Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’

Foggy Day at Princeton Junction

February 24, 2017

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The day was nice here in the suburbs of New Jersey. I was in the mood to go see some big time passenger train action so I headed 40 miles west to where the wide open spaces of central New Jersey yield some nice places to photograph the Northeast Corridor.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas and I ended up in a fog bank at Princeton Junction, 47 miles southwest of New York City and 10 miles from the New Jersey capital of Trenton.

The NEC hosts an interesting variety of equipment, including old and new technologies working together to move tens of thousands of people a day from home to work and back again or countless other destinations.

One minute, you see a New Jersey Transit local made up of New Jersey Arrow MUs, originally built in the late ‘70s and rebuilt in the ‘90s. The next minute, an Acela streaks by at 125 m.p.h.

The fast, quiet electric trains running at more than 100 m.p.h. on 140-pound welded rail are hard enough to photograph on a good day.

I picked Princeton Junction due to dead-straight lines of sight for several miles in either direction.

The fog erased the advantage, but also made for an interesting time because you never knew what was going to pop out of the fog.

I had old NJT MUs as well as their modern ALP46 electrics. Amtrak produced modern ACS-64s as well as a pair of cab cars that were at one time the pride of the Penn Central Metroliner fleet, the future of high speed rail back in the late ‘60s.

I didn’t spend much time there today, but if I had waited long enough maybe the ghost of a Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 would have emerged from the fog. Only the out-of-service Nassau Tower knows the answer.

Article and Photographs by Jack Norris

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AAO Still Trying to Move the Passenger Needle

February 22, 2017

A message showed up in my email inbox the other day from All Aboard Ohio, a passenger advocacy group, that has released a report titled, “Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs.”

The report was timed to coincide with the Ohio legislature getting to work in hammering out the state’s budget for the next two years.

ohioAAO is trying to push legislators to “begin planning, constructing or completing $23.6 million worth of passenger rail improvements” over the next two years.

Much of that work involves upgrading stations served by the state’s three Amtrak trains, the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and Cardinal.

Some of the funding would also be used to plan potential future intercity rail routes, including a proposed Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus route that has never seen Amtrak service.

As AAO sees it, more than $80 million in state funding could be available under state law to be used for passenger rail development without paying for the operating costs of any actual trains.

An AAO news release about the report was written in the typical optimistic tone of rail passenger advocates and sought to put the best possible face on intercity rail.

It focused on such facts as how Amtrak covers 94 percent of its costs through revenues and set a ridership record in fiscal year 2016.

It also reiterated a tactic that AAO has used in the past of trying to shame Ohio policy makers into taking action by noting how neighboring states and the Canadian province of Ontario are investing millions in the development of intercity routes and services while Ohio spends zilch.

The state capital of Columbus is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere without passenger rail service.

Some folks in Phoenix might quibble with that although the Valley of the Sun does have a light rail system that is seeking to expand.

Rail passenger advocates tend to be an optimistic lot. They have to be. If they acknowledged the long and difficult road ahead they might throw up their hands in frustration. AAO is no exception.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue with Ohio’s policymakers in achieving realistic, near-term improvements to our state’s transportation system,” said AAO Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “We urge Ohioans to contact their state lawmakers in Columbus today and inform them with a short, polite message that they want better passenger rail service in Ohio.”

AAO has around 500 members and even if all of them contacted their legislators it is doubtful that it would have much effect on what the legislature is likely to do in terms of supporting intercity passenger rail.

Ohio has never spent a dime on funding intercity rail service, unlike neighboring Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

It received a federal grant to help develop the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor, but Gov. John Kasich killed the project shortly after winning election in 2010 and the federal government took back the grant and reallocated it elsewhere.

Ohio’s apathy, indifference or hostility – choose which word you think fits best – toward intercity rail development is not likely to change this year.

Kasich is still governor and is unlikely to change his views toward intercity rail service. Nor is the current legislature likely to be any more open to rail than is the governor. They are not going to be shamed or moved to action.

