Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak trains’

As Political Winds Blow, Long-Distance Trains Go

April 25, 2018

As a general rule I don’t put much stock in opinions on railroad chat lists that “predict” the imminent demise of Amtrak’s fleet of long-distance trains.

Such predictions have been made for decades and yet long-distance trains have survived.

Yes, some have fallen by the wayside over the years, most notably in 1979 and 1995. But numerous efforts to kill off all long-distance trains have fallen short.

With the planned discontinuance of full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited the prophets of doom are at it again.

But then I read a column by William C. Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, in which he said he thinks the dining changes being made on the Capitol and Lake Shore are part of a plan to shut down the Amtrak national network and leave only the Northeast Corridor, Midwest corridor trains, California corridor trains and other state-supported services.

Vantuono is not one to make dire predictions, but I took notice when he wrote, “I’ve been hearing about internal plans within Amtrak to discontinue long-distance trains. The best way to do that, of course, is to make the service so unpalatable that people stop riding them. Are we looking at a veiled attempt to drive passengers away? I believe we are.”

But then I read the rest of his column and noticed that he had qualified his “prediction” by saying “maybe, maybe not.”

I later received an email from a friend who sent a link to meeting notes of a presentation in which Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson reportedly said to an audience of 150 passenger rail officials that he wanted to kill the long-distance trains and only operate corridor service of 400 miles or less with DMU equipment.

But when I read those notes I found the rail passenger advocate who took them said, “I noted that he (Anderson) did not specifically say that the long-distance trains would go, only that corridors are the future.”

Finally, I read Trains columnist Fred Frailey’s view that Anderson won’t try to scuttle the long-distance trains this year.

“If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump couldn’t axe them, why would Richard Anderson even try?” Frailey wrote.

The fact is no one knows the future of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson may believe that corridors provide the best marketing opportunities for intercity rail service, but neither he nor Amtrak’s board of directors are free agents in overseeing a company that depends on public money to pay its operating and capital expenses.

Amtrak is, has always been and always will be a political creature subject to decisions made by Congress and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures.

Congress has acted to kill some long-distance trains over the years and has acted to save them in others.

That said there may be good reason to believe that long-distance trains might be on slippery rails.

Anderson told Congress earlier this year that Amtrak won’t operate on routes that fail to meet the federal mandate that positive train control be installed by the end of this year. He also suggested Amtrak might not use routes that aren’t required to have PTC.

Much of this probably is political posturing. At the time of his testimony Anderson was still smarting from the Cascades and Silver Star crashes, which might have been avoided had PTC been in operation.

Yet some segments of long-distance routes either might not meet the PTC deadline. Is Amtrak going to chop up those routes?

Another potential threat is that the equipment devoted to long-distance service is wearing out. Will Amtrak seek to replace it?

Amtrak has rarely shown much, if any, interest in creating additional long-distance routes or expanding service on the long-distance routes it does operate.

Various Amtrak presidents probably have viewed the long-distance network, skeletal as it might be, as insurance for widespread political support.

In his talk to the passenger train officials, Anderson repeatedly said he must follow the law, meaning Passenger Rail Reform & Investment Act of 2015, saying it requires Amtrak to operate at lower cost and more efficiently.

In particular this applies to food and beverage service and an Amtrak inspector general’s report of seven years ago found that the lion’s share of losses on that could be attributed to the long-distance trains.

Anderson and perhaps the Amtrak board of directors might see long-distance trains as a hindrance to their ability to cut costs and operate more efficiently. They also might see the long-distance trains as dinosaurs.

Amtrak will turn 50 in three years. A half century is a long time for any one company to operate with essentially the same business model.

But most companies are not as subject to political pressure as Amtrak. As the political climates goes, so goes the future of long-distance trains or, for that matter, any intercity passenger trains.

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Amtrak Takes Host Railroads to School

March 26, 2018

Amtrak has launched a quarterly “report card” on its website that evaluates the delays that it incurs on the tracks of its host railroads.  In the first report card, Amtrak said most delays are due to freight trains interference.

The implication is that such delays violate a federal law that gives Amtrak passenger trains preference over freight trains. However, the law has some exceptions.

Amtrak assigned letter grades to six Class 1 railroads that were based on delays per 10,000 train miles.

Amtrak defines that as the number of minutes of host-responsible delay, divided by the number of Amtrak train miles operated over that host railroad, times 10,000.

Canadian Pacific received the only A on the report card. Other railroad grades included a B+ for BNSF, a B- for Union Pacific and a C for CSX. Norfolk Southern and Canadian National both “flunked” by receiving grades of F.

