Destination:Freedom Newsletter
The Newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative, Inc.
Vol. 4 No. 1, January 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004, NCI, Inc.
President and CEO - Jim RePass
Publisher - Jim RePass
Editor - Leo King

A weekly North American rail and transit update


IN THIS EDITION...  In this edition...

CZ derails; drops cars in blizzard

Two cars on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, train No. 5, went off the track at low speed in Donner Pass on New Year’s Day, Amtrak reported.

The westbound cars left the rails at about 1:00 p.m. (Pacific time) P-42s Nos. 133 and 1 leading. Coach 34088 derailed at Shed 10, MP 179, on No. 2 track.

No injuries were reported. Witnesses said there was considerable accumulation of snow and ice at the location.

All traffic was stopped through the pass after the derailment, including the eastbound Zephyr, No. 6, also of January 1. That trains was nine miles west at Emigrant Gap.

After a Union Pacific flanger train cleared No. 1 track of accumulated snow and ice, UP released No. 6 to proceed.

It was delayed 1 hour and 20 minutes, plus time at low speed following the flanger train to Truckee.

According to, No. 5 arrived in Emeryville at 10:01 a.m. Friday, 16 hours and 52 minutes late – and 33 minutes after the same trainset was due to head east as No. 6 for January 2. The web system estimated No. 6 would leave Emeryville at about 4:30 Friday afternoon, some seven late.

Road access to the location is poor and highways were closed and impassable.

Passengers were transferred to the other cars still on the track.

UP said its snow removal equipment cleared four to five feet of accumulated snow from No. 2 track at the scene.

UP units then coupled to the rear nine cars and took them to Norden, 13 miles east. The Amtrak units on No. 5 took the baggage car; then UP brought the nine cars back from Norden on No. 1 Track where they were recoupled to the Amtrak engines and baggage car.

Transition Sleeper 39008 remained at the derailment scene along with derailed coach 34088. Crews were unable to uncouple them.

The CZ’s next stop was its destination, Emeryville. It arrived on Friday.

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Amtrak strike threat remains

By Wes Vernon
Chief Washington Correspondent

Amtrak enters 2004 with nearly a half-billion dollars less than it believes is necessary to put the service in a state of good repair.

On top of that, the rail passenger corporation starts off the new year with a strike threat hanging over its head.

A group of unions representing a minority of workers (about a third) has been given the green light by a federal judge to stage a one-day walkout to protest the inadequate funding from Congress.

Most rail unions reject this idea, but indicate if the walkout takes place, they will be honor-bound to respect the picket lines. If they do, it will be with extreme reluctance. One might even use the term “kicking and screaming.” At least that is surely the attitude of the United Transportation Union (UTU).

“We believe this is a suicidal leap over the cliff by individuals who have taken leave of their rational thought processes,” UTU spokesman Frank Wilner told D:F in an interview.

Wilner went out of his way to mention that the Transportation Communications Union (TCU) – Amtrak’s largest – also opposes the walkout.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of the deeply held opposition to the strike within rail labor itself came from some rather salty comments by UTU’s main Washington lobbyist, James M. “Brokenrail” Brunkenhoefer.

For all the bullhorns, crowds and “a ton of publicity” accorded the potential strikers, Brunkenhoefer warned in a letter to UTU members, all the walkout would accomplish will be to “stop the trains, lose a day’s pay, and anger the riders.”

After the cheering, bells and whistles, and sign-waving have run their course and the TV cameras are dismantled with the video sent to the editing rooms for the 6 o’clock news, stated the UTU bulletin, here is “the rest of the story:”

“Amtrak provides service for numerous commuter operations around the U.S. These operations employ Amtrak workers who have Amtrak seniority. Many of these Amtrak local commuter authorities are up for renegotiation. Through your hard work, additional funds are beginning to flow from Washington for new commuter operations. If Amtrak gets these contracts, it will mean more jobs for our members on Amtrak and they will be included under Railroad Retirement, FELA, and the Railway Labor Act.”

Brunkenhoefer noted that none of these laws apply to commuter services in Texas, California, and Florida, where workers there are paid less than Amtrak and receive fewer benefits.

Officials at one of the new commuter authorities that had been considering doing business with Amtrak had contacted UTU and informed the union that once they realized that Amtrak workers could strike any time they did not like Congressional action, “they would no longer consider Amtrak as an operator of their service.”

Brunkenhoefer said “For all practical purposes, Amtrak is bankrupt. A mistimed strike may not only bring Amtrak to its knees, it could be Amtrak’s death knell.”

The UTU Legislative Director cited four pro-union senators who have said the projected walkout would hurt Amtrak. The four, all Democrats, are Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Patty Murray of Washington, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Tom Carper of Delaware.

In case anyone misses the point, the UTU added, “It does not make sense to do something that disappoints and upsets your friends. If you don’t have friends to start with, how do you expect to win?”

Judge James Robertson handed down his decision siding with the potential strikers on December 10.

Shortly thereafter, D:F interviewed Transport Workers Union Legislative Director Charles Moneypenny who said safety was the main issue for those who would stage the one-day walkout. He cited warnings from Amtrak CEO David Gunn to buttress his point.

Amtrak, which immediately filed notice of appeal with a request for an emergency stay if the unions set a date for the walkout, has repeatedly stated that safety is the first priority not only with the passenger carrier, but throughout the railroad industry as a whole. Moneypenny, however, has quoted Gunn as saying that without adequate funding, “something bad” may happen.

Though he said a conference call among the strike-prone brotherhoods would be held the following week to decide when and if the strike would take place, attempts by D:F to reach Moneypenny the following week elicited no response. TWU’s website also leaves no clue as to any date when the walkout could take place.

Word “on the street” is that the TWU – ringleader of the strike movement – and the likeminded unions have decided to keep their options open for now, and keep the rest of us guessing.

Wilner said if the strike comes off, “We are not France. We will honor the picket lines.” Obviously, not without some considerable gnashing of teeth.

Brunkenhoefer’s letter was dated December 22, the second week after the judge’s decision. His letter ended with less than holiday-like good cheer.

“It looks like our members on Amtrak may lose some jobs as well as the opportunity to gain more jobs. But you see, they won’t be on television, and they won’t get their name in the paper. They will just be the victims Remember the strike on Eastern Airlines? Boy, they showed them. Of course, there is no more Eastern Airlines and 38,000 families suffered. But then they got a lot of news coverage. But I would hope that in the future before the other unions start down that road, that they recognize how many working families will suffer so that they can get publicity. My fear is that these unions are going to find out that they are trading an Amtrak career that may span many years for 15 minutes of fame.”

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Amtrak leaving New York deal

Amtrak wants to pull out of a $185 million deal aimed at providing faster rail service between New York’s Capital Region and New York City, casting new doubt on whether the highly anticipated service will ever debut here.

Amtrak was part of a three-way contract with the state and Super Steel Schenectady, the Albany Times-Union’s Cathy Woodruff wrote on December 23, that laid out cost-sharing and logistical arrangements for rebuilding seven 30-year-old Turboliners at Super Steel’s Glenville, N.Y. plant and completing $140 million in improvements on CSX-owned tracks.

The goal of the effort, announced by Gov. George Pataki in 1998, was to finish much of the trackwork and put the fast trains in service by 2001, raising top cruising speeds to 125 mph and cutting the trip time between Rensselaer and New York City by about 20 minutes.

Amtrak spokesmen in Washington said on December 22 that the company began telling New York DOT officials of the railroad’s need to extricate itself from the agreement shortly after David Gunn arrived as president and CEO in April 2002. The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

“Amtrak found itself in a financial condition that made it doubtful whether it could continue as the national passenger rail company,” let alone invest in major infrastructure upgrades, said Cliff Black, Amtrak’s director of media relations.

State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Boardman and Gunn met on December 18 to continue their discussions on the stalled initiative.

NYDOT spokesman Peter Graves said the state still views the contract with Amtrak as valid.

“We do expect Amtrak to live up to their commitment,” he said, adding, “The state is committed to moving forward with the program.”

Amtrak has accepted delivery of three completed Turboliners. Two are in regular service, and a third serves as a backup. Three of the remaining four are in production at Super Steel. A fourth has yet to be delivered to the factory.

“It’s our plan to continue running them,” Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said of the trains already delivered, but he noted that the Turboliners cost more to operate than standard trains.

