Tracking Rail News: July 2010

Commentary and Photos by Russ Jackson

. . . On Time Performance.  Strange month, what with the mid-west heavy rains causing detours for several trains.  On June 24 heavy rain washed out the BNSF tracks just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, with repairs expected to take a week and causing Southwest Chief passengers to be bused around it with a trainset sent via Amarillo.  We looked at the week of June 19 to 25 at Denver, CO and found the California Zephyr eastbound train #6 was late every day that week, 155 minutes on 6/19, 35 on 6/20, 7 on 6/21, 89 on 6/22, 42 on 6/23, and 89 again on 6/24.  The westbound #5, though, showed how difficult the mid-west had become by being late into Denver Union Station 630 minutes on 6/19, 152 on 6/20, 307 on 6/21, 137 on 6/22, 139 on 6/23, 206 on 6/24, and 123 on 6/25.  Some Zephyrs were detoured via Wyoming. 

Contrast that with the near-perfect performance of the Coast Starlight #11 into Santa Barbara* that week:  12 minutes late on 6/21, 1 minute late on 6/22, 7 on 6/23, and 12 on 6/24.  Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited was late 88 minutes into Palm Springs on 6/23 and only 15 minutes late on 6/25.  The great on-time record this summer for #1 and 2 has resulted in sold-out trains stretching across the travel season. 

. . . Speaking of the Sunset, as of this writing still NO word on the daily service.  Amtrak is “still in negotiations with the Union Pacific.”  While that is taking place we will say only that RailPAC agrees that Amtrak has our 1,000% support for the plan to run the train daily.  One interesting development, however, came from the City of Maricopa, the train’s stopping point “for Phoenix, Arizona.” ** Amtrak has said their goal is 8 AM and 8 PM for the train to stop in that city on an improved schedule.  ARPA’s Bill Lindley tells us “There is a sheetmetal double-wide “Amshack” at Maricopa. The gutted CB&Q dome car is no longer used, as air conditioning it was impossible.   The platform is for two cars only and is called ‘complete.'” Maricopa is opposed to the proposed schedule improvement, as it means blocking street crossings at the important morning commute hour!  That city has seen its population jump from 1,000 to 44,000 since 2000, and from personal observation of this writer, Amtrak does block one of the two crossings for upward of 20 minutes while crews are changed there.  That is nothing compared to the number of crossings during the day by Union Pacific freights, but the real answer is to return service directly into Phoenix by re-opening the West line!!! 

. . . Amtrak’s new Board member still leaves an important opening.  Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will assume a currently-vacant seat on the Amtrak Board.  As you may have noticed, there still are NO westerners on that august body, and there haven’t been since the late Ralph Kerchum retired a very long time ago.  Mr. Kerchum, a retired Castlemont High School Principal from Oakland, was on the Amtrak Board through the 1980’s, was always available to RailPAC, and proudly carried the interests of the West back to the always eastern-oriented Amtrak.   This writer joined a RailPAC group of that day on several occasions when we met with Mr. Kerchum, and none of those occasions were more memorable than when we joined him at his favorite Los Angeles restaurant, Philippe’s, near Union Station. We need someone from the West on that Board again.  RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, says there is now one more seat available and our goal is to get someone appointed.  Art Lloyd agrees we can only hope that person is another Ralph Kerchum. 

. . . Amtrak officials toured the west in June.  A special set of cars, including Amtrak business car, Beech Grove, overhauled Heritage crew sleeping car Pacific Cove, and ex-GN “great dome” car Ocean View, rode behind the Sunset Limited, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder carrying CEO Joseph Boardman, high ranking executives, plus several Board members including Chairman Thomas Carper and Vice Chairman Donna McLean, many of whom were given their first opportunities to see the western trains in action.  At last.  A large entourage indeed.  The cars stopped for several days in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle.  In Los Angeles RailPAC President Dyson and Director Robert Manning boarded the train and had full access to all the officials in those special cars, with Dyson riding to Santa Barbara and Manning to Oakland.  This is a commendable activity for those Amtrak officials, and their subsequent meetings with local officials and employees was an important activity.  Some have questioned the need for all the splendor of extra cars, saying they should have ridden in the regular train cars, but we see nothing wrong with what was actually a “showing the flag” trip; it kept seats in the train available for revenue passengers at a time when demand is pushing availability of those seats. 

