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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, 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

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: June 2010

Comments and PHOTOS by Russ Jackson

. . . Good news for Los Angeles Union Station. The lack of a variety of food items available in the LAUS waiting room has been lessened with the news that by July Peets Coffee and Tea, Subway Sandwiches, and Wetzel’s Pretzels will open, and later in the summer Famina Fresh Foods will open near the Amtrak ticket windows. These places will add to what is now available at the News Stand, Union Bagels and Coffee, and the very fine Traxx Restaurant and bar. Other changes at LAUS have the QuikTrak machines and the Budget and Hertz counters moved into the Amtrak Ticket area. Now, if only they could get the old Fred Harvey Restaurant open again! Train Day visitors were able to enter that historic place, and one visitor was amazed to find the bar area on its east side, closed too long.

. . . On Time Performance. Amtrak had a decent month of May, and as of the 23d the system was 81.3% OT. The western long distance trains continued to fare ok, with the Sunset Limited 80%, but falling below 90% for the Fiscal Year for the first time. On May 25 train #1 departed San Antonio OT but was stopped at Uvalde, TX. Severe rain storms had washed out the ballast around Del Rio, TX. The train returned to San Antonio, where passengers were offered the choice of continuing on to their destination by bus, or remain on the train with a projected arrival in Los Angeles approximately 12 hours late. The California Zephyr was 69.6% for the period, with the train encountering weather problems across much of the midwest. Train 6 which left Emeryville on the 22nd was delayed 1:39 ten miles east of Fort Morgan, Colorado, prepared to stop at culverts and bridges due to high wind and tornado warnings, and to remove tree branches. Earlier in the month #5 passengers had to return to Denver because of a 10-by-30 foot rock slide near Winter Park, CO, and on May 12 heavy rain caused a #6 detour across Iowa. RailPAC’s Ralph James tells us 5/6 are running again with full consists. Southwest Chief train 4, which left Los Angeles on the 22nd, was delayed 90 minutes 20 miles west of Lamar, CO, due to 70 mph wind warnings as the tornado threats across the midwest accelerated. For the month trains 3/4 had 89.1% OTP. The champion for May was the Coast Starlight, at 95.7% OT!

. . . Daily Sunset Limited? No news is good news? Not necessarily. The most recent news we heard was Amtrak and the UP were “still in negotiations.” Over what? Is the UP playing its usual game of saying “No” until they don’t? We are waiting, but then again we’ve been waiting decades. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, commented on this issue and on the railroad’s “No” to access to its Las Vegas line for the newly proposed X and Z party trains: “Couple with the recent letter on HSR and the stalled negotiations over the daily Sunset and Coast Daylight, what part of “no” are we missing?” UP says they do not “endorse and will not allow gambling on its tracks.” Mr. Dyson adds, “We’re encouraging everyone to write to Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman just to show that the grass roots support is there. See Mr. Dyson’s letter in the May, 2010 issue of this publication. Meanwhile, in a May 17 article in the Arizona Republic, writer Sean Holstege reports that a new schedule for the Sunset Limited is under consideration to have the train stop in Maricopa at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Unfortunately, no rail return to Phoenix is anticipated, but the article quotes Amtrak Production Development Chief Brian Rosenwald, “If we run it daily, Tucson (ridership) could go sky-high.” He and his team “developed a business model to capture more riders at the Tucson station,” and to “reintroduce after a decade a bus from Phoenix and Tempe.” Cynics would say, “ho hum, we’ve only been telling them this for decades.”

. . . Train Day followup. National Train Day was a big success, with participation in large and small communities. Much has been written about that, but here is this writer’s report of where I was: Dallas Union Station. On display at DUS were the 1931 M-180 Doodlebug in ATSF colors that years ago worked the line to Carlsbad, New Mexico, and a heritage Pullman sleeping car, both now housed at the Museum of the American Railroad at nearby Fair Park. That museum is now under orders from the city to vacate the property, as it is underfunded and the land is needed for other purposes. The museum intends to move to nearby Frisco when funding is obtained. The successful TRE commuter line that runs from Dallas to Ft. Worth displayed a train set of a newly repainted F59PH locomotive and two bi-level Bombardier (UTDC)-built coaches. Inside the historic station were staffed displays from the successful DART system, which is undergoing the same financial crises as in other cities, and the new under-construction Denton County “A- Train” commuter rail line, a model railroad club, music, face painting, etc., and the Texas Rail Advocates who were selling souvenir t-shirts and whistles. Where was Amtrak? They had a staffed display table across from their ticket window, giving away packets of information including the timetables that would be out of date two days later. The new ones “were in the back somewhere,” but would not be available until they go into effect. And, Amtrak 21, the southbound Texas Eagle, arrived in Dallas 30 minutes late with 3 coaches, Diner-Lounge, Dining Car, and two sleeping cars (one of which is the crew dorm as well).