“The state, under the previous agreement, is obligated to compensate Amtrak for the incremental costs of running the Turboliners,” Stessel said. If the state declines to make up the difference, he said, “We will revert to standard Amfleet equipment.”

the difference in service if Amtrak took the turbos off regular runs would be minor because turbos can travel no faster than the 110 mph maximum speed of Amtrak’s other trains without track improvements.

Super Steel Schenectady’s general manager, William Carr, declined to comment on the status of the remaining trains or whether Amtrak has made good on its promise this year to supply engines and transmissions.

Amtrak’s major contribution to the project was to be the funding of half the $140 million in trackwork, including installing a second track between Albany and Schenectady. At this point, Amtrak has spent $4 million on design studies but lacks the resources to complete its share of the work, Stessel said.

“Given that Amtrak is unable to participate in the high-speed rail agreement as originally conceived, we are working cooperatively with the state to find a mutually acceptable resolution,” he said.

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Superliner coach returns to service

D:F has learned Superliner II sleeper 32090 was released from Beech Grove December 23. It was involved in the April 2002 AutoTrain Florida derailment.

Superliners released from Beech Grove so far include 32032, 32053, 39044, 32065, 33015, 32019, 34035, 38033, 34107, 31533, 33034, 34129, 38060, and 32090.

38037 recently sustained minor derailment damage in Chicago Union Station departing on train No. 7, but the car was overhauled. Also, 39022 received a four-year overhaul.

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Amtrak numbers turn upward

Amtrak’s fiscal year numbers through November 2003 are showing solid improvements in all categories.

Its total operating revenue earned more than the carrier had budgeted. It earned $324.2 million but had expected to get $308.1 million.

The carrier also spent less than it had expected. Total operating expenses were $502.3 million while the railroad had budgeted $512 million.

Driving much that is ridership. Amtrak thought they would get 3.8 million riders. Instead, they got 4,2 million passengers.

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NCI TAKES A RIDE...  NCI takes a ride...

Dome Car

A dome car view last autumn from VIA Rail Canada’s, Canadian National’s and Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Ry. joint operation, the Bras D’or, over a trestle near McKenna Harbor Nova Scotia.


Canadian passenger train revival

VIA Rail’s Bras D’or travels rare
mileage to Maritimes provinces

Story and photos by Kent Patterson
Special to Destination:Freedom

NOVA SCOTIA – It is rare that a passenger route vanishes from a timetable only to reappear years later. This is the case with VIA Rail Canada’s warmer-season weekly Halifax-Sydney, Nova Scotia tourist train, the Bras D’or. Recently completing its second season, it piqued my interest, offering a chance to recover a lost opportunity in the 1980s to inspect the eastern-most leg of Canada’s rail system.

The single remaining “working passenger train” to the Maritimes is Via Rail Canada’s six-days-a-week, except Tuesday, Ocean – which becomes the Bras D’or’s equipment.

Bras D’or translates to “Golden arm.”

The train takes its name after a lake in Cape Breton. The lake was named Bras d’Or because at sunset and at sunrise the lake’s many arms – that stretch from shore to its center – turn a golden color.

Formerly, the Ocean Limited, Canadian practice since the 1960s is to name trains in a semi-Anglo-Franco bilingual style.

This Montreal-to-Halifax train is billed largely as Canada’s transcontinental train to Eastern Canada. Traffic is significant enough to often employ six sleeping cars in addition to its three coaches. As for onboard amenities on most days, the train offers full dining car service, a coffee shop and tavern lounge for coach passengers (available in the dome car, dubbed Skyline) and a dome-observation-lounge for first-class customers. A beautiful train, it operates with original equipment that Canadian Pacific employed for its Transcontinental Canadian in 1955 between Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Aside from that consist, Via is experimenting with a set of Renaissance equipment, a British based design of sleepers, coaches, and lounges aboard the Ocean. Except for that Renaissance equipment, there is neither full diner nor popular dome cars. Via has plans to use some 140 Renaissance cars to supplant its existing fleet as a slowly growing consensus in Canada see the need for a viable, faster rail network.

The Budd-built Canadian Pacific equipment will ostensibly be used elsewhere.

Departing Truro Jct

Bras D’or departs Truro Junction, the interchange location with the CB&CNS. The view was from dome-observation. Revelstoke Park


During the operating season the otherwise idle coaches, a baggage car, amenity cars, and one of the two F-40PH engines are switched out on Tuesdays to make up the Bras D’or.

It makes for an impressive looking and comfortable train, offering visitors to Nova Scotia a fine tour through wilderness and some of the best shoreline scenery on the continent.

The train is dispatched over CN under centralized traffic control from Moncton, New Brunswick.

Once on regional freight carrier Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Ry. (CB&CNS), the train runs over dark territory, which is called “OCS,” or Occupational Control System. This is a somewhat modernized timetable and train order or manual block operation. It is conducive to a lighter volume operation. Track condition is conveyed via telephone or radio, with the crew recording instructions such as a track clearance on a clearance form called a “Track Operating Permit.”

CB&CNS is a Rail America subsidiary, whose dispatching office is far away in North Bay, Ont.

Most of the roughly 200 passengers tend to be seniors on vacation. Of that, a decent number, perhaps 15 percent are overseas tourists, and among those people, many are from Scotland to get a glimpse of Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland) from the rails and view a land that was likely geologically part of their highland homeland several million years ago. Many local people still have family links with relatives in Scotland as well as New England.

On the other hand, the typical traveler going to visit family, or on a business trip rarely is aboard. While the track conditions are still favorable for a passenger train at 40 to 45 mph, it is unlikely that serious speed improvements are economical. At best, only 200 to 300 passengers could be expected to ride this sparsely populated route daily at best. That is about the daily capacity of the competing buses or planes.

While the Bras D’or isn’t a typical working conveyance, VIA deserves credit for once again making a viable passenger train traverse the northern length of Nova Scotia. This train is getting noticed by tourists and has been well received. Many come here to ride the train, but the true bonus to the province is that most tourists spend substantial amounts of money on hotels, meals, gifts, and the like.

Plans may be afoot in VIA’s inner sanctum to run the excursion twice-weekly in 2004 instead of once weekly.

Two operational employees are engineers, but will do conductor type work, like throwing switches in a yard, etc. The locomotive engineers sleep off the train in Sydney for the overnight layover.

On-board personnel are not operational crew but are customer services people, and depending on the passenger count, there are a minimum of three – a service manager, two service attendants (minimum) and a tour guide-entertainer. Customer services people remain with the train for the entire trip.

While enroute, a pre-recorded narration is given throughout the journey. It answers many questions, and informs customers of nearby sights, history, or what is in close proximity, including the nearby Alexander Graham Bell historic site across Bras D’or Lake.

One huge, not-so-shy eagle kept pace with our train for a good minute about 100 feet over our dome car.

Food is always a looked forward to part of train travel. The three-item lunch menu is somewhat comparable to contemporary airline business class airline fare, and the three choices pre-made entrée’s seemed likely prepared by an air caterer – fish, chicken, or vegetarian salad.

The bilingual French-English menu is standard practice in Canada, and lunch always sound’s much impressive on a French menu, even if it’s VIA’s pedestrian jambon et fromage en blanc (ham and cheese on white), a common sandwich aboard snack bar cars on VIA’s regular corridor-service snack bar cars to the populated west.

Michelle Patterson

Michelle Patterson finds her hubby’s name on a VIA diner.

For lunch, my bride, Michelle, and I opted both days for the Trio de fruits de mer de Nouvelle-E’cosse.” That’s the French side of the menu for Nova Scotia Seafood Tri; a fresh combo chilled salmon, scallops, mussels and side pasta. It was fine. The local Jost Vineyards wine was poured to those who wanted. Raspberry crumble, and a good one, was the dessert.

Also, a breakfast of fruit, cereal, and muffins, etc. is served just after each day’s departure, and coffee and Tea is always available. Carbohydrate rich snacks of cookies, fruits, nuts, are always in reach.

It would do VIA some good to continue to develop ways to further promote the train. Also, exploring ideas for customers to lodge and be handled overnight more easily in Sydney would be helpful, too.

While VIA sold the tickets directly to me, about a dozen others (most were parts of several tour groups), such as a Globus Group were aboard. VIA was essentially the wholesaler for this train.