Following are some Amtrak comments regarding hosts railroad performances on specific routes:

• 97 percent of passengers on Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee arrived at their destinations on time. Ninety percent of trips experienced no freight train interference.

• 90 percent of passengers on Carl Sandberg/Illinois Zephyr service arrived on time with less than 4 minutes of delay by BNSF freight trains.

• More than 57 percent of passengers arrived late abroad the Coast Starlight. On an average trip on this route, passengers experienced four separate instances of delay caused by UP freight trains, accounting for 48 minutes of delay on average.

• 50 percent of passengers traveling on the Cardinal arrived late by an average of 1 hour and 27 minutes. On 85 percent of trips, the Cardinal’s 350 passengers are delayed by CSX freight trains.

• Over 67 percent of passengers arrived late at their destinations while traveling on the Crescent. The typical Amtrak train, carrying 350 passengers, is delayed over 1 hour and 40 minutes due to NS freight trains. Many Amtrak trains wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes for NS freight trains using this route.

• More than 200,000 passengers arrived late at their destinations on the Illini and Saluki, which operate between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois. Amtrak trains were delayed by CN freight trains on nearly 90 percent of their trips.

Amtrak Acknowledges Changes Coming for Cardinal, Empire Service Due to Penn Station Construction

March 13, 2018

An Amtrak official has confirmed that the carrier plans to divert Empire Service trains this year to New York Grand Central Terminal during a construction project at New York Penn Station.

In a related development, Amtrak has also acknowledged it plans to temporarily cease operating the Cardinal between New York and Washington starting March 29.

The Empire Service diversion was discussed by Amtrak’s Empire District general superintendent, Kevin Chittenden, during a meeting of the Empire State Passengers Association.

Although he didn’t say when the diversion would take place, Chittenden said it would last for three months during the summer. During that time, the connecting track that Amtrak uses to move between Penn Station and Metro North tracks will be closed for maintenance.

Chittenden also indicated that Amtrak is considering used FL-9 locomotives as cab cars for trains going to and from Grand Central. However, Amtrak may also use cab cars in push-pull mode.

Amtrak diverted several Empire Service trains into Grand Central last summer, but continued to operate the Lake Shore Limited into Penn Station.

News reports have surfaced that Amtrak plans to temporarily drop the New York section of the Lake Shore while work is being done on the connection track to Penn Station.

As for the Cardinal, Amtrak said it is being terminated in Washington to relieve congestion at Penn Station.

The first eastbound train to terminate in Washington rather than run through to New York will leave Chicago on March 29. The first train to originate in Washington will depart on April 1.

Amtrak did not say how long Nos. 50 and 51 will continue to operate only between Chicago and Washington.

The Rail Passenger Association said that the advocacy group Friends of the Cardinal is preparing to enter into talks with the West Virginia Tourism Commission on support for making the Cardinal a daily service.

It currently operates tri-weekly, originating in New York on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, and originating in Chicago on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Survivors From Penn Central and PRR

February 20, 2018

I went railfanning in Trenton, New Jersey, recently and in keeping with the Penn Central birth/Pennsylvania Railroad demise theme, I would like to present some reminders of those railroads that are still in service today.

These include position light signals (now colorized) and former Metroliner cars serving as cab cars on Keystone Service (New York-Harrisburg) trains.

My New Jersey Transit trains clicked away the miles at a steady 105 mph between Trenton and New Brunswick under the heavy catenary of the former PRR mainline.

Photographs by Jack Norris

Snow, Ice Pile Delays Wolverine Service Train

February 14, 2018

An Amtrak Wolverine Service train struck a pile of ice and snow left close to its tracks, damaging the locomotive and delaying passengers for more than four hours during which the train lacked heat and the restrooms were inoperable.

The incident occurred on Monday evening and involved Chicago to Detroit (Pontiac) Train No. 352.

The train struck ice and snow that a local snow plow crew had left close to the rails near Michigan City, Indiana.

A Chicago radio station said some passengers felt sick and one said she feared losing consciousness during the ordeal.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the train was forced to stop after striking the snow and ice while Amtrak personnel re-aligned the snow plow on the locomotive.

That task took nearly two-and-a-half-hours and during that time the head-end power to the passenger cars was disconnected.

Magliari said that Amtrak police and managers distributed snacks to passengers during the delay and provided what help they could. Two other Amtrak trains using the route were also delayed.

Amtrak will discuss with the unnamed town involved the need to avoid piling snow next to railroad tracks, Magliari said.

CSX Signals Had Been Turned off For PTC Installation

February 6, 2018

Some news accounts of the head-on collision between an Amtrak train and a CSX freight train in South Carolina early Sunday morning mentioned that the signal system in place on the line had been turned off.

