Sunday Train: Southern Comfort ~ Upgrading Amtrak’s New York Sleepers

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from Voices on the Square

Back in early June, in Putting Steel into the Amtrak Long Distance Backbone, I looked at the Amtrak “PRIIA Section 210” upgrade plans for the five Long Distance services with the lowest operating cost recovery, mandated for Fiscal Year 2010 by the PRIIA legislation.

I also looked at the side-effects of the freight-oriented Steel Interstate proposal, which would offer the opportunities for dramatic improvements in the performance of Long Distance sleeper trains ~ not simply the financial performance but also, and more importantly for addressing the Petroleum Addiction of our intercity transport system, dramatic improvement in the delivery of service to the customers.

This week I look at the “middle” five long distance routes that were reported on for Fiscal Year 2011:

  • The Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to Boston and Chicago to New York City via the Cleveland/Buffalo Erie Lakeshore route
  • The Crescent, from the “Crescent City” of New Orleans, Louisiana to New York City via Atlanta, and
  • the “Silver Services” ~ the Silver Meteor from Miami to New York via Charleston, SC, the Silver Star from Miami to New York via Tampa, Columbia, SC and Raleigh, NC, and the Palmetta from Savannah, Georgia to New York via Charleston, SC.

Ending Up In the Middle

Now, there are fifteen (15) Long Distance Trains in the Amtrak skeleton long-distance rail network (to get an idea of what a non-skeleton long-distance rail network might look like, cf. the National Association of Rail Passengers plan). How do they decide which are the worst five performers, to be studied first, the middle five, to be studied in the last Fiscal Year, and the five best, to be studied in the current Fiscal Year? Well, they measure them by a Customer Satisfaction Index, (as a percentage), On-Time Performance (as a percentage), and Operating Cost Recovery (as a percentage), take a simple average of those three percentages, and then rank them based on that.

Ranked by Cost Recovery, the best service is the Auto Train at 88%, the worst is the Sunset Ltd at 24%, and the median service is the Capital Ltd. at 48%. The worst performer is a three-trains-per-week service, and the second worst performer is the other three-trains-per-week service, the Cardinal at 35% cost recovery, so it is not surprising that the first set of reports included upgrading those two to daily service, with a total revamp of the Sunset Ltd. Route. Our five services are (rank in parentheses): the Palmetto 61% (3); Silver Meteor 49% (7);  Crescent 46% (9); Lakeshore Ltd 44% (12); and Silver Star 43% (13).

Ranked by Customer Satisfaction surveys, the best service is again the Auto Train at 84%, the worst is the Cardinal at 66%, and the median service is the Crescent at 76%. Our five services are: the Crescent 76% (8); the Silver Star 75% (9); the Silver Meteor 74% (11); the Palmetto 72% (12); and the Lakeshore Ltd 70% (13). On balance, it is relatively low ranking Customer Satisfaction scores that have pulled services down into this group that otherwise might be in the top five.

The operating conditions of daily long distance trains running over hosted freight railroad track, often in single track corridors, and normally far away from back up locomotives or other equipment means that the shining star in terms of On Time Performance is the Auto Train at a mediocre 82, with all other services arrayed out across a range of disappointing, such as the median Lakeshore Ltd. at 58%, through to abysmal, such as the Texas Eagle which brings up the rear with an appallingly bad OTP of 18%. Our five services tend to be in the “bad, but not as bad as many others” group: the Crescent 67% (3); the Silver Meteor 66% (4); the Lakeshore Ltd 58% (8); the Palmetto 52% (9); and the Silver Star 45% (10). On balance, it is On Time Performance being less bad than the worst that slots these five above the five lowest ranking Long Distance services.

The Crescent Service: Georgia On My Mind

The Crescent Service is an example of of a corridor with the transport demand to one side much larger than the transport demand to the other ~ and also the challenge of running a sleeper service over an 18hr route. From NYC, it operates as a sleeper to Atlanta, arriving at 8:13am from 2:15pm start in NYC the previous day. It then runs as a day service from Atlanta to New Orleans, arriving at 7:32pm. In the reverse direction, it leaves New Orleans at 7am and runs as a day train, arriving in Atlanta at 7:35pm, and then as a sleeper to NYC, arriving in New York at 1:46pm after an 8pm departure from Atlanta.

