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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter-rail service runs between Everett, Seattle and Lakewood, Wash., on tracks owned by BNSF Railway Co. The transit agency owns the stations and provides security, while the Class I operates Sounder trains and Amtrak maintains them.
BNSF is exploring the possibility of establishing a command center in the Seattle area to co-locate all parties involved in Sounder operations. Sound Transit officials back that effort because they believe a local governing facility would enable each party to have a representative available to promptly respond to issues as they arise and elicit joint input on service matters.
“This would serve to enhance operations coordination for communicating to passengers, responding to emergencies, and addressing security issues and service interruptions,” Sound Transit officials said in an email.
When it comes to the operational complexities of passenger railroads sharing freight railroads’ track — namely, dozens of each other’s trains trying to make it through congested metropolitan areas each day in tight windows and during rush hours — coordination is vital. It’s also paramount in vice-versa situations, such as in Dallas where BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad use a Trinity Railway Express (TRE) corridor.
The delicate working balance between the track owner-host railroad and user railroad teeters on three other “C” words, as well: communication, cooperation and compromise. In order for freight roads to meet shippers’ transit-time needs and passenger roads to achieve their on-time performance (OTP) goals, the four Cs come into play essentially 24/7. For commuter railroads, OTP typically is defined as pulling into a station within five minutes of a scheduled arrival.
“We continually endeavor to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations, thereby earning their loyalty,” Sound Transit officials said. “Our target is to operate at or above 95 percent on time.”
One other C word is essential, too: clockwork. It takes that precision to keep all trains moving efficiently each day in a busy metropolitan area like Chicago, where several passenger railroads and six Class Is interplay, says Don Orseno, executive director and chief executive officer of Metra, which uses track owned by BNSF, UP and Canadian Pacific.
“We operate 750 trains a day, plus there are more than 400 operated by others. You must have open lines of communication … [and] be committed to working together,” he says. “You need to have an understanding of each other’s needs and trust what the other party is saying.”
But there isn’t always that level of commitment and consideration. Since a Class I might have a premium train that’s behind schedule or a track maintenance issue on a shared line that triggers a slow speed order, a passenger railroad’s needs could take a back seat. Moreover, a Class I might not immediately inform a passenger road about freight pattern changes that could affect a line, while a passenger road might not readily alert a Class I that it needs more track capacity on certain days because ridership is fluctuating.
“We are diametrically opposed in our missions — with them, it’s freight, and for us, it’s passengers. There are some tensions,” says Tim McKay, executive vice president of growth and regional development for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), which owns and operates the 35-mile TRE corridor with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (FWTA).
The biggest challenges in balancing operations between freight and transit are passenger performance expectations and capacity consumption, said UP officials in an email.
“These are best addressed when the passenger entity is willing to share responsibility for the solutions,” UP officials said.
Therefore, finding common ground through some give and take is job No. 1 for hosts and users. And it’s a task they both continue trying to get better at, especially given the money at stake for hosts in usage fees and infrastructure costs, and the working relationships at stake for both parties as operational partners.
Perhaps no railroad better understands the implications of a track-sharing relationship than Amtrak. The national intercity passenger railroad works with 29 host railroads across the nation, including Class Is, short lines, commuter railroads and state departments of transportation that manage passenger rail.
Amtrak relies on those parties to help maintain OTP and prevent delays, which could be caused by itself (perhaps an impaired passenger car), a host (such as freight train interference) or some other issue (severe weather, for example). Delays and how Amtrak communicates them to passengers are the two biggest factors in meeting customer satisfaction.
The railroad shares train operations data with hosts and conducts frequent meetings with them to coordinate efforts and discuss ways to share information more effectively, says Jason Maga, Amtrak’s senior manager-host railroads.
“We recognize other railroads have a business to run — a healthy freight system is a goal of Amtrak, too,” he says. “We get some good cooperation from [a number of] railroads and from others, less so.”
A number of short lines have instituted measures to aid Amtrak’s performance, says Maga. He cites as examples the Vermont Rail System, which several years ago reduced slow orders, raised track speed in certain areas and rescheduled a train to cut delays; and the Buckingham Branch Railroad, which two years ago addressed infrastructure issues, opted to hold trains at times or move a train to a siding for the Amtrak Cardinal that runs between New York City and Chicago.
Several Class Is are taking steps to help Amtrak, too. A few years ago, the Illinois Department of Transportation obtained federal funds that have enabled UP to improve track between Alton, Ill., and St. Louis, in part for Amtrak’s Lincoln and Texas Eagle services. The $1 billion project — which isn’t yet complete — is an example of a public-private partnership effort to improve a host road’s infrastructure because the line is used by the intercity railroad’s passenger trains, Amtrak officials say.
