James P. RePass, President Leo King, Editor
By Wes Vernon
Rumors abound. "Insider" comments conflict. Postponed inaugurations are legendary, and what´s worse, jokes are starting to creep into discussions of its debut, but the latest word from Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black is that the Acela Express is likely to enter the Washington-Boston timetables in late July or early August, and hopefully change U.S. railroading forever.
Hold the phone!
A member of the Amtrak board tells me that may be a bit "optimistic."
Furthermore, I pointed out to Black that this latest projected debut would have the Acela Express hauling its first revenue passengers at the hottest time of the year. In the past, the 125 mph Metroliners, due to be replaced by the Acela Express, had to be put on a slower schedule because extreme heat in the 100-plus-degree range makes 125 mph electrified service inadvisable. Needless to say, 100 degrees would have an adverse effect on any plans to run a train at 150 mph. And while that is something we'll have to live with three or four times a year, do we really want to do a "TA! DA!" with this long awaited super-duper, whiz-bang fast, fast (by U.S. standards) on a day when it is under "slow orders"?
I don't think so.
Black acknowledged this could be a problem. So realistically, are we looking toward the fall? (Of 2000, perhaps?) Stay tuned.
One red cap at New York's Penn Station told me a few weeks ago that one test Acela train entered the station "smoking like crazy," with the smoke permeating much of Amtrak's busiest passenger facility. He surmised it was the result of a dust-up in the Penn Station tunnels unaccustomed to those speeds.
The new trains are being "tested" in spades. The goal is to put 60,000 miles on them before they take on their first paying passengers. As Amtrak Vice Chairman Michael Dukakis told us last year at the Summer NCI conference in Washington, "We're testing the hell out of that thing."
The postponements have caused Amtrak Reform Council Vice Chairman Paul
Weyrich to try (unsuccessfully) to persuade that body to urge Congress
to give Amtrak an extra year beyond the current October 1, 2002 deadline
to meet the test of operational self-sufficiency, and also to extend the
life of the reform council by one year to give it more time to determine
if Amtrak has had sufficient opportunity to meet the goal. The ARC voted
Weyrich down on both counts. Chairman Gil Carmichael said it was "premature".
That last comment suggested the issue may be revisited.
Meanwhile, Amtrak has been issuing upbeat reports saying revenue and ridership are on the rise. The mail and express business is up 35 percent from the same January-April period of last year. Ridership improvements are most notable on such diverse Amtrak services as the long-distance Three Rivers, City of New Orleans, and the Texas Eagle, as well as California corridor trains such as the Capitols (Sacramento-San Jose-Oakland), the Northwest's Cascades (Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver), the soon-to-be-replaced (New York-Washington) Metroliner, and even the under-publicized St. Louis-Kansas City line, a prospect for future high speed rail.
The first weekday two round trips of the second tier Acela Regional service, on a four-hour timetable between New York and Boston, has a 33 percent higher ridership than the Northeast direct trains it replaced. If you can bring in those numbers on a four-hour schedule, just imagine what will happen when the Acela Express comes on line on a three-hour schedule between New York and Boston.
First though, it has to get on the timetable.
In the last two years we've heard all kinds of rumors such as last year when there was some buzz about running one VIP Acela Express New Year's Eve so they could say the train started running before the new millennium. Then a report of a plan to start running Acela Express equipment at reduced 135 mph. The top speed was shot down by outgoing Amtrak spokesman John Wolf who described it as "a nice rumor, but not true". As is the case with many of these stories, the idea may have been seriously considered, leaked as a trial balloon, and then discarded. It happens all the time.
So what is perhaps the most anticipated train since the transcontinental railroad of 1869 remains in the testing stage.
And we're still waiting.
The final bill now goes before the House-Senate conference before being passed on to the President.
The ARC was created by the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 to provide objective assessments of Amtrak's operations. To date, rail labor has stated it "has seen very little in the way of 'objective' reports coming out of the ARC. To the contrary, several members of the ARC have clearly made known their interest in dismantling Amtrak." The Rail Labor Division of the TTD said it supported the Andrews-Ney amendment.
"The Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) is a prime example of wasteful government
spending. Their only mission is to eliminate Amtrak," Andrews said. "Governmental
organizations are already in place which can independently evaluate and
assess the feasibility of Amtrak. The only action the ARC has taken since
its inception is to ask the federal government for more money."
