Destination:Freedom Newsletter
Destination:Freedom
The Newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative, Inc.
  NCI Logo Vol. 1 No. 22, Sept 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000, NCI, Inc.
James P. RePass, President
Leo King, Editor
 

A weekly passenger railroad update


Engine 655 was the first HHP-8 to go into service, and was the first to haul a revenue train from Boston on September 6, 2000. Three engines have been temporarily decertified. This photo was taken last spring while the engine was testing and before the catenary work was completed in Southampton Street Yard, Boston.

NCI: file photo 

Amtrak's HHP-8 engines enter revenue service;
all are soon pulled from duty following incident

The good news is that three HHP-8 AC electric locomotives began revenue service on the Northeast Corridor. The bad news is that they are all out of service.

Amtrak HHP-8 AC electric engine No. 655 made its first revenue departure from Boston On September 6, on the point of Acela Regional train No. 131. The faint whine typical of AC traction motors could be heard even over the track noise as the train banged through the switches at Forest Interlocking. Observers saw the 8,000 horsepower engine blast past Plains Interlocking at about 6:24 a.m.

HHP-8s Nos. 654 and 659, which were also reportedly accepted for revenue service, will be out for at least a week or two before they make an appearance in New England on revenue runs, assuming they have no bugs in them.

The HHPs were removed from service pending an investigation on why and how Wednesday's train 131 HHP-8 locomotive caused the catenary outage from Hell Gate Bridge to Sunnyside yard and the East River tubes. Apparently the cab signals also failed, according to sources. The new locomotives are supposed to automatically switch over to the different electric voltages from Boston to Washington, but the automatic feature malfunctioned and blew the catenary circuits. So, until further notice, all the new locomotives that were recently accepted for service from builder Bombardier, have now been "unaccepted."

Amtrak's top spokesman in Washington, Cliff Black, told D:F "We have accepted three units for their break-in cycle, engines 654, 655 and one other. I don't know whether this constitutes actual final acceptance. Possibly - even probably - not. Anyhow, those three units are further along in the cycle than the others." He was trying to confirm the number of the third unit as our deadline passed.

Amtrak is buying 15 units at around $2 million a copy, numbered from 650 to 664, which are capable of running at 125 mph in revenue service. They are only authorized to operate at 50 mph either light or multiple light.

In July 1998, according to a Bombardier press release at the time, the fifteen engines were part of Amtrak's overall plan for 20 Acela Express trainsets (each consisting of two power cars and six coaches). The order was part of a March 1996 agreement between Amtrak, Bombardier and Alstom to design and manufacture 18 trainsets, which was increased to 20 trainsets in 1998.

The original contract also included the designing, building and installing three maintenance facilities in Ivy City Yard, Sunnyside Yard, and Southampton Street Yard, as well as management services for up to ten years. The order brought Bombardier's share of the total program to $710 million (U.S.).

The catenary is powered between Shell Interlocking and Bergen Interlocking with nominally 12,000 volts AC. Going west from Boston, Shell is where Amtrak trains leave Metro-North tracks (MP 18.9 on Amtrak but MP 16.6 from Grand Central Terminal on MN) and continue over Hell Gate Bridge to New York City's Sunnyside Yard (in Queens), and Penn Station (NYP, MP 0.0). Bergen, in New Jersey, is 3.7 miles west of NYP.

Regarding the newest engines, however, one Acela customer wrote via e-mail that he "had the privilege of riding behind new HHP-8 engine 655 on Sunday's Metroliner No. 223 from Newark to Washington. I was thrilled to see the engine for the first time as it pulled around the curve coming into the Newark station. Its sleek, curved lines are far more attractive than the boxy-shaped AEM-7s and E-60s."

Another observer of the railroad scene noted that an Acela Regional train "does not arouse a tremendous amount of interest since by now the appearance of electrics on this train is old news. However, this morning's train provided a surprise. We were waiting at a crossover just before Branford."