I wish I had known more about return options. Or better, a one-way-rail to one-way-bus with tour stops, such as a trip to historic Louisburg would have been ideal. Instead, we had to make our own Sydney hotel reservations, and find our way about during the 13-hour layover.

I understand VIA is now looking into possible enhancements for this venture. Both the trip from Halifax to Sydney, and the next day’s return ran smoothly, and timely.

The adjacent Westin hotel in Halifax, a former CN property, made the early start and evening return easy.

All crewmembers were most congenial, and acted like owners of the service instead of paid help.

The informative Lonely Planet travel guidebook describes the train’s destination of Sydney as a place where hard times have fallen. The Bras D’or is an effort to secure tourist dollars in a joint venture between VIA Rail and Cape Breton-Nova Scotia Tourism.

Many of the income sources to Canada’s Maritime Provinces have declined. The Sydney area on Nova Scotia’s northeast tip lost its coal mining and steel mill industries. Unemployment remains chronic, as many younger people leave here for greener pastures in Toronto and elsewhere.

Ocean fisheries here are in a major decline. The once abundant and widely consumed codfish is now usually substituted with haddock. However, aquaculture is making a growing presence up here, and other industries remain. Aggregates such as gypsum are still voluminously quarried, plus wood pulp and lumber still account for regional freight traffic. These commodities go over rail, but more move often via truck and ship.

Tourism is now the leading growth industry, and is often used as a vehicle by local governments to fill the economic void experienced by the smaller manufacturing and fishing towns dotting the region. It is a land that is geographically part of New England, with unspoiled seaside towns, polite and sincere people, crisp air, rolling farmland, sea-rich vistas, and highlands that rival Scotland. It can also mean a vacation from long drives – unless you manage to break it up with another mode of travel. My wife and I drove 2,300 miles altogether.

During rail’s heyday, Canada’s easternmost province had extensive rail service in a lightly populated region. Three Montreal-to-Halifax trains operated, as well a like number Halifax-Sydney trains.

Into the 1960s, trains carried a through sleeper between two of these consists from Montreal to the northern port of Sydney. There was even a through train from Halifax to Boston named the Gull that ran until the late 1950s.

Canadian Pacific subsidiary Dominion Atlantic Ry. operated a lesser pair of runs from Halifax to the southern provincial port and the U.S. gateway of Yarmouth, where ferries and steamships fed trains. Yarmouth throughout much of the 20th Century linked the sea-bound province with the East Coast’s transportation and rail network. Ships could once take you as far south as Boston or New York. To the North, ships met trains in Sydney bound for Newfoundland, where still another rail route beckoned.

Secondary passenger routes also served the region, and, on an even lesser note, mixed freight and passenger trains called at remote hamlets when most such trains long vanished from the U.S. landscape. The vast majority of these rail lines are now abandoned, with much of the decline occurring during the 1970s and 1980s because of dwindling freight and passenger traffic.

It was VIA Rail’s draconian cuts of 1990 citing weak passenger counts – particularly on rural lines – an aging passenger car fleet, and increasing maintenance costs that ended most branch line service in Canada. VIA instead chose to focus on a few long-distance routes that had potential, heavily patronized intercity corridors, and a more acceptably subsidized bottom line.

Thirteen years elapsed since the route to Sydney was cut. The Bras D’or was a rare revival when it started in 2002, and appears in the VIA system timetable.

In Nova Scotia today, rail routes are down essentially to two lines: Canadian National Ry.’s transcontinental line to the “ice-free” port of Halifax served by VIA Rail passenger and CN freight. The other is the ex-CN line to northernmost Sydney, which is now operated by CB&CNS, based in Stellarton.

It was the CB&CNS that came near to partial abandonment north of Port Hawkesbury, where Cape Breton Island begins. That is roughly half of the CB&CNS route from Truro, on the CN mainline to Sydney. The loss of coal mine and steel mill revenue from Sydney devastated the rail carrier.

Some limited traffic of pulpwood, propane, and other goods continue to be hauled beyond Port Hawkesbury, but it took financial help from the provincial government that gave a reprieve in 2003. The traffic base to Nova Scotia’s last major secondary line is lean, and subsidies are more of a hope that new traffic arises sooner than a long-term commitment. One major argument in keeping this northern portion open is that trucks are tough on the parallel highway’s maintenance.

Most people who don’t travel by car use the bus or fly. A clear example of how the bus has beaten rail is the Halifax-Sydney route.

This route was and still is about a 10-hour rail trip. Bus is just six to seven hours aboard Acadian Lines. As for flying, airline flights take just an hour aboard one of Air Canada’s several regional turbo-prop flights (however Halifax Airport is a good 40-minute drive from downtown).

Bus routes pick up much of the transport void from train abandonments for provincial and rural transit services. Many lightly populated regions, once served by branch lines, now have nothing but the highway. At the least, there is some basic network of scheduled public transport with minimally advertised connections between the trains, buses, and longer distance ferries that operate today.

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Lake Street plant:

Busy Chicago interlocking
is half rebuilt on 5-year job

Faced with failing infrastructure, rising maintenance costs, and increasing traffic, Amtrak and METRA commuter services joined forces – and money – to rebuild aging Lake Street Interlocking, located on a seven-block stretch extending from the north side of Chicago Union Station to Canal Street.

We learned through the pages of the December Amtrak Ink, an employee publication, Chicago’s engineering employees reached the mid-point of the five-year project intended to reduce congestion by enhancing capacity, and renewing the plant that handles up to – and sometimes beyond – 320 train movements each weekday.

Reconstructing the Lake Street interlocking, abbreviated to “LSI,” involves completely rebuilding the subgrade and drainage system under the track, installing new track, and installing the power and signal system at a cost of $78 million.

Funding is from METRA, which is paying 88 percent, and Amtrak, which is paying the other 12 percent. The numbers came from a formula based on the number of trains each entity operates over the interlocking.

Over the years, the costs of maintaining the interlocking, built in 1923, have been rising. Cables and switch machines, which date back to the 1920s, required costly, specially made parts, and the signals needed constant repairs. With the interlocking only steps away from the Chicago River, mud had seeped through the concrete subgrade and contaminated the ballast. When track was needed to replace track sections made of 130-pound rail, which has not been manufactured in more than 20 years, similar rail had to be purchased from brokers at inflated prices, then modified at an additional cost to meet track requirements.

In January 2001, Amtrak began rebuilding the interlocking.

When the project is finished in December 2005, several miles of track, 59 signals, 62 switch machines, and specialized track work – including 19 switches, 11 single-crossovers, three double-crossovers, and two double-slip switches will have been installed.

The rebuilt LSI will handle the added capacity in 2006 when METRA doubles its North Central Service from 10 to 20 trains per day departing from Chicago Union Station.

In addition to track and signal upgrades, the old manually operated lever-style interlocking machine is being replaced with a microprocessor-based system. With the click of a mouse, this new computer-based system will allow train directors stationed at Lake Street Tower to line routes and clear signals through the plant.

“Each day is a little bit different and presents a different challenge,” said Train Director Doug Mathews. “Most of the Lake Street train directors have 25 or 30 years’ experience; we know how to handle complications such as train delays, signal malfunctions, or track upgrades, to move trains as safely and expeditiously as possible.”

After working seven months to complete four phases of the 17-stage project, Engineering employees cut over the newly constructed Canal and Lake Street sections of the interlocking on October 24. The 25-hour cutover process involved Track and Signal employees who performed a series of Amtrak and FRA tests to allow trains to travel over the newly completed sections while discontinuing using the old track and signals.

These four phases were the most complex of the project so far, Amtrak said.

The tracks were reconfigured to establish additional parallel routes to bring trains in and out of the station. Track and C&S employees installed and tested 16 signals, 18 switch machines, four switches, two single-crossovers, one double-crossover, and one double-slip switch, all within the limited space of two city blocks.

The work was performed with minimal train delays, without schedule changes, annulments, or suspended service. “It’s like rebuilding a toll plaza without shutting down the highway,” said staff engineer Steve Reynolds.

“One of the biggest obstacles we’re facing is the heavy traffic flow,” said Assistant Division Engineer Rodney Pena.

On a typical weekday during daylight hours, continuous train movements through the interlocking include two Empire Builders, 14 Hiawatha Service trains, and 156 scheduled METRA trains – which allow, at most, 12-minute windows for track outages on some main tracks.

