American Railroads

News each weekday of American railroads. Our focus is on freight rail, but Amtrak and commuter rail are also essential ingredients. Nothing published on holidays.

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Monday, September 04, 2006

GOP ads show solons

distancing from Bush

Republicans who were once cozy with President Bush are distancing themselves from both the president and their party in campaign ads, writes The AP in a September 4 story.

Rep. Deborah Pryce is the fourth-ranking House Republican struggling to hold onto her seat in an evenly split district in central Ohio, near Columbus.

In 2004, her campaign website featured a banner of her and Bush sitting together, smiling, but in her latest television ad, Pryce is described as “independent.” The spot also highlights how she “stood up to her own party” and the president to support increased federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

On issues from the Iraq war to Amtrak spending, GOP candidates are trying to argue that they don’t follow in lockstep.

Among some of the ads, in Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, No. 3 in the GOP Senate leadership, has stood with the President on scores of issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage to taxes. Trailing his Democratic challenger Bob Casey in the polls, Santorum brags about breaking with the administration on Amtrak money.

“The White House probably called me a lot of things when I fought their efforts to cut Amtrak funding,” Santorum said.

Various newspapers around the country carried the complete story. – Ed.

Amtrak won’t cut Virginia trains

Amtrak reversed engines on Thursday on a cost-cutting plan that would have cut one of two daily trains serving Newport News and Richmond.

Matt Tucker, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, announced the change after a meeting in Richmond on August 3` with officials of the passenger rail system, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

“As a result of this positive meeting, and the willingness of all parties to discuss the need for improved passenger rail service in Virginia, Amtrak is not planning to make any changes to Virginia service at this time,” Tucker said in a statement.

This marks a change from a plan reported a fortnight ago to eliminate one of two sets of trains that provide daily round-trip service between Washington and Newport News. The trains stop at Richmond’s Main Street Station and Staples Mill station in Henrico, as well as in Williamsburg.

Some members of Congress and other officials questioned the move, saying it would hurt public transportation for the Jamestown 2007 celebration.

LIRR’s Sunnyside link is on track

In recent weeks, construction crews have been transforming Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard, where a new Long Island Rail Road stop is slated to be built by 2013. The East Side Access project, an ambitious plan to bring the LIRR to Grand Central Station with a stop in Sunnyside, is moving ahead, according to Queens Chronicle of Rego Park, N.Y.

The project will link an existing LIRR underneath Sunnyside through the existing 63rd Street tunnel and under Park Avenue to Grand Central Station. Currently, the LIRR runs only to Penn Station, on Manhattan’s West Side.

Work has been under way since 2001, but this summer, a bid was accepted for a company to dig the 3.5 miles of Manhattan tunnels needed to bring the LIRR deep under Grand Central, according to Beverly Dolinsky, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Some work in Queens is already under way as well. Upgrades are being made to the tracks near Woodside Avenue and 65th Street, and Sunnyside Yard, according to the MTA, will expand a large shaft completed in 2003 underneath Northern Boulevard.

The project has been in the works since the 1960s, running into obstacles including arguments over environmental remediation with Amtrak, which owns the land underneath Sunnyside, and objections to a planned ventilation building from high profile neighbors on 50th Street in Manhattan. Funding for the $6.3 billion project is still not completely secured.

The MTA said in February that it expected to reach a full funding agreement with the federal government in a matter of months. Dolinsky anticipated it could be reached by October.

Despite the numerous setbacks, the project is currently on track – the Manhattan tunneling bid came in at millions less than expected – and is moving forward with strong political support. The Bush administration ranked it as a high priority for funding.

“It has a lot of momentum behind it,” added Ellen Shannon, transportation planner for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which serves as a watchdog group of the MTA.

An LIRR link directly to Grand Central Station is expected to ease congestion at Penn Station as well as cut down the commute time for Eastern Queens and Long Island residents who work on the East Side. The MTA estimates the new line will serve over 160,000 passengers each day and attract 35,000 new customers to public transit.

