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Winter and the Amtrak long distance trains

Report and Comments by Russ Jackson
The western long distance trains had a rough winter in the northern 2/3 of the country. Some trains were canceled altogether for several days. Here is a rundown of some of the activity by train in the past few weeks. Not everything is included, but here are some highlights, using Amtrak’s data. When April is figured in things will look much worse.

California Zephyr. 45.2% on time in March; 52.5% for the last 12 months. For several days Donner Pass was closed not only to road traffic on I-80, but also the Union Pacific main line was snowed in as drifts of over 5 feet of blowing snow blocked access. While there was diligence by the UP crews, there were several derailments. For the first time in many years the rotary plows stationed at Roseville were called into service. The old heads who remember how it was up there when snows like that were more common are mostly retired, and the youngsters have never seen snow like this before. The weather is still bad, but the route is open again so that Trains #5/6 can run their regular route. Train 5 that left Chicago on April 16 on time arrived in Emeryville 3 days later 58 minutes early. Delays to the trains now are in southern Iowa, where flooding has occurred. For some days the trains originated-terminated at Reno with passengers bused from California when I-80 finally opened. To see a great video of the rotary plows in operation, look at www.kcra.com/r-video/27364908/detail.html.

Empire Builder. 33.6% on time in March; 33.8% for the last 12 months. The Builder was the hardest hit of all the western trains. It did not run at all for many days, including the week before April 15 when it had not operated due to flooding on the BNSF in North Dakota. Before that it was winter storms, but once the snow starts to melt up in that state Amtrak’s line from Fargo to Grand Forks and west is subject to water problems. An anticipated BNSF detour line direct from Fargo to Minot had many slow orders due to high water and was declared unusable. Amtrak has discussed permanently moving #7/8 to this alternate line, but it will bypass Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Rugby, towns that rely on the train for service. Amtrak has said it will cost $100 million in upgrades to bridges and track in the Devils Lake area if that service is to continue. The BNSF does not use that route for freight service. It would take two “construction seasons” to rebuild, after Congress appropriated the money. How likely is that to happen now?

Southwest Chief. 83.9% on time in March; 77.8% for the last 12 months. Not much to say here, as Trains #3/4 continued to depart on time and arrive early at both ends more than they were late.

Sunset Limited. 88.9% on time in March; 83.1% for the last 12 months. However, problems arose when wildfires damaged a Union Pacific bridge near Marfa, Texas on April 9, stalling the train for 18 hours. So, weather at the other extreme affected the Sunset route.

Coast Starlight. 45.2% on time in March; 65% for the last 12 months. Winter weather did have an effect on the operation of Trains #11/14, but most of the problems have come due to track work being done by the Union Pacific south of San Jose and San Luis Obispo which has required the train to be detoured and has provided railfans with several chances to ride the detour route through the San Joaquin Valley. The detour began south of Emeryville at Fremont, where the train crossed the Altamont Pass to Stockton, then traveled on the Union Pacific line (thin blue line on the map) south to Bakersfield, up the Tehachapis, across the famous Loop, through Mojave, Lancaster, Palmdale, and into Los Angeles. For a full description of one of the #11 detours that departed Oakland Jack London Square 30 minutes late and arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 9:57 PM, see Chris Guenzler’s picture story on www.Trainweb.org. Passengers going south to the Starlight’s regular Central Coast stations rode buses from Oakland.

Whether Amtrak and its host railroads were “prepared” for this winter is ripe for speculation, but when a winter like this one happens it’s nail biting time all along the routes. We congratulate Amtrak, the BNSF, and the UP for their diligence in restoring service in a timely manner. Lessons were learned, and it will be interesting to see how prepared they all are next winter. (Maps from Railpac.org and Amtrak timetable.)

Tracking Rail News

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

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: February 2011

. . . Photos and Comments by Russ Jackson

Two Amtrak California trainsets at the Sacramento station powered by Amtrak P-42 locomotives.

. . . On January 10 Governor Brown introduced his proposed budget for FY 2010-11. While major reductions are in store for “everyone,” that does not apply to the state rail corridor intercity rail operations. $90,247,027 is exactly the same amount as the last three years. So, no growth in that allocation, but no cut in the funds the program receives from taxes on diesel sales. As one commentator said, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” Other rail operations are not so lucky in their funding sources, however.

