Top 10 passenger stories of 2017

Posted by David Lassen
on Monday, December 11, 2017

Brightline's first trainset is displayed at the passenger service's West Palm Beach, Fla., maintenance facility during a media event in January 2017. Brightline service is set to debut by the end of the year. Photo by David Lassen
Amtrak's eastbound California Zephyr overtakes a BNSF intermodal train at Berwyn, Ill., on Feb. 5, 2017, A court ruling struck down standards to hold host railroads accountable for not granting Amtrak's trains operational preference. Photo by David Lassen
Passengers board Colorado's revived ski train, the Winter Park Express, at Denver Union Station. Photo by Justin Franz

Trains passenger columnist Bob Johnston has come up with his Top 10 Passenger stories of 2017. Here's his list and comments on each; you can vote on your choices for the top stories on our Facebook page beginning Monday afternoon:

1. Brightline debuts  All Aboard Florida is set to start service at the end of the year between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with new cars, locomotives, and stations on a recently double-tracked, formerly freight-only Florida East Coast route. The multi-million dollar investment gamble that passengers will flock to the new trains, which will eventually go to Orlando International Airport, faces publicly financed opposition of wealthy boat owners in two counties north of West Palm Beach, but revenue streams from real estate near the stations will help mitigate the risk.   

2. Bilevel project failure A colossal engineering and production failure by Sumitomo Corporation subcontractor Nippon Sharyo resulted in the loss of than $350 million of expiring federal stimulus funds to build new cars for Amtrak service in California and the Midwest. The companies underbid the contract and didn’t have sufficient expertise to build a crash-energy management car, and state of California program managers refused to pull the plug on the troubled project soon enough to redirect the money. Sumitomo tapped Siemens to pick up the pieces and California decided to go with Brightline cars to complete the order. 

3. Amtrak cuts under new CEO  The company reorganized twice, once under Wick Moorman, and is going through another organizational convulsion in new CEO Richard Anderson’s quest to centralize based on an airline industry model he is familiar with. As with previous administrations, valuable institutional knowledge is being lost and cutting expenses and regional strengths are taking precedence over growing ridership and revenue.

4. New York Penn Station disruption  Inattention to deteriorating infrastructure and lack of an effective chain-of-command, experienced personnel, and safety culture led to two high-profile rush hour derailments in the spring that prompted Amtrak to perform shut-down maintenance in the summer. To help relieve congestion, some trains were cancelled and three Empire Service round-trips were rerouted to Grand Central Terminal. More closures await in 2018.  

5 . Hoosier State reverts to Amtrak Iowa Pacific’s valiant attempt to raise the onboard service bar on what had been an Amtrak bare-bones afterthought ended when contractually-permitted on-time performance payments to CSX were deducted from the increased revenues generated by full dining service, business class, and a dome. The aging heritage equipment and locomotives never benefitted from a true partnership with Amtrak, but the escapade did manage to get a staffed café car added to the Chicago-Indianapolis train.

6. Stimulus projects completed Despite the Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo failure, a big shot of federal funds helped finance passenger rail infrastructure improvements in the Pacific Northwest, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, and dozens of other areas that would have never happened if the money wasn’t there. The most significant projects were those which specified service outcome agreements, such as the Amtrak Cascades corridor improvements prescribing on-time performance and additional frequencies guaranteed as a result of the investments.

7. On-time metrics for Amtrak nullified  Efforts to hold host railroads accountable for not granting statutorily-protected preference to passenger trains were struck a blow in April by a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It denied the Surface Transportation Board’s attempt to utilize the same standards Congress (mistakenly) directed Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to develop to determine an acceptable level of on-time performance. The outcome has been challenged at the Supreme Court, but in the meantime there are no standards.

8. Denver Ski Train revived A fixture on Colorado’s Front Range for decades, the service from Denver returned after an absence of almost 10 years, as an joint effort of Amtrak and the Winter Park ski area. More than 18,000 people used the revived service between January and March.

9. Churchill line flooded, remains out of service The remote Manitoba port community lost its triweekly passenger service, link to the Canadian rail network, and only year-round form of transportation when May floods caused extensive damage to the rail line. Railroad owner OmniTrax said it couldn’t afford an estimated $60 million Canadian in repairs, setting off an ongoing battle between OmniTrax and the Canadian government. VIA Rail Canada finally removed its stranded trainset from Churchill by ship in October.

10. New rail transit debuts Detroit’s Q Line streetcars and the 43-mile Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area are launched to improve urban mobility.


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