Tracking Rail News

Tracking the News for February

. . . PHOTOS, and COMMENTARY by Russ Jackson
February, 2009. Superliners! When you “GoogleEarth” to their U.S. map and zoom in on the Beech Grove, Indiana, Amtrak shop you see a yard area at the top (north) of the property. While the date of the photo is unknown, and you can’t get real close, there are 43 Superliner cars stashed there. The clue is there are at least two Sightseer Lounge cars, unmistakable by their roof windows. That has to be the “weeds” we’ve referred to here regarding cars that should be put into service ASAP.

Coast Starlight Superliners at San Luis Obispo, CA Noel Braymer photo
RailPAC President Paul Dyson’s letter to Amtrak President Boardman (published in the February issue of the Western Rail Passenger Review, and here on spells out the RailPAC campaign that will be waged this year to get not only those cars back on track and in high revenue service, but also a program for the acquisition of badly needed new cars on an on-going basis. Mr. Dyson’s point that there has been “capital starvation” of service west of the Mississippi tells much of the story.

Recently this writer asked rail expert Gene Poon: “Amtrak says it has 422 active Superliners (all kinds), requires 318 every day, and there are 353 available. Where are the 35 not used cars and what are they doing?” Gene replied, “Sitting in reserve at Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Sanford, etc.” When I asked about availability, he says 27 (probably of those 43 in the weeds) “probably refers to wreck-damaged or other seriously bad-condition cars that won’t be fixed any time soon. Some cars are to be written off…but they can’t, either because of litigation or insurance claims.” According to the Nov-Dec Amtrak Ink “a program is underway to put 12 stored Amfleet I cars back in service.” ONLY 12? “Specs have been written for the purchase of 75 new baggage cars, 25 .single-level diners and 15 single-level sleepers.” Also, a five-year plan calls for 25 rebuilt Superliners, but 40 Acela cars, 7 new high speed trainsets for the NEC, and for 166 bi-level California style cars and 3 Talgo sets “as state funding permits.” The long distance trains get the scraps again.
Metrolink has borrowed New Jersey Transit Horizon cars. Shown at LAUS on January 24, next to the soon-to-depart Coast Starlight. Mike Palmer photo.

As Andrew C. Selden says, “It is not so much a matter of ‘do we need 1000 or 3000 new Superliners?’ so much as the idea that what we should do is start up a line to produce new Superliners at a modest rate, and keep that line open indefinitely until the traffic growth starts to slow down.” Aggressiveness is not one of Amtrak’s strong points in accomplishing growth, but if railfan/railadvocates set up the call strong enough, and I believe we are doing that, response is inevitable. The old “there is no money” is immaterial. It’s there. Amtrak: Go get it! Build them, run them, and the riders will come to fill them up.

On Time Performance. We love statistics here, and when we looked at the January OTP stats we found that despite the bad weather nationwide, as of Amtrak’s system-wide date of 1/15/09, it was 76.4% including the NEC, with the California Zephyr 46.7, Coast Starlight 75.9,

Coast Starlight was still detouring through the San Joaquin Valley on January 25, here taking a break at the Bakersfield station! Mike Palmer photo

Empire Builder 22.4, Southwest Chief 83.3, Texas Eagle 76.7, and (hold on to your hats) Sunset Limited 91.7% ON TIME. So, we looked closely and found for trains 1/2 for the two weeks of January 9 to 21 train 1 arrived at LAUS early 3 times and late 3 times, the latest being 88 minutes on 1/21. For train 2 arriving in El Paso, it was ON TIME OR EARLY every day, the way the Southwest Chief is at Albuquerque! As for trains 5 and 6, the Zephyr, for the week of 1/3 to 1/9 #6 was on time into Salt Lake City EVERY DAY. That same week #5 arrived in Sacramento early 4 days and late only twice!

Then came the big schedule news: Starting January 26 and after, “train 5 will be speeded up to 30 minutes between Salt Lake City and Emeryville” with a scheduled arrival time at 5:10 PM instead of 5:40. Train 6 now departs EMY at 9:10 AM instead of 8:55. These new times (and we admit it’s a small improvement, but welcome) are made possible by completed track work by the UP in Nevada. As for the Sunset, similar track improvements in Arizona have allowed train 1 to “operate 30 minutes earlier from El Paso through Los Angeles.” The operating people are to be commended. As for on board service, Andrew C. Selden reports his sister and family rode #6 from Martinez, CA, to Chicago on December 27, and while it was 2 hours late “it was otherwise a perfect trip, highlighted by a good OBS crew. Since then they have gushed about the trip to anyone who will listen to them (and) are actively exploring their next long distance train travel opportunity. While their friends were aware of Capitols, San Joaquins, and Caltrain, none were aware of the LD trains and what kind of travel they offer. Think about the power of word-of-mouth and the implications for rail every time a trainload of paying passengers have a botched trip or a surly OBS crew as contrasted with when they do it right.”