Rail Photos, Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: May 2010

Commentary and PHOTOS by Russ Jackson

. . . On Time Performance. April was again a good month for the Amtrak western long distance trains. There were more “on time” than late, but when it was late was it late! The big exceptions were #6, the California Zephyr, was almost 11 hours late into Denver on April 23, but on other days in April it was close to OT every day; #7 the Empire Builder was late 168 minutes into Spokane on April 14, and its counterpart #8 was late almost 20 hours into Minneapolis on April 10. For the rest of the system, “close to OT” is the operative word and the medal for this month goes to Texas Eagle #22, which was OT or early into St. Louis every day but one, and that was on 4/2 when it was only 45 minutes late. For the FY, since October 1, 2009, the Sunset Limited has been OT close to 90%, and the Coast Starlight (photo) is now 88%. It’s almost getting to be non-news to comment on this topic. On the other hand, we looked at the Acela Express performance on April 6 and found since the FY began Acelas had been delayed 71,700 minutes. Nothing is perfect, even on the Northeast Corridor, but perfection is closer for the long distance trains in the west!

. . . Riders and Revenue. Last month this column reported on the ridership and revenue of the three small stations on the Sunset route, which brought up the question of how were the small stations in California doing in the same period, FY 2009? These are stations served only by long distance trains and the stats do not reflect any bus or connecting riders at those stations. This month we will highlight the Coast Starlight route: Dunsmuir (photo) had 3,950 riders and brought in $225,187. Paso Robles had 9,513 and $468,258. Salinas had 27,316 riders and $978,130. Chico had 8,526 and $479,748, and Redding had 8,985 and $547,259. This data was found on These small stations cannot be compared to large stations, like Martinez which has both the Starlight and the Zephyr, etc., where they had 394,814 riders and $8,157,255, but those small stations were positive contributors to the revenue of the long distance trains and served the traveling public in a way that other public travel modes did not.

. . . RailPAC-NARP meeting comments. This writer was unable to attend the April 17 Los Angeles meeting in person, but thanks to Editor Noel Braymer I was able to see the presentations on the DVDs that he sent me. I’ll only comment on two presentations here, as much has been written about the meeting in this publication and on Carl Morrison’s excellent report on Bill Bronte, the Chief of the Caltrans Rail Program (photo), is always good for some pithy remarks and this year both at the Sacramento meeting, which I was able to attend, and in Los Angeles he spoke of the future of California’s rail program. It’s important that all California rail enthusiasts pay attention to what Bill has to say, so here is my summary of his remarks: “Positive signs!” Mr. Bronte is starting to see growth, particularly on the San Joaquins (Note: ridership there is up 6.6% in this FY). But, there is no money for expansion, so when will that get better? He sees 3 to 5 years to recovery. “Our dollars come from truck drivers and their diesel fuel purchases. We came close to losing the rail program in March,” when support funds were destined to be erased from the state budget and would have been dumped into the general fund to compete for funding along with many other programs. But, advocacy groups got together and walked the halls of the State Capitol. CRCC, LOSSAN, Capitol Corridor, and the San Joaquin Committee, along with other advocates like Orange County’s Art Brown, worked successfully to get the program included in the new gas tax bill. But, Mr. Bronte explained that operating fund expansions in the future will have to be self-financed through increases earned by the program, as will capital expenditures, as the state level of funding will remain static. As for matching grants for federal funds, the state will be short on new funds to match. Bond sales will be very limited as repayments begin quickly and there is no funding for them. The main point of his presentation was, “A dedicated fund source is needed, as rail is a critical part of the state’s transportation system.” Will the next administration make positive changes? Not a lot, regardless of who is elected, as budget problems will continue. “Get out there and advocate,” he said. The other presentation to be mentioned here was from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s VP for Policy and Development. While nothing new, which attendees were hoping to hear, was forthcoming from him, he did say Amtrak’s farebox recovery is 80% for its operating costs. An astounding figure. As for California, needless to say Amtrak considers the state its #1 “partner,” as well they should with all the dollars that flow into Amtrak’s coffers. Amtrak has 2,800 employees in California. As for the long distance trains, he only said they are working on getting the Sunset Limited daily but had no details. When RailPAC’s Mike Barnbaum asked about that train’s new schedule Mr. Gardner chose not to reply, but said a daily Sunset “can add value to the present system.” No additional routes can be added under current law, only improvements to current routes.