Caltrain is one and faces a huge cut that could leave a reduction from 86 to 48 daily trains, no weekend service, no service south of San Jose, no game-time trains to AT&T Park, and closing seven stations. Caltrain is subsidized solely by San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. A “Save our Caltrain” group has organized, and RailPAC is supporting it. (See separate stories.) If ever there was a transportation system that works it is Caltrain, taking so many people off Highway 101 every day!

Continue Reading

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: January 2011

Comments by Russ Jackson and photos by Noel Braymer, Bob Snow and Russ Jackson

. . . December: What a month for weather on Amtrak! The country was treated to real wintry weather, some places had snow for the first time in history, the Northeast Corridor between New York and Boston was closed, and California was not spared. Here are some highlights, as of December 27: On December 22 service south of Oceanside on the Surf Line, Amtrak Pacific Surfliners and the Coaster, were canceled. Slides at Califa Beach, the San Mateo Creek and San Onofre Creek running out to sea, a mile long washout in the flood area in Sorrento Valley, and the construction bridge at the Santa Margarita River was destroyed. By the evening of December 23 service was restored by Amtrak and NCTD.

Don't you wish all parking garages had this "counter" so you would know where you can park?

We noticed when Editor Braymer used photos of the Irvine Amtrak station parking garage last month that one he didn’t use was of a “car space counter” at the entrance, which shows arriving passengers where the available parking is. That’s a helpful device, and how useful it would be in all parking garages!

Congratulations are in order to the Capitol Corridor, where there was 100% on time performance on November 29 and 30 for all 32 trains!

Western long distance train service was disrupted, particularly trains # 7/8, the Empire Builder, with both trains departing origination points on December 14 canceled, although bustitution was provided between some cities. While critics chimed in about trains being the “all weather” mode of transportation, just look at what the airlines had to do on a similar day, when 1600 flights were canceled and thousands more over Christmas Day. Amtrak said the reason for the NEC closure was not because trains couldn’t get through (although clearly many couldn’t) but because riders could not get to the stations, the same reason the NFL used to postpone its game in Philadelphia. It looked like a very logical reason. Earlier, Empire Builder #7 of 12/11 departed Seattle 1 hour and 43 minutes late, was 14 hours late at Malta, Montana, 19 hours late out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and arrived 18 hours late into Chicago due to storms.

In California, Multiple washouts and mud slides in the Loma Linda area closed the Union Pacific on December 22 causing train # 2, the Sunset Limited, to depart Los Angeles 6 hours late, and it was 7 hours late out of Tucson the next day. Otherwise the Sunset had a good month, with train 2 of 12/17, carrying this writer’s former colleague from Palomar College, Dana Hawkes, departing LAUS 10 minutes late and arrived in Houston, his station, on time. We will take time to mention at this point there is again NO news about a daily Sunset-Eagle.

File photo: California Zephyr #5 crosses Donner Pass.

Amtrak train #5 the California Zephyr was detoured through Wyoming on December 21 because of rock slides on the UP’s Moffat Tunnel line and heavy snowfall in western Colorado. That was in addition to that train using the CNW across Iowa, where the train had UP locomotive 6698 on the point for cab signals, which reminds us of a report in this column last month about a UP locomotive on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited that had several problems. A railroader wrote us that there is “Lack of proper maintenance in many cases, plus it sounds like the UP hands off questionable locomotives to help out Amtrak and they gave the Eagle a ‘shopped’ unit. I bet they billed Amtrak for the full amount each time, however.” The Zephyr #6 of December 19 made it over the Sierra without a problem even though a flash flood warning was issued and Shed 10 had to be flagged. The Southwest Chief had its sensational ups and some downs, too. Train # 4 of 12/18 hit an auto 5 miles west of Lamy, NM, delaying it and companion train # 3 for several hours. No one was killed in that accident. Otherwise it was a routine month on the BNSF until train # 4 that departed Los Angeles on Christmas night arrived in Albuquerque at 10:35 AM the next day, beating the old record of 10:47. That was helped by (very) light holiday freight traffic, but shows that there is much padding in the Chief’s schedule; and at least a half hour could be taken out permanently despite the slow orders through Colorado and Kansas.