It didn’t help to have that Pere Marquette train arrive in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 12 hours late on December 22 carrying 268 passengers.
Grand Rapids Amtrak station early morning before the departure of 371 to Chicago in July, 2003. No snow that day. Photo by Russ Jackson

The crew might have avoided going “dead on the hours” and made it to GRR but for a last-minute engine swap that caused it to leave Chicago 38 minutes late. CNOC, the dispatch center, was notified early on that the train was in trouble, but they did little but dump the problem on CSX to provide a crew. Amtrak apologized for delaying the trip saying, “a delay of that magnitude is intolerable,” but the damage was done and how many of those 268 will decide to ride again? This writer has been on that train many times in all kinds of weather, and there seems to be an unending number of problems; reflected in an 11.5% OTP for 371, and 46.7% for 370 in November.

RailPAC member Mike Palmer commented, “Evidently a similar thing happened to the SW Chief #4 that left LA on 12/17, It was delayed significantly by heavy snowfall and the crew went ‘dead on the hours’ west of Needles, somewhere that had no road access, so the train couldn’t be re-crewed until one could ride a BNSF freight train out there.” While they were not allowed to take the train into Needles according to work rules, according to RailPAC President Paul Dyson they should have known early enough so the train could have stopped in Barstow! Mr. Palmer asks the simple question, “If it becomes clear that a crew will not complete its normal run during 12 hours, is there any way they could stop the train short so that a crew can more easily access the train?” That takes common sense, which appears to be in short supply in incidents like these. Of course airlines have their “captive” passengers occasionally, too. Oh, and another incident delayed the California Zephyr for three hours on December 26 when a boulder struck the train 10 miles east of Sparks, NV. In all these incidents there were no injuries. Maybe not as dramatic as the US Air incident on the Hudson River, but it all points out that no matter how you travel there can be incidents beyond your control and some within your control.

Politics. Have you had enough yet? The election and the Inauguration may be over but the work has just begun. We welcome the new Obama administration and what appears to be its pro-rail pro-Amtrak leadership starting with Vice President Joe Biden. As this is being written the new Congress is in hot debate over the contents of a new stimulus bill. By the time you read it the results may have been passed, so what’s likely to be in it for rail? At the same time, what’s likely to be the end of the story for the budget situation in California? Massive cuts to transportation, schools, health, etc.? Very possible. We know that big tax increases are out of question. Rep.Oberstar (D-MN) the Chairman of the House committee that deals with Amtrak asked for “Ready-to-go” projects and Amtrak identified at least $500 million including car overhauls, replacement of aging equipment, fire and life safety improvements, improvements to track, structures, electric traction, communications and signals, and customer and information technology enhancements. It doesn’t sound like much for the long distance trains there, does it? Other groups of states have identified their own lists of rail projects.

Competition for what money is allocated to transportation will be fierce. Ken Bird says that “in spite of NARP’s and the Editor of TRAINS appeal to Obama, Amtrak does not meet the stimulus criteria” of shovel-ready projects. Amtrak, according to Mr. Bird, “may get some capital funds and may be able to order a few replacement cars over the next four years but they won’t see a fire hose of money directed at them in the name of economic stimulus.” Amtrak got huge amounts of publicity for its Inaugural train carrying Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, and for the sold-out carriage of people to DC for the ceremony including RailPAC VP South James Smith, who arrived on the Capitol Limited. Washington Metro carried 1.2 million riders, a new record. As Noel Braymer wrote, “This was a demonstration of just how effective rail can be.” Did it improve Amtrak’s chance for new money? Well, on January 21 the incoming Secretary of Transportation, former Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood “got a warm welcome on the hill” for his confirmation hearing, according to a Washington Post article, “as he promised to be a ‘hands on’ transportation secretary who would focus on delivering more than $43 billions in new road- and bridge-building projects to help jump-start the economy.” He pledged to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in those types of projects, and would be “supporting Amtrak train service.” We shall see what that means in the weeks ahead.

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