In Queens, it could mean a transformation of Sunnyside Yard into an intermodal center. Sunnyside and the adjacent Harold Interlocking – where trains either continue on the Northeast Corridor or go onto LIRR tracks – service several commuter lines including the LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Metro-North. The new station, to be located under the Queens Boulevard bridge, could also link the commuter rails with subways, buses and taxis.

Speculation has also been raised that a platform could be built over the yard to support thousands of apartments.

Amtrak, CSX return to normal

Amtrak and CSX service was restored September 2 after Tropical Storm Ernesto dumped the Northeast with gallons of water. Most Amtrak trains that operate in the Southeast and Florida travel over CSX tracks.

Only northbound Silver Meteor train No. 98 was canceled on November 3, but after that, service returned to normal.

Out west, former Hurricane John diminished to a tropical storm and is still moving towed Southern California, but is now a tropical storm.

Pipe bomb explodes at Metra station

The maker of a sophisticated pipe bomb that exploded in a trash receptacle inside the Hinsdale Metra station early Friday still was at large late in the day, police said.

Nobody was injured in the 6:50 a.m. blast inside the ticket building, authorities said.

A man witnesses had pointed to as possibly being involved was released after a consensual search of his home turned up nothing, Hinsdale Police Chief Bradley Bloom said. The man had been seen near the receptacle and was apprehended at Union Station about an hour and a half later, according to the Chicago Tribune of September 1

Bloom said the department has not ruled that man, or anyone else, out but said police don’t have a good description of who may have left the bomb. There are no security cameras at the station, and nobody saw anyone place the bomb, he said.

Service was not interrupted on the BNSF line, said Meg Reile, a Metra spokeswoman.

UTU, AFL-CIO voice concerns

over Kummant, new Amtrak CEO

The United Transportation Union and the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Dept. each expressed concern about the qualifications of Amtrak’s new president, Alexander Kummant.

Frank Wilner, spokesman for the UTU, who also wrote the book, The Amtrak Story, said Kummant’s “history of moving from job to job” concerns him.

“Amtrak has been plagued with no continuity,” Wilner said.

“I am concerned that [Kummant] has not held his jobs.” Since 1998, Kummant has held seven different jobs, including vice president of Union Pacific’s (UP) Central Division.

Wilner also said that he spoke with UP shippers who claimed that Kummant “never learned very much about railroads.”

Wilner and others noted that railroad executives usually keep their positions for lengthy periods.

Ed Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Dept., said his group would not comment on Kummant’s past work experience. Instead, he offered an opinion as to what Kummant faces at the new job.

“Obviously, the new CEO inherits ruptured labor-management relations left by his predecessors,” Wytkind said.

Wytkind pointed out many Amtrak employees have not had a raise in seven years.

“He is inheriting the mess,” Wytkind said.

“His master has been wedded to the break-up of Amtrak.”

In context, “his master” referred to the Amtrak Board of Directors.

Amtrak Board Chairman David M. Laney announced that Kummant was tapped to permanently fill the vacancy created when the board abruptly fired David Gunn in November.

“Alex Kummant has the outstanding credentials and experience to lead a changing Amtrak that is more customer-focused and fiscally responsible,” Laney said.

Kummant, who will assume the CEO duties on September 12, previously served as a regional vice president of the UP.

In leading both units, Kummant was credited with substantially improving customer service and on-time delivery of client products, as well as with significant gains in financial and operational performance.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Kummant’s time at UP should help Amtrak to better work with its partners in the freight rail industry.

“I look forward to learning more about him and working with him, especially as Congress takes up Amtrak reform legislation this fall,” Carper said.

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said that some rail stakeholders are “going ballistic” over his employment with UP, which is constantly at odds with Amtrak over rail capacity and usage issues.

“For me, because he worked four years of his 20-year career with UP, it is not significant,” Capon said.

“I do not assume that anyone working for Union Pacific is out to kill Amtrak.”