There may be some small victories, such as state funding of existing station improvements, but little to nothing else.

So AAO works to develop support for a rail a little at a time. Like I said, it’s going to be a long struggle.

Moorman Calls for Passenger Rail Investments

February 16, 2017

Amtrak President Charles “Wick” Moorman told a Senate committee this week that the United States needs a new era of infrastructure investment in order to ensure a healthy future for long-distance passenger rail travel.

Wick Moorman

Wick Moorman

Speaking to the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, Moorman said, “The time is now to invest in our aging assets.

“More than ever, our nation and the traveling public rely on Amtrak for mobility, but the future of Amtrak depends on whether we can renew the cars, locomotives, bridges, tunnels, stations and other infrastructure that allows us to meet these growing.”

Noting that Amtrak posted a record ridership of more than 31 million passengers and ticket revenues of $2.2 billion in 2016, Moorman said. “I’m certain that we can get even better by relentlessly improving our safety culture, modernizing and upgrading our products and strengthening our operational efficiency and project delivery.”

Moorman called for additional support from Congress and the Trump Administration to upgrade aging assets in order to continue to provide reliable services and network operations.

Among the improvements that Moorman cited as urgently needed are construction of tunnels and bridges on the Northeast Corridor; expansion of stations in Chicago and Washington; construction of a fleet of new or rebuilt diesel locomotives; and construction of track, signaling, and other improvements to remove choke points on host railroads or restore service in key underserved markets, such as along the Gulf Coast.

Moorman said Amtrak is focusing on identifying ways to improve collaboration with the 21 states and various commuter agencies that it partners with to provide service on corridors across the country. He urged the federal government to explore different ways to support intercity passenger rail service.

This could include direct investments, public-private partnerships and innovative financing, streamlining of the environmental review process, and less bureaucratic red tape.

“Investments in these sectors can help spur the rebirth of America’s passenger rail manufacturing and supply sector,” Moorman said.

Charger Locomotives Undergoing Operations Testing

February 16, 2017

The new Charger locomotives to be used by Amtrak corridor trains are undergoing national certification testing in Washington State.

Amtrak logoThe Washington Department of Transportation said the Siemens SC-44 units are being tested on Cascade service through the end of this month.

The Chargers are expected to begin regular service later this year pulling trains in Washington, California, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri.

The departments of transportation of those states collaborated to develop the 4,400 horsepower locomotives, which are being assembled in Sacramento, California.

MDOT to Seek Proposals to Conduct Feasibility Study of Ann Arbor-Traverse City Rail Service

February 11, 2017

A request for proposals to evaluate intercity railroad passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City has been issued by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

MichiganKnown as the A2TC Train, the service is specified in MDOT’s 2011 Michigan State Rail Plan, which called for service to the northern part of the state.

The feasibility study will cost $160,000 of which half comes from a federal transportation planning grant. The other half will be split between the state and local agencies.

The not-for-profit Traverse City Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities led the drive to raise the local matching funds for the study.

Work on the study is expected to get underway in May.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said in a statement that demand for passenger rail service is “increasing because of high energy costs and increased congestion of highways and air travel.”

The A2TC route would serve Petoskey, Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Owosso, Durand, Howell and Ann Arbor.

It would connect with Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit corridor at Ann Arbor.

The feasibility study is established to take nine months, but some officials are hoping it will be completed by November.

Indiana Rail Group Pressuring Indianapolis Officials to Fix Decrepit Union Station

February 9, 2017

The Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance is trying to pressure city officials into taking action to rehabilitate Indianapolis Union Station.

indianaThe facility, which is used by Amtrak and Greyhound, has been described by some rail advocates as a “civic embarrassment.”

The Rail Alliance has invited city leaders to meet with them to discuss how the station can be improved.

IPRA member Bill Malcolm said that the station is unwelcoming, unsightly and even scary.

