New Silver Spring Commuter Station Opened
[By Allen Brougham]...
With little fanfare, MARC opened its new Silver Spring, Maryland, station on March 24. It is located about a block and a half west (geographically north) of the former station, and is adjacent to the Washington Metro's Silver Spring stop.
I ventured to Silver Spring a couple of days later to check things out. In fact, I rode into town on a Metro train; I wanted to see just how easy it was to make a transition from that system to the other. Although I was previously coordinated with the MARC station's location, I intentionally pretended to know nothing more than what the signs told me. Moreover, I wanted to guide my way over to the new facility without having to use steps. (I have no trouble climbing steps, but I wanted to see things from the perspective of easy accessibility.) With this method, I got lost. Signage, in my opinion, could be improved - or perhaps this part of the project has yet to be finished.
In due time I did find the ticket office, a rather drab portable structure tucked atop a slope perpendicular to the new westbound platform. The building could be an on-site construction office, hardly what one could recognize as a train depot. It is, however, functional, though quite small, with waiting room seating for 12 people at one end of the building and a tiny ticket office at the other end, separated by a narrow corridor.
It was here that I met Anna Lyons, the ticket agent for the day. I had spoken with Anna many times on the phone while I was with the railroad, but never before had I met her in person. We spent about an hour talking over old times and catching up with happenings.
After walking through the new facility, which includes a pedestrian bridge spanning the railroad and Metro tracks to reach the eastbound platform, I then walked down to the "old" Silver Spring station. For me, this was a rather nostalgic visit. That station had been one of my railfan haunts more than 50 years ago. On a visit with my grandmother about 1952, she would take me down to that station to watch trains. Typically the visits were in the morning, and I got to see the B&O's eastbound Diplomat and westbound Washingtonian make their station stops. Then on a couple of occasions I was treated to an evening visit to witness the westbound parade which included the Capitol Limited, Columbian and Ambassador, each spaced about ten minutes apart, followed about half an hour later by the National Limited. Indeed, the station was a beehive of activity with many passengers opting to board at Silver Spring rather than downtown in Washington. The B&O, recognizing the convenience of Silver Spring as a suburban location, scheduled all of its passenger trains to stop there.
Interestingly, the "old" station has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Late last year it was rededicated following a restoration project to depict its appearance when it was built. While the station is seen as an incremental part of the legacy of Silver Spring, it was no longer seen as a facility to serve its original function. Instead, the former baggage room has been leased as office space, and the waiting room is reserved for meetings and special events. The waiting room was closed at the time of my visit, and an employee in the leased office said I would need permission from Montgomery Preservation - the station's owner - to visit the waiting room to take pictures. So I simply peered through its windows. It certainly "looked" like the waiting room I had remembered, complete with its vinyl seats and antique clocks, rekindling the memories I had of the building's fondest hours. But I was saddened that it will never again be used as a place to await and board a train.
Historic as that station is, it was actually a rather new addition to Silver Spring. It came into being in 1945. The original Silver Spring station, a brick structure (a twin of one in Rockville, Maryland) designed by E. Francis Baldwin, was built in 1878. The 1945 station was built upon the same foundation. The B&O needed a more modern, roomier facility to handle its business.
For whatever my opinion is worth, the "new" Silver Spring station does nothing for the historic import of Silver Spring. Surely something at least remotely resembling a train station could have been offered. Take a look at what was made available at Dorsey, or downtown Frederick, to see what could have been. If the availability of space was an issue - which it probably was - then something of a miniature design could have been offered with but a little imagination. Maybe someday it shall.
A Visit to Staunton Cabin
[By Allen Brougham] . . .
The C&O called to its interlocking offices "cabins." The one at Staunton, Virginia, now closed, was called "HD" Cabin, according to one of the local folks familiar with its history. I paid it a visit on March 16.
By staging a visit to Staunton Cabin, this was actually an "excuse" for going on yet another Amtrak trip. Really, I don't need an excuse to do that. I had already been to Staunton a couple of times before, and had already seen Staunton Cabin. But I needed a title for this feature (since I had already used the title "By Amtrak to Staunton" in an earlier piece), so this one will serve the purpose rather handily.