Amtrak is replacing a bridge near Cedar Hill resulting in single track for about two-thirds of a mile.

"I noticed a strange shape at the head of the Acela when it passed. We were waiting on one of the Shoreline's ubiquitous curves and I was able to look ahead and see that the Acela Regional was indeed being led by one of the new HHP-8s...It is exciting to see the new equipment in operation."

Thanks to Jonathan White, Daniel Chazin, Dave Bowe, E.C. Schroeder.



NCI: Leo King 

Acela Express trainset 2004-2005 has been testing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for nearly one month in mid-September. Here, the train winds its way into Southampton Street Yard at the prescribed 5 mph on yard tracks. It is late afternoon, and it has finished testing for the day.
Fast trains should run in October

The fast train is about one year behind its original schedule, but Amtrak now says its 150 mile-an-hour Acela Express will begin running in October.

New England Division road foreman Joseph Arcuri said most of the training is complete, and engineers are now focusing on endurance training and putting mileage on the trains. He also noted that locomotive engineers and conductors are also to be trained on how to operate the new equipment.

When the crews enter express service, they will be operating directly from Boston to New York and vice versa. There will be no crew changes in New Haven, Conn. for the fast train crews.

Company communications vice president Lynn Bowersox said recently that the originally promised three-hour ride could take longer than anticipated. The train ride would take a little more than three hours, which was the original target. Additional track and signal work is part of the delay, and the trains have to operate a little more slowly than originally anticipated. The trains were originally expected to be able to max out at 168 mph. Amtrak is installing an "Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System," which is a sophisticated cab signal control system with transponders mounted between the rails at strategic locations.

Bowersox said Amtrak will take delivery of the high-speed trainsets in October from Montreal-based manufacturer Bombardier and Paris-based Alstom. Both companies collaborated in designing and building the 20 trains.

"We're going to want to start right up," Bowersox told the Boston Herald, who could not pinpoint an exact date when the high-speed service will begin.

Problems with wheel wear, tilt technology and the most recent glitch, broken and missing bolts, pushed back its debut, but Amtrak spokesman Russell Hall, in Boston, said the bolt problem had been resolved, and startup of the much-anticipated service is "a matter of weeks." Hall said, "We've had no other problems. It's running beautifully. We've had delays, but that's why we've had training."

Because of the delays, Amtrak spokesman Rick Remington, in Philadelphia, said Amtrak has lost about $140 million in revenues.

Fares have not yet been set, but Bowersox said one-way tickets would cost about $140, or about 30 percent less than a $200 Delta Shuttle air fare. Bowersox said there is a booming market in Boston for the high-speed train service, which will offer wider aisles, computer outlets, fold-down tables, telephones and a bistro car.

Acela Regional train service, which features the brand name but not the high-speed service, generated more than $3 million in ticket revenues during its first five months of service from January to June, Bowersox said.


A date to remember: Oct. 29
Sources tell Destination: Freedom that the first Acela Express trainset will go into revenue service with the October 29 schedule change, and possibly earlier. The express trains will be gradually phased in to revenue service. The timetable usually changes when the nation returns to Standard Time.

Amtrak reportedly has a severe diesel and electric locomotive shortage, and does not have enough electric locomotives to operate the new Skyline Limited between Philadelphia and New York, so the carrier is pressing every available locomotive into revenue service.


NARP members seek to cut ties with Amtrak
Six prominent National Association of Railroad Passengers members say they want to cut the non-profit organizations ties with Amtrak.

In a letter to the organization's directors and to executive director Ross Capon, the six "ask that the board act to sever all ties with Amtrak which are in conflict with NARP's mission as a public interest advocate for rail passenger service."

The letter was dated August 29, four days before NARP president Jack Martin died at his home in Atlanta.

Anthony Haswell, Adrian Herzog, William Lindley, Thomas Pulsifer, Edward Robert Sirovy and Paul A. Wilson stated "NARP must maintain an arms-length posture towards Amtrak if it is to effectively represent the interests of the railroad passenger. To the extent that NARP is dependent upon Amtrak for direct and indirect financial and other benefits, it will be inhibited from criticizing Amtrak service shortcomings and seeking corrective action, and from considering alternative rail passenger service providers as an option to Amtrak."