. . . Here and there.
The Heartland Flyer, train 822, at Gainesville, Texas, station, running late on May 4, 2010, powered 20% by biodiesel.
All the jokes have now been used up, but what else can be said about Amtrak’s plan underway since April 20, to experiment with having the Ft. Worth to Oklahoma City Heartland Flyer locomotive fuel tanks filled with a blend of 20% biodiesel made from beef fat, and 80% petroleum-based diesel. Amtrak’s Texas assistant superintendent Joy Smith had the best comment: “I don’t smell any french fries yet.” The source of the biodiesel being used by Amtrak is from “the remains of cattle raised near Fort Worth.” This experiment could have positive environmental benefits, and could lead to increased usage by Amtrak nationally which uses 62 million gallons of fuel a year. RailPAC’s Paul Dyson says “Our San Francisco Bay Rail’s 1940-built switchers have run on biodiesel for about a year now, and meet emission standards as tested by the State of California.”
. . . Missouri’s lawmakers successfully killed a move to cut more than $8 million in funding for the Amtrak trains that run between St. Louis and Kansas City, despite having a looming budget gap although nowhere as large as California’s. The Missouri trains have had poor on time records until recent investments in the corridors have raised that to about 90% on time now, and that reliability has brought upward of 16% ridership growth. Missouri’s local transit funding was saved as well. . . . Sunset Limited riders can now download a “podcast” which will give them an “interpretive tour of the communities and regions through which they are traveling.” Amtrak is working with the National Park Service and Texas A & M University on this project, which is available at for a free download. Something about this sounds familiar, and it goes back to an article written by RailPAC member Richard Strandberg which was published in the August, 1998 Western Rail Passenger Review, titled “Interpretive Recordings for Long Distance Passenger Trains.”!! where he proposed just such an idea. . . . Technology is slowly coming to benefit Amtrak ticket holders, too. California writer Gene Poon reports that passengers who book online at can now change their reservations online instead of standing in line at the station, but can only be used before a paper ticket is issued. If the reservation is made by phone or at a station, however, changes cannot be made online.

. . . Vaguely on-topic from Minnesota’s Andrew C. Selden on April 12: “For the Minnesota Twins’ home opener in their new outdoor baseball park, Target Field, MetroTransit is operating a baseball special, which just arrived in Minneapolis in push mode, with five cars (Bombardier Bilevels), for a 3 pm first pitch. The return train will leave 30 minutes after the last out. The Northstar Minneapolis station (such as it is—two tracks and a platform) is directly adjacent to and under the left field corner. I believe that this is our first five-car revenue train. Scheduled trains are three and four cars long. BNSF’s former GN Willmar Division main line was displaced 40-50 feet to the northwest to allow for stadium and Northstar construction. The end of the line for the Hiawatha LRT line is adjacent to the same point (the left field corner) at street level, perpendicular to the railroad.