Capon said he is more concerned about the number of jobs Kummant has held, noting the frequent leadership change at Amtrak over the past 10 years.

“Amtrak needs stability and someone to be around for a while,” Capon said.

Gunn was hired in May 2002 and served until his firing in November 2005. His annual salary was $275,000. Kummant’s annual salary will be $350,000.

Wilner also noted Kummant’s financial contributions to the Republican Party. Kummant donated $1,000 to the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign on June 30, 2003, according to the Federal Election Commission database. Kummant’s wife, Kathleen Regan Kummant, also contributed $1,000 to the campaign at the same time. His wife is a former senior executive with BNSF Railway, where she was vice president of business development.

Her husband also contributed $6,523 to the Union Pacific Corp. for Effective Governments between 2000 and 2002, according to the FEC and reported by American Railroads last week.

“Kummant was hand-picked despite a lack of experience,” Wilner said. “UTU has concerns on whether he’s coming in with the preconceived notion to reduce or eliminate Amtrak. The administration has made no secret of its desire for major reforms at Amtrak, even floating proposals that would steer the nation’s commercial passenger rail system to a privatized system.” For instance, in 2005, the administration proposed a budget for Amtrak essentially zeroing it out.

DM&E may start passenger service

People gathered in Pasley Park to celebrate the possibility of the first railroad passenger service to Sioux Falls in decades on September 3. The celebration was put on by Dakota, Minnesota, & Eastern Railroad.

The company is leading the effort to extend railroad passenger services from Sioux Falls to the Black Hills.

The track west of Pierre needs to be rebuilt before it can carry passengers. DM&E President Kevin Schieffer said, “Its a public service. It’s a great thing to do with the community up and down our line and mainly it’s just a lot of fun.”

The project is estimated to cost $6 billion. DM&E is asking for a loan from the Federal Railroad Administration to pay for part of the costs. If all goes as planned, organizers say it would be ready for regular service in two years.

Passenger, freight trains collide

A South Shore passenger train headed for Chicago and an eastbound freight train collided in eastern Porter County Saturday morning.

Nine passengers and four crew members were aboard the commuter train when it hit a freight train about one mile east of the Beverly Shores train station near U.S. 12 and County Road 500 East about 5:52 a.m., the Munster Times of Munster, Ind. reported.

Phil Griffith, director Porter County Emergency Management, said one person on the commuter train was taken by ambulance to St. Anthony Memorial Health Centers in Michigan City. Griffith didn’t know the nature of the injury, but it wasn’t thought to be serious.

Griffith said the lead car of the South Shore train was off the track and leaning toward one side. The second car was also leaning to the side.

There were no hazardous materials were on the freight train, which sustained only minor damage, Griffith said.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the South Shore line, temporarily suspended all South Shore service because of the accident, according to its website. Its fleet of railcars was east of the accident.

John Parsons, NICTD spokesman, said the commuter line had expected 5,000 to 7,000 passengers on Saturday – many headed to view the Gary Air Show. Parsons said.


Ohio plans plod on

The line to board the train is forming, but nobody seems to know when it will arrive. More than 30 officials from Ohio communities in Lorain and Cuyahoga counties met Tuesday at City Hall in Cleveland to discuss the logistics of a commuter railway in the West Shore Corridor, which stretches from Cleveland to Vermilion.

The push for a commuter line is alive and well, according to those who attended the meeting, but it could still be more than a decade before the rail line is established, The Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio reported.

“We’re optimistic. This commuter line is needed and we’ve crossed the first step by getting all these people together,” Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair said.

She added, “The timing will all depend on the funding.”

Guest speaker David Vozzolo, an associate with HDR-S.R. Beard & Associates, a transportation consulting firm based in Phoenix, agreed that funding was at the heart of the timeline and said similar projects in Florida, Colorado and Pennsylvania had taken anywhere from two to 20 years to complete.

There are limited federal funds available every year for transportation projects, but that is divided up throughout the entire country, Vozzolo said.