At present, with 52% percent of passengers traveling only on the northern segment and 23% of passengers traveling through Atlanta, the Crescent is capacity-constrained on the 18hr Atlanta-NYC side of its trip, limiting opportunities to earn additional revenue. However, it generally has surplus capacity on the 12hr Atlanta / New Orleans side of its route, with only 21% of passengers traveling exclusively within the southern segment.

Given that the train arrives in Atlanta arond 8am and leaves 8pm, it would be very appealing to take advantage of this imbalance by splitting the train at Atlanta. With a single set of extra cars capable of operating as a corridor service, this could a service that runs to Macon or Columbus, GA and turn back the same day. With two sets, it could be a service that runs Macon / Savannah / Jacksonville and turns back the following day.

However, this is not a viable strategy at present. The problem is that the original main Atlanta stations, Atlanta Union and Atlanta Terminal, were demolished in 1972, and Amtrak presently operates out of what was originally a local commuter platform, Brookwood Station, several miles north of Downtown. The only access between the station building and the platform below are steep steps and an elevator, with the elevator accessed across a mainline freight track. Brokkwood has not parking, does not offer ADA compliant access, and cannot accommodate connecting buses ~ either local or intercity.

Even worse, the narrow single platform on a passenger rail siding between Norfolk Southern’s two mainline tracks:

For safety reasons,

freight trains are held out of the station when Amtrak trains are stopped there. This means that Amtrak trains and equipment cannot occupy the station tracks for extended periods for switching or servicing. (p. 25)

What Amtrak can do is cut a set of cars off the southbound train to New Orleans in the morning, shift them off to a siding, and then add them back to the northbound train in the evening. Under the plan, a fifth coach would be added to the train north of Atlanta, with a lounge and two to three coaches cut off the train in Atlanta (two during the peak demand period, three during the off-peak demand period). So this is the first proposed PRIIA improvement. This change is projected to increase revenue by $1.2m from 38,300 new passengers, and reduce operating costs by $0.3m.

This leads directly into the second upgrade, which is to add dedicated connecting Thruway bus services: from Atlanta to Macon and Columbus, GA; from Atlanta to Chattanooga, TN; from Birmingham to Montgomery, AL; and from Meridian to Jackson, MS. The obstacle to putting these into place at present is the fact that much of the demand for these services are to points north of Atlanta, and the Crescent does not have the capacity to serve this new demand. The five Thruway buses are projected to generate $3.7m additional revenue, at an additional cost of $2.6m, for a revenue gain of $1.1m.

The remaining PRIIA change is a re-allocation of sleeper space used by crews so that they are in a single section of eight dormettes on the front of one sleeper trains, leaving the balance of bedrooms and roomettes in that car and the entire second sleeper car to be served by a single sleeper car attendant.

The “Silver” Routes

The “Silver Meteor” is the quasi-Express service between New York and Miami, running along the faster coastal alignment between Richmond and Savannah, GA, and running from Orlando to Miami without a detour to Tampa. The “Silver Star” is the quasi-local service, running through Raleigh NC and Columbia SC between Richmond and Savannah, and running from Orlando to Tampa and then backing out again to run down to Miami.

The Palmetto is a day corridor service that runs the northern portion of the Silver Meteor route, leaving NYC at 6:15am, DC at 9:55am, Richmond at 12:02pm, Charleston SC at 7:15pm and arrives at Savannah at 9:03pm. It returns the following morning at 8:20am, leaving Charleston SC at 10am, Richmond at 5:25pm, DC at 7:57pm, and NYC at 11:47pm.

The Silver Star leaves NYC at 11:02am, Raleigh at 9:16pm, as a sleeper to Jacksonville at 6:55am, Orlando at 10:31am, Tampa at 12:45pm, and Miami at 6:05pm. It leaves Miami late the following morning at 11:50am, Tampa at 5:17pm, Orlando at 7:24pm, Jacksonville at 10:37pm, as a sleeper to Raleigh at 8:54am, NYC at 7:18pm. So in both directions it is a day corridor NYC/Raleigh, a sleeper Raleigh/Jacksonville, a day corridor Jacksonville/Orlando/Tampa, and a day corridor Tampa/Miami.

The Silver Meteor leaves NYC at 3:15pm, DC at 7:30pm, as a sleeper to Savanna at 6:50am, Orlando at 12:25pm, and Miami at 6:55pm. It leaves Miami at 8:20am, Orlando 1:35pm, Savanna 7:38pm, as a sleeper to DC at 7:21am, and NYC at 11:06am. So in both directions, it is a day corridor NYC/DC, a sleeper DC/Savannah, and a day corridor Savannah/Orlando/Miami. The portion of its route that it passes late at night receives service to the NEC from the Palmetto.