The occasion was the annual St. Patrick's Day outing offered by the Chesapeake Railway Association. Nineteen members and friends of the association took part in a pilgrimage on Amtrak's Cardinal from Washington to Staunton. It was here that many in the group used their excuse in taking the train to have dinner at the Depot Grille at the Staunton train station, and then return to Washington on the eastbound train following a one hour and 20 minute layover. But my itinerary differed from theirs by dining on the train instead. (At least, that was my intention.) Indeed, the Cardinal is billed as having a full-service dining car, and lunch and dinner hours are conveniently slotted on both the going and returning portions of the journey. I was joined on the trip by Darren Reynolds, a friend who had never before enjoyed a real dining car meal.
An Amtrak fare was offered to the group at $49 per person, for those who ordered tickets by a certain date, but I waited until the last minute to avail use of my pass, if there was still space (which there was), and ride for free. Others in the group, though, found a wide assortment of ticket prices ranging from a low of $9.40 to a high of ten times that amount - a phenomenon created by the yield management process and on-line ticket sales. However this played out for Amtrak's revenue base, the train was somewhat full, and there was a happy load of passengers in each direction.
My own itinerary was dealt a setback on the going portion, as there was no dining car. Ouch! Instead, there was a lounge car for use by the coach passengers, and a custom-class cafe coach for use by those in the sleepers. Neither could offer the traditional amenities of a true dining car, but I soon learned that there really was a diner assigned to the train of the return portion. Accordingly, both Darren and I opted to forego eating in Staunton in favor of waiting to enjoy dinner on the train.
The tower (err, I mean "cabin") is a two-story affair next to Staunton's depot. Passengers no longer use the depot, now replete with trendy restaurants, but instead have use of the bottom floor of HD Cabin. The top floor, meanwhile, serves as a (very tiny) private apartment. A sign on the building reads, "Signal House - Circa 1886." The local fellow, previously mentioned, believes that the building was likely built later than that, although it may have replaced an earlier structure of that particular date.
There is no agent at Staunton, so input as to expected arrival of a train can be accessed via pay phone by calling Amtrak's 800 number. But herein presents a problem... Julie, the computer voice who answers questions using word recognition techniques, does not know that Staunton is actually pronounced "Stanton," as if there were no "u." References to this name, as correctly pronounced, resulted in an explanation that the train does not serve Hampton, Virginia. Ha! Twice I asked - each time being sure to pronounce the name clearly for Julie's benefit - both with the same response. Finally, I pronounced the name Staunton incorrectly (first syllable as in "caught" or "taught"), and this time Julie understood. She even repeated the name (also incorrectly) as she gave me the time to expect the train to arrive. It arrived about one hour and 15 minutes late.
To the diner both Darren and I went as first call was announced, he selecting the Barbecue Rib and I the Swordfish Steak. It was excellent! So enthralled by his experience, Darren returned the following week, taking the Cardinal from Washington to Charlottesville. On the way back, in the diner, he selected the New York Strip.
PTI - Two Years Later
[By Allen Brougham] . . .
[Photo of me with my van, taken by CSXT locomotive engineer Mike Welsh late this past winter]
My, how time flies when I'm having fun! It's now been two years since I began my part-time job with PTI driving CSXT crews in Brunswick, Maryland. I should say, once again, that driving a crew van is a superb way to stay in touch with folks on the railroad, and the involvement is every bit as exciting as it was when I was in the towers. Also, by working two days a week, I can enjoy the fruits of retirement and work, both at the same time!
Of course, I do not really think of it as work. (Nor did I think of serving in the towers as work, either, but that's a different story.) In fact, boredom is my worst enemy. On some days, a couple of hours can pass without a single run.
But then there are times that van activity is such that crews literally wait in line for transportation. That's when I really become a part of the action.
Oh, yes, I've even written a song about being a van driver. Sung to the tune of "We're Having a Heat Wave," it goes like this: "I'm driving a crew van, I'm driving a crew van..." It's rather bland, but you get the idea.
I'm what's known as a "yard" driver (as opposed to a "road" driver), and my duties involve transporting crews within the yard, between the yard and the motel, and between the yard and close-by points within about a 15-mile radius of Brunswick.
