Tracking Rail News: March 2011 (Grand finale)

Photos and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Rail fans all over the country were chasing newly re-painted Amtrak P-42 locomotive 145 in February as it toured the country leading various Amtrak long distance trains. The new paint job is in Amtrak’s “heritage” colors to commemorate Amtrak’s 40 year anniversary coming up May 1. #145 visited Los Angeles Union Station on the weekend of February 20-21 in front of the Sunset Limited. Four other locomotives will be repainted in heritage colors and dispatched by Train Day.

. . . Winter. What else can we say? The past month was more weather-related problems for the Amtrak western long distance trains, and at the halfway point through the month the endpoint on time performance of the California Zephyr was at 33%, the Empire Builder was at 25%, Southwest Chief was 54%, and even the Sunset Limited was down to 50%. The Coast Starlight was hanging tough at 81%. The effect on Amtrak’s locomotive fleet’s reliability was substantial; on one day in February 46 P-42’s were out of service for use on Intercity trains. On the same date 8 California locomotives were out of service. The Pacific Northwest was hit hard, with the Empire Builder getting stuck between the switches of Glacier Park siding due to a BNSF derailment which delayed #8 upwards of ten hours while repairs were transported to the site over 70 miles away from Shelby, Montana. High winds, some up to 90 MPH were found in the area that day. Five miles north of Vancouver, Washington, a mud slide dumped debris and water on the tracks on February 12, causing cancellation of all the Cascades for two days and the Coast Starlight to terminate-originate in Portland, Oregon.

. . . The SMART train.

Historic Santa Rosa NWP station and platform.

For over ten years we have been following the ups and downs of the Sonoma-Marin commuter train project which finally received voter approval for its funding two years ago. Now, of course, the economy has hit that area the same as elsewhere in California and the project has had to retrench in its plans. It is now limited to Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Missing is the much desired 31-mile extension through the growing population areas of Windsor and Healdsburg to Cloverdale in the north, and the vital 3-mile link taking the trains to the ferry connection in Larkspur. Without those extensions the revenue base for the railroad shrinks considerably. RailPAC member John Blaubach, Santa Barbara, traveled to Santa Rosa in January and viewed the downtown Railroad Square station location. The classic NWP station building “was fully restored in the 1990’s and houses the local historical society. I had about fifteen minutes to walk through and read the exhibits, and asked whether the building will again serve as the depot for the SMART trains. No, they will build a new platform with canopies and shelters on the other side of the existing two tracks. SMART already owns that vacant lot. The old limit line from the 1960’s is still plainly visible in front of the station! Newly reconstructed grade crossings in Petaluma and in Santa Rosa are visible.” Meanwhile, SMART is preparing to advertise construction and management contracts for the revenue service which is planned for late 2014. In December they awarded a $57 million contract to Nippon Sharyo and Sumitomo to supply the 18 diesel multiple unit railcars (dmu) which will arrive starting in mid-2013.

. . . Eating at Los Angeles Union Station.

Ken Ruben at the new Subway Sandwich shop in LAUS

Earlier in February we wrote a trip report of our winter vacation trip on the Sunset Limited, and posted a photo report showing all the new eating places that have popped up in the past few months in LAUS on www.railpac.org. Our trip report appears elsewhere in this publication and will be on the website in March with photos. After posting the Los Angeles photos we received a note from RailPAC Associate Director Ken Ruben, who was at the opening of the new Subway Sandwich Shop at LAUS, and was its first customer. Ken signed his dollar bill to commemorate the event for the Subway people. Ken says he was also the second customer at the Famima store. He was at Wetzel’s Pretzels the night before they formally opened and wound up with a free pretzel!

. . . Around the West. . . . Tucson, Arizona’s modern streetcar project received its final authorization and can now spend the $63 million in TIGER grant money, which is in the bank. The 3.9 mile streetcar project is already under construction, and will connect the University of Arizona campus with downtown Tucson and other activity centers. Tucson is only the second U.S. city to order streetcar vehicles from the Clackamas, Oregon,-based United Streetcar, LLC. The order is for seven cars with delivery to be completed by 2013. Portland, Oregon, is the other buyer. . . . In Michigan, fourth quarter 2010 ridership is up 7.8% and revenue is up 14.1% on Amtrak’s Pere Marquette line from Grand Rapids to Chicago. A new $4.6 million GRR station has been funded, which in a state having severe economic problems that shows faith in passenger rail. Other Michigan trains increased in the same period. . . . The Austin, Texas Metro Red Line commuter train expanded it schedule in January with more rush-hour trips and a new station, which resulted in a 40% increase in ridership, although the service is still quite a bit lower than the 2008 startup projections.

Amtrak mobile command post at the Ft. Worth station.

. . . As for Super Bowl Sunday, when we arrived back at the Ft. Worth Intermodal station from our California trip, and #22 was on time, we found a very busy scene complete with the Amtrak Police “Command” motor home and police directing traffic to and from the Arlington “Jerryworld” site of the game. The Ft. Worth-Dallas TRE trains carried 3,200 passengers that day, rode buses 6 miles from the TRE Centerport station to the game. There were many private rail cars in the BNSF yard. . . . So Amtrak plans to order 40 Acela Express coach cars in its FY 2012 budget. Not that they will get that funding, but as RailPAC Director Jarrod Dellachiesa said, “East Coast wins again. When do we get our new Superliners?” Amtrak has a new way to get information and “share the unique experience of Amtrak train travel” with the start of the Amtrak YouTube Channel, to go along with its other “social media” initiatives Facebook and Twitter.

. . . Oh, yes, rarely does this writer take exception to anything printed in Trains magazine, but in their list of the ten “greatest” rail stations in the country, LAUS is “not the greatest” because “In the end, true greatness calls for classic Corinthian columns, not Mission Revival.” Oh, come now. LAUS is what it is because of where it is, and how many Corinthian columns can you find anywhere in California? More Eastern bias? Hummmph.

. . . Last but not least. This is the final edition of “Tracking Rail News” to appear in this publication. It’s been a long ride, over 24 years since this writer started regular contributions to the Review. My first issue as Editor of the Review was April, 1991, with Noel Braymer’s great photo of Los Angeles Union Station (above) on the cover. However, the RailPAC Board is exploring alternative means of communicating with the membership now, so this column will stand aside in order for the solutions to not be influenced by “what do we do with it?” Future stories will continue to be written and submitted to the Editor, however, so this writer will not totally disappear. In those 20 years, what is the biggest advancement in passenger rail? Just look at what is out there compared to back then! The biggest disappointment? That the Sunset Limited is still not a daily train. While it looked two years ago that it was a done deal, Amtrak’s slow moving, the collapse of the economy, and the Union Pacific’s intrancegence have left the project in such limbo it is unlikely to happen in the near future; in fact, despite the House rejecting the plan to cut Amtrak by $446.9 million by a vote of 250-176 on February 17, if the Congress gives any cuts to Amtrak that are talked about and Amtrak reacts in its usual manner those cuts will come not just from capital projects, not from administration, but from passenger service in the national long distance network rather than the Northeast Corridor. The Sunset Limited could be a total casualty of that. In the words of the Speaker of the House, “So be it.”? – RJ

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