Ernesto on the horizon
Amtrak may cut
Newport News trains
A hurricane watch was issued Sunday for the Florida Keys, and Gov. Jeb Bush ordered a state of emergency in anticipation of Tropical Storm Ernesto, The AP reported Sunday evening.
Ernesto, which had strengthened into a hurricane for about 10 hours, weakened back into a tropical storm by late afternoon with top sustained winds of 60 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
Still, the Miami-based hurricane center said the storm could reclaim its hurricane status before reaching the southeastern coast of Cuba on Monday morning.
“It certainly looks like it'sgoing to impact a significant portion of Florida before it's all over,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.
That leads railroaders, shippers and passengers to wonder how the storm will affect CSX Transportation, the Florida East Coast Ry. and Amtrak.
Meanwhile, some Amtrak service may be cut permanently – hurricane or not. The passenger railroad confirmed on Friday it is considering cutting Washington-D.C.-Newport News service.
The potential loss of one of the only two daily Amtrak trains serving Newport News and Williamsburg sparked an outcry to members of Congress and raised concerns about fallout for the upcoming Jamestown 2007 celebration.
The national passenger railroad is considering dropping trains from its schedule, the railroad confirmed. A knowledgeable railroader speculated the action most likely would include Nos. 66 and 67, which operate between Newport News and Boston. That train already lost its sleepers a few years ago.
Rail advocates also said any reduction in passenger rail service could hurt the growth of Richmond’s Main Street Station, which reopened in 2003 after a $51.6 million renovation. Amtrak confirmed that it was studying cutting one of two daily trains that connect Washington and Newport News, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Norfolk’s Virginian Pilot.
“They really hoped to have lot of people be able to come by rail, and now we’re eliminating one main source of travel,” said Lois Walker, president of the Virginians for High Speed Rail, the state’s major passenger rail advocacy group. “It’s just devastating for the whole Williamsburg and Jamestown area.”
A spokesman for Sen. John Warner said he had received a letter that raised questions about Amtrak’s as-yet unannounced plans to revise its schedule - with reduced service to Richmond, Williamsburg and Newport News - in October.
The revision would eliminate a key seven-day-a-week service linking Newport News, Williamsburg, Main Street Station and Washington. In all, Amtrak would cut 14 trains from the current 29 serving the corridor.
Amtrak confirmed Friday that it is re-evaluating daily train service to Newport News, raising concern among passengers that the number of trains serving the Peninsula may be scaled back.
“There may be some changes to the Virginia schedule,” said Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.
She could not say what the changes would be, but the passenger train service only runs two trains to the small station and 12 through stations at Main Street in Richmond and Staples Mill in Henrico County.
Amtrak officials have requested a meeting this week with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which oversees Virginia’s rail passenger network.
“They have scheduled a meeting, but they have not indicated the topic,” said Jennifer Pickett, the department spokeswoman.
“We’re just operating on rumor at this point,” she said.
About 92,300 people boarded or departed trains at Newport News last year, down just slightly from the previous year of 92,900. By comparison, the Staples Mill station recorded 233,500 passengers in 2004 and 250,000 last year, Amtrak said.
While the station may be out of the way for residents south of the James River, who take buses or cars to reach the station, to a dedicated group of train lovers the service represents the region’s best travel option.
“I use this train a lot,” said Sandy Harris, president Virginia Investment Counselors, of Norfolk.
“I often take the overnight to Boston. It’s a great way to travel because I don’t have to deal with the car.”
Harris was concerned about talk of discussion on the train service because it carries the implication that it will be reduced.
“Here we are a community that is growing, and transportation is critical to the community and Amtrak is cutting services?” he said. “I don’t know what Amtrak’s thinking is.”
Phone call on train nabs felon
A 30-year-old Bakersfield parolee who reportedly took a train to visit his girlfriend in Merced, Cal., ended up in jail instead on Thursday.
When the Amtrak train pulled into the West 24th Street station at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Merced police officers were waiting for Stephen Bryant of Bakersfield, said Merced police Cmdr. Tom Martin.
A passenger who overheard Bryant talking on a cellular telephone alerted police that Bryant was on the train.
The Merced Sun-Star reported on Friday that during the phone call, Bryant reportedly said he was a suspect in a crime, that the police would have to shoot him before he went back to jail, and allegedly spoke about drug deals.
The passenger reported the conversation and the caller’s description to a train employee who contacted the Merced police, Martin said.
Armed with a description, officers boarded the train, detained Bryant, and learned he had been released from prison approximately 10 months ago.
A search of the suspect turned up a concealed knife in the front of his pants with a 7-inch blade and an overall length of 14 inches.
On his inner thigh was a small bag attached to his pants with a string.
Inside the bag were four hypodermic syringes with attached needles.
A small metal box inside the bag contained four smaller bags officers believed to contain crystal methamphetamine and other bags with drugs requiring a prescription, the commander said.
Bryant, who did not have a prescription for the drugs, told police that he got the drugs “upstate” and does not use them.
A further search turned up two shotgun shells, four cellular telephones, and a number of identification cards not in Bryant’s name.
He reportedly told officers the bag belonged to a friend and that he did not know what it contained.
Bryant was booked into Merced County Jail on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance for sale, possession of a controlled substance without a prescription, possession of injection paraphernalia, possession of a concealed weapon, being a felon in possession of ammunition and no-bail parole violation.
He remained in custody Thursday on the no-bail parole violation.