Rail Photos, Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: April 2010

Photos and Commentary by Russ Jackson

. . . On Time Performance. As usual, we start with some current facts, and then take an historical look at the Amtrak Western long distance trains. The Sunset Limited fell back slightly in March, but is still above 90% since October 1. Its companion, the Texas Eagle, also fell back to an acceptable 77%. The Southwest Chief is at 86%, the Empire Builder is 77%, the Coast Starlight is 88%, and the California Zephyr still struggles at 58% for end-point OTP. RailPAC correspondent, Ralph James, reports from Blue Canyon in the Sierra Nevada overlooking the UP main line that Zephyr #5 can be as much as 2 to 5 hours late while #6 is normally only several minutes down. Also, recent consists are back to three coaches after a few weeks running with only two. Now for history: According to the Fall, 1979, “CRC News”, the predecessor publication to this one, in “July, 1979 the OTP for the Starlight was 37.1% compared to 69.4% in July 1978; the Sunset is down from 50% to goose eggs; the Zephyr goes from a fatal 12.9 to an atrocious 33.9%.” What else is new? Continue Reading

Rail Photos, Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News . . . for March 2010

PHOTOS and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Amtrak Western On Time Performance. On February 19, Train #1, the Sunset Limited arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 8:20 AM. Nothing remarkable about that since its due at 8:40, but as crew members will tell you they consider that arrival time as being late as they usually arrive in the 7 o’clock hour these days.

On the 21st #1 arrived at 7:40, proving their point. But, oops, on the 14th it didn’t arrive until noon. Nothing like a few inconsistencies even though the train’s overall OTP since October 1 is still 92%! Can you believe it now is Amtrak’s best long distance train performer? The poorest record in the west now is the California Zephyr, with 63%, although that was an improvement over the 61% on January 31, and #6 has been doing very well into Denver.

Trains 3 and 4, the Southwest Chief, (shown here at Los Angeles Union Station) was 86%, but had its share of problems: on January 31 a locomotive on #4 failed near Glorietta, NM and on the same day #3 had a locomotive failure due to a bad fuel pump at LaJunta, CO, with the BNSF coming to the rescue in both cases. The most interesting delay happened that day south of Guadalupe, CA, because an Air Force scheduled rocket launch from Vandenberg AFB delayed Pacific Surfliner 792 for 50 minutes until the right-of-way could be inspected for “potential fallen debris.” RailPAC VP South, James Smith, rode Amtrak from California to Florida by way of Chicago and Washington DC in February, as he usually does. His comments about this year’s trip were very positive, except for the condition of the Viewliner cars on the Silver Meteor. They are deteriorating fast, Smith says, so the replacement funds Amtrak has announced for those cars are quite justified. He also rode the California Zephyr for the first time in 20 years. Enroute, his #5 departed Denver February 21, just as a blizzard started, but he enjoyed that route because there was snow most of the way but arrivals were ON TIME! The Reno trench doesn’t let you see much of Reno, and Mr. Smith said the Amtrak dining car food was excellent this time, but when you take that long a trip the menu can be monotonous.

. . . Amtrak Equipment readiness. The fleet list shows 200 active western passenger cars. On February 11 they “required” 171 for trains that day. How many were available? 174, with 26 out of service for various reasons. That’s cutting it close, when 13% of your fleet is deadlined. Does that tell you the real need for fleet expansion ASAP? So, how is Beech Grove doing? Last year we were telling you that 40 Superliner cars were sitting deadlined there. Well, an observer writes that there are still 25. Improved, yes, but demand is getting too close. The seven Superliner coaches that California acquired are now all running. On the same day that Amtrak was canceling the Empire Builder for winter weather reasons, VIA was running the Canadian across Canada, with it on time into Winnipeg where the temperature was 10 degrees. … Good news. At least dining car china has returned to the Coast Starlight, and rumors are the Zephyr may be next! The “Food Specialist” downstairs position on the Starlight was converted to a full-year job to support dishwashing. Was it a coincidence that on the same day Amtrak increased Starlight fares by 4%? We can only hope the “fleet plan” Amtrak issued on February 1, showing its vision for updating its rolling stock, gets underway! They say it would require $34 billion to do everything. That’s the need now, when desperation is setting in; they should have been working on it for the past ten years while instead they griped about not getting enough government money. It was there; they just wouldn’t allocate it where the needs were. … Off trains for a moment: Minnesota’s Andrew C. Selden found, “One of the main reasons airlines are slapping fees on nearly everything, but generally leaving fares alone, is taxes. It seems that airline revenue from luggage fees, food sales, headsets, standby changes, mileage purchases, airport lounge passes and anything else that is not a mandatory part of the purchase is not subject to the 7.5% tax on the price of airline tickets!”