. . . That brought up remembrances of the travels of previous Amtrak leaders.  George Warrington rode just one long distance train, the Capitol Limited, during his tenure.  David Gunn was famous for traveling frequently.  But the one many of us old timers around this advocacy table talk about was Graham Claytor, Chairman/CEO in the 1980s.  One day this writer rode with Mr. Claytor, who was traveling without entourage, and a RailPAC delegation on (as they were called then) a San Diegan from San Diego to Oceanside.  The best Claytor memories come from rail advocate Gene Poon, who writes:  “When Claytor was on the road, unless schmoozing with politicians and the like, he would ride in a roomette. He would eat in the dining car. On one occasion at least, aboard the southbound Silver Star, he sat at a table with the Amtrak officer accompanying him for the day. The diner was full and a regular, ordinary passenger was seated with him…on his orders to the steward.  That passenger was me.  Later that night, we passed the scene of a derailment of the Silver Star that had occurred just days prior. The remains were still there: passenger cars scattered alongside the tracks. Claytor and I both watched from a Dutch door in the sleeping car where we both had roomettes.  Next morning, Mr. Claytor and I parted company.  He was going to Tampa; I was going to Miami.  But he had been in my Miami sleeper!  What happened:  when his trip was planned, the Tampa sleeper was full.  Instead of displacing a passenger, Claytor opted to ride in the Miami sleeper and move to a vacant room in the Tampa sleeper before the Silver Star was split at Auburndale.  Another time, Claytor took Auto Train to Florida.  He detrained with everyone else and waited in the lounge at Sanford for his car.  It came off FIRST, before ANYONE else’s.  That did NOT happen by accident, and Claytor knew that his car had been preferentially treated.  He charged into the Sanford Auto Train manager’s office; told the manager that if it ever happened again, he would be fired.  Claytor was a GREAT man.  Amtrak has not seen the likes of him ever since and is unlikely to be so privileged, ever again.”

. . . Around the West.  With all the hoorah from the now four groups wanting to run trains from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where is Amtrak?  According to TRAINS magazine, July, 2010, p. 20, “At the Amtrak and Trains-sponsored town hall meeting March 6 in Chicago, Amtrak managers discussed the government-mandated study of performance improvements for five long-distance trains per year.”  Among the ones “under consideration in 2020, is the California Zephyr:  a possible Desert Wind extension, Salt Lake City-Los Angeles via Las Vegas.”  Now that’s something that should be supported!!!  . . .   What is the status of the Raton line in northern New Mexico?   We were under the impression that the State had purchased the line all the way from Belen to Albuquerque, through Raton station***, to Trinidad, Colorado.  Not entirely correct.  We have learned that the State doesn’t have the money to close the deal east of Lamy, which is still owned by the BNSF.  The Railrunner commuter trains run on the part fully owned by the State, but the Southwest Chief is the only train on the non-owned part.  As Gene Poon writes, “Raton Pass without the Southwest Chief is nothing.  BNSF has wanted off that line since the York Canyon mines closed.  Back in 2006 when the commitment to sell was made, BNSF agreed to continue maintenance on Lamy-Trinidad for three years.”  Now what?  . . . A small celebration was held in Oklahoma City on June 12 to celebrate the 11th year of the Heartland Flyer service to Ft. Worth.  This time of year the Flyer can be sold out almost any day, but no additional cars have been added to the double-ended trainset.  . . .  A plan to make it easier for visitors to the 2011 Super Bowl by placing a 12-hour temporary train stop on the Union Pacific at Cowboys Stadium that day and run trains from Dallas and  Ft. Worth hit a big snag when, no surprise, the UP told host city Arlington officials that they would require the plan to have $200 million in insurance.  The city does not have that kind of insurance, so an alternate plan to run the trains on the TRE line are being worked on.  The difference is the UP line plan is less than a mile from the stadium while the TRE is six miles away and would require busing.  Neither plan may be adopted.  The UP wins again.
   * photo by Mike Palmer
** photo by Richard Strandberg
*** photo by Jim Clifton

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