The job begins at 1:30 in the afternoon. Two vans are assigned to Brunswick during the hours of my shift, and we assemble outside the yard office in first-in-first-out fashion and await the next assignment. Each van is equipped with a two-way radio with railroad frequencies, and we get our instructions from the yardmaster. On average there are about ten assignments in an eight-hour shift, covering about 40 total miles of travel. Between runs I get to enjoy the comfort of the van, read the paper, listen to the FM radio, or the CD player, or yak with the other driver... and sometimes I take a nap. (A 30-minute nap is the norm.)
On some occasions, I'm assigned to remain with a crew while they perform switching duties, then take them to the head end of the train, or wherever, when they're finished. Meanwhile, I get to relax in the comfort of the van while the crew members do their work (in the rain, or snow, and in all kinds of temperature extremes). I can surely appreciate the hard work and conditions these folks must bear to get a job done. Make no mistake about it - train crews sometimes have to endure a lot of misery.
Driving a crew van would never make a person rich, but it's a lot of fun. At least a couple of readers have inquired about getting a job themselves. PTI is one of a many companies having railroad contracts, but to inquire about an opening with PTI, the number is 800-471-2440.
Amtrak to Drop "Acela" Name from Conventional Trains
Amtrak has decided to drop the "Acela" brand name from its conventional trains operating between Boston and Washington. The Acela name will now be used exclusively to identify Amtrak's premier high-speed service. The name, a combination of acceleration and excellence, was announced in early 1999 to identify most trains operating in the Northeast Corridor once new high-speed train sets, then being built, were put into service. Trains then known as NortheastDirect were eventually renamed "Acela Regional," and they will now be known simply as "Regional."
CSXT Modifies Fuel Cost Recovery Program
CSXT has announced a modification to its fuel cost recovery program. Under the new program, fuel surcharges will be adjusted up or down 0.4 percent for every dollar increase or decrease in oil prices above $23 per barrel. Charges will be determined monthly based on the 30-day average price of West Texas intermediate crude oil.
Franklin Carr Dies
Franklin J. Carr, who was responsible for most of the graphic images associated with the Chessie System era, including adapting the C&O sleeping kitten to the Chessie System logo and design of the company's locomotive paint scheme, died on March 16. He was 62.
Union Pacific Testing Battery-Powered Locomotive in Chicago
Union Pacific is testing a hybrid battery-powered locomotive in its Chicago railyards to determine its feasibility as an alternative to conventional diesel locomotives. Called the "Green Goat," the locomotive could reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxides by as much as 90 percent, according to a UP report. It was tested in Roseville, California, last year, and then moved to Chicago in January of this year for cooler-weather testing, slated to continue until June.
Norfolk Southern Forms Mexican Subsidiary
Norfolk Southern has formed a Mexican subsidiary, NorfolkSouthernMexicana, to market the railroad's transportation and logistics services in Mexico. The subsidiary will serve both U.S. and Mexican customers involved in the NAFTA trades and further strengthen partnerships with western rail carriers, according to a company press release.
Intermodal Ship-to-Rail Facility to be Built on Staten Island
The New York and New Jersey Port Authority has approved plans to build a $72.5-million ship-to-rail intermodal facility at the Howland Hook Marine Terminal on Staten Island. It will be located on a 38-acre parcel at a former Procter & Gamble site which the Port Authority purchased in 2000.
B&O Museum Cancels Fair of the Iron Horse Exposition
Because of damage to the B&O Railroad Museum's roundhouse from heavy snow in February, the museum has announced the cancellation of the Fair of the Iron Horse exposition which had been scheduled to take place from June 28 through July 3. "Our focus now is to restore, rebuild, and reopen this national treasure," said Jim Brady, chairman of the museum's board. In the meantime, Star-Spangled Rails, the joint NRHS/R&LHS convention to be held in Baltimore in July, will go on as scheduled with an adjusted itinerary.
CSX Announces Exterior Upgrade to Headquarters
[CSXT Midweek Report, March 20, 2003]... In a March 20 press release, CSX Corporation and CSX Transportation announced that the downtown Jacksonville headquarters will undergo an exterior upgrade beginning later this month. The building's exterior will be covered with a beige elastomeric coating. For the most part, the material will be applied over the blue and green tiles now in place. The re-coating will begin next month, should be completed in about a year, and will cost less than $1-million.... The 500 Water Street building was built in 1960 as headquarters for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, when it relocated to Jacksonville from Wilmington, North Carolina. The building cost $13-million to build. It contains 475,000 square feet of space and is supported by 1,956 concrete piles along 500 feet of riverfront.