. . . Now for the Coast Starlight! By the time you receive this issue of the Review trains # 11/14 will be on a new schedule, which will last for 3 months. The Union Pacific will be doing extensive tie and steel replacement on the Coast Line between Gaviota and Guadalupe, including the sidings across Vandenberg AFB. Amtrak announced on December 15 that the Starlight’s schedule has been advanced 2 hours from January 1 to March 31. There will also be extensive track work in Oregon at the same time. Pacific Surfliner trains will be affected, too, but current morning departure times are unchanged. In order to give the UP a maximum ‘work window’ the Starlight will run two hours later, and in most cases Pacific Surfliner bustitution will occur north of Santa Barbara. Here is the schedule (for January 10) taken from Amtrak’s on line schedule:

Train 14 departs Los Angeles at 12:15 PM; arrives San Luis Obispo 5:30 PM, and gets to the Bay Area quite late around midnight, with arrival in Sacramento after 2 AM. Train 11 coming from Seattle will depart San Luis Obispo at 5:20 PM, arriving in Los Angeles at 11:00 PM. Travelers will be inconvenienced, but at least the trains were not canceled outright as has happened sometimes in the past. For that we are grateful, and we can only hope that after March 31 Amtrak and the UP will adjust the schedule to allow an earlier arrival into LAUS.

A northbound DART Green Line train at the elevated Downtown Carrollton station.

. . . From around the West. . . . The Dallas DART light rail Green Line opened its extended service in December, running from Carrollton on the northwest to Buckner on the southeast, a 24 mile distance. This highly anticipated line takes riders to Love Field (Southwest Airlines), Childrens/Parkland Hospital, downtown Dallas, the Texas State Fair grounds, and a Baylor Hospital. A very popular stop already is at the American Airlines Center for Mavericks NBA and Stars NHL games. DART is now the largest light rail system in the west. . . . The Oklahoma DOT finally reached a deal with the private owners of the Oklahoma City Santa Fe train depot, assuring that passengers on Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer continue to have access without any lockouts occuring like happened a few times when the owner locked the gates. Upgrades at the station including a ticket office will now be explored.

Amtrak locomotive 500 powered by biodiesel on the Heartland Flyer.

The Flyer was honored as one of “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010″ by TIME magazine for its use of locomotive 500, which has run since April, 2010 on a biodiesel blend that includes beef byproducts, the nation’s first test of biodiesel in an interstate passenger train. . . . Amtrak President Boardman rode the California Zephyr to Oakland and back in early December. He has been riding frequently, which is what he should be doing. He rides on the Amtrak business cars but has access to the rest of the train by having a Superliner transition car in front of his cars. He returned on the same route. . . . Historically this column has supported the return of the Desert Wind to provide rail service to Las Vegas, NV, not just from the California southland, but also from the midwest. High speed projects continue to be talked about for the LA-Vegas route, but is it realistic to expect any of them to succeed only from Los Angeles or Victorville? This month Delta Airlines announced it was boosting its network by adding B737 nonstop flights between Las Vegas and Orange County beginning this month. . . . We close this month with a quote from Kevin Sherrington’s sports column in the December 19 Dallas Morning News. “What Kristin Lee liked about Philadelphia: food, fun, ‘cultural experiences.’ What Cliff’s wife didn’t like about Texas (where he pitched for the Texas Rangers last season): summer heat and traffic to the Ballpark.” Kevin commented, and we agree, “Can’t fix the heat, but if the Ballpark sat next to the Farmers Market (in downtown Dallas near the Green Line) traffic would be a non-issue. As it is, the Ballpark/JerryWorld should be a stop on a rail line.” Arlington, Texas is the largest city without any public transportation because voters would not approve it.   ###

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: December 2010

Photo and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Winter has begun for Amtrak.

One of our classic photos is the westbound California Zephyr #5 at Winter Park, Colorado in the winter of 2000.

The Thanksgiving weekend saw the start of Amtrak’s annual battle with winter weather, and nowhere was it more evident than along the route of the Empire Builder. Train #8 (22) departed Seattle 3 hours and 20 minutes late and finally arrived in Chicago 3 days later, 20 hours and 8 minutes late due to storm conditions across Montana and North Dakota. Along its route it went from just under 7 hours late at Cutbank, MT, to 13 hours late out of Havre. The California Zephyr #5 (22) departed Chicago 3 minutes late, and was only 54 minutes late out of Salt Lake City, ended up 4 hours and 24 minutes late into Emeryville after losing almost 2 hours between Truckee and Colfax. Coast Starlight #11 that departed Seattle on the same day 1 hour and 43 minutes late was 4 hours late out of Tacoma due to mechanical problems, not the weather, but #14 that departed Los Angeles on time that day and was 23 minutes late into Dunsmuir ran into the Cascades winter weather and was 2 hours and 40 minutes late out of Klamath Falls. Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited and the Southwest Chief continued their pattern of excellent on time performance, arriving early at their endpoints consistently.