There was a reason for that. CSX crews were working to cut in a positive train control system on the route, the same system that National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said might have prevented the crash.

During a news conference on Monday afternoon, Sumwalt said Amtrak’s southbound Silver Star was operating with track warrants in temporarily dark territory.  See a post below for an account of the final seconds before the crash.

Crews for Amtrak and CSX were in verbal contact with the dispatcher controlling that stretch of track where the work was being performed, which is the Columbia Subdivision of the Florence Division.

Sumwalt said NTSB investigators have thus far not found any problems with the track where the collision occurred in Cayce, South Carolina.

Earlier NTSB news briefings said that a switch had been left aligned to route Amtrak train No. 91 into the path of the CSX auto rack train, which was sitting on a siding without a crew onboard.

The collision, which destroyed Amtrak P42DC No. 47 and CSX AC44CW Nos. 130 resulted in an Amtrak engineer and conductor being killed.

Sumwalt said the NTSB inquiry will be broader than the mechanics of how the crash occurred.

“It is very important that we look at each of these incidents in isolation to determine if there are systemic issues,” Sumwalt, making reference to other incidents involving Amtrak in recent months. “Last Wednesday, it was a garbage truck that was on the track. We aren’t sure what happened here [and] why that switch was lined for the siding. We do look at safety culture issues and we did a report in October.”

That report, which reviewed an April 2016 incident in the Northeast Corridor in Pennsylvania that left two Amtrak maintenance of way workers dead, was critical of Amtrak’s lack of an effective safety culture.

2 Dead, 110 Hurt When Amtrak’s Silver Star Collides Head-on With CSX Auto Rack Train

February 5, 2018

Two Amtrak crew members were killed and more than 100 injured early Sunday morning when the Miami-bound Silver Star was misrouted into the path of a parked CSX freight train.

The accident happened at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, about 10 miles south of a the train’s previous station stop at Columbia, South Carolina.

Officials said Train No. 91 had 147 aboard and 110 of them were reported to have suffered injuries ranging from minor cuts to broken bones. Nine of those aboard were Amtrak employees.

Killed were Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36 of Orange Park, Florida.

Dr. Eric Brown, the executive physician for Palmetto Health,  said six people were admitted to hospitals for more severe injuries, including head trauma.

National Transportation Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said on Sunday afternoon that the switch had been manually “lined and locked” to divert the Amtrak train into the freight train.

“Of course key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down,” Sumwalt said.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said during a conference call with reporters that before the crash the Amtrak crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher by phone because a signaling system that governs traffic in the area was down for maintenance.

Authorities said investigators are still trying to determine how fast the Silver Star was going at the time of the collision, but the top speed there is 59 mph.

Sumwalt said the CSX train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto rack cars. It had unloaded automobiles on the west side of the main line and then used it to back into a siding on the east side of the main line.

“We were able to see that it was actually literally locked with a padlock to make it lined to go into the siding,” Sumwalt said of the switch on the main.

He said investigators will focus on why the switch wasn’t restored to its normal position before Amtrak No. 91 arrived.

NTSB personnel at the scene retrieved a front-facing video camera from Amtrak P42DC No. 47 and sent to their laboratory in Washington for review. The train’s event data recorder had not been located as of Sunday evening.

“I can tell you there’s catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, I would say that the Amtrak locomotive would be not recognizable at all.”

The consist of the Amtrak train included a P42 locomotive, three Amfleet coaches, an Amfleet cafe lounge, two Viewliner sleepers and a baggage car.

Sumwalt said the crash could have been avoided if positive train control had been in operation at the time.

About 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel was spilled after the collision, but authorities said it posted “no threat to the public at the time.”

Passengers who were not injured or had been treated for injuries were taken to a middle school for shelter.

They were later put aboard chartered buses to continue their journey southward.

Crossing Gates at Location of Amtrak Special Collision in Virginia May Have Been Malfunctioning, NTSB Says

February 3, 2018

The grade crossing gates in Virginia where an Amtrak special carrying congressmen to a political retreat struck a garbage truck on Wednesday may have been malfunctioning at the time of the collision, NTSB investigators have said.

The investigators told reporters that several witnesses have come forward to say that there had been “issues” with the gates in the days before the incident.

The collision occurred on the Buckingham Branch Railroad near Crozet, Virginia. One person inside the truck was killed. None of the congressmen, their aides or family members was seriously injured. They were en route to a Republican conference being held at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The NTSB said that the chartered train was traveling at 61 mph at the time of the accident, which is slightly over the 60 mph top speed for that section of track.

The NTSB investigation is expected to take up to two years to complete.