“Additionally,” continued Pena, “the lack of storage space and limited rail access to the work site makes it extremely difficult for materials to be delivered.”

These challenges forced workers to accomplish as much construction as possible at night, while making every effort to minimize disturbance to residents in nearby high-rise buildings.

Amtrak forces, led by Pena and track foremen Pete Avalos and James Coburn, removed and installed the track and ballast while subcontractors installed the new subgrade and drainage system. The track was rebuilt with 136-pound rail on both wood and concrete ties.

“We expect the rebuilt track to provide many years of trouble-free operation with minimal maintenance,” said Pena.

Under the direction of Project Engineer Ray Weinel and Foremen John Rameriz and Troy Mason, Signal employees installed the new switch, signal, and track circuits. The electric switches are equipped with 480-volt electric heaters to melt snow and ice on the switch points during Chicago’s frigid winters.

“Obsolete air-operated switch machines were replaced with new electric switches, which are more reliable and require less maintenance,” explained Weinel. New tri-color light-emitting diode (LED) signals that project green, yellow and red lights were installed to safely guide locomotive engineers through the interlocking. The LEDs are more cost effective than the old white light position signals, which are being phased out.

“The Track and Signal employees, working safely under difficult conditions, contributed to the success of what we’ve accomplished so far,” said Project Manager Robert Olson.

Division Engineer Dave Klouda added, “The efforts… will result in the first total reconstruction of the interlocking in 80 years, and yield long-term cost savings and improved service to our passengers.”

Elsewhere in Chicagoland, preventive maintenance has returned to s to Brighton Park.

Opening a new mechanical shop is a significant challenge, and expanding the scope of a maintenance program is a complex undertaking. Doing both concurrently and successfully was one of the biggest tests facing the Chicago Mechanical and Transportation forces, as Amtrak reopened its Brighton Park facility.

As part of Amtrak’s five-year capital plan to restore equipment to a state of good repair, the company revived Chicago’s Brighton Park Maintenance Facility in late September.

The facility, which was closed in 2001, provides preventive maintenance on equipment operating from Chicago that were previously serviced at the Beech Grove Car Shop and the Chicago Yards. Servicing these cars at Brighton Park on a 92- and 365-day cycle, instead of sending them nearly 200 miles away, improves efficiency and allows Beech Grove mechanics to focus their efforts on major wreck repair and overhauls.

Brighton Park is operating under the mechanical department’s new equipment maintenance program, which, as of last October 1, doubled the number of over-the-pit inspections conducted per year. Previously, Amtrak’s fleet was serviced only twice a year: every 180 and 360 days.

Cars are slowly being phased into this 12-visit-per-year program, which involves eight brief 30-day visits, three 92-day visits, and an annual preventive maintenance (PM) slot.

The same inspection cycle is being introduced at Los Angeles, Hialeah and Sanford (Fla.), Ivy City (D.C.), Sunnyside (Queens, New York City) and . Facilities in Rensselaer, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Oakland Other terminals may be asked to contribute.

It will take a full year to move the fleet from a 180- and 365-day cycle to a 30, 92- and 365-day cycle. Amtrak is still establishing the procedures and assembling the materiel required to convert its massive national fleet to a more intensive preventive maintenance effort and schedule.

Fiscal year 2004 materials used at Brighton Park is budgeted to eventually reach $3 million annually.

With this new cycle, a car will first undergo thorough annual PM inspection followed by a simple touch-up inspection at 30 days, and then a more intensive PM at 92 days. Those cycles are repeated through 365 days, when the car is up for its next annual PM. This expanded maintenance rotation cycle is intended to help improve the reliability and comfort of the fleet.

The 30-day maintenance program performed at the Chicago yards includes inspection of the wheels, shock absorbers, electrical cables, emergency lights, doors, carpets, refrigerators and public address systems. Cars requiring quarterly and annual maintenance are serviced at Brighton Park.

To ready the facility for its new function, 45 unusable cars that sat at Brighton Park for the last two years were sold, scrapped, or moved to other locations between July and October.

After the decision to re-enlist Brighton Park was made, coach cleaners, laborers, electricians, foremen, carmen, material control clerks, clerical and sheet metal workers positions were filled. Tracks located on the grounds and within the maintenance facility that hadn’t been used in a couple of years were inspected and new ties were installed by trackmen. Supplies were ordered and partially stocked, painting, plumbing and electrical work was completed, and in August, the cars in need of quarterly maintenance, began to arrive at the facility.

Cars ready for quarterly and annual inspections are removed from the trains at the Chicago, and yard crews shuttle them to Brighton Park.

The first eight cars to undergo 92-day inspections at the revitalized facility were Superliner I coaches 31006 and 34057, Superliner I diners 34057 and 38015, Superliner I sleepers 32026 and 32002, and Amfleet I dinettes 20252 and 48230.

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COMMUTER LINES...  Commuter lines...

SEPTA timekeeping poor, report shows

SEPTA trains that ferry commuters in and out of Philadelphia keep to their schedules only 83 percent of the time, making the transit network one of the tardiest in the nation, according to new data.

Officials at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said they weren’t aware of the problems until a new computerized control system enabled the agency to monitor each weekday’s 843 runs, according to KDKA-TV Pittsburgh on December 21.

The results showed that, since April, trains on the 13 Regional Rail lines, which carry 100,000 passengers daily, stayed on schedule an average of 83 percent of the time.

Between May and September, only 35 trains were never late, a term defined by SEPTA as six or more minutes behind schedule; the agency considered being late more than 9 percent of the as time unacceptable. SEPTA said 352 trains fell into that category even after all data from the storm-plagued month of September were dropped.

“We didn’t know how bad it was,” said Richard J. Hanratty, SEPTA’s Regional Rail chief.

SEPTA managers are trying to figure out ways to fix the problem. Since early fall, the agency’s “On Time Task Force” has been meeting daily on the issue.

The task force has reviewed about one-third of the 62 worst offenders, raising the on-time performance of eight lines to 100 percent. One solution has been to pad schedules with extra time – but Tom Doricott, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said tinkering with train schedules at one place just messes them up in another.

Ongoing track work has also led to some delays, officials said.

“I don’t base my expectations on what is reasonable,” said Dale Mays, a lawyer who takes the train from Malvern to Philadelphia. “I based my expectations on my experience. You do what you can so you do not explode.”

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Houston’s trains leaves the station

For a train that endured such a bumpy road getting built, Houston’s light rail had smooth, though overcrowded, sailing January 1, reported the Houston Chronicle’s Ken Hoffman.

“I hopped aboard right on schedule. The train tootled quietly and quickly from Reliant Stadium, through the Museum District, up Main Street, all the way to downtown, and back.”

The columnist added details.

“It’s like a bus, because it travels on the street. It’s like a train, because it glides along a track. It’s like a trolley, because it’s powered by electricity,” and opined, “It’s like a great idea whose time has come, long past due.”

Outgoing Mayor Lee Brown helped drive the ceremonial first train Thursday morning, “although I’m not sure that Mayor Brown driving anything is a good idea. Remember when he tried to turn left across three lanes of traffic in his car and caused a crash?”

Anyway, there have been enough wrecks involving the train. Five drivers have plowed their cars into the train. So far.

If Metro wants to spin the accident reports, they should reclassify the train as bumper cars.

Large crowds gathered at stations along the 7 and one-half mile route Thursday, jamming the train for a free ride. By afternoon, crowds got so large people couldn’t get onboard and went home unhappy.

Hey, it could have been worse.

It could have been nobody showed up. If you didn’t get a ride Thursday, try again. Rides were free through the weekend.

The train’s cars are immaculately clean, cool and roomy. The horn is like a nostalgic Petticoat Junction whistle, not the blaring sleep-wrecker that freight trains in Houston usually wage.

The ride is super-smooth, without the bumps and screeches of New York City’s subways. You could sip coffee on our train and never spill a drop. But follow the rules – no food or drink allowed. Let’s keep ’em nice.

We will, don’t worry. It’s funny, but there’s a thing called “rail bias.” It means people treat train cars with respect they sometimes don’t have for buses.

People act up on buses. They put their feet on seats in front of them. They sneak food. They talk too loud.