There is no substantial improvements found for the basic underlying “Silver” route system. As the Silver Meteor had frequently sold out in the summer peak demand period, Amtrak has already added a coach to the Silver Meteor during the summer peak demand period, by reducing the number of cars out of service during this peak. As existing coaches in the NEC regional are replaced by new 125mph capable coaches, this might be be made out of available equipment rather than by juggling service schedules.

The improvements proposed include adding Quantico VA to one of the Silver service trains, and Fredericksburg VA to the other. Thruway buses are proposed to connect the Palmetto at Wilson NC, enroute between Raleigh and Richmond, to Morehead City via Greenville and to Wilmington via Goldsboro. An existing Thruway route from Jacksonville to Lakeland, on the route of the Palmetto before it was cut back, will get a relocated stop at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a new stop in The Villages between Ocala and Wildwood. And the many stations along the “Silver” service routes that are in a state of disrepair or with layouts that interfere with cart-based luggage management are proposed to be brought into a state of good repair in cooperation with their local owners.

The major changes that were considered for these routes were not possible due to the needs for additional equipment or capital spending. One is to run to Miami along the Florida East Coast railroad alignment, which is a faster alignment between Jacksonville and Miami than the one presently used by the Silver Meteor. The operation on the FEC corridor would require additional passenger cars, as it would be a split train service at Jacksonville, would require substantial improvements on the FEC corridor to provide the needed capacity, and would require running on State of Florida owned right of way in south Florida, which is a problem because the Florida DOT is forbidden to enter into a liability sharing agreement which Amtrak generally needs to have in place.

A second is a Chicago/Florida train, combining the Capital Ltd from Chicago to DC via Pittsburgh with the Silver Star route through to Orlando. The lost connection Jacksonville/Tampa and Tampa/Miami would be made up by extending the Palmetto to Tampa and Miami. While the Chicago/Florida service would increase revenues and increase operating cost recovery, it would increase operating costs by more than operating revenues, and so would require additional operating subsidies, and runs into liability problems running on the portion of the Orlando corridor now owned by the State of Florida.

The third is a reroute of the Silver Star between Raleigh NC and Columbia SC to run via Charlotte and Greensboro, NC. Re-routing the Silver Star via Charlotte and Greensboro, NC, would require a new connection between the Norfolk Southern track from Charlotte through to Columbia and the CSX track that serves the Columbia SC station and connects to the remainder of the route, and in addition to other capital investment required, this alternative requires a substantial capital investment in order to make the increase in patronage, revenue, and reduction in operating subsidy available.

The Lakeshore Limited

The Lakeshore leaves NYC at 3:45pm for Albany at 6:25pm, and Boston at 11:55am for Albany at 5:35pm, scheduled out of Albany at 7:05pm. As you can see, substantial leeway for delays are scheduled into the Boston/Albany leg of the split service. From Albany it operated as a night train to Buffalo at 11:55pm and a sleeper to Chicago at 9:45am, with early morning service at Toledo and morning service at Waterloo and South Bend, Indiana. It leaves Chicago at 9:30pm, runs as a sleeper to Buffalo at 9:08am, leaving Albany at 3:25pm for Boston at 9:10pm and Albany at 3:50pm for NYC at 6:35pm.

The Lakeshore is one of the trains that I can hear whistling through my small town in northeast Ohio … if I am up very late, since runs into Cleveland westbound between 3am and 4am in the morning.

The Lakeshore is a service that used to leave Chicago at 7pm. However, in 2007, under the pressure of the delays to Western trains, with passengers missing their 7pm connection, and to the eastbound Lakeshore, which delayed the westbound, it was rescheduled to 10pm. An earlier departure from Chicago with an earlier arrival at Boston and NYC would be more attractive for direct passengers, and would also offer better connections in those cities.

However, pushing the departure back to 7:00pm would introduce problems at Penn Station. At present, when a Lakeshore is running late, that pushes its arrival out of the trailing shoulder of the evening rush hour and into the off-peak period after the evening rush. Moving the arrival up by 2:30 means that it would be scheduled to arrive at 4:05pm. Then if it was running late, that would push it into an unscheduled arrival during the evening peak.

