20.8.15

NO SECOND TRAIN TO THE CITIES OR BEYOND.

For a while in the early years of Amtrak, passengers in the Chicago and Twin Cities via Milwaukee corridor had the choice of two trains.  The best offerings reprised loosely the Morning and Afternoon Hiawatha schedules, toward the end there was a day trip each way and the overnight North Star for and from Superior.  The service suffered from timekeeping, as the other schedules were the east end of the transcontinental Empire Builder and North Coast Hiawatha service, and one of the ways Amtrak made the trains worth traveling again on no money was to get rid of the spare coaches and power that would have protected the schedule east of the Cities.

But the second train, possibly continuing to St. Cloud or Fargo or Grand Forks, is an idea that will not go away.
Encouraged by ridership that has doubled over the past decade and standing-room-only conditions on some trains, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying a plan to add three express trains on its Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago, boosting the number of round trips a day from seven to 10.

The express trains would skip two local stops, serving only Union Station in Chicago, Mitchell International Airport on Milwaukee’s south side, and downtown Milwaukee. Train speeds would also be increased to 90 mph.

“The department really feels that people are becoming aware of the Hiawatha service and its convenience, and are looking for alternative modes of transportation,” WisDOT spokesman Brock Bergey tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The Hiawatha service continues to grow, and the department is very interested in making sure we can meet the needs and desires of the traveling public,” he says.

After Wisconsin DOT completes a draft of it study in a few months, two public hearings will be scheduled in Wisconsin and Illinois, after which a final plan will be submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration. If approved, the proposal will move to design and construction phases.

Also being studied is a second daily train on the Empire Builder’s Chicago-Twin Cities route. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells the Journal Sentinel ridership grew by 16 percent from 2011 to 2012. “A second round-trip is a significant improvement for passengers by providing more same-day trips without overnight stays and by making it more likely our scheduled arrivals and departure times meet their travel needs,” Magliari says.

A draft of a feasibility study by Amtrak should be available in December. The second train would terminate in St. Cloud, Minn., a crew change point for Amtrak about 70 miles west of Minneapolis.
I'm still waiting for those additional Hiawatha schedules and the 60 minute train between the airport and Chicago Union Station.  It's the additional service beyond that generates the buzz.
Ridership on a second Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago could exceed 150,000 passengers a year, but Minnesota and Wisconsin would have to pay for operating shortfalls, a new rail study concluded.

The study, commissioned by Amtrak at the request of Minnesota and Wisconsin state transportation agencies and the city of La Crosse, comes in the midst of metro-area rancor over transit funding. It projects $46.4 million in equipment purchases, as much as $175 million in railroad improvements and about $6.6 million a year in state-financed subsidies to cover the difference between ticket revenue and the costs of operating a second train.

The current, once-a-day Amtrak train that crosses Minnesota “provides little schedule flexibility to travelers in the corridor,” the study concluded.

“Obviously anything we can do to expand service to our residents will help with economic development,” said Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, who has taken a lead on east metro transportation issues. “Businesses really do want additional options to have multimodal transportation to move their services and goods.”

If money is found to finance a second line, the train most likely would run from Union Depot in St. Paul to Chicago, although future extensions to Minneapolis and St. Cloud would also be considered. The proposal is independent of discussions about starting high-speed rail service to Chicago.
Frequency and connectivity matter. Plus amenities. The wish-list adds more amenities to a corridor train than the Europeans generally offer.
Under that scenario, trains would leave St. Paul daily and would consist of two diesel locomotives, four bi-level coaches, two bi-level snack coaches and two bi-level “cab coaches,” accommodating as many as 270 passengers, the study said.
Forgive me the impertinence, but that sounds a lot like a Chicago and North Western Bi-Level 400 Streamliner,  Two diesels and two cab coaches suggest a rake of diesel - two coaches - snack coach - cab coach, and that ought to have seats for nearly 400 pasengers.


And a Thomas Lifson tribute to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Sauk Centre, Minnesota, mentions the rail corridor that used to go there.

Great Northern Railway tribute page image.

Call the roll:  Empire Builder and Western Star for and from Seattle, Winnipeg Limited for and from Winnipeg, Red River and Dakotan for and from eastern North Dakota points.

