Category Archives: State-Supported Services

What the new Siemens Chargers mean for riders

From Railway Age:

The first two Siemens SC-44 Charger diesel passenger locomotives have arrived in Colorado for the start of testing at TTCI’s Pueblo, Colo., facility.

Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) awarded Siemens a $228 million contract in 2014 to supply 32 of the 125-mph diesel-electric locomotives for use on Amtrak services in the states of Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. The locomotives are being assembled at the Siemens plant in Sacramento, Calif., and the first units are due to be accepted by IDOT in December.

The first options for additional units were exercised in November 2015, when the states of California, Illinois and Maryland ordered a total of 34 locomotives.

In September 2014, Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary All Aboard Florida ordered 10 Charger locomotives to operate its Brightline higher-speed passenger service from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, which is due to be launched next year. Assembly of these locomotives is now under way at Sacramento.

The four-axle, AC-traction Charger is the first locomotive to be equipped with the Cummins QSK95 prime-mover. The 95-litre, 16 cylinder engine is rated at 4,400 hp (3.28 MW) and is equipped with Cummins’ Modular Common Rail Fuel System (MCRS) with quad-turbocharging. The QSK95 is also equipped with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) exhaust aftertreatment, enabling it to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tier 4 emissions standards.

For the last few years, Amtrak’s diesel fleet has been pretty static, excluding the rebuilt stimulus P40DC locomotives. However, weather extremes have not been kind to the fleet, and on numerous occasions a host railroad’s locomotive is leading an Amtrak train. I can only imagine the frustration a host railroad has when an Amtrak locomotive has failed on a section of their track, no less the passengers.

The new SC-44’s, as the Chargers are being called, will free up in the Midwest upwards of about 20 locomotives that Amtrak should have overhauled immediately. When Amtrak’s fleet is at peak performance, passenger satisfaction improves. Coming home from the 2014 NARP Spring Council of Representatives meeting, the locomotive I was on (all but certain it was an AEM-7) experienced technical issues a little north of the Metropark station. Eventually the issue was fixed enough so that we could continue on our way, but we were an hour late into New York City.  I have read that the ACS-64 have very good reliability.

Furthermore, as locomotives are being retired, Amtrak should encourage transit agencies across the country to purchase them and even save them in the interim should a state out of the blue decide to start an intercity service or a commuter rail service. Equipment should see as much re-purposing as possible.

Hopefully in the next few years we will see much more reliable and comfortable equipment coming for Amtrak. But that means all of us in the public bring to light that Amtrak and all passenger rail operators in the United States need proper funding and regulation that allows for innovation and growth.


Some notes from the NARP Fall Meeting

The fall meeting of the NARP Council of Representatives was held in Salt Lake City over the weekend of October 18-19. There were some excellent presentations, and on the whole, I think that NARP is moving in a positive direction. But there is a lot of work to be done yet.

The good news

“We ask all 28,000 members to speak out for advocacy….There’s something about a train that is not only magic, it’s vital.”
— Jim Mathews

I am very impressed with Jim Mathews, the new President (what other nonprofits would call “executive director”) of NARP. I’ll let some of the slides from his introductory presentation speak for themselves. And I had a good private conversation with him that reinforces what he is saying publicly.

EDIT: Jim has kindly shared his presentation with us. PDF download here.

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And according to Larry Scott, the acting president who preceded Mathews, the NARP Board is solidly behind Mathews’ vision. “NARP needs to be proactive, not reactive.”

Joe Szabo, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, also had some positive things to say (complete speech here):

  • ‘We need predictable, dedicated funding for passenger rail.” Predictability is key, so they have asked for funding every year, but that funding has not been forthcoming since 2010.
  • On-time performance is a key piece of the success Amtrak had through 2012. We expect 95 percent OTP every day, on every train.
  • Travel is a fundamental civil right. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s just common sense.
  • The Southwest Regional Plan is the first of a series of planning documents. It was posted on the website yesterday (October 17). States are successfully pursuing the “PacMan approach” with little bites and plans.
  • Safety is central to the FRA’s mission. There have only been 4 railroad fatalities this year so far, down from 26 in 2013.

Ralph Becker, the Mayor of Salt Lake City, also made some good points.