They stated that NARP-Amtrak conflicts included the administration of the Amtrak Consumer Advisory Council.

"In return for administering the CAC, NARP is paid about $16,000 per year as 'overhead' over and above the CAC's direct expenses, which essentially is profit which NARP can spend as it pleases."

They also found fault with using "lists of Amtrak employees to solicit memberships in NARP. To the extent that these solicitations are cost-effective, NARP receives a financial benefit from membership dues for which it is obligated to Amtrak. Moreover, a solicitation of Amtrak employees, regardless of how it is worded, implies that NARP will not oppose labor's position in Amtrak labor-management disputes even if that position was contrary to the best interest of passengers."

[ Oct. 16 -- Editor's Note: NARP's Capon told Destination: Freedom that he does not use an Amtrak employees list to solicit members, and that Haswell's assertion to that effect is false ].

They also found fault with Amtrak giving NARP members a 10 percent coach ticket discount. "NARP is supposed to be a public interest advocacy organization, not a train riders club."

They also argued that NARP officers and directors should not serve Amtrak as advisors to fare or revenue management of Amtrak trains. "This insider role is undoubtedly considered by those persons as a valuable 'perk' and hence can inhibit their effectiveness in representing NARP on issues where the interest of rail passengers may be opposed to a position taken by Amtrak management."

They said they were also concerned about their organization's tax status. "These conflicts may jeopardize NARP's Section 501(c)(3) federal income tax status, which enables it to raise funds which donors may deduct from their income for federal tax purposes. The tax laws require that 501(c)(3) organizations be operated exclusively for charitable and educational purposes."

The authors stated, "This has been held to forbid activity for private benefit. While NARP may advocate in favor of rail passenger service on public policy grounds, it must function in the interest of the public generally as distinct from the private interest of its members or the interest of Amtrak or its employees."

Amtrak has been a quasi-federal agency for 25 years, and has never operated at a profit, nor was expected to, until recent legislation changed that. The carrier receives its cash from the Congress and ticket sales.


Amtrak has a job for you

Let's go railroading in Maine

Amtrak is looking for railroaders in Maine.

The carrier began advertising for assistant passenger conductors as they prepare to start the long-delayed service next April.

Spokesman Russ Hall in Boston said Amtrak is building crews so they will be ready to go when the trains start running.

An ad that appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram two weeks ago was looking for people who would become conductors, and learn how to throw switches, couple and uncouple cars, collect fares, and help board passengers.

Meanwhile, on another Maine front, yet another delay may be looming on the Portland startup service.

A "Force Accounts/Amtrak" from the "Big Dig" Project Assessment Report on the Third Harbor Tunnel website showed that the work schedule in North Station is currently estimated to be "delayed by five months, and, therefore, an additional $1 million has been included as a 'Potential Additional Exposure,' as the current spending is approximately $200,000 per month."

In addition, "other time-based contingencies may effect the total Force Account Agreement cost projection. Amtrak has scheduled a new track line to open in April 2001 for service from Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Maine. However, due to projected construction delays with the CA/T in the North Station area, the new Amtrak line may be delayed in opening. Therefore, we understand Amtrak could seek loss of revenue reimbursement from the CA/T for the delay in opening the new track line. Therefore, this Force Account Agreement should continue to be monitored over the duration of the project to ensure accurate and appropriate budgeting and work requirements based on the contract life of Amtrak."


VRE has a bad day; it gets better
You've heard the expression, so-and-so is having a bad hair day, right?

Consider poor Virginia Railway Express, trying to run trains on time over CSX with its antiquated signal wires, and communications systems that sometimes completely fail.

In a rare public showing of displeasure with another carrier, VRE posted a message on its website explaining just what went wrong on August 30th.

