15

Ode to a grounded Cardinal

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
The cardinal is one of the finest and prettiest creatures on God’s earth. I guess I’m partial to the bird because my hair used to be that color. However, the uppercase and italicized Cardinal is the least and lowest of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. I’m here to tell you why. I bet you don’t know how the Cardinal leaves Chicago. All the experts I consulted didn’t, either. Here’s how: Starting at Chicago Union Station on Amtrak rai...
19

Canadian vs. Coast Starlight: Which is the better train?

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I began toying with this thorny question yesterday, presuming my own conclusion about the two long-distance trains I have ridden most recently. The more I thought about it, however, the less certain I became about the outcome. So follow along, and let’s see where our thoughts lead us. I will use eight criteria. Feel free to add your own, and please chime in.   Esthetics. Hands down, this goes to the Canadian. To step inside this immaculate, 56-year-old equipment is to ...
4

Dimensions of a great train

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
The VIA Rail Canada Canadian of legend stretched to 40-plus cars on occasion. At least, that’s what I used to hear. But I now think those megatrains were just that, legends rather than realities. Three years ago, when I asked the people who should know, the 1,227 members of the Canadian Passenger Rail newsgroup on Yahoo, they set matters straight. Nobody could substantiate a train longer than 30 cars. The belief was that reliability of the DC electrical supply from alternators aboard the l...
9

The Coast Starlight gives a lung to a dying sister

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Leave it to this one-time tabloid reporter to write a tearjerker. But before I get to that, the old adage that a late train just gets later applies only when there’s competition for the track. Union Pacific doesn’t have a lot of train density between Roseville, Calif., and Portland, Ore. The northbound Coast Starlight is 81 minutes late leaving Dunsmuir, Calif., when I get up at 6:30 this morning, which gives me an opportunity to see the Cascade Range better than I ever h...
2

Nobody's perfect, not even my train dispatcher

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Two nice things happen while train 14, Amtrak’s northbound Coast Starlight, stands at the Santa Barbara, Calif., station today. First, the sun comes out. This means we should have a good view of the Pacific Ocean from there to Surf, 68 miles up the coast. Second, the dispatcher gives our train a track warrant to take the siding at Surf, a lonely outpost (population apparently zero) sandwiched between the ocean and Vandenberg Air Force Base. In other words, there is a lot to look forw...
5

Bad UP and good UP

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I left those who read my previous dispatch (“The Summer of Service Disasters on Amtrak”) hanging on the end of a limb. The southbound Texas Eagle had left Dallas headed north — that’s right, Wrong Way Corrigan we were. But it was only because the dispatcher in Spring, Texas, had nowhere else to put us. Our Dallas Union Terminal track is needed by the northbound Eagle, then en route from Fort Worth on one Union Pacific main track, while a succession of freights and switch ...
9

The summer of service disasters at Amtrak

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m seeing a lot of sold-out long-distance trains this summer. The train I’m on today, the Texas Eagle, sure looks like one of them. Amtrak is all but assured to have record ridership in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30. But this good news cannot hide the service disasters taking place out on the road. I don’t remember a summer this bad.   Let’s look at the performance of four long-distance trains the last two weeks of July, starting with the westbound Cali...
12

Move over GE, make way, EMD; you’ve got new competition

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Railway Gazette International reports that the first of 10 locomotives destined for delivery to Australia later this year has rolled off the factory floor, in China. This cannot be good news for U.S. locomotive makers, who have been kept in business the past few years largely due to overseas orders. The maker is CSR Ziyang Locomotive, and the buyer is SCT Logistics, which operates trains in Australia. SCT plans to use the locomotives on its east-west trans-Australia trains. The lo...
8

Worst ride on Amtrak

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
My taxi to Washington Union Station was making the final turn to its destination when it hit me. Really hit me. Like ouch! Then hit me again. And again. No, I was not having great ideas or magnificent insights into the problems of the world. What hit me was the rear-seat window of the taxi, because Amtrak is trying to kill its customers as they try to reach its trains.The worst ride on Amtrak is not aboard the Cardinal on the Buckingham Branch Railroad, nor on the Southwest Chief in western Kans...
7

The some-semblance-of-class passenger train

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
  Off we go again, on another victory lap around North America by train. Largely I’m retracing the path that resulted in the article, “Amtrak at Its Best (And Worst)” in the August issue of Trains.   One difference this time is that I am getting from Washington to Chicago via the Capitol Limited rather than the combo of Acela Express and Lake Shore Limited. Right now, outside my bedroom window, the Maryland countryside slides past on a hot, hazy summer af...
3

