daily operation will be phased in over a three-weekly period beginning May 24.

The Northeast Corridor will receive $969.4 million of which $109.8 million will go to states and commuter railroads to cover their share of capital costs Amtrak charges them for using the Northeast Corridor.

Another $100.8 million will be used for debt relief that Amtrak incurred before the legislation was adopted on March 11.

Harsh Winter Hinders Amtrak in Midwest

February 18, 2021

Harsh winter weather continued to lead to delays and cancellations for Amtrak on Wednesday, including in the Midwest.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said a week of temperatures near zero caused a series of “weather-related equipment issues.”

A Chicago-Port Huron, Michigan, Blue Water round trip was cancelled on Wednesday as a result.

The same day the Chicago-bound Pere Marquette, which originates in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was terminated at its first intermediate stop in Hollard, Michigan, due to equipment problems.

Passengers were transferred to a bus to complete their journey to their destination.

Several corridor and long-distance trains that did operate on Tuesday and Wednesday encountered lengthy departure delays from Chicago.

That included the eastbound Cardinal to New York via Indianapolis and Cincinnati, which didn’t depart Chicago Union Station until 7:21 p.m.

The scheduled departure time for Train 51 is 5:45 p.m.

After a late Tuesday arrival in Chicago from Carbondale, Illinois, the Saluki was canceled on Wednesday and its counterpart to Carbondale, the Illini, was cancelled that day. Both trains were cancelled on Wednesday.

Today the westbound Capitol Limited reached Cleveland more than an hour late but the westbound Lake Shore Limited was reported to have arrived on time.

Amtrak Testing New Midwest Cars

January 25, 2021

New passenger equipment that will be assigned to Amtrak Midwest corridor services began road testing on Monday.

A test train of four Siemens Venture left Chicago with a Charger locomotive on each end and accompanied by former heritage sleeper Pacific Bend.

The test train was to operate to Pontiac, Michigan, over the route of Amtrak’s Wolverine Service on the schedule of Train 350, which has been suspended since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The test train was going to monitor interaction with crossing starts and the ITCS and I-ETMS positive train control systems at track speeds.

The Amtrak-owned track has a top speed of 110 mph between Porter, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The test train was expected to return to Chicago on Tuesday morning behind Wolverine Service train 351 to Battle Creek and then follow Blue Water train 365 into Chicago.

Charging Past Some Lingering Fall Color

November 15, 2020

I didn’t expect to find any fall foliage still in its glory during a mid November excursion to east central Illinois.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find some trees in Pesotum, Illinois, on the Champaign Subdivision of Canadian National still boasted peak seasonal color.

Show is Amtrak’s northbound Saluki headed to Chicago from Carbondale, Illinois.

On the point is a SC-44 Charger locomotive owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation, which also funds the operation of No. 390.

The Siemens-built Chargers are standard motive power on Amtrak’s Midwest corridor trains.

Within a couple years Chargers will replace the GE-Built Genesis units that pull Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

The Saluki these days is operating with Superliner equipment made “surplus” by Amtrak’s reducing the frequency of operation of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

MDOT Gets Federal Grant to Improve Passenger Line

October 28, 2020

The Michigan Department of Transportation has been awarded a federal $15.6 million State of Good Repair grant to upgrade state-owned tracks used by Amtrak between Ypsilanti and Jackson.

The work will replace 80,000 feet of rail,  upgrade 42 horizontal curves, and make safety enhancements at 16 public and eight private grade crossings.

MDOT Director Paul Ajebga in a statement said the work will make the route and enable Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverine Service trains to operate faster.

A news release issued by MDOT said the grant will assist with completing 136 miles to serve trains operating up to 110 mph.

New Rail Cars Arrive for Testing

September 2, 2020

Four new passenger cars built by Siemens have been delivered to Amtrak’s Chicago service facility for testing.

The cars, which were ordered by the Illinois Department of Transportation, are to be used on state-supported Midwest corridor trains.

Known as Venture cars, the single-level cars are built to a design pattern that Siemens used to construct coaches for Florida’s Brightline intercity service.

IDOT and its partner departments of transportation have ordered 88 of the Venture cars in coach, coach-business and coach-café configurations.

The cars are expected to be delivered through 2023. They are being built in Sacramento, California, where Siemens is also building an order of ALC-42 Chargers for Amtrak that will pull long-distance trains once they enter revenue service.

The Siemens passenger cars have a long and convoluted history that dates to 2012 when IDOT ordered  bi-level cars from Japanese manufacturer Sumitomo, which subcontracted construction of the cars to Nippon Sharyo, which had a manufacturing plant in Rochelle, Illinois.

However, a prototype car failed a crash safety test in 2015.

IDOT ultimately switched the contract to Siemens, which agreed to build single-level cars for the transportation agency over a 24- to 34-month period.

In addition to the cars being built for IDOT, Siemens is building 49 single-level cars for the California Department of Transportation for use on corridor trains in that state.

Once the new passenger cars enter service on Midwest corridor routes serving Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan, it will mean that the trains will have Siemens locomotives (SC-44 Chargers) and Siemens passengers.

Midwest trains currently use a combination of Horizon Fleet and Amfleet cars.

Amtrak OIG to Review How Amtrak Charges States for Cost of Providing Corridor Services

July 17, 2020

Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General will conduct a review of how the passenger carrier shares costs on state-supported corridor services.

A memorandum posted on the Amtrak OIG’s website said the audit “will be to evaluate the company’s actions to address longstanding concerns with the [Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act] 2009 cost-sharing methodology and the company’s billing process with its state partners.”

The memo said the OIG may expand the scope of its investigation or modify its objective during the audit.

The OIG said that during the audit it will analyze documents, invoices, and agreements related to state partner billing.

It will also interview Amtrak and state officials knowledgeable about the cost-sharing methodology and the state-supported billing process.

By federal law state and local governments must fund rail service on routes of less than 750 miles.

In the Midwest, the states of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri fund Amtrak corridor services with most of those routes linking Chicago.

Pennsylvania funds Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian between New York and Pittsburgh and service in the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Indiana once funded the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State but withdrew its funding in 2019 and that service was discontinued.

Ohio has never funded Amtrak service.