Former Amtrak spokesman John Wolf, who has since left the railroad for E. James White Marketing and Advertising of Herndon, Va. where he is a vice-president, said "They will also enable Amtrak to better coordinate and integrate long range construction, operations and service planning with other Amtrak departments."
The three appointments are Richard Roberts as Assistant Vice President-Atlantic Coast High-Speed Rail Corridors; Michael Franke as Assistant Vice President-Midwest Regional Rail Initiative; and Ron Scolaro, who is currently Vice President of High-Speed Rail Corridor Planning and Development, to be Vice President-Pacific Coast High-Speed Rail Corridors.
George Warrington, Amtrak president and CEO, said, "These appointments represent Amtrak's emphasis on working with states to relieve congestion, improve mobility and spur economic vitality in their regions." He added, "States are making their voices heard that high-speed rail service is a viable and credible solution to the nation's transportation problems, and Amtrak is working in partnership with them to systematically make this happen."
In the Atlantic Coast Region, Roberts will coordinate efforts with states
from Maine to Florida and west to Texas. A new employee, he joined the
railroad from the engineering consulting firm of Edwards & Kelcey,
where he was a vice-president and partner. Previously, he was transportation
planning chief and Policy for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Franke will head Amtrak´s efforts to implement the high-speed rail plans of the nine-state consortium that make up the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. During the past decade, Franke served as vice-president and chief engineer for BNSF and held high-level positions with other railroads.
The proposed 3,000-mile Midwest network would connect the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Madison and Milwaukee, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich., and others through a Chicago hub.
Scolaro will coordinate Amtrak´s high-speed rail development partnerships with California, Oregon and Washington. A veteran 27-year Amtrak employee, he has extensive knowledge of train operations and government affairs. He has been operations vice-president and helped lead efforts to create Amtrak's Western Strategic Business Unit where he was chief administrative and operating officer.
Amtrak operates three routes supported by California, state- and province-supported
service between Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, B.C. The three will report
to David Carol, Amtrak´s Vice President for High-Speed Rail Development,
and a member of the corporation's Management Committee. He spearheaded
efforts to build the first high-speed corridor in the U.S. between Boston
and Washington, D.C.
"Finally, the Texas Eagle is taking flight. This is a done deal, done right," Hutchison said during the trip. "Amtrak ties Texas together-for our families, businesses, towns and tourists. Because of the state's size, mobility can make us or break us and Amtrak daily service keeps Texas on the right track."
Amtrak board member Sylvia de Leon, who was also aboard the train, thanked Hutchison for her role in preserving the Texas Eagle and her efforts to support Amtrak's plans to expand its passenger network. She is also a Texas native.
"Daily service on the Texas Eagle is "all part of our determination to become a commercially viable, financially sound and customer-focused business that not only takes passengers where they want to go, but goes all-out to provide an enjoyable travel experience."
The expansion to daily service on the Texas Eagle is one of four major initiatives involving Texas stemming from the corporation's Network Growth Strategy. The strategy is based on an unprecedented, comprehensive economic analysis of its national rail system and potential market opportunities. It is a commercially driven plan to expand the existing rail network, increase revenue and better serve all Amtrak passengers and business partners.
Future service expansion will include service between Meridian, Miss.,
and Fort Worth. The carrier is also working to "implement new service between
San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico and a re-route of the Sunset Limited
via Dallas and Fort Worth. Dallas-Ft. Worth would become a primary hub
within the Amtrak system which will make it easier for both passengers
and the railroad's business partners to ship time-sensitive goods through
Amtrak's Mail and Express program, the corporation's fast-growing business
segment, a spokesman said.
Amtrak reported the Texas Eagle had experienced steady and sustained growth over a three-year period, with ridership growing 6.5 percent in fiscal year 1998 (October-1997 to September 1998) and 9.4 percent in FY 1999. So far this fiscal year, between October 1999 and March 2000, the train was leading Amtrak's long-distance trains in terms of percentage ridership gains. Ridership was up 11.2 percent in FY 2000 over the same period last year.
An Amtrak spokesman said "The document its five-year summary, officially named the California Passenger Rail Plan, is being developed in partnership with the FRA, California DOT (Caltrans), local communities, transportation agencies, commuter railroads, and freight railroads."