Leaving town used to be easy

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Today I embark on a 15-day trip by passenger train around North America, much like what I wrote about in the August issue of Trains. The difference is Washington to Chicago; I’ve leaving DC via the Capitol Limited and returning on the Cardinal. At any rate, more has changed than just my venue. A year ago you could book long-distance Amtrak travel and rely upon it. Not so today. It’s no fault of Amtrak or the host railroads. Mother Nature, in the form of historic levels of ru...
10

The apocalyptic railroad

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
As is their habit, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse today strode up and down the North End Subdivision of CSX, 123.2 miles of action-packed railroad extending from Richmond, Va., to Rocky Mount, N.C. For those of you who haven’t met the Four Horsemen, their names are War, Famine, Pestilence and Unexpected Delay. I witnessed (or was involved in) numerous interactions with these visitors from hell.The first affected train, No. 79, Amtrak’s southbound Carolinian to Charlotte, N.C., a...
15

Ruminations on a locomotive ladder

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
This morning, at about 8:30, I raised my left foot to engage the bottom step of a GP40 locomotive. Had the distance been another half-inch from ground to metal, I’m not sure I’d have made it. It had been for me a long but interesting night. But by now, after almost nine hours, I was spent. Totaled. Exhausted. Almost not reaching that bottom rung made me so aware of my mortality. Goodness gracious, I’m getting old. If you’re 15 or 25 or 35 years old and practice footb...
4

Just call me Mr. Select Plus

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s not a big thing, I know, but the mail today brought the ultimate Amtrak Guest Rewards status symbol, namely a Select Plus card and yet another set of one-class upgrade and companion-ticket coupons. Some of you may have read my piece on this board in early 2011, in which I vowed to make Select Plus this year after almost (not not quite) making it last year; for that story, go here.   You achieve Select status by accumulating 5,000 “rail points” during a...
6

Who will own the Northeast Corridor? The winner is ...

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The struggle over who will own and control the Northeast Corridor appears to be coming to a head. This year and next, at least, the apparent winner is Amtrak. I thought I would give you my overview of the struggle now unfolding.   On one side is Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. He introduced legislation on June 15 that would transfer title of that part of the Northeas...
10

The best little railroad in Effingham

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
We cross the Mississippi north of St. Louis and are barreling through Illinois on Interstate 70 when I turn to Tom and say, “Tell me again the name of that guy who owns the Vandalia Railroad.” The Vandalia has fascinated me for years. Every time I pass through this little town (once the capital of Illinois), its sole locomotive, a black SW9, sits silent beside corporate headquarters, the former interlocking tower that once protected the crossing of the Pennsylvania an...
7

The unsettled summer

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
  I pick up my friend Tom at the Denver airport, and early the next day we head east from Cheyenne, on U.S. 30. The object of our attention the next two days is Union Pacific, first its Central Corridor across Nebraska, and then the Sedalia Subdivision through western Missouri. Every so often, foul weather tests the mettle of the railroads. Remember the Mississippi River flooding of 1993? East-west railroad commerce was almost cut off for several weeks. Last winter it was Cana...
21

Privatize the Northeast Corridor? Don't hold your breath

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
So, where was I? Fate conspired to pack into the month of June a year’s worth of family drama (one college graduation, one Big Apple moving van fiasco, two weddings of the same daughter, and a family reunion for 20 in Tuscany). All this has pretty much paralyzed my brain. But there is an event coming up this week that you’ll be hearing a lot of in weeks, months, and I suppose years to come that I cannot resist commenting upon. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the ...
13

In praise of Joe Boardman

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The president of Amtrak is starting to impress me. And the reason for this may be the part of Joe Boardman that seems to draw the disdain of so many critics: He is a bureaucrat. Living here in northern Virginia, bureaucrats are my neighbors. As a group, I’d describe bureaucrats this way: The best ones are loyal, work hard, follow procedures to the letter, try to avoid the limelight, seek consensus, and eventually get the job done right. I’ve never met the man, but tha...
24

The two faces of Florida East Coast

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Florida East Coast Railway that most people see looks to be doing fine. Intermodal business, which brings in 62 cents of each dollar of revenue, is at record levels. Almost four-fifths of the debt incurred at the time of its 2007 buyout by Fortress Investment Group was refinanced last January at lower rates. FEC is reviving its moribund spur to the Port of Miami as the port is dredged in expectation of Panamax container ships in 2014. What’s not to like about this picture...
9