“It’s becoming increasingly more difficult and time consuming to get federal funding and you have to decide if it’s beneficial to continue pursuing those funds or to try to use more local funding to get the project going,” he said.

By using alternative funding sources, such as tax incremental financing, private funding and capital financing, many communities have been able to build up commuter travel in a shorter period and at a lesser expense, Vozzolo said.

Despite the tough road ahead Cleveland Councilman Kevin Kelley, who hosted the meeting, said he was pleased with the results.

“It was a pleasure to come here and hear people’s ideas and how they think we can move forward,” Kelley said. “There is a tremendous amount of power in this room with all of these civic leaders and that is what it’s going to take to get this train line.”

Kelley’s optimistic sentiments were reverberated by many.

Kelley said a date for the next meeting has not yet been set but the meeting will take place somewhere in Lorain County.

Before that meeting, law directors in Cleveland, Lakewood, Bay Village and Rocky River plan to review contracts their cities have with Norfolk Southern, the owner of the existing rail lines, to ensure that a commuter line would be permitted.


Northstar gets FTA nod

“Huge” was the word Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA), used to describe the action by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The FTA has notified the U.S. Congress of its intent to grant the Northstar Commuter Rail project approval to enter final design. The Coon Rapids Herald reported on August 31 this moves the project a major step closer to securing matching federal funds for construction, said Yantos, who is also deputy Anoka County administrator and executive director of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority but the FTA action is even more significant, he said.

That’s because almost all projects, it not all the projects, that have received approval from the FTA to enter the final design stage become a reality, Yantos said.

“This is a huge step forward in our goal to have commuter rail trains running in 2009,” he said.

It’s an important step, according to Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, chairman of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority.

“It’s a great feeling to pretty much know that this is going to be a project that will come to Minnesota and hopefully be in operation in 2009,” he said.

Congress has 10 days to make comments on the FTA action, but Yantos does not anticipate any problems, he said.

The 10-day period expires September 6, Yantos said, but Erhart said that while the FTA approval was “clearly a large step,” there were “nuances” or issues that NCDA is not certain have been resolved with this approval.

One of the major issues is the loading of cars for people with disabilities, according to Erhart.

The NCDA and the disability community have agreed on one loading area per station where people in wheelchairs would be able to get on and off the trains, but the FTA wants a loading station for each car, Erhart said.

BNSF is adamant that the FTA position is not feasible for the railroad because of the wide loads on some of its freight trains, he said, “and to place handicap accessible loading stations for each car would be hugely expensive,” Erhart said.

While awaiting FTA approval, Northstar officials have been working on the final design for some time and Yantos expects it to be completed in four to five weeks.

“This involves all the design and engineering for the project,” Yantos said.

It includes the stations on the 42-mile route from Big Lake to Minneapolis-Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids-Riverdale, Fridley and Minneapolis, the maintenance facility in Big Lake and the rolling stock.

It will also cover the link to the Hiawatha light rail project in downtown Minneapolis, but it won’t include any track improvements to accommodate commuter trains.

Under the NCDA’s agreement with BNSF for using its tracks, the railroad has granted the NCDA a permanent easement and as part of the cost of that easement, the railroad will make the track improvements it deems necessary, according to Yantos.

The agreement calls for 12 commuter rail trains daily plus some weekend service, Yantos said.

No decisions have yet been made on the rolling stock the NCDA will purchase, but it is likely to be remanufactured, rather than brand new, he said.

Remanufactured does not mean the same as “used” because through remanufacturing the engine and cars get new parts, Yantos said.

However, the NCDA is also looking at the possibility of purchasing rolling stock from the Go Transit system in Toronto.

The growth of that system has prompted Go Transit to replace four- or five-year-old engines with new, larger engines to handle eight to 10 cars rather than the four to five cars the existing rolling stock does and which would meet Northstar’s needs.

Officials from NCDA will be traveling to Toronto to look at the engines.

Once the final design work has been completed, the NCDA will go back to the FTA with a request for a full funding grant agreement, which would pave the way for project construction and purchasing.

