Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 18, 2012 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Hennepin County Public Library brings us this 1967 ad about Twin City Lines. Is that an advertisement? Seems more like an informational flyer. Whatever it is, I'm entranced by the fonts and layout—very clean and modern, and clearly post-Helvetica.

The news:

Some infuriating items coming from points east this week:
  • In Wisconsin, the Joint Committee on Finance voted to block $2.5 million in funding to plan for a $53 to $65 million maintenance base for the state's two new Talgo trainsets being assembled in Milwaukee. This has set up a conflict between Governor Walker's administration, which actually wants the trains, and the Republicans in control of the Senate and Assembly. It sounds like the committee's word is final, unless the Governor vetoes the action.

    It would be cheaper in the short run to have Amtrak expand their (Beech Grove?) facility to handle the new trains, though Wisconsin would have an opportunity to keep some employment if they build it in-state. I also keep thinking of the equipment and facility in the context of the canceled extension to Madison (which will eventually come back from the dead) and future expansion of service to Minnesota. Wisconsin only ordered two trains which technically cost about $47.5 million, but had some extra costs for modifications—direct costs for the trains plus planning for a new facility have brought the sunk costs up to $71.8 million. However, the state had been planning to order more trains as the Madison route got built, potentially followed a few years later by orders from Minnesota for trains along the Minneapolis–Duluth (Northern Lights Express) and Minneapolis–Chicago corridors. (Though Mn/DOT is probably looking at other manufacturers too.)

    Some headlines have said that the trains could be mothballed pretty much right away, though I'm not sure if that's really going to happen. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is trying to find the $2.5 million to keep the plans going for a facility in his city, and it'd be interesting to see if they can fund it themselves. If maintenance activities move to Illinois, then we have to ask who's going to pay for that (Illinois? Amtrak? Wisconsin? Milwaukee? Chicago?). There's also the question of whether the state would move to sell off the trains–I think they'd get some quick bids, though it's unlikely they'd recoup their total investment. It'd be nice to see Mn/DOT make an offer, especially in light of the Saint Paul Union Depot opening later this year (with only one Empire Builder train each way each day).

    Oregon has also purchased two trains from Talgo's Milwaukee plant, though they'll obviously be maintained somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest.

    Lastly, I'll mention that there's been some complaining by Wisconsin legislators about the new Talgo trainsets having a somewhat smaller capacity (about 20 seats less) than the Amtrak equipment they'd replace. Some Hiawatha trains get full as it is, though the current service operates with unreserved ticketing—You can buy a ticket and redeem it at any time of day (I think they may also be valid for a period of days, weeks, or even months). Switching to reserved ticketing would balance the load a bit more—and I think Amtrak has been planning to make that switch for a while anyway. The new trains have passive tilt mechanisms, so they should go a bit faster, which could reduce running times and effectively increase capacity by allowing more runs per day. Perhaps not enough to make a difference at this point, however.

  • Over in Michigan, the nasty not-so-secret tidbit about Wolverine trains to Detroit running over slow sections in Norfolk Southern-owned territory got worse this week as the railroad lowered speeds to 25 mph on their tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. Track speeds had already been low—I'd previously heard they were 30 mph in places—but it makes an embarrassing aspect of the Midwest's first 110-mph train even more cringe-inducing. The Michigan Department of Transportation is not happy—they're negotiating with Norfolk Southern to purchase the track, and it sounds to me like NS is just letting the rails deteriorate until they can let go of them. (Of course, similar things happen on roadways all the time—here in Saint Paul, University Avenue has had a lot of maintenance be deferred because of the now actively under-construction Central Corridor LRT line had been looming for years...).
On to less annoying things...

The Let There Be Light Rail blog has some photos from a tour of the Union Depot renovation. Oh yeah, I have some photos too, since I went on Wednesday (though I didn't get into the Amtrak ticketing area like she did). Here's a shot of mine from the south end of the waiting room:


Other photos in my Union Depot set on Flickr.