. . . However, the overall picture of on time performance for FY10 is not bad. The California Zephyr ended up OT 52.6% for the year, down 7.1% from 09. The Coast Starlight was 89.9%, up 7.4%; the Empire Builder was 77.8%, up 2.2%; the Southwest Chief was 79.1%, down 6%; the Sunset Limited was 87.5%, up 8.3%!

. . . Let’s look at some of the “routine” problems encountered by long distance trains last month. Train 3 (13) was delayed over 2 hours at Peach Springs, AZ, because it set off a drag detector due to a broken strut and sheared bolt on a coach. The BNSF was able to help that one. Train 11 (13) was delayed departing Seattle for 95 minutes because inspection revealed a faulty toilet vacuum pump in a Sleeping car. (Where have we heard that problem over and over before? At least it was corrected prior to departure.) Train 6 (12) was delayed 45 minutes 35 miles east of Green River, UT due to a locomotive “not loading.” (Another regular problem.) Train 21 (11) the Texas Eagle, was delayed 2 1/2 hours near San Antonio due to “losing traction power” on locomotive 81. The Union Pacific provided a helper locomotive. But, the train was delayed 3 hours more at San Antonio “swapping locomotives”, due to a horn problem on the freight locomotive and toilet problems on train 22. Then Train 1 was delayed another 2 hours at Deming, NM removing that freight locomotive because it had “bell and whistle problems and lateral motion.” Another freight locomotive was taken off an eastbound freight train and the Sunset continued to Los Angeles. And, Train 4 (13) was delayed over 2 hours at Albuquerque as a result of having to switch the rear car and another coach on the rear of the train due to bad ordered marker lights. It takes much patience to run a railroad, particularly when many problems can be prevented but are not.

. . . Thanksgiving weekend was sold out on Amtrak! On Wednesday, November 24, one of the busiest travel days of the year, NBC TV stationed one of their top reporters, Mike Taibbi, at New York’s Penn Station and through the day he provided information to all of their networks, the Today Show, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Weather Channel. There was parity for rail travelers with air and highways at last! Mr. Taibbi reported after interviewing train riders that with the controversial TSA “patdown” procedures in effect at airports there was definitely more interest in rail traffic. He went on to say that since all trains were full a reservation was a must, that Amtrak had every available car running, and was serving turkey in its long distance train dining cars. That summed things up rather nicely! Elsewhere that day, the Capitol Corridor added cars to its consists, some with 7 cars, and borrowed a set of Caltrain equipment (Gallery cars), running that consist on trains 542 and 553 with limited snack service! Some Surfliner consists had 9 cars, and there were 5 cars including the Great Dome on the low level train to San Luis Obispo. While it is difficult to pinpoint how many travelers took Amtrak rather than flying this year, a New Orleans TV station, WWL, interviewed four passengers waiting to board a full Sunset Limited and the result was mixed. Amtrak spokesman Todd Stennis told the station, “I think that (those TSA screenings) played a role” in a jump in ridership.