So Amtrak’s proposed solution is a swap. The Lakeshore would leave 3:30 earlier, at 6pm. The Capital Ltd, from Chicago to DC via Pittsburgh, would leave at 7:30pm. This would increase patronage and revenue for the Lakeshore Ltd. It would also improve the Capitol Ltd. The Capitol Ltd has added a through sleeper to Philadelphia and NYC by dropping off sleeper cars to be picked up by the Pittsburgh / Philadelphia / NYC Pennsylvanian. An after-sunrise arrival of the Capitol Ltd in Pittsburgh would both be more appealing for Pittsburgh bound passengers, and also reduce the layover of the sleeping cars dropped off by the eastbound Capitol Ltd and waiting to be picked up by the eastbound Pennsylvanian.

The obstacle to this upgrade is not cost but an ongoing improvement project along the route of the Capitol Ltd. service east of Pittsburgh, where CSX is improving tunnels. This involves taking a track out of service each day after the eastbound Capitol Ltd has passed through, and so a later Capital Ltd. departure from Chicago must wait upon completion of this work in 2013. Amtrak proposes to purse the later 7:30pm departure of the Capitol Ltd and earlier 6pm departure of the Lakeshore Ltd at that time.

Free Riding Off of Rapid Rail Corridor Projects

As discussed last week (in an anniversary repeat of the first Sunday Train about three years ago), most of the “HSR” projects currently being worked on by states ~ and in some cases with ground already broken and new/upgraded services to be brought in over the next four years ~ are not bullet train corridors, but rather “Rapid Rail” corridors, with speed limits increased from the common 50mph~79mph range to 110mph, improved signaling, upgraded level crossings, and additional passing track to allow the passenger trains to run to schedule without any loss of freight rail capacity.

And this set of corridors is well positioned to leverage off of many of these Rapid Rail “HSR” corridors.

The first of the benefits to the “Silver ” routes are, indeed, going to be rolling over the next four years. Virginia and North Carolina were beneficiaries of the first round of HSR funding, and benefited still more when Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida handed their intercity transport future back to the Federal government so some other state could get to the intercity transport future first.

Common to all three “Silver” services is the corridor from DC to Wilson NC via Richmond, and the focus of the Virginia Rapid Rail investments is in upgrading the DC to Richmond corridor. This 111 mile corridor is scheduled at (+h:+mm) 1:55, 2:09 and 2:10, for an effective 50mph to 58mph. Raising this to an effective 80mph would trim 30 to 40 minutes off the schedule, allowing for a an earlier arrival in Savannah and NYC for the Palmetto, and a departure closer to the end of the business day for the Silver Meteor. Even more important, it would reduce freight interference between DC and Richmond and help improve the inadequate On Time Performance of these services.

The planning for the extension of the Southeast HSR from Richmond to Raleigh is underway as we peak, with Virginia and North Carolina submitting their preferred alternatives for the sections of the alignment in May, 2012 (pdf). This will upgrade a further 126 miles of the Silver Meteor / Palmetto route and 197 of the Silver Star route, which would make for a total of 60-90 minutes taken off the “Silver” service schedules each way and reduce or eliminate freight rail interference over 237 to 308 miles of the “Silver” routes.

Rapid Rail corridors to benefit the Lakeshore Ltd and Crescent routes are not as far advanced. Feasibility studies have been completed for the Empire Corridor in New York State that the NYC / Albany leg of the Lakeshore runs on, together with the combined train from Albany through to Buffalo. If these corridors are completed, the Lakeshore will gain a speed increase, but the primary benefit will be improved On Time Performance, since the Buffalo / Albany section is one of the major sources of freight train delays on the corridor. And feasibility studies have been completed for the Atlanta / Charlotte NC section of the Southeast HSR corridor.

Now, Georgia is not showing any inclination to invest in HSR, and so the SEHSR corridor south of Charlotte NC seems likely to be a case of “take another study and don’t bother me again until its finished”. However, the North Carolina HSR corridor runs between Charlotte, NC and Raleigh, NC. This opens up the possibility of the Crescent running from Charlotte NC through to Raleigh and Richmond and to DC on Rapid Rail corridor all the way.

I don’t have any grand conclusions to offer at this point, after this survey of some of the conclusions that Amtrak itself reached last year … but that is often the case with incremental upgrades to existing services. The grand sweeping conclusions often rest on heroic oversimplifications. The ongoing incremental upgrades rest more upon getting down into the nitty gritty details and hashing out the problems and opportunities at hand.

Midnight Oil: Forgotten Years


Comments have been disabled.