Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: November 2010

Photos and Commentary by Russ Jackson

John Murphy at the Davis Amtrak station baggage room.

… Retirement and a milestone: We want to note the retirement of veteran Amtrak station agent John Murphy, who has held down the fort at the very busy Davis, CA, station for many years. John’s career included working for the Southern Pacific, and he worked for Amtrak at San Luis Obispo before moving to Davis. We always considered John to be one of the very best in the Amtrak system, and he will be missed. … On September 26 it was noted that it was exactly 15 years since Steve Grande’s first trip on Amtrak. He, of course, is the honcho for, and has logged almost 300,000 rail miles since that first trip. Steve is today one of the best known of the rail advocacy community.

… It isn’t all about on time performance. While the end of FY10 OTP figures are not yet available, the past year does look good in comparison to many previous years. Reduced freight traffic has helped the western long distance trains have more room to move. The Sunset Limited, for instance, was running 88.2% on time as of the end of August which was 9.8% better than in FY09. We will know more next month. On the day this is written, Sunday, October 24, Train #1, which departed New Orleans on the 22nd, arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 7:11AM, one hour and 19 minutes early! Nowhere on its journey was it more than 28 minutes late and that was back in Houston, Texas. Oh, is there any news about a daily Sunset-Eagle? NO. We just keep on a-waiting. The Southwest Chief Train #3 which departed Chicago on October 20, arrived in LAUS on Saturday, October 23 at 7:28 AM, 47 minutes early, was no more than 11 minutes late enroute, and that was at Flagstaff, Arizona. Earlier in the month, Train 4 of 10/05/10 departed Los Angeles on time, but when it arrived in Northern Arizona a huge storm of tornado intensity was roaring across that area. A BNSF freight train had 28 cars derailed by a direct hit from the 86-110 mph winds west of Flagstaff. Train 4 was eventually over 2 hours late into Chicago. A TrainOrders note on October 23 reported on the excellent handling of Train #4 on October 15, saying “We rail advocates inevitably end up noting the lapses and outright poor handling of trains so it was truly delightful to be riding from Winslow to Lamy” when BNSF dispatching moved his trains around two eastbound freights and then crossed over to pass three westbound freights holding for the Chief. Most passengers never knew what happened to make their trip on time, so we want to commend the railroad here for its on-going effort!

… Schedule changes in effect November 8. The Coast Starlight will add two new stops, at Burbank Airport and to connect to BART at Richmond. While the latter makes good sense the former may not attract much ridership. On one trip from Santa Barbara I saw a business traveler hop off a Surfliner at that stop and head for the airport, but he was the only one. Some arrival times will be adjusted. The California Zephyr will depart Emeryville at 9:10 AM, operating 40 minutes earlier through to Chicago but no changes for the westbound train. We already know the Southwest Chief is leaving 30 minutes earlier at both ends because of the speed restrictions now in effect across Kansas and Colorado into New Mexico. Train 3 will be on its normal schedule west of La Junta and #4 will be the same east of Kansas City. Again, while there is no news of daily service for the Sunset Limited, and its schedule will see little change, Amtrak announced that on October 19-20 their full-service sit-down dining car “known as the Cross Country Cafe” on the daily Texas Eagle will again offer meals between Austin and San Antonio. Crews had been laying-over in Austin causing the dinner meals to be in the 3:00 or 4:00 hour only southbound (see comments from this writer’s trip report in January) and no breakfast for San Antonio passengers. These changes are positive improvements for riders.

Lamy, New Mexico, station for Amtrak's Southwest Chief

… Trip reports. While the debate has been boiling about the possibility of the reroute of the Southwest Chief off the traditional, historic, route through Albuquerque, Raton Pass, and Dodge City to the BNSF Transcon line (see separate story), other rail related happenings were taking place in the “Land of Enchantment.” This writer visited Suzanne and Bob Snow in Northern New Mexico in October, but because of the connections needed to ride Amtrak to and from Lamy from my Texas home I drove the trip, showing fully how not every city-pair is convenient for Amtrak travel. To take Amtrak would have required taking the Texas Eagle to St. Louis, the Missouri train to Kansas City, then wait 8 hours there for the westbound Southwest Chief which would take me to Lamy. Not bad. But, the return trip would have required taking the Chief to LAUS, then the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle home. While I love train travel, that was just too much. Now we hear that in the new timetable starting November 8 Missouri train 314 will leave Kansas City at 8:15 AM, 45 minutes later, in order to provide a connection from Southwest Chief train #4, in place of waiting until 4 PM at Kansas City which was too late to connect with the southbound Texas Eagle. Next time I’ll take the train. Thank you, Amtrak, for seeing this problem and taking what, ten years to correct it? As they say, if you wait long enough…..

… But, once in a while we learn of a dedicated rail traveler who finds a way to do it. Such was the case in an article Editor Noel Braymer found in the Enid News and Eagle from Enid, Oklahoma, on September 22, 2010, written by Diane Peck. She is a dedicated Amtrak rider, and this article was about her choices for traveling to Paradise, California, for a family wedding.

Amtrak 500 pushing the southbound Heartland Flyer toward Ft. Worth.

She could have gone to Oklahoma City, taken the Heartland Flyer to Ft.Worth, transferred to the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, and the San Joaquin to Stockton where she would be picked up. OR, she could take the Southwest Chief from Newton, Kansas, where boarding would be in the middle of the night, to Los Angeles and then the San Joaquin. OR, she could take the California Zephyr, which she loves, but it required a car trip to Nebraska from her Oklahoma home. She chose Plan 3, and drove to Lincoln. She rode Coach! As for food she says, the “host” announced dinner would be featuring “the best meatloaf your mama never made! The lounge car host announced he had some “mighty good beverages and junk food,” which she chose to have. “It’s a good day when you can say you’ve had the three ‘P’s’ – pizza, peanuts and Pepsi. Oh sure, you get a little ‘stale’ in Coach, but $600 for a shower? That’s too expensive. There’s something about being cooped up in a train car with friendly strangers. Heck, you’re never going to see ’em again, so relax, have a good time and laugh a little.” Now, that’s a real Amtrak rider, and we admire her dedication. She told us she is looking forward to the day the Heartland Flyer is extended north, as Noel Braymer mentions in his report in this issue.

Railrunner Saturday afternoon train to Santa Fe with a five-car consist at the Albuquerque station.

… New Mexico news.Yes, I rode the Railrunner while I was in New Mexico. What a great service that is, and its acceptance has been tremendous as witness they were using a 5 car trainset on Saturday, October 16. Fares are great for the riders; for the three of us ordering tickets on line the senior rate was $15 total round trip! Obviously that is not paying its way, and there will doubtless be fare increases ahead when Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration ends. But, isn’t it great that he and the people of New Mexico were able to plan and implement this train in six years including building all-new rail right-of-way into Santa Fe.

C&TS station at Cumbres, elevation 10,000 feet

… A fire of unknown origin burned the 1883-built deck of the Lobato Trestle, four miles from the Chama station, on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s line back in June. Riders have been bused to the summit at Cumbres since then, but patronage has dropped. On October 20 Gov. Richardson announced his DOT will use federal money that is eligible to complete the repairs. A date for reopening is not yet known. … An Australian company, STI-GLOBAL, has purchased the short line Santa Fe Southern Railway, which operates excursion trains on the former Santa Fe line between downtown Santa Fe from the station it shares with the Railrunner to Lamy. The new company will use the line to test a positive train control (PTC) solution which would meet federal regulatory requirements. They claim it would cost less than half as much as the PTC systems that Class One railroads are proposing to use.

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