. . . More on the weather and other things. . . . Did you see the excellent article in the December issue of Trains magazine about snow removal on Donner Pass? It says, “When the rotaries (plows) move out of Roseville, (enroute to the Sierra) workers have to pull up crossings and remove the Amtrak station platforms at Rocklin and Colfax to accommodate the plows. The platforms were designed to be portable because of this.” We didn’t know this, so we asked our Sierra correspondent, Ralph James (who is busy shoveling out his property these days), who says, “Colfax would only have one platform on the #2 track but Rocklin would have a platform on each track. With CTC cross-overs at Rocklin, Newcastle, Bowman and Colfax (west of the platform and in the wrong direction to avoid the platform) it would be possible to get by with removing only one platform in Rocklin.” Isn’t railroading interesting? . . . A new $7 million crossover at the West end of the Yolo Causeway was one of California’s federally funded projects. Construction should begin soon to increase efficiency between Davis and Sacramento. CCJPA Managing Director, David Kutrosky, says they are still in negotiations with the UP. That leads this writer to finally in this issue report that negotiations with the UP on the daily service for the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited are still going on, as best as we can determine, but no decision. As the agent in the Austin, Texas station told us last month “you probably know more than we do.” . . . The Union Pacific has “re-ignited” its double-tracking effort on its 760 mile El Paso to Los Angeles Sunset Route, putting in $18 million to complete nine miles in Imperial County, California and another nine miles in Maricopa County, Arizona. It just gets easier to operate the Sunset Limited daily. . . . The American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the rehabilitation of the Cal Park Tunnel between San Rafael and Larkspur on the future route of the SMART trains as the “Outstanding Small Project of 2010″, and we extend congratulations! The tunnel has been rebuilt and now contains a bicycle-pedestrian pathway, so when construction of the rail line commences the tunnel is ready. After reading RailPAC Secretary Dick Spotswood’s article about the future of the SMART project that tunnel may wait a while before it sees trains. . . . Congratulations are in order, too, to Metrolink’s SCRRA Board for unanimously agreeing to buy 20 more train cars from Hyundai Rotem for $1.68 million each, about $1 million below market value! Now, if Metrolink can come up with money like that why has it taken so many agonizing years for Amtrak to come up with the cash for any new western long distance cars? Where there is a will there is a way. . . . All that’s left now is to wish our reader/members a Happy Christmas Holiday! See you on the rails next year!

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 Trainweb.com, 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. Continue Reading

Amtrak #5, the California Zephyr, finally arrives at the Reno, NV station platform.
Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: October 2010

A UP freight train delays the arrival of Amtrak #5 in the Reno trench.

Comments by Russ Jackson
Photos by Bob Snow and Russ Jackson

. . . On Time Performance. With the fiscal year ending in a few days, we will hold off the big numbers until the yearly data is available. September has been a fairly routine month, once the flooding in Iowa subsided. The California Zephyr continued to have a few delay problems there, but OTP for 5 and 6 at Denver was good up through the date of this somewhat early writing, September 16. We looked for what might be the effect of the ordered slow running of the Southwest Chief through western Kansas into Raton Pass that was mentioned here last month. The answer is very little. For example, on the #3 that departed 37 minutes late from Chicago on September 11, its latest departure time enroute was 52 minutes at LaPlata, MO. That train was “on time” out of Hutchison, KS, and “on time” out of Lamy, NM, ending up 13 minutes late out of Fullerton and 45 minutes EARLY into Los Angeles Union Station. RailPAC VP South, James Smith, confirms that the rough riding on that now speed reduced segment can be very disturbing to a sleeping passenger. Continue Reading

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: August 2010

The San Joaquin in Bakersfield

Photos and Commentary by Russ Jackson

. . . There’s great news for San Joaquin riders. On July 26 Amtrak announced that on six of the twelve daily trains that now operate with four cars, a fifth car will be added to the trains through Labor Day, increasing capacity by 25% and allowing an additional 88 passengers to ride each train. Ridership growth on the trains between the Bay Area and Sacramento to Bakersfield has grown steadily and in 2009 the service had 977,000 passengers, making it the fifth busiest route in the Amtrak system. This additional capacity could push the ridership to one million for the first time.  Good thinking, Caltrans, this is positive equipment usage!

(NOTE: On August 6 San Joaquin train 714 with one of the 5-car sets collided with a truck at the Shafter crossing, just north of Bakersfield. The push train remained upright, but 10 passengers were injured.)

. . . On Time Performance. Midwest flooding and scorching temperatures all over the system contributed to Amtrak operational problems in July. As of July 19, for the fiscal year since October 1, 2009, the Amtrak system’s OTP was 79.9%. The week before it was 80%, and on June 30 it was 80.2. The California Zephyr continued to have major problems because of heavy rains across the Mid-west. On June 30 #5-6 had been 59.8% on time up to then, but 20 days later it was 57.6% for the FY. For the week beginning July 21, #6’s arrival at Denver showed it being late 3 minutes on 7/21, 376 minutes on 7/22, 10 minutes on 7/23, 168 minutes on 7/24, and on 7/25 it was 36 minutes late. No consistency there, but east of Denver the problems, primarily in Iowa, kicked in for #6 so that on those dates its arrival in Chicago was 147 minutes late on 7/22, 503 minutes on 7/23, 156 minutes on 7/24, and on 7/25 243 minutes late. There has not been an on-time endpoint arrival for the Zephyr the past two months primarily because of weather. Of the western long distance trains, the Coast Starlight had an 86.8% OTP, and still leads the pack for the FY. But, the Sunset Limited had an 87.5% record for the month to be July’s champion!