Over 100 of Amtrak’s more than 530 destinations are located on UP’s network. The Class I serves as host for four Amtrak long-distance trains and six of its state-sponsored services, as well as for Metra, Metrolink, Caltrain and Altamont Corridor Express trains.
In addition, UP late last year reached an agreement with Amtrak to revive the Ski Train — which ceased operations in 2009 — for the 2016-17 winter season in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Dubbed the Winter Park Express, the train was operated by Amtrak January through March on UP’s track between Denver’s Union Station and the Winter Park Resort.
“The agreement was successful thanks to multiple entities’ shared commitment to safety, including investments in a passenger loading-unloading platform in Winter Park,” UP officials said.
In March 2015, Amtrak, UP and the resort collaborated on a one-day-only Winter Park Express to celebrate the city’s 75th anniversary, and seats sold out quickly, prompting interest in restoring the service.
For BNSF, collaboration with Amtrak over the past few years helped prompt the construction of two lines in North Dakota to address single-track issues. Train conflicts grew in magnitude there when the Class I’s Bakken Shale-related traffic was booming several years ago, says Amtrak’s Maga.
“BNSF owned up to the problem — that’s what a strong partner does,” he says.
In addition, BNSF recently modified its more than 20-year-old measurement system that monitors and analyzes Amtrak delays. As of April 1, the computerized system can identify a delay’s milepost location.
“It shows where it is and what the reason is — it gets to the analysis of delays,” says D.J. Mitchell, BNSF’s assistant VP for passenger operations. “‘I don’t know’ is not a good answer, we should know where the delays are.”
Amtrak monitors delays among its Class I hosts and maintains a performance ranking of each one based on minutes of delays per 10,000 train miles (see the chart shown above). In the first quarter, CP ranked first with the fewest delays at 324 minutes, followed by BNSF at 1,088 minutes, UP at 1,196 minutes, CSX at 1,350 minutes, Norfolk Southern Railway at 1,502 minutes and CN at 1,535 minutes.
The good performers achieve high rankings because they have a strong focus on their Amtrak partnership — including an upper management that stresses it — and well-disciplined freight operations, says Maga.
CP officials credit a top-down executive focus on Amtrak execution for the Class I’s No. 1 performance ranking for the past year-plus. Each day, CP hosts seven Amtrak trains on the busy Hiawatha corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago, and one Amtrak train on a portion of the Empire Builder corridor between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The Class I also hosts some Amtrak trains in the Northeast on a portion of the former Delaware & Hudson Railway line.
“We have an obligation to be a good railroader, and we have a heightened view of Amtrak on CP,” says Chuck Hubbard, the Class I’s director of interline and passenger-U.S. “We don’t want to degrade current operations by, for example, adding a train.”
CP wasn’t providing Amtrak a high level of performance three years ago, says Michael White, the Class I’s general manager of transportation-United States, referring to when he joined the railroad. The differences since? Planning windows were expanded and CP began to track Amtrak trains on the intercity railroad’s website to better know when trains will arrive and meet, says White, who’s also responsible for the Minneapolis Operations Center. In addition, operational monitoring was driven down to the dispatcher level.
“It’s a mindset. We don’t delay Amtrak, plain and simple,” says White. “We go over our performance stats daily, look for trends and remain cognizant of our performance.”
CP, Amtrak and the many other railroads operating in the Windy City area also are gaining efficiencies from the Chicago Integrated Rail Operations Center (CIROC), which opened in late 2015. Railroad members of the Chicago Planning Group and Chicago Transportation Coordination Office established the CIROC to monitor operations around the city and boost fluidity.
The 24/7 center is staffed by one person from each of the railroads, who monitors views of track to help resolve operational and congestion issues to reduce train delays.
“This shows what happens when we all run better,” says Amtrak’s Maga.
For Metra, providing good dispatching, managing expectations and communicating daily are the keys for working well with Class I hosts in Chicago.
“We just had our 25th straight month of 95 percent or higher OTP, which is a great accomplishment,” says Metra’s Orseno. “We have a better relationship today with BNSF and UP. If there are any glitches, we address them right away. Years ago, that wasn’t always the case — we didn’t have that dedication.”
Some ongoing infrastructure projects will help with the Metra-host dynamic, too, he says. Metra and CP are pursuing the three-year Milwaukee West Line Fox River Bridge Improvement Project (Metra Bridge Z-100). Used by 49 Metra and eight CP trains daily, the 136-year-old bridge has one mainline track and connects to two nearby tracks. To be completed by 2019, the project calls for building a double-track bridge.
The project will be funded by a $14 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) VII grant and contributions from Metra and CP. The new bridge will improve reliability on the Milwaukee West Line and remove a bottleneck, says Orseno.