. . . Around California.

… ACE, the Altamont Commuter Express, is running 6-car trains now that its 4th train (the one in this photo with 3 cars), the mid-day turn, was dropped. They have three 6-car consists, and one 5-car train available, with a spare maintenance car. They need to do their extensions soon! Some ACE cars are still leased to Metrolink in Los Angeles.

… San Joaquins. RailPAC correspondent Ralph James reported here last year about the Fresno and Madera stations, and his followup this year brought good news that on his Fresno station visit this year he “found printed timetables available in various racks in the station building. The only posted information for the day’s trains, however, was still one of the timetable folders under plexiglass near the boarding area some distance from the waiting room and still no letterboard or other indoor posting.” It seems each station agent does these chores in different ways in each station. As for Madera, Mr. James reported “damaged tactile tiles noted as extensive last year along the boarding platform have been repaired.”

… The Coaster celebrated 15 years of service in San Diego County on February 27 (shown here at the Oceanside Transit Center), offering two-for-one rides and special promotional events. There are now 20 Coaster trains weekdays, plus some on Saturdays. But, still no Sunday service.

… The West. … By now what California received in federal grants is well known, but in Texas, two small projects were funded that will improve service for the Texas Eagle, the Heartland Flyer, and the TRE commuter line. On January 30 this writer attended the annual TXARP meeting in Dallas, just days after the funds were announced, and while the speakers expressed disappointment that the state couldn’t get its leadership interested in applying for bigger projects, the prevailing attitude was “we’ll take what we got and work for better days.” The BNSF line between Ft. Worth and Gainesville, TX, will have signal improvements so that 10-15 minutes can come off the schedule of the Flyer.

The TRE line between Dallas and Ft. Worth will be double tracked, and when that is finished Amtrak will move the Eagle to that line and off the UP’s freight congested line, which will cut some of the 3 hours Amtrak now takes to go between those two cities, 30 miles apart. We were pleased to learn that former Californian, Bill Farquahar, who worked with RailPAC founder Byron Nordberg on many projects some years ago, then for the Coaster, is now COO of the TRE. Which reminded us of one of Byron’s sayings about train speeds: “It’s not how fast you go, you shouldn’t go too slow.” … Arizona. Tucson got $63 million of the “Tiger” grants to complete the city’s modern streetcar starter light rail system between the University of Arizona and downtown’s west side, which should jump-start downtown redevelopment (we hope to have photos next month). Many states in the West did not get funds from either pot of federal money. The State of Arizona didn’t get any for the Phoenix-Tucson project largely because they had not finished their state rail plan. Montana got nothing while Amtrak waits for the state to fund the huge North Coast Hiawatha study they just completed for the state, which is not likely to happen. Meanwhile, Montana’s ridership on the Empire Builder dropped by 16,532 in 2009, to the lowest since 2005 but still the second highest year ever. Oklahoma, which in the words of one Oklahoman, had “not one county vote for Obama,” got $0 for its project between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Washington and Oregon benefited from the feds, with $600 million to improve speeds between Seattle and Portland, and upgrades for Portland’s Union Station.

. . . Finally, while it is not a Western story, a familiar name popped up last month: David Gunn, former Amtrak President (shown here on a visit to Sacramento station), was called in to “provide an overarching assessment of what ails the Washington DC Metro system, and how to fix it.” One commentator said, “no doubt they will be shocked to find out that their system needs more money, a reliable source of funding, and more people who know how to run a system properly, as well as a Board that has an interest in something other than regional politics. And, they need David Gunn to tell them this? He told them many times” when he was last with WAMTA. To which RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, said, “Most of that could apply to every district of its size in the country. Minimal transportation professionals on the governing boards, maximum political hacks, special interest underused bus routes, and on and on. It’s really hard to be a public transport advocate these days.” We totally agree. … And, we note with sadness that RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd’s wife passed away in January, after 60 plus years of marriage.
… RailPAC also welcomes new Board Director Jarrod DellaChiesa, who has taken over as Website Editor from this writer. Youth has its time, this is it, and Jarrod is already doing a great job on