The passenger railroad reported it is "investing more than $5 million in the community-based planning project to develop the comprehensive plan for providing fast, frequent, convenient passenger rail service to all of California´s major population centers. The final plan can act as a 'blueprint' for rail corridor development in the state."
Some objectives Amtrak hopes to address include relieving train congestion
by targeting track improvements designed to expedite and expand commuter
and intercity passenger rail, as well as freight traffic on heavily used
tracks in the San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Bay areas, along
with Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley. Other ideas include improving
service by upgrading existing track and signals, which will allow passenger
and freight trains to operate at higher speeds with less interference over
longer stretches of track between the state´s major cities.
Another topic planners addressed was improved safety and mobility through grade crossing improvements and selective grade separations.
In turn, those improvements should result in additional service, enhanced reliability and convenience and reduced trip times. For example, Capitol Corridor service would increase by six roundtrips, and ridership should increase by 122 percent.
Pacific Surfliner (formerly San Diegan) corridor service was expected to increase by three roundtrips from San Diego to Los Angeles, three roundtrips from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and an additional extension to San Luis Obispo. Ridership is expected to increase 117 percent.
San Joaquin corridor service will increase by three roundtrips and ridership will increase 79 percent.
Coast corridor service would begin with one round-trip, connecting downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco returning direct rail service after an absence of more than 30 years, with a first year ridership of nearly 200,000. In addition, four roundtrips will begin from San Francisco to Monterey and Salinas.
Amtrak said, "A major community-based planning initiative was undertaken in the development of this plan. Four task forces were created, one for each intercity corridor and the membership of each task force included local elected officials, Caltrans, freight and commuter railroads, rail advocates and the FRA. The participation of local representatives was determined by the membership of the local managing or advisory group for the existing or emerging corridor.
Ultimately, plans call for new or expanded service to Palm Springs,
Tahoe-Reno, and Redding from the San Joaquin Valley to the San Francisco
Bay Area over Altamont Pass. The plan also proposes providing new rolling
stock and station enhancements on existing routes.
The new train, drawn by an F-59PHI diesel powering the five-car, double-deck trainset, will run in regular service between Los Angeles and San Diego through the Memorial ins Online website. (http://www.trains.com).
The set reportedly was to debut Thursday on train 571.Day weekend, but will then be pulled out of service for two more days of employee training before making a splash on its official inaugural runs on June 1, according to Amtrak West spokeswoman Jennifer McMahon.
The new blue-and-silver equipment was intended to debut in Pacific Surfliner service last April, but was delayed by employee training requirements and more trainset testing. Amtrak will take delivery of a new train from the builder, Alstom, every six to eight weeks, and will have the full complement of nine sets on hand by late spring 2001.
Each five-car train includes one Custom Class car, two coaches, one coach-cafe car, and one combination coach-baggage-control cab car, and can carry 422 passengers. The trains were assembled at Alstom's Hornell, N.Y., shops.
The 347-mile corridor is Amtrak's second busiest, and stretches from
San Diego through Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
If approved by the Senate and signed by President Clinton, the budget provision would require Amtrak to provide the trains for the proposed upgraded rail service, and would also force Norfolk Southern, the owner of the rail lines, to reach an agreement with the state to use the rail lines, The News & Advance of Lynchburg, Va. reported.
Amtrak would likely run the train service, and federal law allows Amtrak to use any rail line in the country as long as the owner is fairly compensated.
"This is a major piece of the puzzle to bringing passenger rail service to southwest and central Virginia," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R).
The TransDominion Express would provide rail service for travelers from Lynchburg to Bristol, Richmond, Washington D.C. and 14 cities in between.
Virginia has set aside $10 million to upgrade tracks between Lynchburg, Bristol, Washington and Richmond in the next two years for the new, faster passenger train service.
A provision in the House's transportation appropriations bill for fiscal year 2001 requires Amtrak to provide enough passenger rail cars to run the train, but its cost is not yet clear.
Track upgrade costs would be primarily for straightening the passenger service route for shorter trip times. Project supporters said it should cost about $20 million, of which the state has already promised half. NS officials say it would cost more than twice that. NS also said an additional line would need to be built between Bristol and Roanoke to accommodate both the passenger and freight traffic, which would push the cost up to $50 million.
NS spokeswoman Susan Bland said, "There is a lot of freight traffic
going through there."