“If it’s a turnoff to even go into that facility, people are not going to take advantage of it, [they won’t] take their families up to go shopping  . . . because it’s just kind of a frightening place,” Malcolm said.

The city’s department of Metropolitan Development operates the station, which is served by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal and the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

NYDOT Pledges That New Schenectady Amtrak Station Will be Completed by November 2018

February 9, 2017

A New York transportation official pledged on Wednesday that a new Amtrak station for Schenectady will go out for bid this year and be completed by November 2018. Department of Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll said during a tour of the early 1970s era station that the new station project will be bid in two stages.

Amtrak 4The construction steel work will be released for bid on Feb. 24 and is expected to cost about $6 million.

The remainder of the project will go to bid this fall and is expected to cost $9 million.

Amtrak has agreed to pay some costs not directly associated with the station building, including track work.

Driscoll said the building alone — without repairs to a 100-year-old viaduct included in the first bid proposal — can be done with a $15 million budget.

Some bridge rehabilitation work will be funded by an Amtrak track rebuilding project that is currently in progress.

Amtrak and NYDOT are still discussing erecting a temporary station that passengers will use while the permanent depot is being built.

Schenectady is served by Amtrak’s Maple Leaf, Ethan Allen Express, Lake Shore Limited and Empire Service trains.

INDOT Supports Continued Hoosier State Funding

February 7, 2017

An Indiana newspaper reported last week that although Iowa Pacific was raving about improvements in on-time performance and increasing patronage of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, the operation had become a money pit.

IndianaThe Journal & Courier of Lafayette said IP wanted the Indiana Department of Transportation to pay it $900,000 to operate the quad-weekly train through July.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield told the paper that IP said if it didn’t get that money it wanted it would cease participating in its partnership with Amtrak to operate the train.

For his part, IP President Ed Ellis told the newspaper that he blames the partnership’s failure on the formula INDOT used to pay IP and Amtrak.

That clause, Ellis noted, meant that as the on-time performance of the train improved IP was getting less money.

INDOT rejected IP’s demand for an additional $900,000 for six months of service because it was beyond the means of the state and municipalities that pay for the train.

Funding for the Hoosier State is provided by INDOT, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Crawfordsville and Rensselaer.

Since IP became involved with the Hoosier State in July 2015, it has provided locomotives and passenger cars and has been responsible for marketing and on-board service.

Among other steps, IP began offering business class service and had a chef prepare on-board meals. Business class passengers were able to sit in the upper level of a full-length dome car.

Amtrak’s role was to provide the operating crews and handle relationships with the host railroads. That included incentive payments to CSX to handle the train on time.

The Hoosier State, which uses the same route between Chicago and Indianapolis traversed by Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal, primarily uses tracks of CSX.

Amtrak has said it will take over complete responsibility for the Hoosier State on March 1, including providing rolling stock.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman based in Chicago, said the services Amtrak will provide are still being worked out.

However, he said Amtrak hopes to offer Wi-Fi and business class service. One amenity that Amtrak is likely to offer that IP did not is on-board power outlets.

The type of food service, if any, that Amtrak will provide is another unknown at this point. In the years before IP took over the Hoosier State, Amtrak did not offer food service.

Magliari said the train’s schedule will remain the same.

“What we think is important is that we have those amenities,” Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh said in reference to the services that IP provided. “We think this has led to the increase in ridership.”

As he has said in the past, Ellis told the Journal & Courier that if the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor is to thrive it needs a faster travel time and more trains.

“You have to be able to run multiple frequencies,” Ellis said. “It takes a lot of capital to do that. I was hopeful we would be able to, but here we are: We have the same number of trains going at the same speed.”

Wingfield said INDOT has recommended to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb that the state continue for the next two years to fund the Hoosier State at $3 million a year.

Ellis said anything beyond the current level of service will require a higher level of funding from the state.

“I know the folks at INDOT want to solve this, but it’s beyond them,” he said. “It’s up to the legislature and a higher level of commitment to the Hoosier State.”