They don’t do that on light rail cars. They don’t spray-paint graffiti. I’m happy that Johnny thinks Cyndi is a babe, but I don’t need to read it on the side of a train.

Houston’s light rail is a trip.

At Main Street Square, the train scoots across a pool of water, with jets shooting streams 40 feet in the air in rhythm to pre-recorded music.

Although I’m not sure that mixing water, metal and electricity is a good idea.

I walked along the route early Thursday, before the first train rolled out, and talked to a city worker cleaning the pool. I asked him, “Find anything weird in there yet?”

He laughed, “You mean like body parts? Nah, we’ve only been doing this a couple of days. Give us a week and come back.”

There are dozens of tourist sites along the path, not counting the Krispy Kreme at Main and McKinney. Museums are fine. Hot doughnuts are better.

Several years ago, when light rail was the fierce debate in Houston, I visited six cities across America that had commuter train systems.

In Denver and Cleveland, wherever tracks were laid, stores and restaurants and loft apartments sprung up.

In Portland, 37,000 people started leaving their cars at home and riding the train to work downtown.

In San Diego, the train goes all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, where people jump off and walk to the party zone in Tijuana.

The train is nicknamed the Tijuana Trolley, and it’s so popular it turns a profit. That’s almost unheard-of in public transportation. The 3:00 a.m. Tijuana Trolley back to San Diego is a rolling designated driver.

Imagine if we had a light rail train to Galveston. We wouldn’t have to fight impossible-to-explain traffic jams on Interstate 45. We wouldn’t have to worry about Dad being too tired or too drunk to drive home. It would be fast and safe and dependable. I’d pay $10 for that.

When I wrote stories about light rail in other cities, I heard the same old criticism – that Houston’s light rail line was going to be from the Medical Center to downtown. That’s a dumb route. Not enough people are going to take the train. It’s a waste of money.

Sure, but in each city I visited, light rail was a success, and in each city it started as a similar short route downtown. So let’s give light rail a chance here.

It’s very simple where light rail eventually needs to go: from where people live to where people work.

That’s from Sugar Land past Greenway, through the Med Center to downtown. That’s from Katy to downtown. From The Woodlands, past the airport, through downtown, all the way to Galveston.

Thursday was first things first.

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FREIGHT LINES...  Freight lines...

BSNF engine

For NCI: E.M. Bell

Before year’s end, Norfolk Southern and CSX were getting mixed signals from Wall Street. NS No. 111 threads it way through Lawrenceburg, Ky., in the railroad’s Central Division, Louisville District. The crew is shoving past the local power and heading back their train. That’s BNSF GE AC4400CW No. 5606 on the point last December 18.


Morgan upgrades CSX, NS ratings,
but decline at Morgan Stanley

Just before Christmas, Norfolk Southern and CSX got an early holiday. A major investment house upgraded their stock market ratings.

CBS MarketWatch reported on December 22 analyst Gregory Burns upgraded both freight carriers while painting a bullish outlook for the sector in general.

The following day both carriers’ ratings declined at another major brokerage.

The J.P. Morgan analyst said rail stocks have been outperforming their transportation peers this the quarter, after under-performing for most of the year – and he expects the buoyancy to continue into 2004, driven by accelerating revenue and growth in earnings per share.

Against that backdrop, Burns upgraded shares of CSX Corp. to “neutral” and Norfolk Southern to “overweight.”

Both had previously carried “underweight” ratings.

“Volume growth quarter-to-date is averaging 5.1 percent making the fourth quarter of 2003 the strongest quarterly growth rate since the second quarter of 2000,” Burns wrote in a research note.

Burns said intermodal, building materials and grain volumes have been the strongest. Coal continues to lag, posting a modest decline quarter-to-date.

He noted that wage and fuel costs, which account for 53 percent of total costs, are likely to rise below the rate of revenue, resulting in the first quarter of industry-wide operating improvement since the third quarter of 2002.

Burns believes railroad stocks have under-performed their more variable-cost counterparts, such as truck and logistics companies, since the start of the transportation cycle in 2000.

Now, however, with the revenue environment poised to improve, Burns said he thinks “their relatively fixed operating cost structure will work to the benefit of railroad stocks.”

Burns said he expects average revenue growth of 5.3 percent in 2004 compared with a 4.3 percent increase in total operating costs, resulting in grown in earnings per share of 21 percent in 2004 versus 2.3 percent in 2003.

Burns’ enthusiasm for Norfolk Southern comes largely from the railroad’s exposure to the coal sector.

“NSC, with its exposure to coal and other industrial commodities, is well positioned to benefit from an improving economy in 2004,” said Burns. “We also expect yields to improve at NSC, as trucking capacity remains tight and service levels improve.”

The analyst expects growth to be driven by increased demand for U.S. coal in Europe, and by increased domestic utility demand.

If, however, coal production problems were to continue, or demand were to falter, Burns said he would be less optimistic.

Coal also played a part in the analyst’s improved outlook for CSX, though Burns said problems with service and track conditions remain a concern for the freight carrier.

“Despite management’s attempts to resolve chronic service and track maintenance problems, we remain cautious about CSX’s ability to overcome operational obstacles,” Burns said. “Although we maintain a positive outlook on volumes, we expect service issues at CSX may act to limit CSX’s leverage to improving volumes.”

Over at Morgan Stanley CSX and NS were downgraded on December 23. Morgan Stanley lowered its rating on shares of the Virginia railroad operator to “underweight” from “equal-weight,” saying the firm believes the recent rally has pushed the stock to unsustainable levels. The shares reached a 52-week high of $24.62 on December 22, which was a roughly 40 percent gain from its March 12 low of $17.35.

The firm also stated it cut its NS rating to “underweight” from “equal-weight.”

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CSX mulls selling 200 Virginia miles

CSX Corp. is in the “very preliminary stages” of considering the possible sale or lease of a 200-mile stretch of track that arcs across Virginia to Charlottesville and Clifton Forge, according to a company spokesman.

“We are studying a short-line sale” of the track, said spokesman Dan Murphy.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on December 22 that in November, CSX hosted a meeting with a group of short-line rail operators at its headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., but the railroad spokesman stressed that “no decisions have been made,” and that such discussions over potential sales are commonplace.

This year, CSX sold or leased 300 miles of track out of 24,000 miles of railroad in the eastern U.S., Murphy said.

The possible sale of part of CSX’s holdings in Virginia has been a hot topic for railfans who frequent internet chat rooms. Speculation mounted after the November meeting.

Murphy said that the railroad might be interested in selling the 200-mile stretch because “CSX has a parallel line that also serves Clifton Forge to the Richmond area.”

The line in question runs across central Virginia through Gordonsville, Charlottesville Waynesboro and Staunton.

Its Charlottesville connection makes it a key part of Amtrak passenger service through the central and western part of the state.

The rail line dips southwest through Goshen and reaches Clifton Forge near the West Virginia line.

“It’s not as profitable as other CSX track,” Murphy said, declining to say whether or not it was losing money.

No deadline has been set on the deal, he said, which could take the form of a lease or outright sale.

Besides the towns and cities along the track, another interested party is Amtrak.

Spokesman Dan Stessel said that, under its contract with CSX, “Amtrak has the right to approve the disposition of any CSX-owned railroad that is currently used” on the regular Amtrak schedule.

If Amtrak has any objection to the sale or lease of the Virginia track, he said, “There has to be good reason” for the federally subsidized railroad to try to block the sale.

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Supreme Court stiffens suing rules

The Supreme Court last month made it much harder to sue railroads when someone is injured or killed at a grade crossing.

The justices ruled 7-2 on December 22 that when safety measures at a crossing are installed with federal funds and comply with federal rules, then state law allowing such suits is “trumped” or pre-empted by a federal law that does not. The case was No. 99-312, Norfolk Southern vs. Shanklin.

The case involved a deadly crossing accident at Oakwood Church Road in Gibson County, Tenn., UPI reported.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, said the 1970 Federal Railroad Safety Act “pre-empts” a liability claim that “advance warning signs and reflectorized crossbucks installed at the Oakwood Church crossing were inadequate.”

In other words, if the federal government were satisfied, then the federal standard applies, not any negligence standards in Tennessee law.

“Once the (Federal Highway Administration) approved the project and the signs were installed using federal funds,” O’Connor said, “the federal standard for adequacy displaced Tennessee statutory and common law addressing the same subject, thereby pre-empting (a plaintiff’s) claim.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, dissented.