"We regret any inconvenience you may have experienced due to the delay this morning. We, too, were equally frustrated by the situation.

"Wednesday morning, CSXT experienced a communications failure and, as a result, was unable to provide train orders to our train via fax or computer early this morning. (These orders tell the crews any special conditions and speed limits on the CSX tracks.) Without train orders, neither Fredericksburg nor Manassas trains can begin service.

"Train orders finally arrived more than 35 minutes late. Following their receipt, the crews immediately began their preparations to leave the yard. However, since No. 322 wouldn't leave until No. 324's time, it was decided to run No. 324 and annul Nos. 322 and 321. This allowed us to have a train available for No. 332 later in the morning.

"Although we were able to proceed, challenges continued to develop. While the initial cause of these problems had been remedied, the extreme delay of our first trains resulted in riders for the two earliest trains waiting on each platform. The large number of people boarding each train resulted in crowded conditions on the trains and a longer period was required for riders to board and exit the train. Unfortunately, the increase in platform time only exacerbated the current delay. Later trains experienced delays as they followed the slower moving first trains down the track.

"VRE contacted local media with delay information as quickly as that information became available. We understand that it is important that you receive information as quickly as possible, so you are able to make decisions regarding your morning commute. As new information became available, our crews continued to update passengers through announcements on the train and at our station platforms.

"We appreciate the patience you exhibited in spite of the delays and crowded conditions. Free Ride Certificates were given out on all the affected trains (except No. 322. They will be handed out tomorrow.) If you validated your ticket and did not ride, please see the website at http://www.vre.org/programs/freeride.htm for instructions.

"We are committed of working out these continuing issues with CSX and will advise you to our progress. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any further questions or concerns. Thank you for riding VRE."


House okays rail retiree bill; Senate is next
The House passed a bill on Thursday intended to increase benefits for railroad retirees.

The so-called "60/30" bill was approved 391-25. If it becomes law, it would also lessen retirement taxes for railroad employees by allowing the Railroad Retirement Trust Fund balances to be invested in diversified holdings.

Under present laws, trust fund balances can only be invested in U.S. government securities, which provide a lower rate of return.

Under the increased benefits provisions, surviving spouses would inherit a retiree's full pension. The surviving spouse now may receive no more than 50 percent of the retiree's annuity. The bill would also allow for early retirement at age 60 with 30 years of service. Current law requires an employee to be age 62.

Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, termed the legislation as "landmark," and added, "Through investment of the pension portfolio of the Railroad Retirement Trust Fund in a diversified portfolio, the returns to the system will be increased."

The bill, H.R. 4844, now goes to the Senate.


Corridor lines...

Keep the Talgos hummin'

Pacific Northwest gets good news

The FRA has given its blessing to keep Talgos running.

FRA administrator Jolene Molitoris said on Friday that the agency will grant Amtrak's request to "grandfather" the Talgo trainsets for its Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor.

Molitoris said, "This decision is consistent with railroad safety and in the public interest. Amtrak provides a very successful passenger service for the people of Washington and Oregon using the Talgo trainsets."

She added, "This high-speed corridor will benefit travelers by providing an important transportation alternative and by reducing pressure on crowded highways and airports."

Amtrak asked FRA to grandfather using the Talgos because they were ordered and bought by Amtrak before the FRA issued its new passenger equipment safety standards on May 12, 1999.

FRA's approval, however, includes several conditions intended to ensure continued safe operation of the trains. The grandfathering decision also calls on the trainset manufacturer, Talgo, Inc., headquartered in Madrid, Spain, to provide additional technical information and data, which will permit FRA to complete a detailed engineering evaluation of the trains. The technical analysis results are needed, FRA said, to help the agency "resolve remaining issues with respect to future operation of the trainsets at higher speeds, as well as their use on other corridors in California and Nevada for which Amtrak seeks to initiate new service."