In addition, Metra and UP continue to work on the four-phased, $172 million Metra West Line Improvement Project, which calls for building 8 miles of third track, enhancing stations, and upgrading signals and crossovers. They broke ground on the fourth phase April 21. To be completed by 2019’s end, the project is designed to eliminate bottlenecks on the line, which is used by 60 Metra and 50 freight trains per day.
The improvements are an outgrowth of the Class I’s frequent efforts to engage its passenger-rail partners to foster positive working relationships and more efficient operations for the good of both freight customers and commuters, UP officials said. The efforts include scheduled quarterly meetings, daily communication and coordinated troubleshooting, as well as strategic discussions when service changes or additions are requested, they said.
BNSF aims to undertake similar measures with Metra, Sound Transit, and the commuter railroads it hosts in the Los Angeles and Minneapolis areas. In Chicago, BNSF managers set an operating plan each day at 1 p.m., then discuss it with Metra officials and make adjustments as necessary, says BNSF’s Mitchell.
“It gets to a level of precision, down to pre-planning and executing according to the plan,” he says.
Planned trackwork also can cause schedule modifications, which some passenger railroads accept while others resist, says Mitchell.
“They like the maintenance aspect of it, but don’t like the impact on their schedules,” he says. “They need to be rigid for their passengers, who can get owly.”
For Sound Transit, BNSF hosts Sounder’s north and south lines on two of its busy corridors. So, trying to maintain the track during two commuter service windows per week is challenging — especially in periods of limited capacity while construction is underway, Sound Transit officials said in their email.
“The recent introduction of late morning Sounder service between the two rush-hour windows has further challenged the efforts of track maintenance, which normally occurs between rush hours,” they said.
Although major track and signal projects can place portions of lines out of service or institute slow orders due to work adjacent to a track — factors that can degrade OTP — the improvements have mitigated the impacts of Sounder’s 64 percent ridership growth over the past five years, Sound Transit officials said.
Overall, BNSF and Sound Transit try to coordinate efforts when trackwork is needed — even when the transit agency is the one performing the work. While Sound Transit continued to build a 1,700-foot bridge in Tacoma earlier this year, BNSF helped organize a truncated Sounder service for several days while a new track and signal system were cut over in February. Impacts to riders were minimized by maintaining the truncated service to most stations, Sound Transit officials said.
“BNSF diligently pursued options for what they could do to meet our needs …. at [their own] inconvenience,” they said.
BNSF also has been “generous and cooperative” in working with DART and TRE on corridor improvements in the Dallas area, says DART’s McKay. For example, the Class I has proposed funding signalization work on a portion of the corridor in North Irving, Texas, which is a high priority route for BNSF, he says.
UP also is a good partner, says McKay. The Class I is analyzing a control point in downtown Dallas to determine how it could be improved “so trains don’t stack up,” he says. UP, DART and FWTA would jointly fund the $5 million to $10 million project.
One way to avoid stacked trains is to separate freight and passenger traffic. That’s been a solution CSX and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) have been pursuing for more than 10 years.
In 2004, three of five miles on the Fox Chase Line that CSX used between Wayne Junction and Glenside, Pa., were separated.
“It works well to this day. The line is now one of our best OTP performers,” says SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel.
More recently, a 6-mile stretch of shared track on SEPTA’s West Trenton Line and CSX’s Trenton Subdivision between Woodbourne, Pa., and West Trenton, N.J., was separated in 2015 under a $38.8 million project that was partially funded by a TIGER grant. Several years ago, the Class I was moving a lot of crude trains on the line and wanted to install positive train control, so both parties agreed on an integrated solution, says Knueppel.
The separation was a big help to SEPTA with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements since it no longer needed to perform certain work at platforms, such as installing edges, says Knueppel.
SEPTA now has only a small segment of shared track with NS in Norristown, Pa. The authority has obtained a design for a third track, but it would cost $35 million and there’s no funding currently available to advance the project, says Knueppel.
In addition, a 3-mile segment on the Airport Line is shared with Conrail, so either CSX or NS can use it while “we thread trains through as we can,” he says. A study was completed to add a third track in the area — one for freight and two for SEPTA — but the project would cost $50 million, says Knueppel.
The completed separations and proposals for a few more show the authority has a solid plan for dealing with shared track, he says.
Solid planning plays a huge role in making traffic tick for hosts and users all around the nation. It doesn’t take much for some precious time to tick off the transit-time or OTP clock if any snags occur.
“Our world is minutes — seconds, really,” says Knueppel.
All the more reason for host railroads to try and work well with their users. And vice versa.
“We have consistent relationships with the Class Is,” says Knueppel. “We have disagreements from time to time, but we continue to compromise.”