  • Bringing transportation improvements is a war. The people who show up are the people who hate something. The folks who don’t show up are the people who like the changes.
  • Twenty percent will vote against anyone who raises taxes. You have to build your case to overcome that.
  • “Thank goodness for the millennials. They get it.”
  • Hearing from constituents is what will change the minds of elected representatives: constituents who come forward and demand accountability.

Tom Hall, Amtrak Chief of Customer Service, had some blunt, but reasonably positive, comments about customer service in general, and food service in particular.

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The Point of Sale system was delayed due to the TJ Maxx data breach, which required the credit-card processing system to be completely rewritten. It has now been rolled out on the Surfliners, and is to be enabled in the Northeast Corridor within weeks.

One comment that was positively received: if you’re a sleeping-car passenger, please get the steak! The cost of each meal is transferred to the food and beverage account.

The not-so-good news

The administration of NARP is still struggling. The process of converting membership records from the ancient software NARP had been using to a new system has not gone smoothly, which is why many of us have not gotten newsletters and renewal notices in a timely manner. This, in turn, has caused a significant dip in the organization’s income. The NARP staffers I have talked to believe that this problem is on its way to being resolved, but they have asked me to let everyone know that if you have any membership issues, feel free to contact the NARP office, or message me and I’ll pass the information along.

Some of the NARP staff members were asked to do basic presentations about websites and social media, which were snoozers for those of us who know about such things. But it was evident that a lot of the NARP Council members found these presentations eye-openers, which tells me that many on the Council haven’t joined the 21st century yet.

There are still a number of vacancies on the Council, and anyone who is interested in volunteering is welcome to message me to talk about what the positions entail. I hope to find candidates that will expand the diversity of the Council — we have too many old white-haired guys in the group now, myself included.

What comes next

Over the next few months, the various Council committees will be working on some projects to increase the visibility of, and support for, passenger rail.

I will be at the annual membership meeting of the Washington state rail advocacy organization in Centralia, WA, on November 8 and at the western regional NARP meeting / RailPAC annual conference in Sacramento on November 15. Please join me.

As, increasingly, decisions about passenger rail are stymied in DC and being made on the state and local level, it’s imperative that passenger-rail advocates support both NARP and the organization in your state. Please help us out!


Poll: WI residents support passenger rail

Time to badger Congress for Amtrak expansion

In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to a new survey.

It’s been more than 150 years since railroad fever first brought rail service to the Badger State. And while just about everything else has changed in the last century and a half, one thing hasn’t: Wisconsinites still love trains and in particular are fans of our national passenger railroad, Amtrak.

new survey of Wisconsin residents sends a clear message that expanding Amtrak service must be a part of the state’s transportation future….

And those views transcend party politics and labels. Indeed, one of the only places where Amtrak is not in demand is in Congress, where some lawmakers are still peddling unpopular budgets for Amtrak that would bankrupt the railroad.

With Congress preparing to rewrite the law that governs Amtrak, now is the time for elected officials to listen to their constituents.

In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to the survey. Very few want to see its funding eliminated. Nearly three out of four Wisconsin residents want the option of additional service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. There is overwhelming support for expanded service across all demographic groups, all of whom have no problem with the $1 billion yearly federal investment in Amtrak, and many who would like to see it expanded.

Interestingly, the strong support for Amtrak in Wisconsin comes despite the fact that residents currently have limited rail service options. Nearly 80% said they have not been a passenger on Amtrak in the past two years; no surprise here given that the carrier provides only one long-distance train and one corridor service. These views also contrast with Wisconsin’s governor, who, in 2011, sent $850 million in already approved passenger rail funds back to the federal government.

The popularity of Amtrak transcends blue state/red state divisions, offering a striking example of nonpartisan pragmatism that elected leaders would do well to emulate. In fact, Amtrak’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 66%-18% among Republicans and 67%-21% among conservatives. After all, providing passenger rail service is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s a public interest issue.

Downstate Illinois rail upgrades continue

Final downstate construction begins for 110-mph trains

Amtrak passenger trains should be running at speeds up to 110 mph between Carlinville and Joliet in 2015, based on the latest update of high-speed rail construction from the Illinois Department of Transportation.