“The upshot of the court’s decision is that state negligence law is displaced with no substantive federal standard of conduct to fill the void,” she said. “That outcome defies common sense and sound policy.”

The U.S. rail system is made up over 500 railroads running on 110,000 miles of track, daily traveling through almost 280,000 crossings nationwide, according to a FRA fact sheet. About every 90 minutes in America a train hits someone, usually a vehicle driver on a crossing or a trespasser .

The Tennessee DOT surveyed 196 railway crossings in the western part of the state in 1987 and asked for federal funds to bring the crossings up to federal and state standards. The state got nearly $129,000 from the federal government, about 99 percent of the upgrade cost, and began to contract out the work.

One of the crossings upgraded was on the Oakwood Church Road in rural Gibson County. TDOT contractors removed existing crossbucks and installed reflectorized crossbucks and three warning signs on the road.

There was no automatic gate.

In October 1993, Eddie Shanklin was killed at the Oakwood Church crossing in a train collision while driving to work not far from home. His widow’s suit was heard in federal court, using state “tort” or liability law.

A jury found Shanklin 30 percent at fault for the accident, and the railway 70 percent, awarding just under $431,000 in damages to his widow.

The federal judge noted that the Oakwood Church crossing had some of the characteristics that required the installation of a crossing bar under federal law: “high-speed train operations combined with limited sight distance, moderately high railroad and highway traffic, trucks carrying hazardous materials and a prior collision at the crossing.”

When an appeals court affirmed the verdict, the Norfolk Southern Railway Co. asked the Supreme Court for review. The justices heard the argument March 1.

The decision reversed the lower courts, and sent the case back down for a new hearing based on the majority opinion.

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BNSF increases grain rates

The Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. raised its grain shipping rates in January due to a bumper crop harvest.

“This is market-driven. Current conditions and near-record harvests have put pressure on the entire grain transportation network,” said Gus Melonas, director of public affairs for the railroad, a subsidiary of Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

Existing rates don’t reflect current marketing conditions, Melonas told the Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D. on December 22. The increases were added to December grain prices at the Mitchell grain elevator because that grain would not be shipped until January, Way said.

Domestic rates for wheat and corn will increase $100 per covered hopper and soybeans will increase between $200 and $260 per car in January, he said.

Corn will rise by another $100 per car in February, according to Melonas.

Bob Way, a Mitchell grain merchant, said he hasn’t seen a shipping increase that big in a long time. “We see it fluctuate up and down a little bit, but this is a big one.”

The increases come as livestock and grain farmers finally can make some money, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., told The Associated Press on December 20.

“This is just enormously frustrating,” Johnson said. “I’m going to be talking to the STB about this.”

Johnson said he doesn’t know the legal options yet, but that the STB has some regulatory oversight, “and we need to do whatever we can do try to at least moderate, if not eliminate, these price increases.”

According to Way, the increases mean freight costs will rise about 8 percent for corn and 7 percent for soybeans. For farmers, the increases will mean about a nickel a bushel less on corn and soybeans, he said.

“Through February, we will see an increase in freight of 5 cents a bushel on corn and 6 cents a bushel on soybeans,” he said.

The railroad blames part of the increase on investments in new cars and locomotives to haul the bumper crops.

“We have made significant investments to best serve the ag market,” Melonas said. “That also includes new rails and ties across (the Midwest).”

It’s bad enough that there’s a rail car shortage, Johnson said. “To add on top of that higher rates seems to me to be just unfair.”

He said he would also talk to BNSF’s president as well.

Oversight is needed, Johnson said, because South Dakotans are captive shippers.

“This may be supply and demand, but where you’ve got a monopoly or near-monopoly situation, where no one else can haul the grain, then you’ve got the potential for some gouging to go on.”

Still, it’s too early to label the increases as price-gouging, he said.

The BNSF badly needs equipment upgrades, Way said.

“The service was really poor and the quality of cars that we’re getting is bad,” he said. “I know that they’re short of equipment. I don’t know if the harvest has anything to do with it.”

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Bridge price rises to $61 million

The price of a new 1.2-mile railroad bridge aimed at easing traffic jams caused by CSX freight trains crossing near the Bladensburg Peace Cross has jumped $10 million, up to $61 million, leaving local officials and residents worried about the prospects for the project. The higher price, according to state estimates, was outlined in December at a community meeting, The Washington Post reported on December 19.

The overpass would eliminate at-grade crossings at Annapolis Road (Route 450) by up to 30 daily trains, stopping traffic for seven to 10 minutes each time, residents said.

Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen told the crowd of about 40 officials and residents that the hike was necessary because of CSX’s concerns about long-term maintenance of the bridge, which would add $10 million to the price.

Stephen C. Thienel, a CSX regional vice president who spoke at the meeting, said CSX had never signed off on the lower-priced version of the project. The company is considering paying $1.2 million toward the costs; the rest would be paid by the state.

“It’s not a simple project from an engineering standpoint,” Pedersen said.

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ACROSS THE POND...  Across the pond...

Railroads set intermodal records for 2003

Both U.S. and Canadian railroads set records for intermodal traffic during 2003, as intermodal volume in the two nation’s topped 12 million trailers or containers for the first time, the AAR reported December 30.

Intermodal volume on U.S. railroads totaled 9,943,362 trailers or containers for the 52-week period ended December 27, up 6.8 percent from the 9,312,360 reported in 2002 when the previous record was set.

Canadian railroads moved 2,164,216 trailers or containers during the 52 weeks of 2003, breaking the previous record set in 2002 by 5.3 percent.

The combined U.S.-Canadian intermodal volume of 12,107,578 trailers or containers was 6.5 percent above the 11,367,331 moved in 2002 when the previous record was set.

Both U.S. and Canadian railroads reported increases in carload freight for the year, with volume of 16,933,957 reported on U.S. railroads, up 0.1 percent from 2002. Canadian carload volume of 3,273,523 cars was up 1.5 percent from 2002. Total combined carload volume for 15 reporting U.S. and Canadian railroads was 20,207,480 cars, up 0.3 percent from last year.

U.S. railroads also set a record for total volume for the year of an estimated 1.511 trillion ton-miles, 1.9 percent above the 1.483 trillion reported last year – which was also a record year.

For just the week ended December 27, intermodal traffic totaled 133,601 trailers or containers, up 11.0 percent from the comparable week last year.

Container traffic registered a 10.3 percent gain, while trailer volume rose 13.1 percent from last year.

Carload freight, which does not include the intermodal data, totaled 254,773 cars, up 5.6 percent from last year with volume up 6.3 percent in the West and 4.3 percent in the East. Total volume was estimated at 22.9 billion ton-miles, up 8.5 percent from last year. Both the 2003 week and the comparison week from last year included the Christmas holiday.

Railroads reporting to AAR account for 88 percent of U.S. carload freight and 95 percent of rail intermodal volume. When the U.S. operations of Canadian railroads are included, the figures increase to 95 percent and 100 percent.

Railroads provide more than 40 percent of the nation’s intercity freight transportation, more than any other mode, and rail traffic figures are regarded as an important economic indicator.

Both carload and intermodal volume was up on Canada’s railroads during the holiday week ended December 27. Carload volume totaled 48,155 cars, up 31.3 percent, with agricultural products registering a 72.0 percent gain. Intermodal traffic totaled 26,830 trailers or containers, up 4.5 percent from last year.

The AAR also reported that originated carload freight on the Mexican railroad Transportacion Ferroviaria Mexicana (TFM) during the week ended December 27 totaled 5,809 cars, down 15.5 percent from last year. TFM reported intermodal volume of 1,632 originated trailers or containers, down 11.4 percent from the 52nd week of 2002. For the 52 weeks of 2003, TFM reported cumulative originated volume of 435,901 cars, down 2.8 percent from last year, and 177,519 trailers or containers, up 10.9 percent.

The AAR is online at

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STOCKS...  Selected Friday closing quotes...


Burlington Northern & Santa Fe(BNI)32.00 
Canadian National(CNI)63.92 
Canadian Pacific(CP)28.40 
Florida East Coast(FLA)33.35 
Genessee & Wyoming(GWR)32.49 
Kansas City Southern(KSU)14.62 
Norfolk Southern(NSC)23.93 
Union Pacific(UNP)69.09 

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Cops thwart Spanish bombers

Spanish police foiled a plot by Basque separatists to detonate two powerful bombs aboard a train at a bustling Madrid railway station, officials said December 24.