Boise still looks for trains

"Hopefully the UP will take us today,” says Jeff Anderson, resting his hand on the throttle of an idling Rio Grande freight locomotive. It’s just after 7 a.m., wrote Nicholas Collias in the Boise Weekly, and we’re paused at the intersection where a small stretch of track run by the Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad meets the multiple lane Union Pacific mainline railroad in downtown Nampa, Idaho.

Behind the engine in which we’re seated, 12 freight cars loaded with lumber sit idle while Anderson, the train’s engineer, waits to get permission to share the mainline track with far longer and more powerful trains.

We don’t have to wait long until he blows the locomotive’s whistle, the airbrakes hiss and the train rumbles forward. On other days, Anderson says, the Idaho Northern’s decades-old, 2,250 horsepower engines are often blocked for minutes or even hours by UP’s much larger customers.

“Out here, we’re just ‘Those guys,” he says, and as for the train’s supposed power, “How many of those horses are still in there, I don’t know.”

The Boise cutoff was viewed as such an economic boon in the early 20th Century, the Boise Chamber of Commerce obtained all the necessary right of ways, raised $350,000 in fees and gave the property to the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Today, local businesses and leaders are struggling to find a way to get the rail corridor back.

Surrounded by other quietly rumbling locomotives preparing to depart, we ride slowly southeast on the mainline for just over a mile before switching onto a single track curving sharply to the north. This line, known as the “Boise cutoff,” runs some 44 miles from Nampa through Meridian and Boise before reconnecting with the UP mainline southeast of Boise at the ruined town site of Orchard.

The cutoff was once viewed as such a civic triumph, thousands of revelers packed the Boise Depot to celebrate its completion. At the time, they even called it the “Boise Mainline.” Today, this locomotive is the only train that still makes the approximately 20-mile trip into Boise. It passes through Canyon County with so little fanfare, Anderson says he recognizes some of the individual crows along the route by sight.

The train rolls under the 16th Street overpass, which leads commuters into downtown Nampa, and across an elevated bridge line over much busier Garrity Boulevard, where cars wait in line to enter Interstate 84 en route to Boise. We pass Lakeview Park, where an old steam engine sits surrounded by a flimsy wire fence, and look down on a pristine American Legion baseball field, the large pink and orange archways of the Hispanic Cultural Center and then chug under the interstate itself before making our first stop at a Boise Paper packaging plant in Nampa’s industrial district.

Here, Anderson’s two fellow crew members, conductor Mark Matranga and brakeman Jeff Short, jump from the engine and begin flipping switches and uncoupling and recoupling cars while Anderson urges the engine forward and backward, slowly shuffling full cars out of the middle of the train and picking up empties.

They’ll repeat the routine tomorrow and every weekday, delivering more lumber, a few loads of asphalt and an occasional tanker full of chemicals to the same handful of customers located along the rail corridor.

Between Nampa and the Ada County border, we slip past construction crews working to square off lots and laying sewer pipe for future subdivisions that will bump almost up to the track – very different from the dirty industrial expanses that border the cutoff almost everywhere but on the Boise Bench.

Throughout Meridian and Boise, dozens of tiny, abandoned spurs branch off the track and end within a few yards. Most are remnants of the long-pulled-up rail lines that once connected outlying communities to Boise, but today, the only traffic they receive is to store the cars that the Idaho Northern delivers to its customers. Since it’s the only railroad still using the Boise cutoff, there’s no danger of them getting in anyone’s else’s way.

Our ride to Boise is slow and rhythmic inside the Idaho Northern locomotive, taking about an hour (not counting the stops) in cab conditions that Matranga describes as “Spartan.” Translation: If you want water or lunch, bring a cooler, which might have to double as a seat.

If you have to pee, there are plenty of weeds to water, but once I get past the early hours and sparse surroundings, the ride proves an eye-opener for one realization: Despite the shrieking clatter of airbrakes, train horns, clanking cars and old steel wheels on old tracks, people in the Treasure Valley just don’t actually seem to notice the train anymore.