The Reason & Rail blog has a list of Amtrak crashes over the last two decades which resulted in onboard fatalities, along with quick assessments of whether existing over-the-top Federal Railroad Administration crash regulations made any difference. For the most part, FRA crash regulations don't help, though positive train control would have prevented a bunch of the incidents. On the other hand, he notes that we don't know how many fatalities may have actually been prevented by FRA regs and only resulted in injuries.

Canadian National responded to Amtrak's recent complaints to the Surface Transportation Board about freight train interference.  The Reason & Rail blog saw that CN blames Amtrak for at least some of the trouble, apparently including a few incidents where Amtrak locomotives ran out of fuel only a short distance from Chicago.  If I ever get time, I may have to dig into the response myself to see how many incidents they're trying to brush off.  It's pretty much impossible for Amtrak to be responsible to themselves for all of the delays, but it definitely doesn't look good if what CN says is true.

Up in Canada, employees will be back at work at EMD's London, Ontario plant for a while as workers perform final assembly for a few remaining orders (which appears to add up to 28 individual units). The workers had previously been locked out at the start of the year after EMD opened their Muncie, Indiana plant.

The Sunset Limited route along the southern edge of the United States has gotten some coverage this week.  In the southwest, the schedule has changed, which has some good and bad aspects to it.  In the southeast, there are actually rumblings from a Republican congressman in northern Florida to restore the route from New Orleans eastward (which is still out of service after being knocked out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005), though he rattled on about costs in the TV interview associated with that article, so who knows...

A government forecast last week says that air travel demand is expected to increase by 3.2% annually, though there's likely going to be a continuing loss in the number of routes served.  Airfares are expected to stay high for most of the next decade.


  1. Is my case of the Mondays too advanced for me to figure out how to see the rest of the Twin City Lines ad? All I see is the page with the copy, not the fares/wages chart the blogger mentions. Interesting that they extended routes 136 miles between 54 and 67 - I wonder where?. The newest map I have is 1948, and it doesn't look like routes went into the northern suburbs much - the Central streetcar ended at 40th. On the other hand it looks like there were a lot of routes in the southern suburbs at the time. I'm curious whether any routes that were extended in this time period were subsequently retrenched.

    1. Hmm. For me, it sort of zooms in on the page I clicked on and has previous/next pages on the left and right of the browser window, and then I can click on them to navigate backward or forward. So I'd just suggest trying to click on the left or right edge to see if you can move between pages.

      If that doesn't work, try right-clicking (or option-clicking or whatever brings up a context menu on a Mac) on a thumbnail and selecting "open in new tab". Each thumbnail links to a distinct image if you do it that way (regular left-clicking activates some JavaScript that does the magic zoom behavior).

  2. From someone currently on the Hiawatha: the tickets are valid for the year. However, I think switching to reserved--or mostly reserved--tickets would be a big mistake. A lot of the Hiawatha's convenience comes from the fact that you can just hop on and off with minimal hassle, which is one of the reasons why it's been so successful in recent years. They'd probably lose more than 20 passengers a train if they changed that.

    I might not be a regular Hiawatha rider for much longer, though--Amtrak (or maybe the Chicago PD) have implemented some minimal security theater for "random" non-Anglo-Saxons at the Chicago end of the line. It's not too bad to go through (only a matter of seconds for some kind of bag check--they don't even open them), but it's still frustrating.

    1. Thanks. Yes, now the vague memory of my last Hiawatha ticket comes back -- I was a bit confused by the date being a year off when I got it.

      Yeah, I agree that the convenience of being able to redeem the ticket at any time is pretty attractive, though a yield management system with good discounts can draw a lot more customers than a flat rate.

      I guess I have been a bit confused by the whole purchase from the beginning, though. Purchasing just two trains made it seem like they'd use them partly to add service rather than completely replacing existing service, but I've never known exactly what the plans have been.

      Disappointing to hear about the security theater..