Dixiana Auto Ramp Breaks Record
[CSXT Midweek Report, March 20, 2003]... On March 7, a South Carolina auto ramp unloaded a record 94 racks of automobiles (about 900 autos) in a single day. The people involved say that success comes from a high level of cooperation between CSXT's nearby Cayce Yard and InterRail (an unloading company that provides the people power at Dixiana). The action takes place under the watchful eyes of CSX affiliate TDSI, which manages auto distribution facilities. TDSI transloads customers' products from one transportation mode to another - railcar to truck, truck to railcar, or railcar to ship.. CSXT's Aaron Michael, terminal manager at Cayce, and InterRail's Tim Parker, operations manager, tag-team the trains that pour through Cayce Terminal for spotting on the TDSI unloading ramp. "We look at these auto racks not as TDSI or CSXT," said Michael. "We're working with GM and Chrysler in mind." The TDSI ramp looks like a giant car lot. Row after row of brand new Humvees and GM trucks stand next to fields of Jeep Cherokees, Dodge Rams and Chrysler 300s. Parker says that each of his people unload an average of 70 vehicles per day. "They made the record this month with no injuries and no accidents," Parker said, noting that the last injury at his TDSI location occurred back in September. For its part, Cayce Terminal's yard crews serving the ramp are 271 days injury-free.
CSXT Employees Assist Stranded Amtrak Passengers
[CSXT Midweek Report, March 6, 2003]... Fostoria, Ohio, signal foreman Bill Faber and F Tower interlocker operator Ed Jerew recently came to the aid of about 105 stranded Amtrak passengers. Their story began Sunday, February 23, when a New York to Chicago passenger train experienced an electrical failure after leaving Youngstown, Ohio. The outage left passengers without heat, water, food or sanitation facilities in temperatures hovering around 20 degrees from one in the morning until their arrival in Fostoria at 10 a.m. The Amtrak crew was going to secure the train on a siding until buses arrived to transport the passengers to their destination. But Jerew contacted the chief train dispatcher and worked out an even better plan to secure the train closer to the facility office. Their plan was also coordinated with the Fostoria Police Department because it required the train to block one crossing while keeping another open. Jerew called signal foreman Bill Faber, who was off on his rest day, and requested that he unlock the signal office so the elderly passengers wouldn't have to climb the steps to the tower. Faber responded by traveling roads covered with eight to 10 inches of snow. But his arrival was welcomed, because it provided the passengers with restroom facilities, phone service, coffee and use of a microwave oven so that they could heat food from the dining car. "Bill provided answers to many inquiries and soothed the ruffled feathers of some very irate travelers," said Denny Moorman, signal supervisor. "Ed Jerew provided the use of the tower facilities while coordinating train movements and taking control of the situation." The buses finally arrived at 2 p.m.
Storing Leased Locomotives to Save Money
[CSXT Midweek Report, March 27, 2003]... CSX Transportation maintains leases for 406 locomotives for use in peak seasons. But analysis has shown that they cost more to operate in the long run because of more frequent breakdowns, as determined by a variety of measurements. This week, CSXT will begin storing some of them. "Our leased locomotives rank below our owned fleet by several percentage points in terms of reliability," said Mike Wall, vice president Mechanical. Wall said if the leased units were as reliable as the owned fleet (29-day out-of- service rate of 5.8 percent or less), the railroad would have 10 more locomotives available to handle traffic. That's about three to five more trains that could run each day. Thirty-five of the locomotives were to be stored by March 24. "In the last few years, our arrangement with the supplier is that we only pay for days that we use the leased locomotives," Wall said. "By using our more reliable owned fleet, we expect to increase locomotive availability as well as save money. This will help us free up resources - crews and maintenance employees - and keep our system more fluid."
Amtrak - The Canary and the Myths
[By David L. Gunn - 2/25/03] . . .
Now that I have had a little more than eight months at the helm of Amtrak, I've come to think of this company as the canary in the coal mine.
Not that we're constantly endangered every day by unseen forces - that's true - but that the problems we've been forced to deal with are symptoms of a very big problem for everyone in the transportation industry and especially for freight and passenger railroads all over the country.