Man Killed in Amtrak Crash Identified

February 1, 2018

The person killed when a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican congressmen on Wednesday struck a garbage truck in Virginia has been identified as a passenger in the truck.

Authorities said the victim was Christopher Foley, 28, of Louisa County, Virginia.

A second but unidentified passenger in the truck was airlifted to University of Virginia Medical Center with critical injuries, the Abermarle County Police Department said in a statement. The truck’s driver was listed in serious condition at the hospital.

The UVA Medical Center said it received six patients from the incident in Crozet, which is located about 13 miles west of Charlottesville. The train had Amfleet cars and P42DC locomotives on the front and rear.

The hospital said one of the patients it received was in critical condition, one was in good condition, three were still being evaluated and one had been discharged.

The National Transportation Safety Board had a team of investigators on the scene by Wednesday afternoon.

NTSB member Earl Weener said investigators wouldn’t speculate on any possible cause of the incident, which Amtrak said occurred at 11:10 a.m. on the Buckingham Branch Railroad. The line is used by Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

Earlier reports said about 100 GOP lawmakers, their aides and families were aboard the train en route to a political retreat being held between Wednesday and Friday at the Greenbrier resort at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The retreat, which will continue in modified form, was to have a visits from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Weener said the NTSB will work with representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

He said that Pete Kotowski, a senior highway safety investigator for the NTSB, will be in charge of conducting the investigation.

Weener said investigators initially will focus on the collision site.

“Over the next few days our investigators will work on the scene to document the crash site and gather factual information,” Weener said. “Our mission is to understand not only what happened, but why it happened and to make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.”

He said that investigators will not seek to determine the probable cause while on the scene of the crash.

Weener did say that NTSB investigators will use a number of “factor groups” to analyze the collision site, including human, highway, vehicle, motor carrier and survival factors.

The human factors group, he said, takes into account the potential responsibility of the train engineer, including the operator’s background, licensing, experience and level of training as well as the possible influence of alcohol or drugs.

NTSB officials will attempt to recover recording devices located in the lead and trailing P42DC locomotives.

Weener said there is no evidence that the collision was the result of an attack of some kind.

“The NTSB does safety investigations so the fact that we are here, the presumption is that it was an accident,” Weener said. “Should we find anything that indicates differently, we’ll immediately involve the proper authorities.”

Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said it was premature to offer specific comment about the incident, but did say that accidents at rail crossings are far too common.

In a news release, Amtrak said it will in the coming days continue to work with the NTSB, law enforcement, Operation Lifesaver and other stakeholders to reduce the frequency of these accidents.

“This is an opportunity to remind everyone about the importance of exercising caution around railroad rights-of-way,” Leeds said.

The passengers aboard the train were taken by bus to the Greenbrier and by early afternoon the train had been taken to Charlottesville.

Amtrak Special Carrying GOP Congressmen to Political Retreat Strikes Truck in Virginia, 1 Dead

January 31, 2018

One person was killed and five others injured when an Amtrak train carrying 100 Republican members of Congress, their aides and their families to a political retreat struck a garbage truck in Virginia on Wednesday.

Killed was an occupant of the truck. Three people were transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center, including one who the hospital reported was in critical condition. Two others were taken to another medical facility.

None of the members of Congress, which included House Speaker Paul Ryan, were seriously injured, although Rep. Jason Lewis of Minnesota was taken to a hospital for a possible concussion.

News reports said that three congressmen who are doctors tended to the injured before emergency personnel arrived. They included Reps. Larry Bucshon of Indiana, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio

The congressmen were traveling to a conference being held at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The accident occurred at 11:20 a.m. on the Buckingham Branch Railroad in Crozet, Virginia, near near Lanetown and Marymart Farm roads.

The route is used by Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal, which is scheduled to depart and arrive in New York on Wednesdays.

“Today’s incident was a terrible tragedy,” Ryan tweeted later. “We are grateful for the first responders who rushed to the scene and we pray for the victims and their families. May they all be in our thoughts right now.”

Amtrak issued a statement saying that two of its crew members and two passengers on the train were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

The train remained upright and did not derail. Photographs made at the scene showed damage to the lead locomotive.

The train had departed from Washington for the retreat, which is to start today and run through Friday.

The train was pulled by P42DC No. 145, the Phase III heritage locomotive. The train of Amfleet equipment had a trailing P42DC, No. 4

A GOP spokesman said the retreat will continue as scheduled.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it sent a Go-Team to the scene to investigate.

News reports said that U.S. Capital Police were on the scene. One account said that following the crash, police wearing dark clothing surrounded the train with weapons drawn.

They had been aboard the train and got off shortly after the train stopped.

Passengers aboard the train were put aboard buses to be taken the rest of the way to the Greenbrier.