We're going to have to wait.
The study concluded that the route between St. Paul and Chicago is the most feasible for initial service with potential extensions to Minneapolis and St. Cloud. It recommends an environmental review of the project, which would have a robust public involvement component and provide eligibility for federal funding. MnDOT, WisDOT and LaCrosse County are determining how to fund this step.

The study includes an assessment of schedules, ridership, revenue, infrastructure investments, operating costs, and equipment needs associated with adding a second daily train between Minnesota and Chicago. It assumes the second round trip train would use the same route the Empire Builder.

Annual ridership on the additional daily train, with a morning departure from Chicago and a mid-day departure from St. Paul, is estimated at about 155,000 passengers. This is an increase from the current Empire Builder ridership of about 104,000 between St. Paul and Chicago, with departures from St. Paul in the morning and Chicago in the afternoon.

There are anticipated capital investment costs for infrastructure capacity improvements, with a planning level cost estimate of about $95 million for the Chicago to St. Paul scenario. The St. Cloud and Minneapolis scenarios had higher infrastructure costs. If new equipment is used, there would be an additional $46.4 million cost.

The study estimates annual state operating support for the Chicago to St. Paul initial service would be approximately $6.6 million. The cost share among the funding parities for the service would be determined at a later date.
Contributing to the cost: the railroads might be using public money as a way of restoring capacity they once destroyed.
I’m all for railroads, in this instance mainly Canadian Pacific, being adequately compensated for running passenger trains on their lines. And if this route had no existing service, the $95 to $175 million might make more sense. But seriously, that kind of money to add two four-car, one diesel trains on an existing Amtrak route? Granted, the railroad is different from the 1970s and early 1980s when there were two Amtrak trains on the route: the Milwaukee Road was double track from Chicago to the Twin Cities. CP reduced it to single track CTC from just west of Milwaukee to Hastings, Minn., in the 1990s. Still, it’s not exactly a route that can’t handle two more Amtrak trains a day. So while railroads should certainly be paid to make some upgrades for more sidings and lengthening existing ones, the millions the study says will be needed seem way out of whack.

But those high prices are not really the railroads fault. One railroad manager told me because of provisions in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, that when railroads contemplate additional passenger service today they must consider how they are going to keep those trains on time, all the time. To do so, they “gold plate” any study on rail passenger service, including everything but the kitchen sink to make sure they can run those trains on time without interfering with freight service. The result is a huge run up in infrastructure cost estimates as compared to the past.

There is another factor at play, and probably the biggest one of all: politics. Love it or hate it, conservative politicians largely control the U.S. today. Some see the need for rail passenger service, but most don’t because of the cost of what they see as an expensive government program, and a belief that if passenger trains can’t make money so the private sector can run them, they are not needed.
Particularly when the rent-seekers in the highway lobby start griping about subsidized competition for the trucks and intercity busses that are pounding the roads.  Thus we wait and wait for the improved rail service.

8 comments:

Harvey Kahler said...

More stops and rush hour frequencies in both directions are needed for the Hiawathas more than expresses.

People have asked for stops at Kenosha, Gurnee, and Lake-Cook Road for commuting between Wisconsin and jobs in NE Illinois as well as in downtown Chicago. The Hiawatha route is more central and serving a wider corridor to the employment and other NE Illinois and Wisconsin destinations than the proposed KRP along the lakeshore.

The writer acknowledges the importance of service frequency. Rush hour trains every half hour, at least to Chicago, would be like an express for those waiting after an early arrival or later departure; and an earlier arrival and later departure would meet a significant unserved market. The problem is track capacity between Metra trains, so why not combine Amtrak and Metra services in trains making express stops? An additional rush hour stop at Lake Forest may be necessary along with Lake-Cook in a skip-stop express pattern while the stop at Glenview would be discontinued, at least in the morning to and in the evening from Chicago when Lake-Cook stops are made. A Western Avenue stop would be made for the nearby Illinois Medical Center in the peak direction. Another stop at Mayfair might be worked into the schedule for the convenience of reaching O'Hare Airport and area destinations on the CTA Blue Line from Montrose.