The problem is that the business of moving people, whether by air, rail or transit, is only marginally profitable - if at all - and as a result requires a significant public subsidy to keep its head above water. In good times, state and federal support flows pretty well to cover the needs of roads, airports, transit systems and shipping - though not intercity passenger rail. In bad times, as we have today, airlines go bankrupt and the usually flush states howl over billions in lost federal highway funds.
Amtrak, of course, has it a lot worse, as it must scramble for federal transportation funding that is otherwise guaranteed to roads and airports through the walled-off highway and aviation trust funds. Federal rules even prohibit states from spending the federal dollars they receive on intercity passenger rail. That must be changed if we're ever to meet the expectations of a public that continues to demand more passenger rail service.
In fact, greater investment in all forms of transportation - including passenger rail - is exactly what we need right now for two reasons: the payout is relatively small compared to the payback in mobility, economic activity, jobs and productivity, plus the inverse cost of not investing - as is happening today - is paid out in the cost of congestion and billions of dollars in lost productivity.
We know - for years, intercity passenger rail has been short-changed. The lack of capital investment has undermined our operational reliability and the overall level of service we provide. A service like that in the long-run pretty soon runs out of customers. The same can be said of the freight railroads, where the margins are too thin and the return on investment inadequate. At some point, they will be where we are today, and that day of reckoning is coming soon. Amtrak is just the canary in the coal mine.
While I have concerns beyond this company, I run Amtrak and want to say a few words about our problems and our opportunities, and what I call the six myths of Amtrak.
The first myth is that Amtrak or passenger rail can be profitable. It can't, and others have gotten into a lot of hot water saying it can. In some regions with enough population density, some services can be profitable on an incremental basis - what railroaders call "above the rails." But it takes enormous public investment in track, signals, equipment and so on for a reliable system, which cannot be recovered from fares. Public dollars build airports and public dollars should build rail corridors, too.
The second myth is that the private sector is dying to take over Amtrak's service. This is not the case either. Remember why Amtrak was formed - because the private sector was losing millions of dollars covering passenger rail's capital and operating costs. The economics of passenger rail haven't improved in the past thirty years and won't change much in the next thirty years.
The third myth goes like this: long distance trains are the big money losers. They are like a sea anchor on the whole system. Get rid of them and the problem's solved. Wrong again. Out of our current year federal subsidy need of $1.2 billion, only $300 million will go to covering the operating loss of long-distance trains.
Myth number four is that Amtrak is a featherbed for labor. First, those who know me know that I'm a demanding manager. But I also know that the wage rates at Amtrak are generally defensible vis-a-vis the rest of the industry - especially the transit systems. What we do have to do - and I mean labor and Amtrak - is deal with the work rules to improve efficiency. And we'll do that through our labor negotiations, not in the popular press.
Myth five is that the northeast corridor can be profitable. As I said in myth one, when you total all the operating and capital costs - above and below the rails - it just doesn't work. The NEC covers its above the rails costs - barely - but requires and will always require public investment in its infrastructure. But that shouldn't surprise anyone - it is one of the biggest contiguous pieces of commercial real estate in the country and contains one of the most complex transportation operations in the world next to our taxpayer-supported national air traffic control system.
Finally, myth number six: there is a quick-fix that will solve everything. This, reminds me of the old adage "for every complex problem there is a simple answer and its probably wrong." People imply there is a "reform" that will solve Amtrak's problem - not so.
There are things that we can and should do to improve the service, reliability and efficiency of our operation and earn the public support and investment we need. In the short run, this means stabilizing the company, rebuilding our existing equipment and working to return the infrastructure to a state of good repair. While no single action will ever make us profitable in a true commercial sense, we can significantly improve our economics by focusing on our core business, improving our on-time performance and going after the excess. We've made a start by getting better cost-control mechanisms in place, streamlining and downsizing our management structure and getting out of the unprofitable express business. There will be a lot more that we can and will do to clean up the shop.
In the end, I think millions of people are going to continue to demand our service and support a public role for investing in passenger rail. Our job at Amtrak is to reach a level of efficiency, reliability and good service on our own that will make it easier for everyone - from passengers to politicians - to separate fact from myth and recognize the value of passenger rail to this country. The canary will be better off and so will the coal miner.