Divorcing Amtrak is Hard to Do

February 6, 2017

The great Hoosier State privatization experiment is about to end. It started in July 2015 when Iowa Pacific Holdings began “operating” the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

On TransportationI put the word “operating” in quotation marks because, technically, IP did not “operate” the Hoosier State.

In practice, it was a partnership with Amtrak. IP provided the equipment and marketing support, and was in charge of on-board service.

But the operating crews were Amtrak employees and the nation’s passenger carrier handled the relationships with the host railroads, primarily CSX.

As it turned out, Amtrak has received most of the money paid by INDOT and its partner communities that fund the service.

For a while, Iowa Pacific received many kudos because of what it wasn’t, which is Amtrak.

Under Amtrak auspices, the Hoosier State was a bare-bone operation used to shuttle equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove Shops in suburban Indianapolis.

By comparison, the IP operation of the Hoosier State was a luxury train, with business class, meals freshly prepared on board, and a full-length dome car for those willing to pay extra fare.

IP head Ed Ellis – who once worked at Amtrak – talked about expanding service and the need to cut the travel time.

He said IP would aggressively market the service, seeking to build markets that Amtrak had ignored.

One marketing gambit IP talked about was running a bus between the Crawfordsville station and Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

IP correctly recognized the college market is a good source of passengers, but apparently the Bloomington shuttle never got on the road.

Iowa Pacific had a lot of people rooting for it to succeed with the Hoosier State, many of whom believe that a private operator can provide better service than Amtrak.

Some also want to believe that a private operator can make money on passenger service by providing better and more economical service than Amtrak. Ellis and IP apparently believed that, too, but the Hoosier State didn’t yield the expected financial returns for IP.

Ellis always knew the daily service and faster trains he desired hinged upon the willingness of government entities within Indiana to provide the capital funding needed to upgrade the slow meandering route used by the Hoosier State and Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

If IP could demonstrate that the Hoosier State was a success despite its route limitations, then perhaps Indiana officials would be amendable to funding track work in the same manner that the departments of transportation in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have.

But that has always been a long shot. Indiana has never been as supportive of intercity passenger rail as its neighbors.

Amtrak will take back the Hoosier State in Toto on March 1. Although INDOT said it has a verbal agreement that some of IP’s services will be retained, that is not a sure thing.

It remains to be seen if INDOT will seek an operator other than Amtrak and, for that, matter, how much longer the state and on-line communities are willing to pony up money to underwrite the operating losses.

One key take away from the IP Hoosier State experiment is that divorcing Amtrak is more difficult than it might seem.

Continued Hoosier State Funding Still in Question

February 4, 2017

Indiana lawmakers aren’t saying just yet if they will continue to support paying for the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

Iowa PacificAn Indiana radio station reported that legislators were prepared to continue the funding in the next state budget, but that has been called into question with the pending exit of Iowa Pacific Holdings as a partner in operating the train.

The Indiana General Assembly provided $6 million in one-time funding in the current state to pay for the quad-weekly Hoosier State.

Senator Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek) said he thought the service provided by Iowa Pacific was good.

“It’s comfortable, you don’t have to worry about traffic, you can get work done, you get something to eat, you have Wi-Fi – all those things help the value proposition of the train,” Hershman says.

Another lawmakers, House Ways and Means Chair Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville) is skeptical that Amtrak can provide match the level of service IP provided.

“We know that performance under Amtrak wasn’t what we wanted,” Brown said. “We got better performance out of Iowa Pacific and I don’t know if there’s another vendor out there but we’ll just have to have more talk about this.”

The budget for the next fiscal year has yet to be released.

Iowa Pacific and Amtrak have a partnership to operate the Hoosier State with IP providing equipment, marketing and on-board service and Amtrak providing operating crews and handling relationships with the host railroads.

Amtrak will take full control of the Hoosier State on March 1.