Two suspected members of the armed separatist group ETA were arrested on Christmas Eve in towns in the Basque region, Interior Minister Angel Acebes told The AP. One suspect was carrying a 55-pound bomb in a suitcase when he was arrested in San Sebastian.

Police then learned that a second suspect had placed another 55-pound bomb on a train traveling from the Basque city of San Sebastian to Madrid. Police stopped the train in northern Burgos and evacuated it before defusing the bomb, Acebes said.

That bomb was timed to detonate at about 4:00 p.m., when Madrid’s Chamartin station would be packed.

“With their action today the police averted a tragic consequence of the terrorist action of ETA,” Acebes said.

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JOURNALISTIC AND ONLINE NOTES...  Journalistic and online notes...

Don Phillips departing Post

Don Phillips is leaving The Washington Post.

The longtime transportation journalist at the newspaper told D:F he and management couldn’t come to terms because of philosophical differences regarding what is newsworthy and what needs to be covered in transportation topics.

“The editors wanted me to pay far more attention to aviation safety and far less to surface transportation. We just couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds,” Phillips told D:F.

“I’ve had a few job nibbles already, and I’ll be working fulltime in the future somewhere, I’m sure, maybe even in journalism,” he added.

Phillips also writes a monthly railroad column for Trains magazine.

Wes Vernon, D:F’s Washington Bureau chief and a retired CBS News anchor and reporter, opined, “The mainstream media is so devoid of reporters who are knowledgeable on transportation issues that the departure of Don Phillips leaves a huge gap at that paper. Having covered many transportation stories over the years in Washington alongside Don, I have come to respect his expertise in his field and mastery of his craft. I am sure that wherever he lands, it will be squarely on his feet and in a position where he can put his background to good use.

On December 28, Post ombudsman Michael Getler explained to readers “Something big is affecting the lives of many people at The Post these days, and over time, it will also affect readers. In November, the paper offered a generous voluntary retirement package to employees who are 55 or older and have been here for at least 10 years.”

He added the Post, in the past, “has occasionally offered incentive programs, or buyouts, to long-term employees,” but it has “never done so before to everybody in the newsroom who meets the conditions.”

Some 55 reporters, editors, photographers and others did so, he reported – 7 percent of the staff.

“It is going to be a large group with a thousand years of cumulative journalistic experience. A somewhat larger number of people on the commercial side of the paper also accepted the offer.”

Some are Pulitzer-prize winners, the highest journalistic award in the industry.

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WWW’s inventor to be knighted

Tim Berners-Lee will become a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire for his work inventing the World Wide Web – the internet. Announcement of the honor for the British citizen who lives in the U.S. came December 31 from Buckingham Palace.

“This applies to the whole Web development community, and to the inventors and developers of the Internet, whose work made the Web possible,” the 48-year-old said in a statement. “I accept this as an endorsement of the spirit of the Web... of making best efforts to ensure its fundamental technologies are available to all.”

In 1991, Berners-Lee developed the concept that led to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that is used to create web pages.

I was through Berners-Lee’s efforts that Destination:Freedom and a myriad of other online publications could exist.


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OPINION...  Opinion...

Is ‘history’ bunk?

The silliness of ignorance

By Wes Vernon

Abe Lincoln was a smart cookie when it came to wheeling and dealing. That is not exactly the side of this nation’s 16th president that historians emphasize – but “history” is almost always written by the winners of the world’s great struggles, not by the losers.

Meanwhile, more modern day myths live on as if they were engraved in stone, as evidenced by a silly editorial in a Connecticut newspaper. More about that later. First, to the Great Emancipator:

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, a professor of economics in the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola College in Maryland has authored a book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.

DiLorenzo argues as he did in the Washington,D.C. area at the December 3 meeting of the Chesapeake Railway Association (CRA), that Lincoln was a politician who “devoted his political career to revolutionizing the American form of government from one that was very limited in scope and highly decentralized – as the Founding Fathers intended – to a highly centralized activist state.”

The Civil War – or “The War between the States,” as it is called south of the Mason-Dixon line – was merely a means to that end, DiLorenzo contends. The abolition of slavery, a byproduct of the war and universally applauded in the 21st Century, was not the main reason for Lincoln’s pursuit of hostilities to “save the union,” but did emerge late in the war as a politically convenient justification for accomplishing less noble objectives, i.e., bigger government.

Most have viewed Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal as the dividing line between decentralized and centralized government; but if one follows DiLorenzo’s rationale to its logical conclusion, all Lincoln really did was put in place the tools and precedents that FDR advanced some seven decades later.

In fact, in his book, DiLorenzo flatly states that all the corrupt election strategies that go with expanded government “were greatly expanded during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration…”

Since D:F is a rail-oriented website, our focus here will be on Lincoln’s role in building the transcontinental railroad as a step toward centralized governmental authority.

“When Lincoln was elected in 1860,” the professor writes, “nearly every state constitution prohibited the use of tax dollars for internal improvement subsidies [code language for subsidies to railroad corporations], and federal subsidies had never materialized for constitutional reasons as well.”

Southerners in Congress blocked previous efforts to enact the Pacific Railway Act to subsidize the Union Pacific and Central Pacific transcontinental line from Omaha and Council Bluffs to the West Coast. They objected because no subsidized rail line was planned to go through the South, and also for constitutional reasons.

(Note: DiLorenzo mentions also that Lincoln had acquired land in Council Bluffs, knowing that its value would shoot through the roof when the railroad was built.)

However, with the Civil War in full force, and the Southern states having declared they were seceding from the Union, Congress was finally conveniently devoid of pesky Southerners.

That left Abe Lincoln with his golden opportunity to ram through Congress his Pacific Railway Act of 1862.

The construction of the transcontinental railroad was marked by bribery, graft, corruption on a huge scale and, of course, the gross mismanagement and inefficiency that often accompanies feeding at the federal trough, as opposed to being governed by the accountability that comes with a moral and fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

One could argue that such 21st Century scandals as Enron and Global Crossing have demonstrated that accountability in the private sector does not always pan out in practice as well as in theory.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that the very fact that such scandals make “news” is because they are the exception rather than the rule.

To buttress his point, DiLorenzo cites James J. Hill, the great “Empire Builder,” whose name survives to this day on Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle train through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State.

Hill, the professor notes, built his own Great Northern Ry. completely with private funding, with utmost efficiency. Furthermore, instead of killing or driving Indians and farmers off their land at gunpoint (as happened during UP-CP construction), he paid for acquiring their property the honest way.

At the CRA meeting, I asked the author if it is only fair to note that Hill built his railroad later in the 19th Century after the UP and CP had been completed and thus had the benefit of hindsight. He could profit by the mistakes made by his competitors to the South, could he not?

Not so, replied DiLorenzo, whose book had quoted Hill as saying, “The government should not furnish capital to those companies, in addition to their enormous land subsidies, to enable them to conduct their business in competition with enterprises that have received no aid from the public treasury.”

The professor writes that “Hill’s line was built fifteen years later than the government-subsidized ones, but it likely would have been built sooner had his competitors not received millions of dollars in subsidies.”

Paul Weyrich, a former Amtrak director who heads the Free Congress Foundation and a onetime vice-chairman of the now-defunct Amtrak Reform Council, says no less a free market icon than Adam Smith himself believed the two things for which the central government is legitimately responsible are defending this nation against those who would harm us, and the nation’s infrastructure, of which railroads and other transportation modes are a major part.

DiLorenzo rejects this as it applies to railroads, declaring that founding father Alexander Hamilton was mistaken in his belief that only the public sector could gather the resources for transportation’s physical underpinnings.

I noted the interstate highway system likely could not have been built had we depended entirely on the private sector. He allowed as how that would not necessarily have been a bad thing. Perhaps the U.S. would have turned to its railroads following World War II instead of making them the poor stepchildren in America’s transportation mix, whereby they paid through the nose in taxes to help subsidize the building of highways and the airline industry.

Well said.

When Winston Churchill returned to power in England after the socialist government of Clement Attlee had nationalized everything in sight, he was asked if he intended to return British industry to the private sector. His response was that attempting to do so would be somewhat analogous to unscrambling an egg.