Is the Northeast Corridor really profitable?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
A recent Washington Post story quotes Amtrak president Joe Boardman as saying the Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington, is making its owner money. In fact, Boardman goes on to say, the Acela Express service enjoys a profit margin of 40 percent. You’ll find that story here (the statement is made on page 3).   The story ended up on Trainorders.com this week and provoked a firestorm of responses. But all they did was generate a lot of smoke. Nobody sought to chec...
24

Blues in the night: The whistle to end all whistles

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
To my way of thinking, the wail of an Amtrak locomotive horn whistling in the distance is as good as it gets. It’s how we should all be beckoned to heaven. Next to an Amtrak whistle, every other locomotive horn emits just an out-of-tune screech. But for years I’ve been frustrated in my desire to learn what musical chord that melodious whistle represents. Thanks to National Train Day, we now know (to learn whether that train will be on display near you, click here). My friend Geo...
17

The Wayback Machine: Amtrak in 1975

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Way back when, if you wanted to know what was happening at Amtrak, you had to read Rail Travel News, a 20- to 24-page, twice-monthly, vest-pocket-sized magazine so poorly printed as to sometimes be almost unreadable. But poor print quality was part of the charm, the price was right ($8 a year for a sub), and it had information you could get nowhere else. RTN was a labor of love begun in 1970 by Californian Ed Malmstrom (using the pen name James Russell), and so far as I can tell, the...
16

Watching the bulls run on CSX (sort of)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Planning a drive up the Atlantic coast from Jacksonville, Fla., more or less on U.S. 301, I realize that no fewer than six high-priority trains leave Savannah, Ga., for Jacksonville on CSX between about 3 and 7 a.m., with a seventh train bringing up the rear a bit later in the morning. So I say to myself, let’s watch this run of the bulls. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m.   The trains I’m speaking of and their CSX symbols are these (in roughly their order of appeara...
39

Amtrak's $100-million trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I'm old enough to not be frightened by big numbers. But I have to admit catching my breath when I saw what it costs Amtrak to operate three of its most popular and endearing trains. We're talking nine digits. The National Railroad Passenger Corp., dependent upon taxpayer largess, lives a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence. Perhaps that's why long-term changes in ridership, revenues, and yes, deficits, get so little attention. Why worry about yesterday, in other words, when there may ...
4

Amtrak's future: The short-distance network

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak and states that support its short-distance trains earned bragging rights over the past seven years. Between 2003 and 2010, ridership on this network of trains exploded, rising 77 percent. The honor roll goes like this: Chicago-St. Louis trains, up 192 percent in ridership; Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., trains, 135 percent; Chicago-Quincy, Ill., 92 percent; Downeaster (Boston-Portland, Maine), 88 percent; Hiawathas (Chicago-Milwaukee), also 88 percent; and Pennsylvanian (New York-Pittsburgh), ...
12

Roger, the man who loved trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
If you’re reading this, it means you have a passion for trains or the business and romance of railroading. That passion became evident in me at age 10 or 11, in a dusty Northeast Texas town with the improbable name of Sulphur Springs, its sulphur springs having dried up decades earlier. My father gave me little encouragement. Though he grew up the son of a Santa Fe Railway officer, he inherited little interest in railroading from his dad.   I felt like a caged animal....
15

World's dumbest rail-related headline

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
OnlineJournal.com is a web-based news service that says it has, since 1998, provided “accurate news, analysis, and commentary on the topics that matter most.” I’m not sure about “accurate,” having read the title put above the story. Following is story that appeared. Your thoughts? Amtrak Collision Avoided But Freight Trains Collide, Killing 2 Apr 18, 2011, 12:08 by John Steele A coal train rear-ended a train carrying maintenance equipment on Sund...
31

Who is the best railroad CEO?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 You tell me. I want to know. Let’s limit the selection to the top dogs of the six big North American railroads. If we opened bidding to the regional and short lines, as the chief justice I’d have to render a bench verdict and declare Indiana Rail Road’s Tom Hoback the winner. Okay, here are the contenders, in alpha order of...
19

The locomotive everyone loves to hate (updated April 20)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This morning I got off the Carolinian at Washington Union Station, and on the adjacent track stood four of Amtrak’s P42 locomotives, waiting head to tail, elephant-style, for assignments on trains to Virginia or points south. Walking past them, they sounded like a forest of chattering monkeys (or maybe large, sedentary old dogs) as they burbled, spat, farted, hissed, and popped. What a cacophony! The spectacle made my hard heart soften a degree or two. It occurred to me few...

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