Talgo trains differ from conventional North American designs, but similar trains have been used extensively in Europe. They offer the advantage of navigating curves at higher speeds, while enhancing passenger safety and comfort, by using a passive "tilt" feature. FRA had previously granted a waiver for the Cascades service permitting higher speeds on curves than would be allowed for conventional Amtrak passenger cars.

Another major issue also addressed the lesser "compressive" or buffering strength of the Talgo equipment, which Amtrak had sought to address by using unoccupied end cars and conventional locomotives.

The feds changed the standard for an end-of-car collision from advisory to mandatory, with a crush standard of 800,000 pounds minimum strength. Testimony submitted by Amtrak said the five early Talgos could withstand at least 441,000 pounds. Newer Talgo trainsets, operating with articulated trucks, meet the safety standard.

"Amtrak's petition requested approval for the Pacific Northwest Corridor, from Eugene, Ore., to Blaine, Wash., as well as new routes from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, Calif., and Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Nev.

Molitoris said the FRA's decision "on the other routes will be issued at a later date, following receipt of additional information from Amtrak and Talgo."

Three Talgo sets make daily round trips between Seattle and Portland, and another train runs between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. One Talgo continues on to Eugene, and another train to Eugene is slated to start on Oct. 6.

The decision also can be read on the FRA's website at http://www.fra.dot.gov/.


Michigan service declines; freight trains blamed
Amtrak may be going full-speed ahead in gaining riders around the nation, but in Michigan, it's going the other way.

Reports show it takes longer to travel between Detroit and Chicago now (six hours) than it did 60 years ago because of track congestion from increased freight traffic.

"It has been very, very frustrating for us because the state has put in a state-of-the-art signaling system, and with all the work that was done they are slower than in the 1930s," said John DeLora, executive director of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, reported Michigan Live last week.

Train travel is soaring on both U.S. coasts, largely because Amtrak and states are investing in the system and actively marketing it, said Rick Harnisch, president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition, a Chicago-based group promoting better train service in the region.

"It has been shown over and over again that if you run trains at least as fast as automobiles, riders do ride the service," Harnisch said. "It has been proven in California and the Northeast. Where they really focus on passenger service, ridership has grown."

Harnisch and MDOT spokeswoman Janet Foren both noted that after MDOT provided more than $250,000 to market Amtrak service from Grand Rapids and Holland to Chicago, ridership grew, even with only one daily train on the route. Ridership on the Pere Marquette line rose from 51,351 in 1995 to 68,091 last year, Foren said.

But since then, because the train ride takes longer than cars can make the trip on I-94, ridership has been steadily dropping on the Detroit-Chicago line, which stops in Ann Arbor, Jackson and Kalamazoo. Ridership is down 24 percent over four years, from 418,500 in 1997 to 317,700 expected this year.

Yet nationwide Amtrak says it is on its way to a record year with more than 22 million passengers expected in 2000.

Amtrak also is struggling to maintain service between Chicago and Toronto, with stops in East Lansing, Durand, Flint, Lapeer and Port Huron. The railroad said last spring it would end The International route this month, but it is now working with the state on a plan to keep the train running.

Amtrak spokesman Kevin Johnson, in Chicago, said "We're glad they're concerned, but they need to know this is our business and we're constantly trying to make trips on time. We're in constant talks with our freight partners. We think it's only going to get better in Michigan in the near future."

In August 1998, Amtrak joined Michigan and eight other states in unveiling the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a 10-year plan to increase service to most major cities in the region.

The goal is to spend $5 billion on tracks and trains to provide faster, more frequent service. On the Detroit-Chicago route, for instance, the number of daily round trips would increase from three to eight or ten, and travel times would be cut to around four hours.

The Michigan DOT has already invested $30 million in the initiative, mostly for a high-tech signaling system on 77 miles of track west of Kalamazoo. Once the system is operational by the end of this year, trains can increase speeds on that stretch from the current maximum of 79 miles per hour to more than 100 mph, said MDOT's Foren.