One hesitates to cast a skeptical eye on the brilliant case made so cogently with such ample documentation as contained in The Real Lincoln. DiLorenzo provided the CRA with a stimulating evening of intellectual exploration. He has turned over a lot of rocks and kicked over carefully crafted historical myths, for which he is to be applauded.

However, as a strong advocate myself of what some would call “laissez faire economics” (I take exception with that pejorative term, but no matter), I have to ask whether – where transportation infrastructure is concerned – we have not arrived at that point where we are confronted with the “scrambled egg” metaphor cited by Churchill.

If all transportation modes in the U.S. were funded entirely from the private sector – highways, toll roads, railroads, airlines (including airports and air traffic controllers), all of them – the brilliant case could be made that yes, keep the government out of it. Give governments enough rope and they’ll mess things up.

The money Lincoln spent to build the transcontinental railroad, even assuming it was on balance as disastrous a decision as the professor portrays it, was a pittance compared to what the government later poured into air and highway transport.

The federal government has violated in spades for years James J. Hill’s dictum that public money should not be used to finance those who compete with private business ventures.

Today, America’s freight railroad system is the only major regular service transportation entity in the world supported entirely by private sector funding, both in operations and infrastructure. Financial analysts disagree as to how long the Class I carriers can keep going with that setup, but for now, relatively speaking, they are in good health.

In order to pull it off, America’s mainline rail carriers had to streamline their operations, downsize their route miles, and rid themselves of passenger trains which were bleeding them dry. As they were paying taxes to the government, air and highway modes sucked money from the taxpayers.

Passenger trains ended up in the public sector and with Amtrak, which has limped along for nearly 33 years.

That is the reality of where we are today. Unfortunately, there is no political will to go back to the drawing boards, at least not through private financing, and public funding for drastic changes in the future is at best “iffy.”

Therein lies Churchill’s scrambled egg. It is the reality that James J. Hill’s feat of paying for major mainline passenger transportation infrastructure entirely out of private treasuries is not about to be repeated.

It is perhaps a tribute to Lincoln’s (however dubious) legacy that when one speaks today of “privatizing” mainline passenger rail in this, arguably the most “capitalistic” nation on earth, he is assumed in many quarters to be an ardent advocate of the transportation equivalent of the apocalypse.

True, the recent failed ham-handed rail “privatization” effort in Britain gave some ammunition to those who do in fact see the apocalypse analogy.

However, in life, one must play the cards he is dealt, and the above are the cards that have been dealt us regarding U.S. transportation, and we are left with the option of making the best of it.

Ignorance of history manifests itself in many ways.

A case in point is a recent column in the New London (Conn.) Day, where the writer takes an “I told you so” position on the problems Amtrak has encountered with the “high-speed” Acela trainsets, and uses that to intone the following:

“It’s ridiculous that a federally funded rail line runs from Boston to New York City, with a stop at New London, but that few people can afford to use it.”

Get it? Amtrak is part of the welfare state. Put aside the writer’s total disregard for the fact people who work their laptops on Acela (and also Metroliner trains) are often on corporate expense accounts because time is money for them, and much of the work they do contributes to the economy that provides jobs for the rest of us.

Then the Connecticut writer takes a turn into MAD Magazine territory:

“Rail travel deserves support, but what we need are trains for the masses, not just the privileged few. [This would have been great rhetoric for the early 20th Century rallies in Union Square.] Congress ought to intervene and find a rail plan that works in the Northeast, a commuter rail service that can move pedestrians between New York City and Boston, and one that stops in Saybrook, New London, Mystic and Westerly.”

Apparently, the writer never heard of Metro North, ConnDOT, or MBTA or the slower Regional Amtrak trains that make all those stops. Either we should have nothing but milk runs to cover everyone’s back yard, or we should have nothing at all.

I scratched my head wondering where I had heard all this before. Ahh! Of course! Back to DiLorenzo’s book on Lincoln’s time:

“During the congressional debates over funding for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in 1862, a delegate to Congress from New Mexico (which was not yet a state) complained that ‘the wrangle of local interests’ was such that many members of Congress refused to support the subsidy bill unless the railroad ‘starts in every corner of every man’s farm and runs through all his neighbors’ plantations in every congressional district.”

Since all mainline passenger modes are “federally funded,” perhaps then we should eliminate air service for those willing to pay full fare (a rarity any more) for either coach or first-class, and restrict highway travel to the ox cart. After all, isn’t it “ridiculous” not to mandate that service always accommodate “the masses, not the privileged few?”

The Connecticut editorialist resents that four of the Acela trains don’t even stop at New Haven. Never mind that Metro North trains run between New Haven and Grand Central in New York all throughout the day and well into the night, and Amtrak still operates frequent service to Boston and intermediate points.

Her main “I told you so” seems to be to settle old scores on behalf of those who fought electrification from New Haven to Boston. Her heart bleeds for those poor souls who must suffer the indignity of – (Hide the children, Mother. They should not suffer the emotional trauma of learning about such heinous human torture) – those poor souls who must look at “poles and overhead wires!”

Oh, the tragedy of it all!

Publicly funded passenger railroading helps to make such ill-informed proposals to reinvent the wheel all the more inevitable, but those are the cards we have been dealt.

DiLorenzo traces it all to Abe Lincoln, but he’s dead and we can’t hold him accountable. We are left with the reality of the here and now, with little time to cry over spilled milk.

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WE GET LETTERS...  We get letters...

Dear Editor:

Your story regarding the Fayetteville, N.C. station was rife with errors.

The story originated in the December 10 issue of the Fayetteville Observer.

Although there are Amtrak trains (Nos. 97 and 98) that stop “in the middle of the night,” the station is not closed during those times, and interior pay phones are accessible. There is also an exterior pay phone on the platform side of the station.

The reporter told me that his statements were based on what a passenger told him. He did not check his facts.

The station upgrades are the results of initiatives by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce (, which has adopted an aggressive policy regarding rail transportation.

Also, North Carolina does not have a “conventional rail system featuring 12 trains... on six routes.” Four of “our” trains (Palmetto, Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Crescent) are Amtrak system trains. Very little of their aggregate route miles are over North Carolina Railroad tracks. Only the Charlotte to New York Carolinian and the Raleigh-Charlotte Piedmont are NCDOT sponsored trains. I’m confident that some day we will have a system featuring 12 trains – but we are not there yet.

Don Stewart

Dear Editor:

D:F wrote, “By Friday morning, only VRE’s S Line was operating.” VRE has two lines – Manassas and Fredericksburg – but VRE has no “S”

The schedules for both lines are a subset of the normal trains.

Regarding the Downeaster, you stated, “Rail officials said they are also looking at the feasibility of buying another train and adding train trips.”

Would they be federal or state or other officials? Are they really “buying” a train or simply arranging to bring more of the same-old Amtrak service to the line?

Phil Wolf

Amtrak’s man in Portland, Maine, Victor Salemme, tells us the person who said they were looking for another set of equipment was from the Maine DOT.

“The first set of equipment they were looking at was from the METRA junk yard in Chicago. The equipment they are looking at now is the double-decker Kawasaki type,” and may buy them from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Who will maintain them remains a question.

“The executive Director for Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority was a ‘T’ employee as well as an Amtraker,” Salemme said. He was a train 448-449 Lake Shore Limited product line manager, but was laid off.

As of late December, Salemme said he didn’t think that kind of money was available in Maine.

“We are talking $12 million anyway. This may fall under long term capitol planning,” he told D:F.

He added, “We are looking for the state to get some capital to enhance the 78 miles of single-track by putting some switches and adding some sidings. Once that’s done we would like to add some more trains.”

As a footnote, Salemme added, “File that under, ‘I’ll be retired.’”

– Editor

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THE WAY WE WERE...  The way we were...

Grove Tower, RI

For NCI: Bob Chaput

Retired Amtrak block operator Bob Chaput says he didn’t take notes back in November 1956, but “I’ll venture a guess that the train was No. 23” heading west on the New Haven. That’s an Alco PA leading with the “McGinnis” paint scheme, and is passing Hill’s Grove Tower in Warwick, R.I. “If you check an old timetable you will find that it left Providence between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.” Chaput tells us.

End Notes...

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