As we make our way toward busier train crossings in Boise, we see numerous drivers risk a $150 ticket by speeding across crossings in front of the train–most without even stopping at the crossing in the first place. The crew sees this so often, they can’t help but catcall and occasionally laugh at the impatient motorists. Short, who moonlights as a policeman in Emmett, even tells me that last year in Caldwell, a motorist was so oblivious to an Idaho Northern train, he actually ran into it at a crossing.

Even less of a laughing matter, though, is the once a year or so that Matranga says the train is derailed on the Boise cutoff. This is usually due to vandals who ignorantly flip the levers on unlocked switch stands, misaligning the rails – whether they realize that’s what they’re doing or not.

“We really aren’t moving fast enough for anything disastrous to happen,” he said.

“It’s just a lot of paperwork, and we have to get the police involved.”

When we finally pass through the historic Boise Depot, our receiving line is made up of a woman walking her dog and a young man apparently having his senior portrait taken. The woman walks along a thick white line that was painted on the brick platform to notify passengers how close they could safely stand to the train.

The young man stands well within the line as the locomotive whirrs past, eager to have the colorful tan and green engine in his picture.

“You want to risk your life for that snapshot?” says Anderson quietly, shaking his head.

It’s appropriate that the only interaction between the train and a pedestrian on this particular morning is to provide a quaint backdrop in a photograph. For while the Boise cutoff was constructed with passenger trains in mind, it hasn’t carried a paying customer since Amtrak ceased services in 1997. As for the depot, which former Boise Mayor Brent Coles told a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the city had purchased, “to preserve the infrastructure that will be needed someday for commuter and passenger rail service in our region,” it gets more press for its wedding catering rules and its irregular visiting hours than for its potential to serve as a transit hub.

Nevertheless, Boise’s current mayor Dave Bieter has been as steadfast as his predecessor in prophesying that trains – commuter trains, specifically, pulling carloads of commuters from Canyon County and Meridian – will come back to Boise, and soon.

“Maybe not in the next 18 months, but certainly within the next 5 to 10 years,” he declared in his state of the city address last September.

In a recent interview, Bieter added, “A lot of people recognize that now is the time,” to revive rail transit, which he called “Just a better way to go.”

The complete story can be found online at http://www.boiseweekly.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A209538.

Vincennes tracks to move

A $1 million announcement was made in Vincennes, Ind. Thursday.

State Rep. Troy Woodruff helped secure the cash to aid the city in its efforts to remove the railroads.

The money came from several agencies affected by relocating the tracks.

Even though the funds will actually kick a project talked about for a long time into high gear, many won’t believe it until they see it.

With 54 trains roaring through Vincennes a day, the horns are a part of David Halter’s life.

Halter says, “It always seems like when you’re trying to get to work or go to lunch, there’s a train stopped, slowed down or coming through town.”

It’s especially bothersome because he runs an ambulance service. Halter says it really interferes with trying to get to the hospital or the patient, especially when there’s a slow moving or even stopped train, WFIE Evansville reported last Thursday.

Things are looking up for Halter and the city. Several companies are providing the 20 percent needed to match the $5 million federal grant already secured by the state.

Woodruff said, “We were able to come up with the million dollars so that they wouldn’t have to dip into their pockets.”

Mayor Terry Mooney said, “We won’t have to use our major moves money. Now as a match we won’t have to divert some edit dollars to the match.”

Mooney says the news may be hard for residents to accept since it has been talked about for years.

In fact, residents have adjusted to all the train tracks. Driver Lisa Campbell says she always gets stopped a good 15 or 20 minutes and plans for it.

Leaders say Vincennes is on the fast track to moving the railroads. Mooney said, “Without this money it would take a long, long time. Now we’re talking within five years.”

An environmental impact study will be conducted over the next 18 months to narrow down three locations where they could reroute the railroads. All appear to be out in the county.

The reporter did not name the railroads.

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