But Amtrak only owns the track from Kalamazoo to Indiana on the route between Detroit and Chicago. Norfolk Southern owns the rest of the 280-mile route, whose freight business is booming along with the economy. Congestion occurs almost daily on the tracks between Detroit and Ann Arbor, around Battle Creek and between Porter, Ind., and Chicago, Foren said. Sometimes, Amtrak trains must wait a half hour or more for freight traffic to move onto sidings.


Trains, buses in Orlando test market
Amtrak and Coach USA joined forces in May to provide connecting train-bus service in selected markets. The first test market is in Orlando. Service is slated to end in October following a six month pilot program.

Six daily high ridership trains serve the city, and Coach USA is making connecting ground transportation to area hotels and attractions from the train station.

Just before arrival, conductors make on-board announcements to advise travelers of the service. Coach USA vans are at the station to transport passengers to their final destinations. In the first two months of the pilot program, more than 1,500 Amtrak passengers (an average of 25 per day), rode the buses.

One-way fares are $16.50 for adults and $8.25 for children, ages 2 through 15. Children under the age of two ride free.


Slow trains in the West
We have learned via some e-mail friends that heavy freight traffic combined with finishing touches on summer track projects have plagued Amtrak's on-time performance in Missouri over the Union Pacific.

For example, Train No. 304, the Anne Rutledge, has not been on time from Kansas City into St. Louis since May. Worse is the Texas Eagle, sometimes arriving in St. Louis in the mid to late afternoon instead of the 8:50 a.m. scheduled arrival.

On Aug. 23, train No. 22 was 4 hours and 45 minutes late out of Walnut Ridge, Ark., and the crew outlawed before making the Oak Hill branch at Davis Jct. in South St. Louis. Our friend said, "It looks like passengers are in for a late ride until at least he beginning of September. Keep this in mind, anyone who plans to ride Amtrak in Missouri."

Due to the current rash of heat related incidents, all UP trains are now restricted to 40 mph. That includes Amtrak and "Z" trains. All lines dispatched out of Spring are now 40 mph maximum, and slower when slow orders prevail.

The UP bulletin reads "until further notice," so it could be after the first cold front comes down, or when the ambient temperature falls below 95. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, "Extreme heat has prompted UP to restrict both freight and passenger trains to a maximum speed of 40 mph in areas where the temperature rises above 100 degrees, said Mike Furtney, a railroad spokesman."

The heat can cause "sun kinks," or misalignments in the track, which can lead to derailments, he said. In short, the rails can bend way out of alignment.

Amtrak's trains usually travel up to 79 mph on UP's tracks.


Across the pond...

Eurotunnel faces job actions
A threatened blockade of the Eurotunnel freight terminal in France was not expected to affect passenger services.

A spokeswoman for the operator said they had been warned to expect disruptive action by French drivers protesting about the cost of fuel, according to an on-line report from Ananova, Ltd.

"It is important that our passengers traveling in cars know that even if freight services are disrupted it will not affect the rest of the services," said Eurotunnel's Anne Leva.

"The terminal in France is a lot larger than the one in the UK and the entrance for freight is separate to passenger traffic," she said, and added, "The trains will continue to run normally but some traffic may have difficulty getting on board."

Truckers and other French motorists were protesting high taxes on diesel fuel prices. Over the weekend, the French government agreed to lower taxes by 15 percent. Protesters were demanding a 20 percent cut.



NCI: Murky Moe

Sept. 1 -- Commuters and railroaders alike get a chuckle out of this Dumbo look-alike beside the Old Colony line tracks in Boston. How the pachyderm came to be in Southampton Street yard remains a mystery, clouded by murky undertones that the elephant came from Route 128 station, but we've learned that an East End Switch tender, who's only name we could uncover is "John," arranged the critter trumpeting over his fallen foe, the orange pumpkin with feet. The pumpkin has no name. Neither does the elephant.

An end note...

We try to be accurate in the stories we write, but even seasoned pros err occasionally. If you read something you know to be amiss, or if you have a question about a topic, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the crew at train1812@home.com.


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