. . . Again speaking of the Sunset Limited. Still NO word on the daily service! So, on to other items regarding #1 and #2, but also the Crescent and City of New Orleans. Service to New Orleans was disrupted the weekend of July 23 with the approach of Tropical Storm “Bonnie.” Service was “truncated” so the trains could be serviced short of their New Orleans maintenance base. The Sunset was canceled at San Antonio, with Houston passengers put on “Motorcoaches.” The Crescent was held at Meridian, MS, and the City of NOL at Jackson, MS. The storm did not reach the predicted severity, so full service was returned quickly. And, a correction from last month’s column: we identified Bernal, NM as being North of Las Vegas, but it is just South. That is the correct location of the BNSF washout on the Raton Pass line of the Southwest Chief, which is once again running through without delay. Guess so: In July the Chief was only late a few minutes at its endpoints. Thanks to RailPAC Associate Director Ken Ruben and to Don Winter, who caught the error. Mr. Winter observed the site during his trip on a train that went through it after repairs were completed and the line re-opened.


Superliners at Austin, Texas, on #22 the Texas Eagle
. . . Speaking of the California Zephyr. RailPAC contributor, Ralph James, observed the following at his Sierra Nevada home: “Today both #5 and #6 had four coaches in the consist instead of the normal three. I saw one consist last week some time that also had four coaches. Don’t know if it’s a Reno coach (as was done in years past) or if it is going through to Chicago. It has happened often enough that I am fairly sure the car is in service and not just deadheading.” We forwarded his questions to Gene Poon, who replied: “The coach is going through to Chicago. I think it only runs three days a week. There isn’t going to be a Reno coach, either. Actually, operationally it would be a Sparks coach, since that is where the switching would be done. But Amtrak doesn’t want to do any switching at all, and doesn’t want to pay UP for a storage track at Sparks. UP knows how slow Amtrak is at switching and does not want Amtrak cluttering up the tracks at Reno with a switching move there. And Amtrak does not want to pay UP for a switch job which would have to stop what they are doing in time to stand by at Sparks waiting for Amtrak to show up, run from Sparks to Reno and then back, each time a coach is added or removed.”

. . . Amtrak placed its order for 130 new rail cars in July. That sounds great, right? It is until you consider that 80 of those cars will be replacements for ancient non-revenue “heritage fleet” baggage cars. Did you read the July and August issues of TRAINS magazine? To highlight how things have changed yet remain the same, the two part article, “Adventures of an Amtrak on-board service director,” by Dale Jenkins, showed how desperate Amtrak’s need for new equipment was in the earliest days of the 1970’s when Amtrak was getting started. The equipment operational problems were legendary. While that was mostly corrected with the arrival of the Viewliners, Amfleet and Horizon cars, the Superliners in the 80’s, and Superliner II in the 90’s where has been any interest by Amtrak in buying new cars on the long distance trains? Until now. The rest of the newly announced car purchase from CAF will be new Viewliner sleeping and dining cars. Low level equipment, which means they will operate only in the East and Midwest. Amfleet, Superliner, and Horizon cars are a lot newer than the equipment these new cars will replace, but we must ask again why Amtrak has not already ordered fleet expansion vehicles for the much-in-demand western long distance trains. Coincidentally, Andrew C. Selden writes that in late May Boeing announced it has a backlog of confirmed orders for its 737 aircraft, numbering more than 2000, and they are increasing production of them by about 10%. These are the aircraft that most directly compete with Amtrak in the 500 to 1500 mile markets. Airlines are responding to demand, but where is Amtrak, what with the Superliner trains selling out weeks and months in advance? RailPAC President, Paul Dyson says, “I think we are right to ask the questions as to why the Amtrak order is made up as it is. It seems to me that only in an extreme situation would a company invest so much of its hard won Capital budget in non revenue assets.”

Tracking Rail News

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