Compatible Metra-type gallery cars could be fitted with Amtrak seats in deference to Wisconsin commuters for use in trains with Metra commuters. The former CNW intercity "Bi-levels" (gallery cars) were used in Rock Island, South Shore, and Valparaiso commuter services; but it may be more efficient to allow mixed seating to allow Wisconsin commuters to fill seats vacated by Illinois commuters from Chicago than hauling separate cars for segregated services. Metra cars provide 140 seats and would provide only about 90 seats configured for Hiawatha service. A single Amtrak P-42 locomotive could reasonably handle up to eleven cars, attaining 79 mph in 6.5 miles with a full passenger load on level track, resulting in a 110-minute schedule with seven intermediate stops. By comparison, other Amtrak trains with up to 5 PRII bi-levels with 382 seats in 3 coaches, a business class/lounge, and coach/cab/baggage car could attain 79 mph in 3.5 miles but save little time overall.

Harvey Kahler said...

A second Twin Cities train could be extended to Fargo, ND (an alternative crew base?) to take advantage of the existing station across the border from Moorehead where a stop also could be made. More of Minnesota would be served. The eastbound train could pass through Saint Paul at noontime and westbound in the late afternoon/early evening, allowing a half day of business or another travel purpose beside flexibility.

An extension of the second train to Grand Forks, ND, a return of the former GN Red River, would be feasible from a scheduling perspective while Bismark, ND would not. Service to Jamestown and Bismark would require an overnight service between Chicago and Saint Paul with a very late departure and early arrival at Milwaukee, the latter possibly interfering with the morning commute into Chicago. Either would require ND support. Interference would be compounded by the unreliability of a transcontinental train as part of a "North Coast Hiawatha" on the former NP "Mainstreeter" schedule between Seattle, WA.

More thought should be given to rerouting the second train through Rochester on the existing (former CNW) MDW and (former CRIP) UP between Winona and Saint Paul, serving more of Minnesota, albeit taking about an hour longer and involving more complicated agreements. This could lay the foundation for an additional round trip between Winona or Rochester and Fargo, or even a StPaul-Rochester-Fargo-StPaul cycle with one set of equipment.

Stephen Karlson said...

Instructive set of comments. Two brief observations. First, you're making the case for greater connectivity among Amtrak and the regional rail operators. When I'm overseas, my railpass is good on a puddle jumper to Oxford or Remagen and a cross country service for Manchester or Hamburg alike. But as you know Metra tickets aren't good on Amtrak and you dasn't get on at Glenview without a ticket for somewhere beyond Chicago. And the negotiations with the contracting railroads go on in isolation, e.g. a St. Louis Cardinal fan can't count on a convenient connection for or from Milwaukee, the Cities, or Detroit because the schedules deal only with the slots Union Pacific or Canadian Pacific or Norfolk Southern make available, line-by-line.

Second, I like the idea of several through trains Chicago - Milwaukee - the Cities - Fargo ... but as far as possible, keep them on one route. Additional frequencies attract riders in greater proportion, and those old Builder one way three days, Hiawatha the other way four days of the mid 1970s probably drove riders away.

Harvey Kahler said...

Correction: I calculated that a P42 with 5 PRII bi-levels could attain 79 mph in about 2.8 miles assuming a slight 0.1% upgrade. The 3.5 mile figure was start to stop. By comparison, a P-42 with 11 lighter gallery cars would take 7.9 miles start to stop.

Let me expand on that: the only places where 110 mph might be attained by a 5-car bi-level Hiawatha, 12.3 miles start to stop, are between Milwaukee Airport-Sturtevant, Lake Cook-Mayfair, or Lake Forest-Mayfair contingent on 0.5-degree curves. Other distances between stations either are too short or involve other restrictions. I do not subscribe to the idea that speed is more important than the fuel and maintenance costs for a second locomotive for so little time savings.

The 1-degree curves between Kenosha and Gurnee on track owned by CP would be problematic and would limit trains to 90 mph with 4 inches cant deficiency balanced for the wear of 50 mph freight trains. Speed restrictions for the railroad crossings at Rondout (CN) and Mayfair (UP) also interrupt fast running.

Harvey Kahler said...

I think serving Rochester, MN is the exception to the desirability of consolidating station costs and utilization along one route. The populations and destinations, especially Mayo Clinic, are more significant and beneficial than infrastructure costs for a second route through southern Minnesota. This route was important enough to study and add some competition and controversy for a Tri-State service. A route through Eau Claire was promoted by Wisconsin as well.

Harvey Kahler said...