This year’s construction season, the fifth since the $1.5 billion federal-state high-speed rail program began, includes approximately $100 million worth of rail, bridge, siding, crossing and station improvements between St. Louis and Chicago.
“We are on schedule to bring most of the Joliet-Carlinville segment to 110 by the end of 2015,” IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin said.
The upgrades, according to IDOT, will allow for 110-mph service between Carlinville and Joliet that was first begun in 2012 on the section between Pontiac and Dwight. The goal is 110-mph service on the entire St. Louis-Chicago corridor in 2017.“We are on schedule to bring most of the Joliet-Carlinville segment to 110 by the end of 2015,” IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin said.This year’s construction season, the fifth since the $1.5 billion federal-state high-speed rail program began, includes approximately $100 million worth of rail, bridge, siding, crossing and station improvements between St. Louis and Chicago.
Work in the Springfield area includes siding upgrades at Auburn, Carlinville, Elkhart, Girard, Lincoln and just north of Springfield.

Cascades Without Amtrak?

Analysis from the Seattle Transit Blog:

Last month WSDOT quietly released a Request for Information,

“to gather information from providers of rail services about service delivery options to provide more convenient, rapid, and reliable intercity passenger rail service between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon.”

Noting that these submittals “are not responds to deliver the service”, WSDOT is nonetheless seeking input from the private sector (and presumably other governmental rail operators) about how to make Cascades more efficient and reduce its operating costs. If the responses sufficiently pique their interest, WSDOT may issue a full competitive Request for Proposal (RFP).

A little background: the Bush-era Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA) forced Amtrak to cease funding operations of its most successful routes (state-supported corridors of less than 750 miles). It was a masterfully cynical bill, for though Republicans generally love to hate Amtrak, they also love once-daily legacy service in their districts, which just so happens to be colossally expensive to operate. So they wrote a bill that trimmed the muscle and left the fat, as it were.

Amtrak had been funding 20% of Cascades service, but from October 2013 onward Washington and Oregon have had to bear 100% of operating costs. Though Cascades farebox recovery is relatively good at roughly 66%, farebox recovery is a rate, not an outlay. As Cascades is mandated to add at least 2 more trips between Seattle and Portland by 2017 as a condition of receiving $800m in stimulus (ARRA) funds, it is important to remember that farebox recovery could continue to improve while total costs rise. With a stalemated legislature that loves to play politics with rail, it’s the total costs that matter. Ergo, Cascades has no choice but to seek ways to cut costs.

Cape Cod summer train service to add a station

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA) recently announced the CapeFLYER weekend rail service from Boston to Cape Cod and the Islands will operate May 23 through Labor Day, with a new station stop at Wareham Village.

The CapeFLYER, which launched summer service last year, carried 16,586 riders and generated $290,756 in fare revenue in 2013, officials said in a press release….

CapeFLYER trains in 2014 will include a station stop at Wareham Village. By the height of the summer season, trains will include separate coaches for two of the service’s most popular amenities: the café coach and bike racks with tools for on-board tune-ups.

Via Progressive Railroading

CHSRA Board Approves Fresno to Bakersfield Route

From the California High Speed Rail Blog:

The California High Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously today to approve the route from Fresno to Bakersfield, including an eastern bypass of Hanford. All the final documents can be found here.

The vote was yet another huge step forward for the project, four and a half years after voters approved in in 2008. With this action there is now an adopted final route from Madera to Bakersfield that can be constructed in the near future, especially if cap-and-trade funds are used to help fund it. There of course remains the legal challenges to the project brought by NIMBYs in Kings County. Once those are resolved, however, the path could be clear by the end of this year to have construction either under way or close to it throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

2 high-speed train sets built for Wisconsin set to leave Milwaukee

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In what appears to be the final chapter of an ill-fated venture in Milwaukee, Spanish train-maker Talgo is vacating its factory on the city’s north side, and its two unused high-speed train sets may soon take to the tracks.

The Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee has received notice that Talgo will end its month-to-month lease agreement in the Century City development at N. 27th and W. Townsend streets.

“It appears that the trains will be leaving imminently,” city spokesman Jeff Fleming said Wednesday.

The company, which set up its North American headquarters at the site in 2010, could be winding down its office operations in a matter of weeks and be gone within 60 days. Of the dozens of workers involved in manufacturing train sets for Wisconsin and Oregon, only a few remain.

The city will also lose the $29,000 a month Talgo paid for renting half of the 300,000-square-foot building.

Talgo officials did not immediately return requests for comment about where the trains are going and why they are ending the lease.