Connectivity doesn't explain it. The Hiawathas need to make suburban stops for Wisconsin commuters; so why not let them carry Chicago commuters as well? Rather than trying to convince Metra to allow 500-passenger Amtrak trains in peak slots instead of trains carrying 1,000 or more Metra commuters, combine services that would alleviate some demand for Metra capacity. Otherwise, Amtrak would be stuck behind Metra trains - just look at the schedules for #330 and #339; so why not make the best of it, using the time for strategic express stops accessing Illinois employment while serving Metra commuters? The Metra MND 2-main track line has limited capacity, and a third track is a costly investment for 6 trains.

There is no good reason not to accept Metra tickets between Illinois points on the Hiawathas; and Metra should honor Amtrak tickets to and from Wisconsin points to reach intermediate stations along the MDN.

Because of the bias in demand to Illinois employment and from Illinois commuters to Wisconsin, separate sets of stops would be made in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Morning inbound stops would be made at Lake Forest in the peak and at Lake-Cook and Western Avenue, outbound stops could be made at Glenview and Lake Forest with the connection from Fox Lake, and be reversed in the afternoon.

Western Avenue is necessary for commuters and Amtrak alike to reach the Illinois Medical District more expeditiously.

An additional stop should be made at Mayfair for a convenient connection to O'Hare on the Blue Line most of the day except for a couple rush hour trains each way

Stephen Karlson said...

Biggest challenge is getting Amtrak and Metra to honor each other's tickets, though, undoubtedly the accounting department and the people who do government relations will have all sorts of objections. Convincing commuters to change trains from a semi-fast to a stopping train will be something new for the USA. (Yes, both are common practices elsewhere.) Also a challenge, finding space for the additional stations (Gurnee for the amusement park and the outlet mall, Mayfair closer to the L and the Wisconsin Division, and one way to make better connections between Fox Lake and Milwaukee services might be to four-track Lake Forest).

Raw speed may not be everything, but don't drivers resist some train services even though with congestion, drive times are longer than running times of stopping trains? Even so, note how things work on the old Burlington, there are nonstoppers for Chicago leaving from Naperville, Downers Grove, and Hinsdale at about the same time. On the other hand some of the North Western's Milwaukee trains, years ago, made what were the kind of commuter stops you're referring to.

Historically, the fast running on the Milwaukee generally was A-68 to Rondout, and Lake Forest to Mayfair.

Harvey Kahler said...

The problem for combined services isn't accepting tickets, it's counting them to apportion revenue and cost cost by train and is only significant in the peak direction with longer trains. The passenger already bought the ticket and Metra and Amtrak would have their money.

I'd hate the time and cost to require crew to scan each ticket to record and validate Metra and Amtrak passenger counts rather than make a visual inspection; but there is time between stops. One alternative may be for Metra to conduct semi-annual counts validated by Amtrak crews. Metra crews can report the small number Amtrak tickets honored to or from local stops for continuing passengers.

One rarely publicized convenience is using a suburban train to reach an intercity or long-distance stop. This wasn't a problem when local railroad agents sold through tickets. The cost would be too great for the small volume to sell Amtrak tickets at all MDN stations for travel originating in Illinois to Wisconsin using a Metra train connection; but a ticket purchased on line and printed out would be one option to purchasing separate Metra and Amtrak tickets.

Unfortunately, printed tickets require optical rather than Ventra RF scanning technology; but Ventra tickets are indistinguishable and problematic for Metra zone fare control! Metra will make successive scans in route (good luck with that!) with expensive hand held devices.

I identified a potential parcel of land for a station, bus boarding, and parking in the southeast quadrant where (New) Grand Avenue crosses under the CP tracks in Gurnee. There could be wetland or drainage issues. The former Gurnee station site to the north (and Wadsworth) would be unsuitable.

Back in the day, some North Western trains did make numerous suburban stops. I occasionally caught the 11 pm train to Madison to Des Plaines, making all suburban stops to Harvard before its discontinuance in 1963. An E7 pulled two 400 coaches and must not have had too many passengers bound for either Janesville or Madison at that hour.

As for speed the current problem beside at Rondout and Mayfair would be for curves between Bain Station Road and IL-173. Maybe this was no problem historically with a 90 mph limit or even 100 mph earlier with steam with more cant in curves, less acceptable now with higher freight loads and weights. I can't see any reason that A-68 (Caledonia) would be significant.